As a rule, trade unions take their industries for granted. We’re not likely to see the president of a miners’ union speak out about fossil fuel extraction because of its connection to climate change, colonisation, or exploitation. Unions exist to advocate and educate workers: they’re invaluable, but they aren’t per se objective. It would be irresponsible to leave discussion of the fossil fuel industry to a miners’ union.

By a similar token, we won’t see the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) take a critical stance on prostitution that acknowledges its inextricable relationship to rape and rape culture. It would be irresponsible too, to suggest NZPC should gatekeep the conversation on prostitution while one in three women are sexually assaulted in our lifetimes, with the links between rape, pornography, trafficking, and prostitution well understood and documented.

Legally, NZPC is not a union, it just has similar functions, and likes to be recognised as one. NZPC is a government-funded charitable trust, hidden from the Charities Register. The trust deserves to be celebrated for the work it has done to support and decriminalise prostituted persons from the 1980s when it started as an informal collective of women. By 2003, their passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was a huge victory in that it put a stop to prostituted persons being slammed with criminal records. In an article by Rachel Moran, Sabrinna Valisce, who worked with NZPC for twenty years, recalls NZPC’s motivations:

I, and others who were agitating for decriminalisation in New Zealand, we always wanted the power to be placed firmly in the hands of the prostituted person/sex worker.

Yet as a decriminalisation lobby, determined to be seen as a union, what NZPC will not concede – that Valisce does – is that decriminalisation did not succeed in actually placing that power “firmly in the hands of the prostituted person”. She says,

The power went to the brothel owners, escort agency owners and johns.

What Valisce suggests, is that the safety of women relies on the criminalisation of said pimps and johns.

NZPC has not touched Valisce’s critiques with a barge pole – and spokespeople have continued to speak disingenuously about prostitution, and minimise perspectives like Valisce’s in the media since.

Even the way that NZPC interprets research actually constitutes a rather deliberate and dangerous silencing and minimising of critical accounts, investigations and perspectives of the trade.

For instance, while NZPC has correlated decriminalisation with improved condom use, the Ministry of Justice’s five-year review on the PRA says that effective use of condoms among people in the industry is not due to the PRA, but due to the successful HIV/AIDs prevention campaigning that the trust facilitated in the 1980s.

Also, going as far as to depict sex trafficking as a “great holiday” is extremely rich. NZPC has brushed off studies and reports revealing sex trafficking in New Zealand: as far as I can tell, their pro-sex work vocabulary does even not allow for trafficking victims, only “migrant sex workers”. This is because NZPC cannot concede that full decriminalisation increases demand for prostitution, which drives demand for trafficking. So it’s all legitimate “sex work”.

Kim Hill recently asked Anna Reed, just retired from NZPC, whether there is “trafficking going on” in New Zealand. All due respect to Reed, who colleagues describe as “the kind of person who would get up at 2am and drive into the city for an absolute stranger if that person needed help”. They say her “commitment to women she’s met in the industry is absolutely honest”.

Despite this, Reed’s response to Hill’s question about trafficking is alarming. She answered with an emphatic “no”, despite investigations reporting otherwise. “People come here knowing what they’re doing” she continued.

If I was young and beautiful, I would love to go on a “working holiday” somewhere where the laws protected me. That would be a great holiday.

This is not only shocking, it begs another question. Do the laws here really protect prostituted persons? Can’t pimps and johns just ignore the law – which rarely honours rape allegations anyway?

NZPC advertises that “sex workers” can “seek justice” by taking complaints of abuse and assault to the Human Rights Review Tribunal. An NZPC spokesperson has told me that only one case taken there from a survivor of sexual exploitation can be cited. They assured me that more than one case has been taken – but suggested that the total figures were secret, and proceeded to call me a “creep” for requesting the figures.

It’s certainly unethical for these figures to be withheld – women need to know whether their assault complaints are likely to be honoured in an industry that is so actively recruiting us, while it is so rife with violence. I can see though, why NZPC may want to hide the numbers: if they are high, they’ll speak to the extent of violence in the industry; if they are scarce, they’ll reveal how poor the system NZPC promotes is at responding to that violence.

To further downplay industry violence, NZPC also draws on definitions of consent and coercion radically opposed to feminist understandings. You simply cannot wear black on Wednesdays and not challenge these.

There is a Christchurch School of Medicine survey that asks prostituted persons to select why they entered the trade out of a prewritten list of options (table 5.2). These include “paying household expenses”, “support children/family”, “friend was doing it”, among others.

An NZPC spokesperson has used this table to make a general statement (in conversation with me) that only 4% of people in prostitution were coerced to enter. 4% is an incredibly low figure, when it’s commonly recognised how sex industrialists exploit poverty among women.

What table 5.2 actually shows is that 4% of interviewees selected the answer “made to work by someone”. That means 4% are kidnapped, not coerced. Kidnapping is only the most overt form of coercion, and this question is only one that can be asked to find out whether coercion has taken place. The survey is not critical though: it’s quite clearly disinterested in finding out whether and how coercion takes place more commonly, systemically and insidiously, in the interests of preventing it from happening.

92% of respondents did say that they entered the trade for “money”. NZPC might write that off to say that that’s the reason people enter any industry – end of story, it’s just like working in a supermarket. Many survivors however say that what this figure indicates is that pimps and johns violently exploit women’s economic disadvantage. Which is what patriarchy is and feminism resists: the individual and collective, institutional and domestic maintenance and exploitation of women’s economic disadvantage in the interests of male dominance.

It’s not quite supermarket stacking. Globally, 90% of sex workers disclose being subject to high levels of sexual harassment, and 70% to sexual abuse. New Zealand already has extremely high levels of violence against women, and studies show how women in sex work experience the highest rates of abuse.

One other way that women can be coerced into the industry without being physically forced is through misleading promotion, as Valisce states:

Decriminalisation also saw a 400% increase in “service providers” / prostituted persons. This wasn’t solely in response to increased demand. It was also in response to the pushing of the image of sex-work as empowering, luxurious and glamorous, through TV shows like “Secret Diary of a Call-girl.”

In table 5.2, 22% of respondents said they entered the industry because they “thought it looked exciting/glamorous” to work in. The survey doesn’t ask whether it turned out to be. Pimps certainly advertise it that way, with their recruitment ads depicting radiant, assured young women holding wads of cash and smiling.

NZPC often employs depictions like this too, despite all the evidence that the trade is actually dangerous, exploitative and difficult to leave. Spokesperson Ahi Wi-Hongi stated in Salient this year that an “accurate picture” of a student in prostitution “might be a woman in her lecture theatre with a bag of books, spare clothes and condoms.” Anna Reed goes as far as to broadcast that she spent over two decades in the industry because she was “addicted to love”.

As Kim Hill points out in their interview, Reed’s personal experience of the industry is exceptional. It would not be wise to take this characterisation of it at face value, from a spokesperson in a trade mostly populated by women who entered because of poverty; 60-95% of whom were abused as children; 75% of whom have been homeless. While Reed’s experience has been called “genuine” – we also know how frequently women internalise notions of love that allow for or can even be conditioned on violence, sexual availability, and limitless self sacrifice and self deprecation, and how damaging this is. So from that standpoint, I find the statement about love addiction objectionable.

It was not love that killed a 22 year old Christchurch woman, just recently; love that threw the body of another 24 year old woman into the Avon River, after running over her in a car, because she had insisted on using a condom. It is not love that johns feel for women when they buy them, love that men collectively practice for women while we are routinely raped, harrassed and assaulted. Is it right for spokespeople from a decriminalisation lobby to use their public platform to suggest that it might be, or to sweep wider realities under the carpet of a personal story?

These kinds of images – the love-addicted woman, carrying books and cash and condoms – with all due respect, again – are promotional, disingenuous and coercive, and undermine any idea that women have no right to speak critically about prostitution if they have not been abused within it themselves.

All promotion of prostitution as empowering is targeted at women at large – in fact, it’s targeted precisely at women not already in the industry – and if NZPC is going to engage in it, then feminists haven’t got a choice but to listen to survivors of sexual exploitation who tell an extremely different and more objective story, and help bring their experiences and critiques to light.

We don’t want our sisters to hear stories about love and money, only to suffer the fate of the multiple young women who have been murdered by johns, in New Zealand, in the time since the PRA. We don’t want them to suffer what Rosalie Batchelor, or Rae Story did either. Or the women who accompanied Elizabeth Subritzky to Parliament and gave oral submissions in favour of law change towards the Nordic Model. Or those who have bravely spoken up about the Chow Brothers‘ abusive brothels (while NZPC wrote the brothers letters of support).

Just one murder or rape allegation would be enough to warrant challenging full decriminalisation. And since prostitution is patriarchy’s primary pillar, critique of it is the job of feminism, not any organisation with vested interests, and a predetermined position shared with sex industrialists. Not that it wouldn’t be fantastic to see NZPC representatives change their position as feminist Sabrinna Valisce did.

NZPC discourages women like Valisce from speaking out though, and one way this happens is through the perpetual insistence that the violence in prostitution is caused not by pimps and johns, but by “stigma”. NZPC supporters too, constantly make this assertion, or implication: sex trade abolitionists cause the violence in prostitution by talking about it, which produces stigma.

Most abolitionists I listen to are survivors of prostitution. Women like Elizabeth Subritzky, who collected 2,910 signatures to file for a law change in 2013; like Rae Story, who has written about why working in an Auckland brothel is not a “job like any other”; like Rachel Moran and Autumn Burris, who both run anti-trafficking organisations; like Sabrinna Valisce, who once worked for NZPC. To say that the violence of prostitution is caused by the women who expose it, is not only a silencing tactic, but a cruel form of victim-blaming. It’s a view that’s certainly endorsed by those who capitalise from the trade, and it is a way of scare mongering survivors into not speaking out, and out of forming critical perspectives. It’s a way of suppressing resistance and dissent.

I’m often presented the idea in tandem with another challenge: “how many sex workers have you spoken to?”, as if I’m required to be personally acquainted with the industry in order to question it.

I’ve noticed that my answer to this question doesn’t matter. The question is another silencing tactic, with a subtext. Speaking to one woman is clearly not enough – she’s dwarfed by the “union”. Two or five are as well. I have responded to this question online before with articles written by survivors of sexual exploitation who are critical of the industry, to have their views and experiences dismissed as “click spam”.

The question demands a personal connection, an implies that I can’t speak about the trade if I’m not in it myself. What would be asked of me if I was in it, though? I’d be asked if I’ve had first hand experience of abuse. In short, what the question implies, is that for my position on prostitution to have credence, I need to have actually been raped by a john. That is the subtext.

Yet, as we know, suffering an event like that would actually see me traumatised, without justice, and dismissed as “click spam”. The question, again, is a silencing tactic.

In any case – every time I walk around my city, I am being sold the idea that it would be good, fun and profitable for me to enter the sex industry. What other industry are people expected to enter so readily with as meagre and as clouded information as women receive about the sex industry? Shouldn’t everyone be as informed as possible about a “job” they are being encouraged to do on a daily basis?

Women need to be able to talk about, to ask questions about, to know the truth about, to present critiques about, prostitution. And no – not only after we have entered it.

As women, what is happening in the sex industry affects us: its legitimisation as “sex” and as a way out of poverty; its promotion; its connections to pornography and rape culture. It’s not necessary for any of us to have had the experience of being shot at by a soldier to challenge the arms trade, and it’s not necessary for us to have been raped by a john to support our sisters in their exposition and critique of the sex trade.

It might not be our business – but it’s our business to object.