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We need to change our laws on prostitution

Alison Mau has just launched a #MeTooNZ investigation – “a planned, organised outlet for survivors of sexual harrassment to come forward... and help stop repeat predatory behaviour”. There is one industry we know will barely be touched by this campaign, and certainly not in proportion to the extent of violence taking place there. It's the industry where women suffer more sexual assault than any other: prostitution.

Mau is right to start her campaign: New Zealand has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the OECD. Prostitution too, takes place in this context, and it would seem that this is the reason that New Zealand's Ministry of Health funds the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective (NZPC) to the tune of $1.1 million per annum: for “harm reduction”. So why do we never hear women talking about assault in prostitution, if nationwide campaigns are calling for women's testimony and there is public funding earmarked to support them? Why are we not hearing from the thousands of women in New Zealand who experience some of the worst and most routine sexual assault in the country?

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This is in no small part due to the “sex work” ideology that underpins our prostitution laws, which decriminalise not only women but pimps and punters. “Sex work” is a phrase designed to sanitise and legitimise prostitution as a “job like any other”, in the interests of pimps. The phrase was coined by the global sex trade lobby: the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). According to NSWP, “sex workers” can include “employers”, or pimps – meaning that the ideology is designed to drown out the unresourced voices of prostitution survivors implicitly, by intimidation, and through the false attribution of violence in prostitution as stemming from so-called “stigma” and not punters and sex trade Weinstein equivalents.

NSWP is also the lobby behind the red umbrella logo – NZPC often adopts it, since NZPC is our local NSWP branch. The lobby as a whole favours the “New Zealand model” of prostitution policy. The sex trade lobby loves what we're doing here.

New Zealand media is saturated with “sex work” ideology. It has now become the go-to framework for journalists and university academics discussing prostitution in our country, and it contributes to a “grooming” culture that is not only sanitising but promotional. It encourages the wider public to turn a blind eye to murder and rape in the sex industry, as well as child prostitution, sex trafficking, post-traumatic stress, the victim-blaming inherent in “safe sex” regulations and fines, and the need for exit services. It also sees widespread promotion of prostitution as a desirable career option in which women can be paid to have flexible work hours and orgasms.

Anna Paquin recently called Hollywood a “grooming industry”. She is listened to. So it is interesting that when a prostitution survivor calls prostitution a “grooming industry” she tends to be viciously silenced as “unprogressive”. Chelsea* has been speaking, powerfully and eloquently, about violence in New Zealand's sex trade since 2009. She calls the manual Stepping Forward that NZPC distributes to women in prostitution “grooming literature”. This Ministry of Health funded booklet, among other things, instructs women on how to tolerate anal penetration. “Using chemical assistance to help relax is not advised,” NZPC advises, “as it seldom means the body is actually relaxed but that you are less inclined to register the pain or trauma.”

"If your anal/rectal muscles are relaxed and entry is on the right angle there should be no pain. It is not uncommon for it to take 20 minutes or longer for the anus and rectal passage to expand and embrace the length of the girth of a penis or object... The anal/rectal relaxation process involves getting the sphincters to work in-sync with each other… This has to do with body memory and the more your body becomes familiar with something going in and learns to relax with the sensation, the easier it will become."

It's no surprise that Paquin is heard while Chelsea speaks into an abyss – Paquin has money, and so does the sex trade lobby.

To keep the New Zealand model in place, the idea that “sex work is work” needs to be insisted on and sustained, and though that is hard to do, the sex trade lobby can afford it. This is where their notion that “stigma causes violence” also comes in handy: it takes the spotlight off pimps and punters, prevents Weinstein-style exposés, and encourages the ever further normalisation – expansion – of prostitution.

There is one particularly clear illustration of how the logic that “stigma causes violence” silences women. In 2010, NZPC programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie wrote an article called Their words are killing us for the NSWP newsletter. The article lays blame on women who write critically on prostitution for violence in the sex trade – claiming that we are:

"no different from the client who does not want to pay, the corrupt police officer who rapes, or the members of the public who throw bottles and rotten eggs at street workers. In fact they are worse, because they justify their violence as an act of caring."

This is a sure fire way to suppress dissent among women. Bennachie claims that it is the critical descriptions of prostitution written by women (including Andrea Dworkin, a prostitution survivor) that are objectifying, and not prostitution itself. This supposed “objectification” then gives license to perpetrators somehow, subliminally, since johns don't tend to read feminism.

At the time Bennachie published this little number, the NSWP's vice president was Alejandra Gil, a now-convicted sex trafficker. On the NSWP website, Gil continues to encourage women in prostitution to “call ourselves whores”. It's unsurprising, and also unsurprising that Victoria University's student magazine Salient featured an article in 2017 subtitled The taboo of the unrepentant whore, written under a pseudonym by an author who claimed to be a 'sex worker'. The suggested narratives have taken hold, especially on university campuses, where NZPC has made itself comfortable and pro-sex trade academics are a dime a dozen.

Is this pro-prostitution stuff really helpful? At least five prostituted women have been murdered in New Zealand since 2003 through being strangled, run over, beaten, and stabbed. There was no outcry, no rallies or protests or social media campaigns to mourn any of these women, or to demand better protections or reassessment of the laws that enabled their lives to be taken so brutally. The advice NZPC offers women in terms of “dealing with violent clients” is completely blasé. “Make as much noise as possible to attract attention,” they suggest in Stepping Forward. “Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention. If you wear a whistle around your neck, blow it in his ear.”

The reframing of violence is an inevitable part of the promotion of prostitution decriminalisation. While murder is said to result from “stigma” supposedly created by women's critical writing, and the need for exit services is downplayed – rape is seen as mere theft. Child prostitution too, is adamantly separated from the sex trade itself by organisations like NZPC. This in spite of the injustice the false distinction does to the stories of women like Ngatai Manning, whose life, sexual abuse from childhood, difficulty exiting prostitution, and murder in the trade demands that we examine the inextricable correlations between child abuse and prostitution. Each Trafficking in Persons report that names New Zealand as a source country for child prostitution also demands that we do not ignore connections.

Prostitution is in fact inherently paedophilic: it is based on the paternalistic eroticisation of dominance and submission. To eroticise the submission and infantalisation of women is, by extension, to sexualise children. This is why so many women enter prostitution at such a young age, and why, in 2010, the police identified at least thirteen girls between twelve and fifteen years old being prostituted in downtown Auckland – in the course of only six weeks, on one main street. It is why in 2017, an Auckland couple were charged with child sex trafficking; and why researcher Natalie Thorburn has exposed widespread child prostitution in New Zealand. This is the nature of demand, and the nature of the industry. Yet NZPC and sympathisers continue to undermine these important connections, though they do so only by remaining wilfully blind to a mountain of testimony and to the lives of women like Ngatai Manning, and Jade.

In the same way as the paedophilic nature of prostitution is collectively ignored, sex trafficking is ignored – both anecdotally, and as part and parcel of the sex trade. Trafficking is reframed as “migrant sex work”, “working holidays”, or simply “not happening”, even when it is reported to include bribery, coercion and threats of deportation, debt bondage, passport confiscation, overcrowding, and 16-hour shifts. Yes, in New Zealand.

In the year ending April 2015, Immigration New Zealand reported 42 cases of sex trafficking. Naengnoi Sriphet was sentenced for sex trafficking that year, and The Trafficking in Persons Report has named New Zealand a source and destination country for sex trafficking consistently. These reports, alongside work by Lincoln Tan and Christina Stringer show that women are being trafficked to New Zealand from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Latin America and Eastern Europe. There are also reports of the domestic and international trafficking of Pacific islanders. Chinese women constitute the largest number of trafficked persons in New Zealand. In the words of one survivor, “there is a hell of an operation the Chinese have got going on in New Zealand”.

Lincoln Tan has reported how one Korean woman “had 196 customers, including 58 customers that she gave unprotected oral sex and six who paid extra to ejaculate in her mouth” over a 20-day period, at a Hobson St apartment. This issue does not receive the “#metoo” scale public attention it deserves because, in the words of Pimp State author Kat Banyard, “As the euphemism that is 'sex work' takes root in everyday speech, its power to lobotomise listeners grows”.

NZPC's suppression of conversation on sex trafficking becomes especially ironic when one considers the extent to which lobbyists for decriminalisation rely on suggesting that criminalising pimping only drives prostitution “underground”. NZPC's denial of sex trafficking certainly helps to protect pimps by keeping them out of the spotlight and in the shadows of New Zealand's sex trade.

Evidence of trafficking barely needs to be found, though, for it to be understood that decriminalisation makes it likely. As one survivor, Kimmy, told the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand's prostitution policy makes it a “popular choice” for traffickers because it is “low risk” and the laws are more “relaxed”. One only need understand how global capitalism works to expect this: capitalists, in any industry, are driven toward risk and cost reduction – including labour cost reduction – to maximise profits. This makes sex trafficking one of the most lucrative international trades, as anti-trafficking author and activist Siddharth Kara points out. “Drug trafficking generates greater dollar revenues, but trafficked women are more profitable. Unlike a drug, a human female can be used by the customer again and again.”

If NZPC believes that prostitution is a 'job like any other', it cannot deny that any pimp is motivated to traffic women to save costs and maximise profits, as in any other industry. And if johns are merely 'clients' or 'buyers', then at the very least, they bring the “more for less” consumer mentality with them to the brothel, and apply it to women. Suzie, a Korean woman prostituted in New Zealand testifies to the racist implications of this: “her clientele were mainly Pakeha... who told her they preferred Asian women because they were cheaper and “prepared to do more””.

The sex trade lobby deals with these inconvenient truths with denial and language sanitising. Bennachie is currently involved with a Kingston University so-called “Sexual Humanitarianism” project, which states on its website that “Its main aim is to produce new emic (subject internal) concepts and data needed to develop innovative theorisations of migrant agency”. Innovative theorisations of migrant agency: this means we are about to see even more elaborate sanitisation of sex trafficking from the sex trade lobby. Kara makes the motivations for this all too clear.

The model of prostitution policy that feminists advocate is the abolition model: the criminalisation of pimps and punters, who are fined to pay for exit services for women. Decriminalisation supporters like to suggest that instituting this model would lead to an outbreak of police brutality. It's bizarre to think that those who are aware of and appalled by police brutality would not realise that a legitimised sex industry makes it far easier for aggressive males, policemen or not, to abuse with impunity. We don't see “police brutality” as such under full decriminalisation, because it just amounts to more transactions.

In a context where violence is persistently reframed by NZPC – and the culture on which it bears remarkable influence – we cannot reasonably believe that police are somehow, independently of this context, becoming more and more sympathetic to victims and highly responsive to reports of violence coming from women in prostitution. We cannot reasonably believe that the legal system, which secured convictions for only thirteen percent of reported sexual assaults in 2015, is nevertheless increasingly on the victims' side specifically when they are prostituted – and then still also believe as sex trade lobbyists like to suggest, that if we criminalised the pimping and purchase of women, we would suddenly face an irreversible outbreak of police brutality targeting women.

Our legal system is complicit in the rape culture that #metoo acknowledges, and it certainly does not serve women in prostitution better than the rest of us. This is part of the post-traumatic stress so often reported by women in the sex trade: perhaps it would be possible to recover from the experience of sexual violence in prostitution through genuine assistance by, for instance, lawyers, judges and counsellors – but not only does this not typically happen in this culture, most public institutions are sold on the notion that women “choose” prostitution. This intensifies victim-blaming.

NZPC barely acknowledges trauma or cultural complicity. The organisation instead refers euphemistically in Stepping Forward, to “sex worker burnout”. You are your business’s best asset,” NZPC advises, and without maintenance you can become a liability. This does not mean you should spend more on superficial trappings like clothes, but quality investments like getting a massage, eating good quality food, using good quality products from shampoo and skin care to linen on your bed and even the bed itself. Join a gym, take Yoga or Pilates classes… the options are endless… all you need is a pair of comfortable shoes.

This culture, which responds to violence against women by condoning it and lodging it deeper, is the same culture in which every girl is socialised. It is what Gail Dines calls a “perp culture”, and it grooms women for susceptibility to pimp tactics. Because of the power of the sex trade lobby, it is these tactics that we have come to see employed society-wide as prostitution, pornography and objectification are sold to us using a language of “empowerment” and “liberation” that appeals to women as an oppressed class. It is these tactics too, that are used by traffickers to lure women into countries where they are vulnerable to exploitation, only to have reporters believe that “it's not trafficking” because “she consented”.

Rape culture is a cycle we all live in, where misogynist cultural norms lead to escalating violence, which is in turn normalised, further entrenching misogyny. It is time to break this cycle, and to do this one thing we require more than anything is to rethink our prostitution legislation and attendant, sanitising “sex work” myths through critical discussion.

We owe this to every woman who has lost years of her life in the sex trade since 2003; we owe it to Ngatai Manning and every woman who has lost her life in the trade since 2003. We owe it to every woman in the sex trade who has watched others say it, but has not been able to shout: "me too".

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