In New Zealand, 85% of people who are prostituted in the sex trade are women. By contrast, 99% of johns (who the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective refer to as “clients”) are men. Although NZPC is generously government funded, it effectively promotes itself as a union, existing to advocate for “labour rights” and safety. Since the organisation’s principal task is thus to protect women from johns in the face of a widespread male violence epidemic, it would make sense that the organisation be lead by women. A man at the helm is clearly a potential conflict of interest – and a very serious one at that.
So then, why is NZPC’s programmes coordinator a man?
This is a key leadership role, in which NZPC’s literature, advocacy and messaging are shaped – it means ultimate control over public narratives on prostitution. Was there really no woman deemed fit for this role of, supposedly, designing programmes to champion the interests of women in a female dominated industry? Why pick a man to spearhead a women’s cause?
NZPC’s programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie began working for NZPC, officially, in 1999 – four years before the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed. So Bennachie was involved with lobbying for the current New Zealand legal model of full decriminalisation. Under this legal model, women are no longer criminalised, like they were before; but neither are pimps or johns. The PRA decriminalised women by legitimising prostitution, accepting it as business, or “a job like any other”. The difference between this model and legalisation, is that the latter involves more industry regulation and red tape for pimps.
Since the PRA was passed, several prostituted women have been murdered in New Zealand; we have seen reports of sex trafficking, and several women (those not bullied into silence), have written accounts of the abuse and violence they faced in prostitution and how it has been exacerbated and minimised by pimps and brothel staff. Whatever the NZPC did before the PRA, the need now is for an organisation staunchly advocating for women in the industry where we are most vulnerable to a widespread male violence epidemic.
Perhaps Bennachie is perceived as a safe bet, in terms of developing programmes to this end, because of his sexual orientation as a gay male. “Gay men are seen to be less sexist than straight men,” writes lesbian feminist Julie Bindel in Straight Expectations, “presumably because they are not interested in women sexually and because they apparently do not conform to masculine gender stereotypes.”
But does sexual orientation make gay men impartial, when it comes to sexual politics? After almost four decades working alongside gay men, Bindel says No. “Gay men still profit from patriarchy,” she says, and “gay men do not need anything like as dramatic a shift to ensure their equal rights under patriarchy to other men.” The impetus to question male power is not necessarily there.
To really discover how Bennachie sees his role at NZPC though, we need to consult his work. Alongside working for NZPC, Bennachie is a gay rights lobbyist and academic: his PhD is titled Controlling Anti-Gay Hate Speech in New Zealand, and his submission on the Marriage Amendment Bill draws heavily on the arguments that frame his thesis. It is instructive, for anyone wanting to understand his grasp of sexual politics.
One of the first points Bennachie makes in support of gay marriage relates to cheese. “Personally,” he says, “I can’t stand cheese.”
To me, cheese is “eww, ick”, yet others find it a wonderful substance, that they could eat all the time. Do I, who cannot abide cheese and avoid eating it, have the right to tell people what they cannot eat?
Interesting. This opening does not make it appear that Bennachie is going to offer a structural critique of compulsory heterosexuality. Heterosexuality is not an oppressive institution, to Bennachie; it’s something as arbitrary as a penchant for cheese. Feminist Susanne Kappeler sheds some light on this take:
What masquerades as a (male) challenge to compulsory heterosexuality is in fact a demand for increased choice on the part of the sexual subject, the individual, the gentleman; choice from a wider range of desirable objects: not just women-objects
Women, like cheese, Bennachie just doesn’t personally care for: meh. This attitude makes Bennachie appear libertarian; and sets him apart from the radical roots of his own gay rights movement. Lesbian feminist Julie Bindel explains:
The early [gay] radicals wanted to see the back of marriage, not to be invited to the party. The GLF [Gay Liberation Front] that emerged out of the Stonewall Riots insisted that ‘complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished’… It was pretty clear that one of the social institutions that would have to be done away with was marriage.
Lesbians, as women, were particularly invested in a position that was critical of marriage, recognising that anti-gay bigotry is rooted in misogyny. “As a feminist,” says Bindel,
it is not surprising that I am critical of the institution of marriage. The argument is fairly straightforward: it is a patriarchal institution based on patriarchal notions of ownership and inequality.
Bindel might be shocked (or not, by now) by Bennachie’s next case for gay marriage: he cites a study investigating anal cancer to point out how many women and heterosexual men (34%) report having had anal sex. “It can therefore be seen,” Bennachie notes, quite clearly on the defensive, “that heterosexuals undertake the same practices that gay men are accused of”.
Is this really what you call a plea for equality and social justice – because it smacks of something much more assimilationist. Feminists such as Gail Dines have been discussing for some time how increasing numbers of women are reporting anal rape, which Dines attributes directly to the normalisation of such practices in pornography. NZPC also distributes publications that actually attempt to instruct women on how to suffer through anal rape if a man demands it – Bennachie is being disingenuous.
Bennachie’s concern, however, is not with women, rape culture, consent or critiquing (straight) male dominance. Bindel contextualises his kind of approach within the history of the gay rights movement: whilst Bennachie’s lesbian contemporaries were striving for women’s liberation and the elimination of gender roles, gay male lobbyists like himself “simply wanted a slice of the masculine cake for themselves, and were focused more on individual sexual liberation than the liberation of a sex class.”
As part of his plea for acceptance from heterosexual men, Bennachie also quotes extensively from the Bible – gruesome passages about women being subjected to sexual slavery, forced marriage and incest. This Biblical study offers another opportunity for Bennachie to critique the foundations of marriage in the ownership of women as property; but again, he passes it up without interest. His concern is only to point to the hypocrisy of heterosexual men, so that they will accept him: if you are okay with sexual slavery of women, then surely you can be okay with homosexuality.
As black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde wrote in 1980:
Much of the gay white movement seeks to be included in the American dream, and is angered when they do not receive the standard white male privileges… Often, white gay men are working not to change the system… I see no battle between many gay men and the white male establishment… You do not get people to work against what they have identified as their basic self-interest.
Other lesbian feminists who have critiqued the institution of marriage alongside Bindel include Sheila Jeffreys, Paula Ettelbrick, Martha Shelley, Kate Millett, Nicola Barker, Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin – the list goes on. Not only does Bennachie not honour or give due credit to these lesbian feminist critiques of patriarchy; he loathes them openly. Jeffreys and Dworkin are two lesbian feminists Bennachie singles out as targets, in a 2010 article for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), ironically titled Their words are killing us.
Targeting these women is bad taste, to say the very least: Dworkin, for instance, was a lesbian who had also been in prostitution. Nevertheless, Bennachie says that she and her fellow critical writers 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.” With this description, Bennachie makes no qualms about the fact that he is also talking about prostitution survivors critical of the industry. Kate*, who lives in Auckland, is one of these women and testifies that NZPC
was set up with the goal of introducing decriminalization to NZ, and they are very hostile to any prostituted woman who might question whether this was in fact in our best interest, and what alternatives might exist, as I found out first hand from my interactions with the organisation.
Looking at Kate’s experience, it begins to seem like it is Bennachie’s attitude to critiques of prostitution that in fact resembles that of an abuser.
When I started speaking out against prostitution in favour of the Nordic Model online, I was met with a barrage of abuse from men asking me questions such as why I was “such a bitter cunt”, harassing me for personal details, and threatening me with rape and even death.
Bennachie misrepresents the work of feminists, including lesbian feminists, and abolitionist prostitution survivors with the kind of spin that also aligns him far more closely to the government that dispenses his pay packet than any kind of feminist cause. His NSWP article reveals – with confronting clarity – that Bennachie considers himself mandated to actively and explicitly suppress feminist movement in New Zealand. “We must challenge them, their language, at every opportunity,” he says; “reveal their language of hate for what it is, and counter them with evidence-based facts that prove their claims to be false.”
Despite Kate’s experiences of being bullied for wanting to critically discuss policy following her experiences of abuse, Bennachie claims that it is women like Kate who are violent, for speaking.
Abolitionists often use a language of war, and their hatred towards sex workers, which does not show remorse, can almost be tasted. For example, it could be argued that their descriptions of sex workers’ vaginas are more woman-hating than those in any mainstream pornography.
This is a stretch: what feminists do is describe the experiences they have suffered, describe mainstream pornography, and describe the reductive ways in which pimps, johns and pornographers treat women. Like slavery abolitionists or conscientious objectors might describe slavery or militarism. To spin these critiques 180° is nothing but a cheap trick.
If you have ever wondered how Bill English can get away with stating that he does not know what feminism is, how John Key could get a way with cracking rape jokes on radio, closing Rape Crisis centres and ponytail-pulling scot-free, look no further. The government, through the Ministry of Health, actually mandates a lobby group to prevent the re-emergence of feminist movement in New Zealand as part of its “advocacy”. Critical awareness, analysis and discussions of prostitution – “the oldest oppression” – are vital to feminist organising.
Through NZPC’s brutal demonising of this kind of analysis, or even questioning; the state ensures that feminism cannot flourish in this country. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory to you, read the lobby spin for yourself; then get yourself a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984.
Bennachie may not be eloquent (“If a religion came along that said it is a sin worthy of eternal damnation to slice your boiled breakfast egg at the little end… would any government… put it into law that you cannot slice the egg at the smaller end?”) but he specialises in doublethink. Somehow, he can promote the slogan “listen to sex workers” whilst scare-mongering the only organisations in the world actually run by prostitution survivors. He can write about “controlling anti-gay hate speech”, whilst misrepresenting lesbian critiques of compulsory heterosexuality as hate speech. He frames women critiquing their own subordination as promoting violence, and leverages an image of himself as a woman’s rights advocate to throw women under the bus. Women: meet our very own Big Brother.
As it is in Orwell’s 1984, this kind of manipulation has been extremely successful. There are literally women queuing up in Wellington to do this man’s dirty work – a whole Thought Police squad. I know that, because their lobbying has had me banned from a community market, and bullied out of a job. Mainstream media too, frequently amplifies the voices of sex trade lobbyists claiming that “stigma kills“.
Wellington’s Thistle Hall also recently hosted an exhibition called Exhibitionism: The Art of Stripping, produced by women calling themselves sex workers. A Vice magazine article written by a prominent, young liberal feminist and “sex worker” explains that:
This year New Zealand’s media has featured a string of news involving sex workers. The Chiefs scandal, the murder of Renee Duckmanton, the revelation that there is a dark underbelly of human trafficking within New Zealand’s sex industry, to name a few. When you’re working in the industry, you can’t help feel the sting of persistent negative attitudes that society holds.
So a group of women who met in Wellington’s strip clubs have organised an art exhibition aimed at showing the world they’re more than just stereotypes.
Both the artists and author of this piece have been convinced that societal attitudes and “stigma” are the biggest threat to women in the sex trade, not pimps or johns. As a result, trafficking, assault and murder are basically reduced to bad publicity and “negative attitudes”. So this article congratulates women counteracting that bad press by leveraging their own creativity in the interests of pimps. Because of men like Bennachie, the myth that “stigma kills” has women frantically providing redemptive narratives to legitimise the very trade that would have them raped tomorrow.
Kate explains that part of the reason women in prostitution promote decriminalisation is that NZPC promotes it to them as the only viable policy model, suggesting that all other models amount to the de facto criminalisation of women. She says that she was in favour of blanket decriminalisation,”when I thought the only alternative to this was for prostituted women to be considered criminals along with those who exploit them”. Liberal feminists outside of the industry then parrot this notion as well.
I wish that liberal feminists who place sex trade lobbying at the front and centre of their politics would do more than parrot the lobby’s catchy slogans and spin; I wish they would follow the money. Stigma, for instance, is the thing that Hugh Hefner had to battle in the 1950s to begin to enable the daylight sale of pornography. The sex trade lobby fights stigma in order to legitimise the sex trade in the interests of pimps; it does not fight stigma to protect women. The idea that “stigma kills” is preposterous, when it is clear as day that pimps market violence, johns commit it, pornographers film it, and lobbyists cover their asses.
We can follow the money some more. Bennachie’s article Their words are killing us appeared in a newsletter published by the global sex trade lobby, NSWP – of which NZPC is a member. Until February 2014, the NSWPS’ vice-president of was Alejandra Gil, who was arrested that month for sex trafficking. She was sentenced to fifteen years in prison the following year. It’s no wonder that NZPC spokespeople have sought to minimise sex trafficking, calling it ‘migrant sex work’ or even a ‘working holiday’. They are that closely connected with organised crime and traffickers.
NSWP is also the organisation that credits itself as ‘largely responsible’ for ‘sex work’ replacing the term prostitution. According to NSWP, “Sex workers can be employees, employers, or participate in a range of other work-related relationships”. Women who
reject the phrase because of abuse and call themselves prostitution survivors are spoken of as adversaries by the likes of Bennachie. The term, then, basically is a code-word for “sex trade lobbyist”: anyone within the trade who accepts it as legitimate. The lobby works hard to suck women in prostitution into this lobbyist category, and to punish them when they resist.
The events surrounding 2016’s release of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – further illustrate this point. The book is a collection of accounts of prostitution by twenty women from around the world, who share harrowing experiences of violence and injury, PTSD, and men who wanted to act out pedophilic fantasies, and scenes from hardcore pornography. What happened to these women at their book launch events demonstrates what Bennachie means by “challenge them… at every opportunity”.
The lobby protested, picketed and disrupted seven out of ten events and readings; in some places the women had to engage security guards. When the Townsville event was held in a domestic violence shelter, the lobby threatened to go after the shelter’s funding, and intimated violence if the book launch went ahead. Elena Jeffreys, ex-president of Scarlet Alliance (another NSWP member) stood on a stool during one reading event and interjected as survivors shared their stories – confirming what is really meant by the catch-cry “listen to sex workers”.
Jeffreys did not stop at interjections, either: she attempted to recruit the most recently exited woman, Alice, who had been trafficked from the age of five, back into prostitution. “There are lots of great opportunities for women like you,” Jeffreys said to her, “you should really give it another go.”
It is again as in 1984. Where the subtler tactics of manipulation, doublethink, guilt tripping and victim blaming fail, out come the big guns: the silencing, smearing and venom. Ultimately, as far as the sex trade lobby is concerned, a woman speaking out against them does not know her place: she does not know that her place is on the street, being bought, being beaten. It will try to ensure that she is reminded. It tried that with Alice, and by going after my job and future prospects, attempted the same with me.
Alongside the government and NSWP, Bennachie’s position is mandated through academia. Bennachie has a PhD in Gender Studies, the discipline that usurped Women’s Studies late last century, replacing feminist criticism with queer theory. The project of studying literature exploring patriarchy and women’s oppression to support liberation, was scrapped – in favour of a neoliberal, postmodern, pluralistic production of text on sexual identities. This is the tradition that Bennachie belongs to.
According to feminists, queer theory constitutes a backlash against feminism. Sheila Jeffreys states how this backlash has come
from sexual liberals on the left – in particular, from men – and from a large part of the gay male movement. That is where the backlash is coming from, but it is being represented within feminism as well.
It is no wonder that Jeffreys has been a specific target of Bennachie spin. Lierre Keith illustrates the representation of this backlash within feminism:
As early as 1982, Ellen Willis invented the term “sex positive” to distinguish herself from radical feminists – because we’re so negative, us radicals. Rape, rape, rape – it’s all we want to talk about. Well, I’ll make you a deal – if men stop with the rape, I’ll stop talking about it.
Keith also points out that the search term “torture porn” results in 32 million online hits. Feminist Susanne Kappeler further suggests that
As feminists, we would do well do remember and highlight the fact that the history of liberalism, of libertarianism, and libertinism has been a history of gentlemen advocating liberty and license for gentlemen – liberties to which the rights and liberty of women have routinely been sacrificed.
Kappeler shows how the sexual liberals or libertarians base their “advocacy” on seeking greater personal liberty from repressive social, moral or legal authority.
In the 1960s, this was conceived of simply in (male) heterosexual terms, as a greater permisiveness in response to a past of moral and religious constraint. In the 1980s in Britain, the spokesmen for sexual liberty are most predominantly theoreticians of gay (male) sexuality, who plead for a greater tolerance of minority forms of sexual practice and orientation.
Bennachie rubbishes these writers as drawing on nothing but a made-up “oppression paradigm”, as part of a “discourse of hate” that uses a “language of war”. This is while he draws on the work of postmodernists like Michel Foucault, who was a member of a pro-paedophile organisation and advocated for the eradication of age of consent laws. Still, it is lesbian feminists Bennachie deems “dangerous”. This is a tactic he uses to manipulate women in prostitution, like Kate and the contributors to Prostitution Narratives, into submission. Do not dare join the dots to understand your abuse, and your oppression – we will come after you.
Women, if they are abused, are encouraged to entrust NZPC for support, rather than speak out. Yet Beverly*, a prostitution survivor from the South Island, says
As a 16 year old street worker Anna Reed certainly never tried to help me, even though I was under age and going to the NZPC on a weekly sometimes even daily basis. If anyone need help it was me.
At the same time, NZPC prides itself on its work facilitating access to the justice system for victims of sexual violence.
The main problem with this claim of course, is that it does focus on treating sexual violence as a problem to be prevented and stopped. Another problem is that the legal system does not actually offer justice, in the true sense of the word, to rape victims; any survivor living with post-traumatic stress can tell you that. Convictions can prevent abusers from repeating offenses, but they can’t return to a woman what sexual violence took from her. Indeed, the work a woman does in court to ensure an abuser is sentenced is often to her own further detriment. The scrutiny, detail and reliving of abuse is traumatic in itself. It should hardly be promoted like the perk of a job.
Yet because it is so central to NZPC’s promotional activity, I asked NZPC community liaison Ahi Wi-Hongi for numbers. How many cases of assault, coming from women in prostitution, have actually gone through the Human Rights Review Tribunal since the Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised prostitution in 2003? In response, Wi-Hongi – well trained in the tactics of the lobby – called me a “creep” – eventually stating that one case could be cited in conversation. Apparently, as a woman, I have no right to know what chance I’d have of success in the courts if I was abused in an industry rife with violence, but that recruits people like myself every day.
The recruitment of women to prostitution is taking place through a collaboration between our neoliberal government; pimps and the global sex trade lobby, and male sexual liberals in academia. Picture Calum Bennachie, with Bill English, Key, the Chow Brothers and Michel Foucault having a chummy night out at the strip club – maybe throw in a couple of RockFM DJs in the mix. This kind of fraternity is what we call a Pimp State. It’s indeed best run by men, manipulating women (as in The Handmaid’s Tale) to become their mouthpieces. This is done through bullying, and demonising feminist criticism with spin while co-opting its language. So yes, the programme is best coordinated by a controlling man, as disinterested in women’s liberation as he happens to be in cheese; but it is high time us women stopped privileging such a standpoint, and falling for it. Instead, we need to amplify and join the chorus of survivor sisters. To stand with them, refuse to be silenced, and resist.
* not their real names
Featured image above: Jenny Holzer, Abuse of power comes as no surprise