On May 26, Amnesty International released a policy on prostitution, advocating for the global decriminalisation of prostitution worldwide, framing it as “sex work”. Pimps are legitimate business managers; johns their clients.

Over 600 leading feminist, human rights and anti-trafficking organizations that recognise prostitution a form of violence and exploitation, have challenged Amnesty International. Rachel Moran, a survivor of sexual exploitation who heads anti-trafficking organisation SPACE International, wrote a brilliant critique of Amnesty’s position while it was still being debated last August. Plenty more have followed since the policy was released (like here and here).

Amnesty’s framing is no wonder though: a convicted sex trafficker, Alejandra Gil, and an English pimp, Douglas Fox, had significant input in the policy design. We should be equally suspicious of a prostitution policy supported by a sex trafficker and pimp as we would be of an environment policy sponsored by an oil company and climate change denier.

The policy model being promoted is the New Zealand model, and this is concerning. Critics (plenty of sexual exploitation survivors among them) are calling for the implementation of the Nordic Model instead, which criminalises pimps and buyers, as the only way to end the widespread rape and exploitation of women.

No prostituted women have been murdered in Sweden since the Nordic Model was implemented; several women have been murdered by johns in New Zealand since full decriminalisation was first implemented here. This alone should certainly make us concerned about Amnesty’s endorsement of the New Zealand model.

Many myths circulate about the Nordic Model, though – of course, since it’s damaging to “business”. Some reports say that violence against prostituted women has increased by something like 7% in Sweden while it’s been in place. But, at the same time, the definition of violence has also broadened dramatically: reports now include things like hair pulling and verbal abuse, when those weren’t defined as violence before. Studies in Oslo show that since it was implemented in Norway – incidences of rape have reduced by half.

In spite of this, another myth that circulates – about full decriminalisation – is that it “doesn’t serve pimps” because it recognises the human rights and labour rights of prostituted women. Sounds like a Tui ad in the making, to me: full decriminalisation turns a pimp’s human rights violation into a legitimate business that can be operated and advertised in broad daylight, according to the same “more, faster, cheaper” hamburger model all business is driven to follow. That’s how demand for prostitution drives that for trafficking, a correlation New Zealand’s decriminalisation lobby desperately wants to hide. The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective has effectively eliminated trafficking from its vocabulary to hide it, sanitising trafficking as “migrant sex work” instead – or, ludicrously, even a “working holiday”. 

Under decriminalisation, not paying a prostitute also ends to be considered as robbery, not rape – which, as Rae Story points out, “is reason enough to fight it down”.

Sabrinna Valisce describes how after New Zealand’s 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, which legalised the trade, brothels owners and escort agency owners

increased the amount of ‘their girls’ on shift. Where once it had been 4-8 [girls], it was suddenly 15-28 per night shift. This was fuelled by the johns wanting a lot of choice. Johns wanted the cheapest service, with the most extras, with the most amount of girls to choose from: the younger and newer, the better. So the pimps drove down the prices to get their patronage. This, of course, had a roll-on effect of lowering prices on the streets and in private sole contractors. It also saw girls competing by offering more and more to get the jobs.

Read about prostitution in Germany to see where this goes.

If that doesn’t serve pimps, what about Alejandra Gil and Douglas Fox, the convicted Mexican sex trafficker and English pimp who had major input into Amnesty’s position? How are the Chow brothers confidently building themselves a $1b empire while being notoriously recognised as abusive? Decriminalisation gives pimps power and legitimacy. It doesn’t matter about the little Prostitutes’ Collective, when you’re effectively above the law and helping to write it; when policemen visit brothels and strip clubs by night, and judges don’t like to convict in rape trials.

In Sweden, abusers are arrested automatically. Their fines are used to pay for support services that assist prostituted women to exit the trade.

In New Zealand, it’s prostituted women who are paying fines and fees – to pimps, as Valisce describes:

There can be any number… shift fee, advertising fees (without receipts I might add), late fines, room fines, presentation fines, drivers fees for out-calls, fines for being sick and missing a shift and even laundry fees.

A woman who worked for The Chow Brothers told the media that she rented a room upstairs for $200 a week and was told that if any of the girls were late to work or refused a client, they were fined regardless of the reason.

Women working for John and Michael Chow’s strip clubs have also reported extreme lax attitudes around intoxication: pimps hiding johns in dance rooms or in the brothel to keep them out of sight of police; patrons vomiting regularly, and women too as they drink in order to tolerate johns; women being pressured to sell alcohol to dangerously intoxicated johns.

I have seen the security staff helping people walk up to the brothel who were too drunk to walk up there by themselves.

Women are then not being protected from their behaviour – from johns grabbing, inappropriately touching and trying to lick or bite them. “Basically, people would try anything you can imagine.” (See this recent study on what johns really think of prostituted women).

There were no checks on the clients or the dancers during bookings and if the client kept extending the booking then the staff did not care what was going on.

Another states:

In lap dance rooms some of the guys would get the idea that they were the boss and it could be quite scary.

The Chow Brothers reported receiving a letter of support from NZPC while these complaints were being raised during court hearings instigated by Jacqui Le Prou.

The 5 year review of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) states that few people in prostitution report assault to the police (p.122). NZPC says that complaints of abuse and assault can be taken to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT), but also that only one case taken there from a survivor of sexual exploitation can be cited. In prostitution, sexual abuse tends to be considered an occupational hazard – par for the course. It’s hard for prostituted women to have their sexual abuse cases seriously. Only 13% of sexual abuse cases in New Zealand result in a conviction anyway – rape is already hard to report, let alone if you work in an industry that actively blurs and undermines the distinction between rape and consensual sex.

Rae Story has written her experience of this while working in Auckland brothels.

The boss liked us to work most nights and so the constant interference from (often) rabid men left us bruised and sore. This one particular john had a thick penis, which he liked to jab in and out of me, as hard and fast as he could. Initially, I tried to breathe deeply and relax my muscles, but the pain was excruciating… he got impatient and then angry, before flouncing off to complain, as though he was the victim of some great injustice.

When I walked back down to the foyer, the receptionist pulled me aside to inform me of his grievance. I hyperbolized his brutalization, knowing that if I simply said I was too sore to cope with what was a fairly banal experience of prostituted sex, it wouldn’t satisfy her. She narrowed her eyes cynically, but said she was willing to let it pass as this had been the only complaint levelled against me.

The rapist in this account had paid an All-Inclusive to the brothel receptionist. This is a payment method which was introduced immediately following 2003’s PRA. Valisce describes the system:

An “All-Inclusive” is a single fee paid by the john to the brothel/escort agency via the receptionist. This means that the prostituted person/sex worker has no power of negotiation. It also means that the pimp decides her earnings… The pimps gained the power to decide what a “service” would be paid and how much of that belonged to them. They also gained the power to withhold the woman’s earnings or even deny any existence of those earnings. Prior to law reform we negotiated our own money and decided our own services.

To read this and remain stating that the PRA has granted prostituted people the power of a union and enforceable labour rights – is to turn a blind eye to large scale assault, to mass sexual violence.

Valisce cites a cut of 50% taken by pimps, and describes brothel working conditions:

In NZ, prostituted persons are… told when shifts start and finish, what the rates are, what to wear, and what to do. Some places even have a minimum amount of shifts per/week… All brothels and agencies say they are drug-free. I’ve yet to see one where this is true. I could get any drug I wanted on any day of the year in every place I ever worked.

Surveys here matter-of-factly ask people in prostitution questions like what drugs they have recently taken “just before or during work” recently (Amphetamines? Speed? Ritalin? Morphine? Glue?) – and whether interviewees allow for “golden showers” or “breast sex” at work.

This is not a “job like any other”.

Decriminalisation advocates often say that the Nordic Model gives police undue power over prostituted women, and has lead to policemen following women, which they should not do. But that’s not a reason to advocate for prostitution – those wading in on the sex trade debate who are concerned about police behaviour and brutality, could consider that in New Zealand, a policeman can simply walk into a brothel in broad daylight, pay a receptionist, pick a woman, do as he please and head off home.

He won’t ask her whether she’s actually okay with her situation, whether it’s her choice as a fully informed and empowered woman to be in the industry or not. There’s no free-range, fair trade, empowerment certification in prostitution. He won’t ask her whether she’s in poverty, trafficked, if she has a home or has been homeless, whether she has a family or a history of abuse; whether she’s become drug-addicted to stay in the “job”, or whether she has other aspirations and needs help to leave, or how many times she has tried. He won’t ask her if she has been raped, and how many times. He’s not there to build “safer communities together”. He’s there to feel like a man and go home, perhaps to a wife. Perhaps she will have to tell him she has labour rights, and maybe he’ll respond by telling her that it doesn’t matter. She lives under a Pimp State.

Then, with the way the decriminalisation lobby, which is funded by this state, asserts that critical expositions of violence produce the “stigma” that causes it – maybe she’ll never tell her story.

And that is undue power.

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