Hard News by Russell Brown

The Late Debate

Sometimes, it takes a showdown to make us think about an issue - and this certainly appears to be one of those time. As the vote behind Tim Barnett's Prostitution reform Bill teeters, suddenly we're having the debate.

That's good. I'm listening to Linda Clark interview Jan Jordan of Victoria University, the author of Working Girls, which records the thoughts of New Zealand sex workers, and Dr Richard Randerson, the Anglican archbishop of Auckland. They disagree: Jordan thinks the current law must be changed along the lines proposed in Barnett's bill, Randerson thinks that would be a diaster. They both claim the best interests of women. Welcome to the argument.

Like almost everyone else, I sat out the debate until a few days ago, when it became clear the vote on Barnett's bill was going to be tighter than anyone had thought - in part because of well-organised lobbying from the Maxim Institute and others.

To say that this is a polarised debate is putting it mildly. On the one hand, you have classical feminists (among them Sandra Coney, who was involved along with Barnett in a thoroughly abysmal piece of television conducted by Pam Corkery last night) who hold that prostitution is, in every case, sexual assault or even rape. Extensive arguments to this effect can be found on the Prostitution Research website, often in fairly doctrinaire language. Among other things, they point out that entry into prostitution is often associated with previous sexual abuse.

On the other hand, there are lobbies like the Prostitutes Education Network, through which active sex workers argue strongly for decriminalisation and regulation of the sex trade. The alt.sex.prostitution FAQ provides a similar viewpoint.

The Herald today finds a similarly emphatic view in favour of law change amongst active prostitutes it spoke to in Auckland. The story is worth reading.

It's not necessary to believe in a "happy hooker" stereotype to be uncomfortable with any doctrine that regards these women as always, and in all cases, victims, if only because they clearly do not see themselves that way. It would be insane to equate it with sexual abuse, but there's something about the idea of middle-class, university-educated women trying to nullify the views of other women that, in itself, suggests an exercise of unequal power.

Just to further complicate the argument, here's Wellington Independent Rape Crisis proposing A feminist argument in favour of decriminalising Prostitution in Aotearoa. The YWCA is also in favour of the bill.

I also found it surprisingly difficult to get clear information on the impact, good or ill, of similar measures to Barnett's in other jurisdictions. Grim statistics on the trade in child sex in developing countries are disturbing, but not terribly useful in working out what might happen in New Zealand.

While the Green MPs in New Zealand have backed Barnett's bill as a group, the Swedish Greens were strongly behind their government's move to change the balance of the law and criminalise clients rather than sex workers. The European HIV prevention group Europap (HIV/AIDS groups tend to be strongly in favour of decriminalisation) considered the Swedish solution in a report:

The first visible effect of the Swedish legislation was an immediate tenfold decrease in the numbers of women working visibly on the streets in cities such as Stockholm and Gothenburg, from about 20-30 women per night to 1-3. According to reports, numbers are slowly increasing again but they have not reached the previous levels

This reduction in numbers is unlikely to reflect a move out of sex work altogether. It is more probable that both workers and customers have chosen less visible ways of making contact, so that the policy has led to a re-organisation of the sex industry. It is interesting to note that the numbers of male clients attending the KAST project, a project which offers advice, support and counselling to the buyers of sexual services, have not changed over the last year.

In Sweden, during the first nine months since the new legislation was introduced, three clients were found guilty and fined. The women involved in these cases have not had to appear in court and have had their anonymity preserved. The introduction of the new law and the prosecution of the clients have elicited intense media interest both from within Sweden and around the world. Indeed, at one point immediately after the law came into effect, the streets were apparently the focus of frantic activity but from photographers and the media rather than sex workers and their clients.

The suggestion is that not much has really changed, apart from the obvious and welcome fact that women aren't being harassed by police or dragged through the courts. Whether they are safer is less clear.

Another report, from Australia - again, one which focused on HIV/AIDS prevention - found this:

Legalising prostitution makes the legal segment of the commercial sex market easier to reach and regulate, but it tends to raise prices for the regulated sexual services, giving rise to a lower-cost parallel market of unregulated sex workers who are harder to reach. When prostitution was officially regulated in Melbourne, Australia, the number of brothels declined by two-thirds; the price of sex in brothels rose; and the number of lower-priced "streetwalkers" increased.

So the effect of decriminalisation may be more complex than its backers admit. Yet a series of reports have concluded that blind-eye systems like our current one are bad for women. The City of San Francisco task force on prostitution concluded:

" … concluded that prostitution is not a monolithic institution. Although the majority of sex workers are women, it encompasses people of all genders working in the pornographic media industry, live theater, massage parlors, bordellos and through print advertising, as well as the street workers most commonly envisioned when the word "prostitution" is mentioned. Because it is such a varied industry, the City's responses must vary as well.

The Task Force discovered that the complaints levelled against prostitution really apply only to a fraction of the total industry and that those legitimate concerns are not being met by efficient and effective solutions. Yet not only are current responses ineffective, they are also harmful. They marginalize and victimize prostitutes, making it more difficult for those who want out to get out of the industry and more difficult for those who remain in prostitution to claim their civil and human rights.

On the other hand, a rebuttal entitled Legalized Prostitution Is Legalized Sexual Assault takes a very different view.

While various sources available through the Prostitution Information Network highlight the fact that Nevada - where a handful of counties have legalised prostitution - endures the fourth-highest incidence of rape in the US, other reports, such as this one, blame the level of crime in general in the state on accompanying liberal gambling laws:

The New Jersey Casino Control Commission report of 1989 states, "The conclusion appears inescapable that casino gambling is-a magnet for street criminals." It was also reported that the advent of casino gambling has been accompanied by a "disturbing increase" of assault, rape, prostitution, and drug dealing.

PENet's statistics page suggests another wrinkle to the debate:

Percentages of male and female prostitutes varies from city to city. Estimates in some larger cities suggest 20-30% of prostitutes are male; for example In San Francisco, it has been estimated that 25% of the female prostitutes are transgender.

So are men who wind up in the sex trade, for whatever reason, and under whatever declared gender, oppressed by prostitution in the same way as their female counterparts?

Some reports addressing prostitution at an international level unhesitatingly equate it with slavery. Others highlight the fact that women fare worst, and are more often subject to violence and abuse, in some countries where laws against the sex trade are most heavily enforced. This essay, Redefining Prostitution as Sex Work on the International Agenda, makes a reasonable job of looking at various national approaches and trying to untangle the issues.

But the more you step away from certainties, the more difficult and complex the argument seems to become. It is difficult, for example, to see a multiple sclerosis victim who visits a brothel - perhaps with discreet financial help from a support organisation - as a rapist and an abuser. The idea of an abuse victim ending up in a "job" involving, in Coney's words, "multiple acts of penetration" every day is distasteful. But - quite seriously - are hand jobs different? At what point does a massage become a "relief massage"?

It may be that Barnett has overplayed his hand here, by seeking, as Stephen Franks is suggesting, to not only decriminalise prostitution but make it respectable. But if his bill fails tonight, it will only take until the next time the police come visiting a parlour and the manager rushes to hide the condoms that everyone knows are there for it to become clear that the issue has not gone away merely because the bill has been dismissed.