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Big News: Blowing Jobs and Selling Sex

Big News with Dave Crampton

Blowing Jobs and Selling Sex

Imagine it. You are looking for a job. A legal job with a good hourly rate. Although you can advertise in the paper for work, approaching prospective clients is illegal and so is earning a living from the work. It’s the life of a sex worker.

That may change for sex workers 18 and older when a bill decriminalising prostitution is finally reported back to the House by the end of the year to be voted on next year. Opponents and proponents of Tim Barnett’s Prostitution Law Reform Bill had their final fling at a Justice and Electoral Select Committee hearing recently and it remains to be seen what changes are made to the Bill.

As well as decriminalising offences associated with prostitution, the Bill aims to ensure sex workers can work within a safe environment. Parliament voted 86-21 to send the Bill to a select committee nearly two years ago.

Although most sex workers do not last more than four years in the sex industry, the Bill opens up the industry to the same rules as other businesses.

Decriminalisation is seen to be the preferred way forward by most members of the select committee. All MP’s acknowledge an element of violence and exploitation in prostitution but see the Bill‘s passage as a way to minimise undesirable factors.

Others see it as a legitimate addition to the service industry. A few MP’s fear prostitution may become an integrated and accepted part of New Zealand society, with the abuse within the industry normalised, not reduced. Others see the exploitation within the industry increasing under decriminalisation, thus breaching international UN (United Nations) conventions.

Prostitution is not illegal in this country, but soliciting, brothel keeping, and living off the earnings of prostitution are associated offences under the Crimes Act. Under the Bill they won’t be. Should the Bill be passed, sex workers will be able to have the right to decline sexual services, coercion will be a recognised offence (but difficult to prove in many cases) and safe sex mandatory.

Both opponents and proponents agree on several things: People don’t aim to have a career in prostitution, but the industry should be a safer place for those who end up working in it. Prostitution laws need a revamp, but legalisation of the industry is not the way forward as it will create a two- tier system where illegal prostitution will grow rapidly. This is currently happening in Victoria, Australia.

The Bill places no restrictions on who can manage a parlour or an escort agency, nor does it place restrictions on their location. At present, anyone with a drug conviction cannot work in a parlour for 10 years, so they hit the street.

The Bill repeals the outdated Massage Parlours Act (1978), meaning the law will not prevent those convicted of a drug offence from working or managing a brothel. Some say that will make prostitution safer for sex workers with drug convictions, as they will be more likely to be off the streets and back indoors.

Others say they’ll bring their drugs with them to infiltrate the industry further. Both views are worth discussing.

There will be no licensing of brothels if the Massage Parlour Act is repealed. While licensing can be seen as a good thing, a good working relationship with authorities is preferred, but not guaranteed, under a decriminalised environment. Licenses can disadvantage sex workers against the more powerful brothel operators, so it is not just the power difference between sex worker and client that must be broken.

Prostitution has been decriminalised in New South Wales since 1995 and is not growing as rapidly as it is in legalised Victoria. Yet some aspects differ to proposed legislation as drafted by Mr Barnett. Soliciting is banned in licensed venues and in view of churches and schools, and brothels are monitored by local councils.

The Bill aims to assist sex workers but it doesn’t go far enough. Some MP’s would like to see steps taken to assist sex workers out of a difficult industry, yet the original intent of the Bill is not to assist workers out of the industry, it is to ensure safety within it.

The Bill actually provides no guidelines for parlour or street workers who want to leave, such as what Government of community support services can be utilised or how available safe houses and drug detoxification programmes would be and how they would work in a decriminalised environment.

If associated offences in relation to prostitution are to be decriminalised there needs to be changes made to the original draft of the bill to make the law work. Like soliciting. Soliciting must be restricted away from bars, cafes, sports grounds and restaurants, and in broad daylight in view of places such as schools, shops, hospitals and churches. Any soliciting laws should be able to be enforced.

The Government must ensure that a climate is created conducive to good health and safety, both physical and sexual – and ensure that it is monitored. Sex workers have the right to insist that clients wear condoms at all times and have protection from a possible beating upon refusal by a client to wear protection.

Sex workers need to be able to work in the knowledge that police and authorities care for their safety. They should be able to disclose their occupation to general practitioners without being branded as criminals – despite the fact that sexual intercourse through prostitution is not illegal.

It remains to be seen how this Bill will promote safer sexual health when all that is required is to advertise safe sex and supply condoms. This is already happening in parlours, but there is a lack of advertising among private escorts and great faith has been placed on those who are going to monitor prostitution laws.

Some say that these health and safety standards will be impossible to maintain, let alone police in the industry, due the nature of sex work. Considering the aim of the Bill is to encourage a healthier and safer sex industry, it could be successfully argued that the Bill and some of its health and safety aims conflict.

Many agencies currently foster under age workers and get away with it because police are not policing criminal activity. The bill will create an offence to assist a child in the provision of sex work, but is not so clear how it will be policed.

The bill does not discuss protection of child prostitutes who legally solicit, not is it clear on how to ensure that those under 18 do not work in massage parlours and the Bill will be altered to address this.

Although the bill places no restrictions on advertising or soliciting, the select committee is currently discussing how to avoid unwanted soliciting and undesirable advertising. Members will also need to consider how a decriminalised prostitution industry might advertise services.

Advertising that offends the majority of right thinking members of the public will be in danger of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which monitors advertising to reflect mainstream views of society. The number of sex industry advertisements in the Truth has doubled in the last five years.

Consideration must be given to examine means of supporting and assisting sex workers who want to leave the industry but find it difficult. Sex workers must feel free to report offences committed against them and be encouraged to use available legal, health, and social services.

Although decriminalisation is seen as a step towards a better working environment for sex workers, the real potential for reform of the sex industry will be lost if the Bill goes ahead unaltered. If there is no form of regulation or monitoring of the sex industry there is a great chance abuse will be normalised instead of minimised.

- Dave Crampton is a Wellington-based freelance journalist. He can be contacted at davec@globe.net.nz

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