Treat Her Right: We won't close the pay gap if we don't discuss prostitution

This article can be read in Spanish here.

In a February 11 Radio New Zealand (RNZ) interview, Wallace Chapman called the gender pay gap “the issue that never seems to go away”. He pointed out that on average, women are paid $7 per hour less than men, and asked a very good question.


A new campaign called Treat Her Right is bringing more popular attention to pay equity. It is dressed up with a 1970s aesthetic, since the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1972 – but feminists have been fighting the cause since Kate Sheppard and the suffragists. So Chapman asked feminist economist Prue Hyman about her forty plus years working on the issue, and its pace. What’s “the sticking point with this issue”? He wanted to know.

The glacial pace – why the glacial pace? Is it employers? Is it government policy? Is it the type of work that women end up doing – what is it?

These are vital questions for feminists. Many of our sisters have already given decades of their lives fighting this issue, indeed, for over a century. They didn’t do that so that we would tread water. To do them justice, we need to reflect on what is to be learned from their work, and the setbacks they faced, so that we can take their campaign over the line. We need the best possible understanding of the problem and how to fight it at the root. Feminists, including Hyman, have not fought so that we would reinvent the wheel; they fought to make change.

The question of why there is a pay gap drove feminist economist Marilyn Waring to write her book, Counting for Nothing. In it, Waring explores questions of work, productivity and reward. What is it to be a productive member of society? In this global, economic system, what kind of work is materially recognised as productive, through financial reward – and what kind of work is not?

Waring found that the gender pay gap is not a question of productivity. It is a question, of course, of gender. Indeed, many women carry out work of public benefit with responsibilities that would make anyone’s “hair stand on end”. But as Hyman also says, these tasks have been naturalised as a “woman’s place”. “The fact that women still do so much of the unpaid caring work as well… it is seen as natural for women,” says Hyman. “So where occupations are seen as natural to women, they are not valued”.

Waring found that under this patriarchy we live in, women do by far the lion’s share of the world’s work overall. She conducted a global comparison of the kinds of work that are considered genuinely economically productive and valuable, and that are therefore materially rewarded; and the kinds of work not valued, unpaid, and barely considered “work”. The overriding trend is that the work that’s not paid is the work that women do. There’s no other “theme”. It’s not that by being educators or care workers for instance, we keep winding up in the wrong place.

It is not our work that is undervalued. It is us.

The international economic system keeps women in poverty.

When women are kept poor, it also happens to secure a “product” supply for one of the biggest industries in the world: the sex trade. Worldwide, sex trafficking alone generates U.S.$32 billion a year; pornography about US$97.06 billion, which is more than the combined revenue of the top 10 web technology companies such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon combined. This objectified role has long been naturalised as a woman’s “place”, because men in power profit from the commodification of women, both as pimps and consumers.

Yet get this: one excuse Hyman says that male leaders, employers and politicians use to waver and stall on pay equity, is a lack of money. They tell us they can’t afford to close the gender pay gap, ’cause “there is no fat in the system”.

Oh yeah, is that so. Well where did it go? Because men make a mint off women.

This is why survivor organisations like SPACE International promote the criminalisation of pimps and sex buyers. This “Nordic” model means that men about to abuse their economic privilege to take advantage of women’s lack thereof, are recognised as rapists and issued fines instead. Those fines help fund exit services for women in prostitution. That is where prostitution survivors believe we must begin, when it comes to wealth redistribution: with those worst harmed and abused by the system that impoverishes women, survivors of the sex trade.

As Cherry Smiley points out, the sex trade is an instrument of colonisation, and indigenous women are disproportionately affected by its harms and predation. In New Zealand, around 15% of women are Māori, yet in our country’s fully decriminalised sex trade, a whole 31% of prostituted persons are Māori. There is a narrative gaining traction in New Zealand (what Mary Daly would call a ‘patriarchal reversal’) that it is “racist” to critique prostitution, because of the Māori and Pacific women within the industry. Yet remember that demand for prostitution comes from wealthy, white men. In 2017, we are still being coached to believe that indigenous women are somehow innately predisposed to being subjected to the abuses of wealthy, white men.

This institutionalised objectification of women is at the heart of women’s relative poverty. Discussing prostitution is something we need to do, to get to the root of our subordination, to lift women’s status in the economic system beyond commodification, and do so with a movement based on true solidarity, effectiveness, staying power, sisterhood.

In New Zealand, 17,000 women are homeless, over 2,000 of us are in prostitution, and three quarters of the latter will have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives. Where are these women in our campaigns?

Hyman echoes this point when she discusses some of the limitations of progress made on pay equity. Hyman argues that “the real push needs to be in the low-paid sectors: the caring, the cleaning.” She says the campaign is “not really tackling the business of women’s unpaid work – meaning that their paid work is undervalued at the bottom.” She warns that in the nineties,

At the top, things were improving… we had that period where we had a woman governor-general and prime minister, head of Telecom, chief justice and the works. And everybody thought, Oh! We’re at the top, we’ve accomplished everything. Of course, most of them were replaced by men.

In other words, let’s not reinvent “trickle-down” economics within the women’s movement. We all know what this will mean: relatively few white, middle class women in higher paid jobs, still walking a tightrope because they are more precariously positioned than their male counterparts, yet leaving the rest of us behind. Particularly, leaving working class, indigenous women to fall further and further behind. That’s the “trickle-down” approach.


Wasn’t this also part of the critique that black feminists leveled at white feminists in the second wave? That the movement we dominated focused too much on the surface features of oppression, was too comfortable? That we, white women, paid black women peanuts to nanny our children, while we took to the streets to fight for pay rises and executive jobs? Bell hooks’ Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre is about exactly this.

In a recent presentation on “Declarations of Independence”, Teresia Teaiwa made a similar point talking about independence and sovereignty struggles. She said that such struggles have often been male lead, ignorant of women’s issues and laden with sexism. Hyman makes the same point about unions stalling on women’s issues, because they are male dominated. Women are often placated within male dominated movements, with the idea that it’s “okay”, once we win this battle, then we’ll get to women stuff. Promise. But Teaiwa says it doesn’t work that way.

The same goes within the women’s movement. We can’t say – once we gain pay rises for the employed among us, then we’ll look at the homeless and most violently objectified. Our movement has to be based on strong, unwavering bottom lines, that apply to all of us, that we start from. Like, women are not objects. Like, women deserve to live in safety, free from sexual violence. Like, consent cannot be bought. These bottom lines need to inform the work we do on pay equity, and we also need to make sure that campaign sits within a bigger, deeper movement that amplifies the critical perspectives of the most marginalised among us first and foremost.

Hyman’s battle for pay equity has been one of hard-earned gains and swift repeals. She saw the progress that resulted from the passing of the 1972 Equal Pay Act – yet also how the Act left employers the chance to discriminate against women in terms of equal opportunity. It also did not do a great job on pay equity – looking after female-dominated sectors. Of course, statistics show that as more women increase in number in any industry or sector, the average payrate drops.

Since the promises of the 1972 Act were meant to have been met by ’77, the eighties saw another revival of the pay equity issue. Only then, women had Rogernomics (or as Hyman says, wonderfully, “the Rogernomes”) to fight. As Hyman recounts,

The Employment Equity Act had only just got as far as having the first few cases starting to be taken, when National got in in 1990, repealed the legislation, and that was that.

Even in the eighties, the Labour government didn’t do much. They did bring in a new Act, the Employment Equity Act, in 1990 but it took them the whole six years, because Rogernomics operated in the other direction. It was individualistic, and was inclined to widen pay gaps, including gender pay gaps.

Rogernomics, or neoliberalsm, has also had a domesticating influence on feminism. Neoliberalism has seen the widespread pumping and promotion of a feminism that, above all else, celebrates individual “choice”. As Meagan Tyler points out:

Even Playboy has recently decided to weigh in on the finer points of feminist theory, and have come out in favour of a woman’s right to be subjected to the pornographic gaze. Which, conveniently, fits in very nicely with their own business plan, of course.

When feminists, when women, accept the promotion, “choice” narratives, or the silence around prostitution – that silence will continue to hold us back on all fronts. It means we ignore our survivor sisters, betray young girls growing up in the presence of a powerful sex trade lobby (“teen porn” is the most popular genre), maintain a disjointed analysis of any issues we do tackle, and affirm male sexual entitlement. That means we leave, in tact, the conditions for all other forms of women’s oppression to continue – certainly the pay gap.

When a friend of mine last year shared an image on social media of Icelandic women marching while on strike over the pay gap, I wanted to point out that Icelandic women have criminalised pimps and johns. The solidarity that brings them all together on pay equity is deep, hard-earned, and longstanding. And for them, “treat her right” does not just mean “pay her equally,” it means, consent cannot be bought, and women aren’t commodities. Our movement as a whole, like Iceland’s, will be galvanised if we together decide to adopt such bottom lines, and fight our objectification.

Pay equity is a popular cause among women, because it is a necessary no-brainer, easy to agree upon, and clean and comfortable to talk about. No-one asks for content warnings on discussions of pay equity. There aren’t many middle class women who will nowadays go red in the face defending their ‘right’ to be underpaid. We do need to fight for pay equity, but we need to underpin that battle with some strong bottom lines. If we don’t move out of our comfort zone to develop these – well, how much time you got? Because we are exactly where the establishment wants us, and can be easily lead up the garden path.

As Hyman warns, the current government is about to open up the Pay Act for reassessment, and they may well want to weaken it.

We can secure what we have fought for if we campaign more widely, for sure – more deeply, for certain.

All images by The Untameable Shrews. Follow on Twitter: @untamableshrews

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3 thoughts on “Treat Her Right: We won't close the pay gap if we don't discuss prostitution”

  1. Oh jesus thank you. Even before I was a ‘TERF’ (whatever) I was always anti-sex work. Always. When feminists asked why I would be against sex work, I would say it was objectifying and commodifying women. When they said it was their choice, I would say “And it’s also the individual choices of women to star in objectifying media like television and advertisements, but you’re against those, aren’t you?”

  2. Pingback: No acabaremos con la brecha salarial hasta que no debatamos la prostitución. – Somos La Mitad

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