Monday, December 18, 2006
Prostitution and NZ Law Reform.....
I see a man is being held on suspicion over the Ipswich murders (see link). It is too early to assume him to be guilty, he could well just be a lonely man who is an easy suspect, having known the murdered women and being a client of sex workers. Time will tell.
Meanwhile, I met yesterday with Catherine Healy of the New Zealand prostitute's collective. I had a very interesting discussion with her over the effects of the law reform. I also spoke with a couple of workers who were visiting the building.
Surprisingly the first one I spoke with said it had made little difference to her personally, she pretty much continued working from home as she had done prior to the reform. However, when pressed she stated that she no longer has to register with the police when advertising in a newspaper. Even prior to decriminalisation, NZ had a relaxed attitude in comparison with Britain, with the police not always enforcing the law. Juliette also told me that she could be more upfront when talking with clients on the phone. Another woman told me that the law reform felt like a weight had been lifted off her shoulders as the threat of being busted no longer hung over her.
Something notable about this law is that it is the result of vocal campaigning by sex workers since the late 1980s, campaigning for their right to work as sex workers. It has not been handed down from on high by some thinktank who believe they are protecting the public from a social evil or containing it. Hence the law is based upon the human rights of sex workers as sex workers. It was won in parliament by a narrow majority, and it's opponents were largely on the religious right. It has received the support of most women's groups in the country, and of the liberal left. Ambivalence was also voiced by some residents groups, who feared there would be an increase in both streetwalkers and brothels. Their fears have been unfounded as there has not been a great increase in women choosing to work in the sex industry.
One thing Catherine made clear was that we cannot expect miracles to result from a change in the law. The problems associated with the sex industry have not all dissapeared, and it is doubtful they all ever will as every profession has it's problems and hazards. But there are a few things worthy of note.
Relations between sex workers and police have improved, and violence from clients is more likely to be reported. A murderer in the Christchurch region (who killed two prostitutes) was caught quickly due to the co-operation of sex workers with the police. Being free of police harrasment provides a better environment to work from, and due to the scrap of the pimping charges some women have chosen to take their partners with them as bodyguards or minders to take the license plates of the cars they get into. As sex workers are no longer illegal there has been a slight shift in the social stigma attached to them - they are no longer criminals but are workers with rights under the law.
Something that particularly struck me was the fact that there has been a shift away from brothel work and an increase in freelancers - women working themselves from home or in collectives. Brothel keepers have in fact been complaining that they cannot find enough workers anymore as women do not want to pay the shift fees they charge - they also prefer to work their own hours and charge their own prices.
It is little wonder that the brothel keepers opposed the model of decriminalisation. They were rather in favour of the Dutch model (State licensed brothels) being imported to NZ. The self interest here is pretty obvious. Those who advocate this model for Britain would do well to bear in mind that what they are advocating is a boss's law - not one that enshrines the rights of workers. Marxists would do well to think of the struggle between capital and labour, and remember which side they are supposed to be on. In the Auckland area brothel owners with massage licenses had a rather questionable relationship with local police prior to decriminalisation - they demanded that police clamped down on unlicensed premises, which clearly was not in the interest of freelancers. As I have stated before, one should not confuse legalisation with decriminalisation. They are not the same thing. Sex worker's rights groups almost unanimously oppose the former and support the latter, as do I.
It is also a misconception that most streetwalkers are also drug addicts. Some are (as were the women murdered in Ipswich) but not all are. The stats from the British Home Office on this matter (that 90+% of streetworkers are addicted to heroin or crack) are misleading as well as self serving, as they are taken from the women who use the government's drug treatment programme. In Catherine Healy's experience with street workers some are drug users but they don't make up the majority. That tallies with my own experience with sex workers. I have known women who work on the street and not all have been drug users. It obviously depends on the area too - districts which are struck with poverty and crime in general tend to have a higher percentage of drug users. Heroin and cocaine use is not as widespread in NZ as in Britain, crystal meth seems to be more of a thing here. But there is at least a needle exchange service for intravenous drug users.
But I should also stress that I support the rights of drug users as well as sex workers. If a sex worker is also a drug user (or the other way round) she will need rights as both. Hence my support for the legalisation of all drugs, or at least their decriminalisation.
We also spoke about the misconception that most (even all) migrant sex workers are forced into the trade. This is not the case in Britain and neither is the case in NZ. The main problem facing migrant workers in the sex industry here is their illegal status (as illegal immigrants, not as sex workers). They tend to come from South East Asia rather than Eastern Europe. Some come specifically to work in the sex industry, some arrive for other reasons. But the issues are the same. While it cannot be doubted that trafficking is an issue, it is wrong to assume that all migrant sex workers are slaves. They aren't. Claiming that they are is counterproductive as inflating the numbers is not conducivr to actually formulating policy to tackle the problem. The United Nations recognises that there is no reliable data in the way of human trafficking. If there was then the problem would be closer to being tackled.
A couple more items relating to the law in NZ. A few councils have managed to create by laws restricting the sale of sexual acts from certain zones. These have been opposed by the collective as being contrary to the law, and some have been repealed. Others have remained. What complicates matters is that a brothel in this country does not have the numbers clause as with Britain. In NZ one woman working from home would be effectively keeping a brothel, whereas in Britain it must be more than one.
It is also illegal to practise unsafe sex in exchange for money in NZ. While the collective opposed this clause as it could conceivably be used against sex workers, most sex workers have reported that the law works in their favour. If a client asks for activity without protection they can simply tell him that it is illegal and he will normally drop the matter. Client insistence has usually been the reason that some sex workers admit to practising unprotected sex in many countries.