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Longtime U.S. feminist challenges NZPC “gatekeeping”

Longtime U.S. feminist challenges NZ Prostitutes' Collective “gatekeeping”

Renowned feminist scholar and activist Janice Raymond, author of Not a Choice, Not a Job and Women as Wombs among other seminal texts – has challenged the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC) in an article published in Dignity journal last month. The article, called Gatekeeping decriminalization of prostitution: The ubiquitous influence of the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, is a rare critical take in today's academic context, where discussions of the sex trade are increasingly dominated by scholars who accept, adopt and promote sex trade lobby positions on prostitution.

Raymond's article spotlights New Zealand, outlining the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), and explaining that NZPC was not only “influential in lobbying for the law that decriminalized the sex industry, but also drafted the original bill.” She describes NZPC's relationships with brothel owners, as well as the organisation's government funding, budget and expenditure – leading her to question both the monopoly NZPC has on prostitution policy and research in New Zealand, as well as their trustworthiness as an organisation.

“A substantial part of the NZPC website is devoted to brothel owners and business practices,” observes Raymond. NZPC offers help to those who seek brothel licences, which even pimps complain are “too easy to get... I used to be a car dealer and to get a licence was really hard... what's the point?” Brothel licence applications accepted between 2004 and 11 numbered 914.

Yet, as Raymond points out, “no one knows who the brothel owners are, except perhaps the NZPC who has such good relationships with them.” Meanwhile, brothels are barely ever inspected: “in the years following 2015, only 11 inspections have been conducted... which poses the question why so few if the goal [of decriminalization] is to protect the “workers”.” This is, indeed, what NZPC consistently claims decriminalization achieves – the protection of so-called “sex workers”. NZPC authorizes itself to make such claims by cultivating an image of itself as a pseudo-union in regular contact with the majority of “sex workers” in New Zealand.

Yet with no formal membership process, “Where is the proof,” Raymond asks, “that the Prostitutes' Collective represents the majority of women in New Zealand prostitution?”

This is a good question, because if NZPC were a pseudo-union, they would surely not have such close relationships with “employers”. Their close contact with brothel owners positions them more as an industry lobby – something that suggests overall alienation from, not proximity to, survivors in the industry.

The manuals NZPC distributes to women in the sex trade too – like Stepping Forward – suggest that NZPC is unlikely to have the support of the majority of women in prostitution, who it leaves largely to fend for themselves. Stepping Forward offers women little more than, for instance: poor quality photographs of genital infections; advice to take Pilates to stay a “happy hooker”, to pre-emptively leave chewing gum under a car seat as evidence in case of kidnap and murder, to “try yelling FIRE” to encourage passers-by to react in case of assault – and a tip that unwanted anal penetration should only hurt for “twenty minutes”.

Raymond believes it is time that the New Zealand public and legislators critically assessed the NZPC as an organisation, its vested interests and its claims. I wholeheartedly agree, and in the interests of full disclosure, was glad to be in touch with Raymond about the article in question.

Raymond shows how – alongside having lobbied for sex industry decriminalisation, drafting the original legislative bill, and having “good relationships” with pimps – NZPC also maintains control over ongoing research into prostitution in New Zealand. “In 2008,” her article reads, “the Prostitution Law Review Committee gave the NZPC a huge role in contributing to its evaluative reports on the impact of the 2003 decriminalization legislation.” NZPC had also secured seats as evaluators within said Prostitution Law Review Committee (PLRC), which also drew on a well-known 2007 Christchurch School of Medicine study – completed “in partnership with NZPC”.

No surprise that the committee's conclusion was in favour of NZPC's original position: that sex trade decriminalisation in New Zealand was a great idea and is a roaring success.

For context: five prostituted women have been murdered in New Zealand since 2003. NZPC has held no vigils.

NZPC has now begun to lobby for the effective decriminalisation of sex trafficking, in line with global sex trade lobby interests. It consistently denies that sex trafficking takes place in New Zealand, ignoring annual Trafficking in Persons reports.

According to Raymond, it is clear that NZPC has been “given excessive influence in developing the prostitution law review framework... If the PRA were adjudicated in a courtroom, the NZPC would be regarded as plaintiff and defendant, judge and jury, and expert witness.”

Indeed, this is the kind of situation that inspired the title of Kat Banyard's 2016 book Pimp State.

NZPC's “excessive influence” and bias toward the decriminalisation and legitimisation of prostitution as “sex work” has had major impacts on how violence against women in prostitution is discussed in New Zealand. Violence against women is sanitised by NZPC as “exploitative working conditions”, “occupational hazards,” “adverse experiences while working”, or “malpractices” if it is perpetrated by pimps. “In the PLRC's report,” Raymond points out, “there is no section entitled “violence against women”.” Sex trafficking is reframed as “migrant sex work”. This sanitised language has become commonplace in all New Zealand universities as well as student and mainstream media especially in recent years as NZPC's funding has increased.

Raymond's article discusses another tactic NZPC employs to keep “being treated as the sole representative of New Zealand women in prostitution.” Both Raymond and myself have experienced this first-hand: NZPC engages in defamatory campaigns against critics of the decriminalization of pimps and punters. Raymond highlights the work and writings of NZPC programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie, whose article Their words are killing us makes clear NZPC's overt disdain for feminist writers and thinkers. The spin and doublethink is extraordinary, but according to NZPC, whether or not we have personally survived prostitution, it is feminist critics of the legitimisation of the industry who are supposedly responsible for the violence within it.

In light of the industry bias, conflicts of interest and malpractice outlined, and the fact that the Prostitution Reform Act passed by a vote of one in 2003, Raymond suggests that here in New Zealand “consideration should be given to assessing public opinion of the [PRA] law and its consequences, and to revisiting a parliamentary vote.”

Raymond adds that NZPC “should not have a continuing role as members of any future review committee charged with evaluating the decriminalization legislation if the Collective has a role in contributing other expertise such as their research. This is conflict of interest. Any organisation should not be allowed to evaluate its own research.”

That makes sense to me – but you can read Raymond's article in full here.

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