For Kate. Image by Untameable Shrews (@untamableshrews).
New Zealand leftist news site The Spinoff recently published a “now what?” article for feminists, following the Women’s March. The piece recommends organisations to support, and tells readers that the “New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective advocates for the rights, health and well-being of all sex workers. Remember to include these women in your feminism, otherwise it’s not feminism.”
The author seems unaware that NZPC’s programmes coordinator is a male. In any case, “listen to NZPC” has become a catch-cry among liberals in Wellington, where discussions of feminism arise. Perhaps because of the organisation’s authority and charitable image, it is also standard practice for New Zealand media to defer to NZPC on issues surrounding the sex trade.
But where does “listening to the NZPC” actually lead us?
The organisation has long departed from its origins as a grassroots charity. It started in the 1980s, as a group of nine Wellington women in prostitution protecting themselves against the abuses of pimps, the spread of AIDs, and the government’s criminalization of prostituted persons. By 2003, the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed, finally decriminalizing those prostituted in New Zealand’s sex trade – but also pimps and sex buyers. Though NZPC still leverages their historic, grassroots image, it currently promotes government policy of full decriminalization as a generously state-funded sex trade lobby.
The legitimizing of pimps and johns who trade in women has been widely critiqued by prostitution survivors from New Zealand and worldwide. In spite of this, NZPC continues to uphold the party line on prostitution as a government funded lobby, even when this means engaging in spin and denial.
In a June 2016 Radio New Zealand interview, ex-New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) spokesperson Anna Reed was asked whether there is “trafficking going on” in New Zealand’s sex trade.
“Nooo,” she responded.
“People come here knowing what they’re doing… If I was young and beautiful ,” she said, “I would love to go on a working holiday somewhere where the laws protected me. That would be a great holiday.”
Despite crystal clear reports, NZPC glosses over the denies the presence of sex trafficking in New Zealand, calling it “migrant sex work” and even “working holidays”.
NZPC also minimises coercion more widely. Community liaison Ahi Wi-Hongi has told me that only 4% of people in prostitution are coerced to enter. That figure relies on definitions of consent and coercion radically opposed to feminist understandings. It comes from a survey in which 4% of respondents reported being “made to work by someone”. That means 4% reported being kidnapped, not coerced.
Then, when a safehouse to help women exit prostitution recently opened in Palmerston North, NZPC downplayed the need for that exit service. National coordinator Catherine Healy told media that “most sex workers left the trade without much difficulty; about 10 per cent of people needed assistance leaving”.
Exiting the sex industry is in fact extremely difficult and often takes several attempts. Healy’s 10% figure is also conveniently cherry-picked, just like Wi-Hongi’s ‘coercion’ statistic. The survey it comes from shows 10% of respondents stating they “don’t know how to leave” prostitution. Healy ignores that a total of 72% of respondents to that survey indicate that they are trapped in the trade by circumstance, selecting the options “can’t get help to leave”; “don’t know what else to do”, or “have no other income”. This is from a survey that already sports evidence of bias, not least because NZPC conducted the interviews for it themselves (see page 46).
Reed’s insistence on Radio New Zealand that the “laws protect” women here (and 85% of those in prostitution in New Zealand are women) also does not stand up to scrutiny. For a start, Official Information Act requests have revealed that brothel inspections in the interests of women’s health and safety in New Zealand are few and far between. Aside from 12 that were conducted in the first few weeks following the PRA, only 11 brothel inspections occurred across the whole of New Zealand between 2003 and January 2015.
So much for legislation to protect women from the abuses of pimps.
What’s more, NZPC advertises that “sex workers” can “seek justice” by taking complaints of abuse and assault to the Human Rights Review Tribunal (HRRT). Access to the court system is hardly a substitute for true prevention of violence, and real social justice. But it is important to know whether this NZPC claim about access to the HRRT is really true.
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. 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. Also in New Zealand, one in three women are sexually assaulted, and only 13% of reported rape cases result in a conviction.
Wi-Hongi has told me that only one case taken to the HRRT by a woman in prostitution can be cited in conversation. I was assured that more than one case had been taken, but given no evidence to verify that claim. I was told that the total figures were secret, and called a “creep” for requesting the statistics (Wi-Hongi is very well versed in such tactics).
I can see why NZPC may want to hide these numbers, which it should certainly be collecting. 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. And NZPC insists on depicting the industry in a flattering light.
Yet take Rae Story’s heartbreaking account of rape in an Auckland brothel. “This one particular john,” writes Story,
had a thick penis, which he liked to jab in and out of me, as hard and fast as he could… the pain was excruciating. I began to hold onto his hips to slow him down, push him away from me, but 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… She narrowed her eyes cynically, but said she was willing to let it pass as this had been the only complaint leveled against me.
Incidents like this demonstrate the reality of prostitution for women. A woman is to a brothel what a burger is to a burger joint: she’s ordered, consumed, paid for, disposed of, reviewed, advertised and capitalised from in the same way. Several women, like Sabrinna Valisce, have written about how this has worsened since the PRA decriminalized pimps and johns along with women. NZPC turns a blind eye to these critiques.
Alongside spin, NZPC also engages in a degree of coercion. While Wi-Hongi states that only 4% of those in prostitution are coerced into the sex trade – 22% of respondents to the same survey reported that they entered prostitution because they “thought it looked exciting/ glamorous”. Pimps certainly advertise it that way, with their recruitment ads depicting radiant, assured young women holding wads of cash and smiling. Despite the reality of the trade, NZPC does not seem to count that kind of advertising as coercion – perhaps, because NZPC participates in the same kind of activity themselves.
An example: when Massey University’s Massive magazine published an objectifying image of a prostituted female student on a March issue cover last year, students rightly protested. Wi-Hongi joined the chorus, but suggested a telling alternative. According to Wi-Hongi, Massive should have run an image of an empowered “woman in her lecture theatre with a bag of books, spare clothes and condoms”, to keep with NZPC’s party line on prostitution. This, of course, ignores poverty and coercion as important factors diving female students into this violent industry in increasing numbers. It also contributes to both false expectations, and suppressing critique of those.
When women do initially enter, perhaps having encountered such sanitising representations, they are issued a “new workers’ starter kit” by NZPC. Reading its manuals, The Ins and Outs of Work and Stepping Forward, is like reading Cosmopolitan magazine if it was produced by Work and Income New Zealand. The state-sanctioned ‘empowerment’, ‘choice’ and ‘you can do it’ narratives are little more than condescension, in the context of structural unemployment, systemic oppression of women and commercialised rape.
NZPC vehemently rejects the idea that prostitution is systemic exploitation. Yet it casually instructs women on how to work through menstruation, “burnout”, offer “bi-doubles”, and tolerate anal rape. On offering bi-doubles, NZPC says:
The only reason some agree to do bi-doubles is for the money… you don’t have to enjoy it, just pretend you are. Just like any sex job, there is an element of performance. It is the facade of enjoyment and pleasure that all clients pay for, it is what we do; and the same goes for the bi-double.
And this is what the organisation tells women about how to accommodate men’s demand for anal rape.
It is not uncommon for it to take 20 minutes or longer for the anus and rectal passage to expand and embrace the length of the girth of a penis or object… This has to do with body memory and the more your body becomes familiar with something going in and learns to relax with the sensation, the easier it will become.
“Using chemical assistance to help relax is not advised,” this Ministry of Health-funded publication advises, “as it seldom means the body is actually relaxed but that you are less inclined to register the pain or trauma.”
Stepping Forward also has a section on “sex worker burnout” (a euphemism for post-traumatic stress disorder). Under instructions on “how to stay a happy hooker”, it suggests “look after your inner self”, “take breaks” (“All work and no play make Jo a dull ho!”) and “cherish your body”. After all, “You are your business’s best asset and without maintenance you can become a liability.” This line reminds me of the words of Robert Money, a pimp interviewed for the documentary Tricked: “Pussy is a commodity. It has to be in selling condition… you have to make sure your commodity is sellable.”
The ‘advice’ comes from the same booklet that also bombards women with poor-quality photos of men’s genital infections whilst telling them that anal rape shouldn’t hurt for more than 20 minutes. Rich is one word that springs to mind, among others.
NZPC also flippantly acknowledges the difficulty of prostitution without drug use: “if realistically you are unable to work straight,” they say, “try and reduce the harm happening to yourself, by working around others who care enough to watch out for you.” Take the drugs, if you need to, and get other prostituted women to protect you from violent men. By the way, “Your behaviours could bring heat down on those around you, so don’t be surprised if people do not want to work with you”.
This leaves women in a bind. So they need to work, obviously; some cannot work straight, so they need help, but may not find it. Stepping Forward offers more ‘advice’ to women who might find this situation difficult.
If you don’t like your job, the thought of going to work makes your skin crawl and you think you’d rather chew off your own leg than do another shift, maybe this is not the job for you. Sure the money is lucrative, but how much are you going to make if you keep spitting at the clients in the lounge and swearing at them in the room if they haven’t asked you to talk dirty? There is no shame in quitting a job you don’t like. Getting out can be tricky, but there are lots of us who have done it and will help if you ask. Work to live and don’t live to work.
Sure. Here is an account from one New Zealand woman, from the South Island, who has managed to exit prostitution:
As a 16 year old street worker Anna Reed certainly never tried to help me, even though I was underage and going to the NZPC on a weekly and sometimes even daily basis. If anyone needed help it was me.
Of course there is no shame in quitting. It’s just that it’s statistically very hard to do. This same organisation points out one of the factors, dismissively, when it encourages women to “expand your mind”.
Now I’m not saying there’s not a lot to learn from [sex] work, in fact it’s a job that can teach you many skills you would be hard pressed to learn anywhere else, but it’s sometimes a little tricky incorporating these into your CV.
So it’s still a “job like any other” – you just can’t put it on your CV, even after say – 15 years? That’s no problem, though, according to NZPC. They suggest women “Take a course, read good books, get a hobby… so if at any stage burnout is no longer a passing phase, you have other options”.
In this objectification, and porn-saturated culture, women do not enter prostitution in the numbers we do because hobbies and reading books magically generate options for us everywhere. 92% of respondents to the aforementioned NZPC survey said 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.
NZPC and its supporters have zero tolerance for such feminist critiques, and another tactic NZPC engages in to control public discussion on prostitution is scare-mongering. Programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie is the author of a 2010 article for the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP), ironically titled Their words are killing us. The article exposes how Bennachie considers himself mandated to actively and explicitly suppress feminist criticism in New Zealand. Referring to prostitution abolitionists, Bennachie says: “We must challenge them, their language, at every opportunity,” he says; “reveal their language of hate for what it is”.
Bennachie does not hide the fact that he is talking about women, feminists, including prostitution survivors (women like Rae Story, quoted above) who recognize the industry as sexual exploitation.
This article appeared in a newsletter published by the global sex trade lobby, NSWP – of which NZPC is a member. Until February 2014, the NSWP’s 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. So it is no wonder that NZPC spokespeople have sought to minimise sex trafficking, calling it ‘migrant sex work’ or even a ‘working holiday’: the organisation is that closely affiliated with organized crime, pimps and traffickers.
Such people have vested interests in promoting a legitimized sex trade and creating a climate hostile to debate on policy. Working in collaboration with both government and the international sex trade lobby, NZPC keeps women ignorant of alternative legal models, like the Nordic Model, which uses fines from criminalized pimps and johns to fund exit services for women.
Sex trade lobbyists like to manipulatively suggest that full decriminalisation of prostitution is the only legal model that works in women’s favour. Anything other than a fully legitimated sex trade means the de facto criminalisation of women. Many women here remember being criminalized before 2003, and none of them want a return to that.
Part of this ploy too, is to insistence on a narrative that violence in the sex trade is caused by “stigma” – stigma being the negative perceptions society holds of prostitution. This convinces women that societal attitudes are the biggest threat to them in the sex trade, not pimp or punters.
This is another way that NZPC gags women: by suggesting that critiquing the trade, talking about the epidemic and inherent violence, contributes to generating lethal “stigma”. So if women find reason to develop a critical opinion of the sex trade, for instance through abuse – bringing this to light will make them responsible for putting other women in jeopardy. This also means trafficking, assault and murder are reduced basically to bad publicity – the myth that “stigma kills” has women frantically providing redemptive narratives on “sex work” to legitimize the very trade that would have them raped tomorrow.
Where women in the sex trade take this notion up (often strippers and escorts, rather than women in brothels or on the street) “liberal feminists” parrot it with initiative and gusto.
Yet the idea that “stigma kills” is preposterous, when pimps aggressively promote and profit from violence; johns commit it, pornographers film and publicize it, and lobbyists cover their backs. Stigma is in fact just what Hugh Hefner had to battle in the 1950s to begin to enable the shameless, daylight sale of his pornography magazines.
In fact – shouldn’t rape, objectification and abuse be stigmatized?
Many women who have come out the other side of the prostitution industry recognise the lobby’s spin, and some have gone on to form their own anti-prostitution organisations, like SPACE International, Survivors For Solutions, and NorMAC. To say that stigma – realistic representations of the sex trade – “causes violence”, is to blame these women for their own abuse.
Victim blaming is something NZPC and associated organisations are certainly not above. The events surrounding 2016’s release of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade – illustrates this. The book is an anthology of recollections and critical writing on prostitution by women who have been in the trade. Organisations associated with NZPC in Australia, like Scarlet Alliance, protested, picketed and disrupted seven out of ten events and readings, in different centres.
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 (also an NSWP member) stood on a stool during one reading event and interjected as survivors shared their stories. She also attempted to recruit the most recently exited woman, Alice, who had been trafficked from the age of five, back into prostitution.
In Wellington, I have personally experienced the hostility of the sex trade lobby when speaking out against prostitution; their tactics have lead to my being banned from a local art market, accused of “misconduct” in my workplace, and victim to an online bullying pact launched by Wi-Hongi. Victoria University ni-Vanuatu academic Pala Molisa has also suffered similar silencing and threats as a result of speaking out against prostitution as a form of male violence.
Silencing, scare-mongering, coercion and spin are not the hallmarks of an honest, trustworthy and charitable organisation.
The recruitment of women into prostitution is taking place through a collaboration between our neoliberal government, pimps and the global sex trade lobby. This kind of fraternity is what we call a Pimp State, and it is high time we stopped falling for its tactics. Activists and liberals need to stop helping the sex trade lobby suppress and demonize feminist critiques of prostitution. Instead, we need to open up the dialogue. Most importantly, we need to amplify and join the chorus of survivor sisters: to stand with them, refuse to be silenced, and resist.