How New Zealand's sex trade lobby keeps a gag on feminism

The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) is New Zealand’s sex trade lobby. It was established in the 1980s as a group of nine women who gathered to protect themselves from the abuses of pimps, johns, police officers, and the spread AIDs. Its members also worked to advocate for law change in the interests of prostituted women, and this eventually lead to the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, which fully decriminalised New Zealand’s sex trade.

Turns out decriminalising the pimping and purchase of women was not in our interests, as Sabrinna Valisce has eloquently explained, despite being largely ignored by media.

Today, NZPC is a different beast than it was in the 1980s. It is fully funded by the government Ministry of Health and tied in to the global sex trade lobby, the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). It no longer seeks to protect women in prostitution first and foremost – it runs several drop-in centres and promotes “sex work” ideology on the basis of a commitment to full decriminalisation, the “New Zealand Model” of prostitution legislation.

To advocate this model, NZPC spokespeople routinely minimise violence and exploitation in prostitution. In 2016, one spokesperson referred to sex trafficking as a “working holiday” on Radio New Zealand. National coordinator Catherine Healy claimed that only ten per cent of women want to leave the sex trade when a safehouse opened earlier this year; and community liaison Ahi Wi-Hongi has claimed that only four per cent of women in prostitution are coerced – when this figure comes from a survey showing that 4% are kidnapped.

As part of this effort to minimise violence in the sex trade, NZPC needs to suppress any exposure of sex trade violence from prostituted women themselves. Kate*, a New Zealand based survivor, says that NZPC “was set up with the goal of introducing full decriminalisation to New Zealand, and they are very hostile to any prostituted woman who might question whether this was in fact in our best interests.”

Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s equivalent of NZPC, demonstrated last year the extent to which sex trade lobbyists are willing to go to stamp out critiques from survivors. They tried to shut down and intervene in book launches and readings for Prostitution Narratives, a book of testimonies written by women now exited from prostitution, including one New Zealander.

Taking away platforms from people who amplify the voices of survivors is also key to ensuring that the violence in prostitution does not come to light and lead to increased opposition to the pimping and purchase of women.

In New Zealand, it is NZPC programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie who most actively endorses this smearing and deplatforming of feminists.

In 2003, when the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was being debated, Melissa Farley was one academic who offered an important, critical perspective. She produced a preliminary report on prostitution in New Zealand, showing that at least 72% of interview respondents wanted to exit prostitution, 22% were internationally trafficked and that racism was apparent through the overrepresentation of Māori women.

In response, Bennachie filed a complaint against Farley with the American Psychological Association (APA). They never responded or took him seriously – so he circulated his complaint all over the internet, in effort to undermine Farley.

NZPC is currently picking on myself and Pala Molisa, a Pacific academic and lecturer at Victoria University, to suppress critiques of prostitution and create public demonstration of the consequences of speaking out. Community liaison Ahi Wi-Hongi is following Bennachie’s lead, targeting women’s liberationists who are critical of both prostitution and gender individualism (the idea that males can “be” women – these two critical positions often go together).

In October last year, Wi-Hongi published a photograph of myself online (under the pseudonym ‘Neon Sugar’), asking his followers to participate in having me fired from work. I resigned for workplace bullying two months later, after a being confronted by a manager clearly being peer pressured, who also took two counts of unjustified disciplinary action and left an e-mail trail showing collaboration with lobby groups. By November, I was also banned from a community art event, and Wi-Hongi had published a pact online against me. He also threatened Molisa’s job.

More recently, the bullying has escalated again. Wi-Hongi has now published Molisa’s photograph with the same kind of “let’s get ‘em” rallying cry to his followers, who started making excited plans to turn up at Molisa’s workplace as an “angry IRL mob”.

August 17 - Protest classes

To help rile the mob, Wi-Hongi has made claims that both Molisa and I are “sexually repressed creeps” and Christians who have “sadist sexual fantasies about trans women raping people”. It is ironic to hear myself described as a perverse creep by the same group of people planning to send their own poo to my mother. Women’s Liberation Radio News broadcaster Thistle Pettersen knows all too well the sincerity of this threat, having been the recipient of such a package after she broadcasted an interview with Sheila Jeffreys.

Jeffreys is the author of the book The Idea of Prostitution. The sex trade lobby despise her, because she understands prostitution as an industry that allows men to abuse economic advantage to purchase access to women’s bodies, thereby both exploiting and perpetuating women’s subordination.

In 2010, Bennachie published an article in the NSWP newsletter where he made his hatred for Jeffreys and other feminist abolitionists as explicit as possible. The article was called Their Words Are Killing Us, and cited Jeffreys, Andrea Dworkin (a prostitution survivor who wrote Pornography: Men Possessing Women) alongside the aforementioned Farley and Janice Raymond as examples of women responsible for the “verbal violence” that causes rape and murder in the sex trade. To add injury to insult, at the time the article was published, the NSWP’s vice-president was Alejandra Gil – a now convicted sex trafficker who recommends that women in prostitution call themselves “whores” for the sake of “sex work” advocacy (we can see this is working, just by consulting media outlets like Salient).

In framing feminists as responsible for the violence pimps and johns commit, and to make us identifiable to lobbyists, Bennachie creates a caricature. He notes how Raymond considers prostitution “rape that’s paid for”, since the whole purpose of paying for sexual access to women’s bodies is to bypass the question of actual sexual consent. Bennachie claims that women exposed to such critiques “are likely to doubt their self-worth and their self-agency, and may put themselves in the position of victim, thus making it more likely they will become victims of violence.” A little far fetched, to say the least.

Interestingly, these “opinions” about prostitution as commercialised rape are shared by many women who have survived prostitution in New Zealand and elsewhere. Rachel Moran, Vednita Carter, Simone Watson, Sabrinna Valisce, the contributors to Prostitution Narratives – survivors all over the world run and support abolitionist groups, and call prostitution “commercialised rape”. These women cannot speak out without fear of reprisal, however – as men like Bennachie claim it is their own voices that “actively encourage violence against sex workers”. Bennachie claims these women are worse than johns, saying:

Taken together, the consequences of this verbal violence by abolitionist groups makes a major contribution to the abuse of sex workers globally, who are paying the ‘psychic tax’. These people 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. In fact they are worse, because they justify their violence as an act of caring.

We must challenge them, their language, and their publications at every opportunity, reveal their language of hate for what it is, and counter them with evidence-based facts that prove their claims to be false.

In Their Words Are Killing Us, Bennachie illustrates how NZPC endorses the targeting of feminists like like Farley, Jeffreys, Pettersen, Molisa and myself. Molisa dedicated his academic paper Accounting for Pornography, Prostitution and Patriarchy, to Andrea Dworkin – a feminist on Bennachie’s blacklist. Speaking out about prostitution using the kind of language she did has made us both sex trade lobby targets – people who Bennachie insists employ a “language of hate” that needs to be challenged “at every opportunity”.

One thing that should outrage any New Zealander bearing witness to all of this, other than the fact that it keeps women abused, is that it is taxpayer funded activity. The Ministry of Health funds the NZPC to do advocacy work – and because NZPC is a sex trade lobby, this is exactly what that “advocacy” looks like. Promoting the “New Zealand model” of a fully decriminalised sex trade means painting pimps and johns as entrepreneurs and clients – and stamping out the voices of women in the sex trade who would say otherwise, as well as feminists who seek to amplify their voices.

According to a 2008 report, the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), which fully decriminalised prostitution, is due for review next year. If this endorsed bullying by NZPC proves anything, it is that the recommendation for a PRA review needs to be carried out. The review should look at NZPC governance and routine bullying, but also at how the advocacy of full decriminalisation of prostitution encourages the minimisation – and normalisation – of harm in the sex trade, and so makes the silencing of survivors and feminists inevitable. The New Zealand Model keeps women not only exploited and violated – but gagged.

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4 thoughts on “How New Zealand's sex trade lobby keeps a gag on feminism”

  1. When I first began blogging about my experiences as a trafficked and exploited teen, I was shocked at the vitriol from the “paid sex” racketeers. After all, I’m no Andrea Dworkin; I’m just an old lady with some lived experience. Then I continued to be shocked at the continuing waves of trolling over the years, as a result of one or two posts having been quoted by other abolitionists. I now know that if someone pings one of “those” posts, I can expect a mini barrage of nasty comments wherever my quote ends up. I’m now used to it, but I still shake my head when some “entrepreneur” tries to make a case that this girl who used to be me, somehow “chose” to be drugged and dragged into a dark basement, and starved, et cetera. They must be very twisted in the head….

  2. “Taken together, the consequences of this verbal violence by abolitionist groups makes a major contribution to the abuse of sex workers globally, who are paying the ‘psychic tax’. These people 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. In fact they are worse, because they justify their violence as an act of caring.”

    How does anyone believe this shit unless it’s convenient for them to do so? Makes me so angry.

  3. Thanks so much for speaking truth to power. I as an exited woman in England have been writing and speaking out for abolition and an understanding of complex trauma after being in the sex trade. All the time the sex trade lobby attacks my work on many levels, as it does internationally to most exited women who are brilliant campaigners. They tend to mentally abuse us especially by using that we have extreme trauma to say we cannot speak or know our own truths. They often use that many of us come childhood abuse, to spread the lie that we cannot know what is “just sex “, and not abuse. Of course, they claim our experiences are biased and properly were not legal or so-called underground. I have told I was never prostituted coz I am middle-class and white – told if was so bad, then why did I not buy my way out. I have been told that coz I have fragmented memories from years of rapes, tortures and near-death experiences – that I am lying or just attention seeking. The sex trade lobby are determined to silence exited women by any means – for it their belief that we should not exist, for either we should dead or too mentally ill to speak our truths.

    1. It’s an isolating feeling, for sure. An uphill battle against a wall of angry shouting. It’s exhausting. That’s what they’re counting on: that they will shout us down, silence us, discredit and gaslight us. They prey upon the abused and mentally ill, then mock us and say we’re deluded.

      No! Our voices must continue stronger and united, if not for us, then for our daughters’ generation, because those who would normalize prostitution would love to bully us into silence so that they can have free rein to shame the next generation into selling themselves.

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