A little while ago, I was having roti chanai at a favourite Malaysian takeout with a friend, when I was caught off guard. A little girl of about five, small and sprightly, came chattering in with her teddy bear of a father. They sat down at an adjacent table, and he looked like he would rather be nowhere else but out getting roti with her. They looked at the menus together, and when he got up to order, the girl piped up from the table “You can order dumplings if you want to, daddy!”… and I actually welled up.
There is something about the resilience, trusting nature and innocence of girls that sometimes catches me out, and I hurt for them. It is not that there are “bogeymen out there”, that’s not what breaks my heart. Rather, it’s that, as author Gail Dines writes,
This culture has become a collective perpetrator. We have a perp-culture. We used to have individual rapists or pedophiles who would groom individual boys or girls, and what we have now is an entire culture grooming an entire generation of girls to give men what they want sexually.
Rape culture is like this beat we are all dancing to. One in three girls are abused. Sexual abuse has more than once been called the “boot camp” for prostitution – the majority of women in prostitution were abused before they entered. We are filmed in prostitution to make pornography, which men consume in inordinate amounts. There are 11 million hours of pornography online.
The cycle does not end there, of course. What happens in porn is first dripfed and then shovelled into mainstream media so that it’s normalised and glamorised for women. Many women’s magazines – Dolly, Cosmopolitan – are actually published by pornographers, so it doesn’t take much. They coax women to conform to pornographic norms, and relax whatever boundaries we have managed to keep. Abuse then escalates – and this is what rape culture is.
The New Zealand news media should be keeping watch on this cycle: intervening, investigating. Instead, it doesn’t matter if the outlet is corporate, leftist, state funded, run by students – the media is opting into this predatory cycle at every flaming opportunity. They may well trumpet about “rape culture”, but they still, all of them, groom girls and women to think that prostitution is amazing. What you want? Money? Orgasms? Confidence? “Flexible hours”? Look no further.
The New Zealand Herald and Stuff.co.nz are unrelenting. If Jacinda Ardern being asked if she wants babies is a national outrage, then Stuff running an advertorial in the Business section for a pimp called Graeme who wanted girls to come to Hamilton for Fieldays, because a bunch of farmers need some orifices to pump during their annual convention, should have definitely been a national outrage. Instead, it is seen as normal – since prostitution is a ‘job like any other’.
Our mainstream understandings of prostitution are sanitised and far from the truth. “There’s no ‘how to’ when learning to be a prostitute,” says Jade, now exited from New Zealand’s sex trade.
I was at the mercy of the clients who would take advantage of my lack of personal boundaries. I would be left with bruises all over my body from the rough sex, men always wanted to imitate hardcore porn, acting out the sexual violence they were feeding on. The drunker they were, the angrier they would get until they were in hateful rages. Those were the times my vagina would bleed from the trauma. I had no-one to tell or to help me as we (the girls) were experiencing the same thing.
Jade’s is a painfully honest account of the sex trade, and it echoes a wider pattern.
So what about state broadcaster – perhaps they can keep the corporate news in check, and examine this topic with more compassion, depth and honesty, and through a critical lens. Think again. Radio New Zealand (RNZ), entrusted to “Mediawatch” for us, appears enamored with The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) and its celebratory stance on prostitution. In June 2016, Kim Hill interviewed ex-spokesperson Anna Reed, who casually referred to sex trafficking as a “working holiday”. The same month, The Wireless – a website associated with Radio New Zealand – published a piece called The problems we face are tied to stigma. This is a classic, sanitising line, in which it is argued that objection to prostitution itself – not pimps like Graeme, not actual men, not johns – is responsible for violence in the sex trade.
In October, RNZ pretended to do an “investigation”, which one would expect to be in-depth and critical. The station published a podcast series that was effectively an advertorial for the sex industry at large. Called The Oldest Profession, producers made only token gestures at critique, and these were strategically sandwiched between counteracting claims that the sex trade offers opportunity for women.
It’s a wonderful working life. I’m working on my home and stuff that I’ve always wanted to do to better my life in different ways that working a 9-5 job has always gotten in the way of.
Following the Women’s March in February this year, The Spinoff, a liberal outlet similar to The Wireless, informed women that Coming Out Like a Porn Star is good feminist reading, and that
New Zealand Prostitute’s 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 media defers to NZPC like this almost every time prostitution is mentioned. It is never mentioned that NZPC is government funded to promote existing prostitution policy, and not an independent charity, union or research institute. NZPC likes to offer bogus statistics. In an article announcing the launch of a safehouse to help women exit prostitution, Catherine Healy had the nerve to undermine the project by claiming that only 10 per cent of women need assistance leaving prostitution. The lobby also claims that only 4 per cent of women are coerced into it, even in this culture of grooming. These figures bear no relation to reality.
Student media, who we should expect to be the least inclined toward towing the party line, and furthest removed from the Rupert Murdochs of this world, are perhaps the worst. Salient and Massive editors are some of the most culpable there are, for grooming their own peers.
Searching “prostitution” on the Salient website turns up nothing critical, while “sex work” results in screeds of articles glorifying prostitution. A 2008 piece discretely laments that Student hookers surprisingly hard to find. By 2012, things are becoming less discreet. A female student writes in to “Roxy Heart”, panicking and asking for help, because her friend has just told her that she’s in prostitution. This is how Roxy Heart responds (in the third person):
Roxy would like to start by asking you to take a deep breath and calm the fuck down. Admitting you work as a sex worker is not the same as admitting you have cancer… freaking out like you have is both unfair, and frankly, outright dickish.
Sex work in New Zealand is a legal, and for many workers, an empowering exercise of their autonomy over their body. Sex work can be lucrative, safe, and help bring real happiness to other people.
In 2015, writer ‘Bridget Bones’ claimed in The Working Girl’s Class that
Modern prostitutes are choosing to work in high-class establishments that promote a safe and secure work environment. While these women are selling their bodies, they are doing so in an environment that promotes personal wellbeing above all else. And they’re loving it!
The writer, Bridget Bones, then poses a question.
Why are intelligent, level-headed women to eager to sample the “forbidden fruit” of the sex trade?
For some, the answer is simple. So simple in fact, that it is the first question asked when applying to many brothels. The question: Do you like sex? Nearly all of the women who choose to become escorts do so because they enjoy sex, and are not ashamed to admit it.
Bones says, “The reality of most sex workers is that they CHOOSE to do it.” She nowhere states what on earth gives her the authority to make such a claim, having only spoken to a few so-called “high-class escorts”. The rest of the article is full of similar disingenuous praise, for this industry in which the vast majority of women are raped.
This article was followed up a couple of months later, with a response written by Phiona Baskett, owner of two Wellington escort agencies. As if what was lacking from the Bones piece was the sex industrialist perspective.
“Too often sex work and sex workers are pushed under the rug,” says Baskett, although that does not seem to be the case. Prostitution survivors who don’t accept the sanitising label “sex work” – yes, they are constantly ignored. Otherwise, the media doesn’t seem to want to stop pushing the “sex work” narrative.
If you’re in the sex trade, says Baskett, “You’re not just hot—you’re so hot men will pay hundreds of dollars to sleep with you.” What a ground-breaking thing to say to women.
The same year, Massey university’s student magazine Massive ran Sugaring, Scoring, Sex Work: The New Student Income, advertising the website Seeking Arrangement, which allows “sugar daddies” to find “sugar babies”. On sex work, the article quotes, “There are, of course, less than pleasurable elements of sex work. But aren’t there in every job? Millennials are a practical generation, used to working against adversity.”
A new year and a change of editors at Salient does not change the prioritisation of “sex work” for the magazine, nor at Massive. In 2016, Salient ran an Interview with Scarlett*, stripper/dancer and cam girl, opening with the line “The adult entertainment industry has a long history of stigmatisation and marginality”. (Sorry, don’t believe you). “At school, we were never informed that this could be a potentially viable line of work, or even that people can choose this line of work.” What?
At this point, the interview reads more like a familiar script.
I was interested in camming through the convenience of being able to work from home and choose my own hours, as well as having agency over how I engage with my clients. I enjoy the performance of talking to so many different men craving intimacy.
This kind of talk is in fact getting far too familiar now.
People who haven’t worked in the sex industry are not qualified to comment on how the industry should or shouldn’t be regulated… What the hell does Anne Hathaway know about sex work. They should be advocating for the rights of sex workers, not preventing them from supporting themselves and… their loved ones. To be honest I am sick to death of Emma Watson type of white feminists commenting on feminist issues without really engaging with their own privileges as white, cis, and incredibly wealthy wahine, but also issues that have never affected them. Of course there is still sex trafficking and exploitation within the industry, but this has not been my experience.
So, a woman who has researched trafficking or worked with victims of trafficking but hasn’t been trafficked should sit down and let this “stripper/dancer and cam girl” do the talking, then. Interesting.
2016 saw a real doozy from Massive: Students in the New Zealand Sex Industry: The Land of Tits and Money. Pathetically, the author even admits why he is writing on the topic:
First, Massive is a student magazine. Sensible.
Second, sex sells…
Definitely self-serving, and probably a touch vainglorious too. True, though.
The writer then proceeds to classify women into archetypes in order to titillate readers for his own benefit. I hardly need to relay any of the content: we know the script now – but this was the magazine cover.
This year, according to Salient, Workers face hurdles to sell their services in Christchurch neighbourhood. Women in poverty is not the problem, just the fact that women’s bodies aren’t even now accessible enough. Salient has most recently printed Sex Work and Self Care: The Taboo of the Unrepentant Whore, a sure escalation of this trend and one of the most irresponsible pieces I have seen yet. “I am a whore,” says the author, 23-year-old ‘Min’. No, you’re not, Min. No woman is a whore.
“I perform physical labour for money, just as a plumber or a coal miner may, only with considerably more orgasms,” she says. Concluding, “Sex work has changed my life in so many ways, but mostly it has made me more confident, self-assured, and in charge of my sexuality. It gives me orgasms, money, and endless anecdotes — as of today, I am a terribly happy, healthy whore.”
Even NZPC concedes that prostitution comes with risk and danger, and encourages women to band together. Fat lot of help that is, but it’s acknowledgment. Even they concede that prostitution is not enjoyable for the vast majority of women. “Realistically you will not feel like having a really good time with these clients… Some sex workers feel comfortable faking orgasm and others feel this is expecting too much,” states the New Sex Worker Starter Kit. Salient does not offer even the most conservative of warnings, instead allowing women to believe that “sex work” offers women endless “orgasms”.
I wonder how many young women Salient especially is responsible for luring into prostitution.
In 2015 and 2016 I wrote to Salient asking to write critically on prostitution. They could not be less interested in hearing from feminists or survivors of New Zealand’s sex trade who don’t adopt the term “sex work”. Rae Story, Sabrinna Valisce, Rosalie Batchelor, and Chelsea Geddes have all written testimonies they have struggled to have published, that speak of the sex trade as abusive and exploitative and reveal “sex work” narratives as misleading tripe spun by pimps. The New Zealand media does not care about these perspectives. As Jade* writes,
Over ten years I estimate I have been raped at least 30 times and suffered about 2,500 severely violent attacks. I never got any medical treatment…
After five years I wanted out of the sex industry. Twice I tried to go to school – once when I was eighteen and again when I was nineteen. I wanted to be a youth worker. But I couldn’t study due to drugs and sex work. None of the sex worker advocacy agencies ever offered a contingency to get me out of the sex industry. They supplied lawyers, health checks, lube, condoms and dams but nothing to help me get out.
I asked Valisce what she thought about the accuracy of student magazines constantly leveraging the image of the new, excited “sex worker” to female students.
In the beginning it can feel like a compliment to be wanted and desired, to be seen as attractive, beautiful and sexy. It is easy to feel powerful and in charge. This feeling doesn’t last because it is a false one. We soon learn that it is not us who is desired. It is a body alone. There can be no power, orgasms or sexual healing in the suppressing of one’s own sexuality for the purpose of serving the needs of a stranger. And that is what one must do. No one’s sexuality suits all people so layers of false sexuality must be learned. The glamour wears off and the reality becomes known. Speak to and interview people who have been in it 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5, 10 and 20 years and you will easily discover the shifts in understanding what the sex trade really is. To always present the glamour of the new, fresh young ‘thing’ is to groom a generation into a false idea of empowerment where, in reality, none is to be found.
It’s not new, either. Every time another hip liberal does the “sex work” thing, we are meant to think it’s a hot new ground-breaking thing. It’s not the hot new thing. It’s boring old, every day grooming. Not progressive. Not risqué, not avant garde. This is tragic and predatory.
And I am sorry, Toby Morris, but making a cartoon about sex that ends with pictures of yourself having sex doesn’t help to combat perp culture, my friend. That’s probably why you felt sick publishing it. As Sarah Ditum writes, we need to “teach girls more than consent. Let’s teach them refusal. Non–compliance.” That’s means the story doesn’t end with some guy scoring. That means the story ends with girls who know that they are worth more than their sexualised bodies, or sexual performance. That means it ends with guys quitting all the shit they do, like watching porn, that leads them to objectify women.
I don’t care a damn about “Aotearotica” or what have you, either – as long as women are raped for money in brothels in our country. Forget about it.
What we need to care about is that the New Zealand media is acting like a bunch of dimwitted pimps.
We are drowning in it.