When I began university as an undergraduate, in 2003, I was far from calling myself a feminist. Like many New Zealand school leavers, I had heartfelt but fledgling convictions and, feeling poorly informed, scarce confidence in them. For me, resistance meant making posters targeting the beauty industry that I never pasted anywhere, and fantasising with my friend about throwing eggs at a billboard on the local shopping mall that advertised cosmetic surgery with the line Be all you can be. I didn’t feel I had the voice to defend these actions, so I didn’t do them. It angered me that these industries could profit from instilling shame in girls and women and in me, leaving us to do little but starve ourselves in response.
The misogynists I spent my high school years with, who also sought to instill me with shame at every opportunity, managed to go under my rage radar. I took their behaviour for granted. I never questioned that it was inevitable that boys were going to follow me home from my job, toot and shout at me from cars when I walked home from school, vocally imagine me re-enacting porn scenes, call me a wench, make oral sex gestures at me across the room in class, or pressure me to pash them at parties. I swallowed the justification that “boys will be boys”, and simply shrunk myself to fit the little space that was left after they had finished taking up everything to which they were apparently naturally entitled.
By eighteen, I was enrolled for university. I was nervous, believing that most other first year students would be far smarter, sexier and generally ahead in life than me – but I was also excited. Studying was going to transform my sense of shame, expand my shrunken self and offer me the tools to help me mobilise the social conscience I carried so uneasily. Universities have a statutory role to do just that, and I was hungry for it. It embarrassed me that I still participated in World Vision 40-hour famines, just because I didn’t have any better ideas about how to respond to social problems as pressing as global poverty; it embarrassed me as much as being called a “wench” at school embarrassed me. I felt childish, but believed that at university, I would grow up.
Over the three years of my Bachelor of Arts degree, I was gradually introduced to theories of postmodernism and cultural relativism. In hindsight, it is actually as though these paradigms are designed to disperse and dissipate the energy trapped inside a restless social conscience. In art history, which was my major, discussions of “women’s art” tended to be highly sexualised – women make art about “the body” – as though we are cadavers, and as though the association of man to mind and woman to body is avant-garde and not the oldest sexist dichotomy there is. Such misogyny is difficult to oppose, without alternate frames of reference, and seeking those is difficult when you are fed the idea that there is no truth, because “truth” is relative and mythical. By the time I came out of university, I was disoriented, confused about where “culture” ended and human rights began, none the wiser about feminism, and still deeply ashamed.
My experience studying at Victoria University’s education faculty in 2011 is what first truly politicised me. Signing up to study in order to take responsibility for classroom after classroom full of children made my bullshit radar much more sensitive: I expected to be trained to meet that responsibility and wasn’t going to accept any less. Through that lens, it was easy to see that the university in its current form is in fact not a conscience-driven institution at all, but a neoliberal one. I saw how the way that literacy is taught to student teachers, for instance, is not only incidentially slow to fix the literacy gap in our country, or cumbersome; on closer inspection, the theories and methods with which the university operates are actually part of the reason we have a literacy gap in the first place. I saw how the university is not only laissez-faire in offering solutions to social problems, but that it is part of the system that manufactures, maintains and exacerbates these problems.
By 2013 I met Pala Molisa, a ni-Vanuatu academic at Victoria University’s business school whose work is profoundly influenced by the feminism of his mother, Grace Molisa. My eyes were opened to a body of literature I was never introduced to at university: feminist literature. Real, feminist literature that helped me understand the issues that plagued my conscience, like global poverty, which is not by accident largely a women’s burden; and the predatory beauty industry practices I always loathed. It also helped me dig further to recognise and confront the ways I was treated by my peers in adolescence, and the shame that produced. It taught me how that behaviour was connected to the porn addictions that I was aware of, but took for granted – and how this addiction fuels an industry that affects the women inside it in worse ways than it did me.
I have seen many a student stop Molisa on the street to thank him for his work as a lecturer and tutor, and he is an academic of which Victoria University should be proud. He is the exception to the rule in New Zealand, where universities are anything but feminist institutions.
By 2016 I started to see that what was true of the literacy gap is also true of misogyny: the university is not just a bit “slow” to contribute to addressing systemic crises and injustice, it is engaged in bonda fide promotion of the mechanisms that fuel both. This makes sense wherever the predominant narratives and explanations for culture and social norms are relativist and postmodern, because where the grounds for objecting to injustice are shaky it cannot be readily resisted. If women cannot resist, default misogyny will prevail, and it will be promoted, because that is where the profit and the overwhelming pressure is.
The campus sex trade promotion engaged in by outlets like Salient and Massive obviously does not begin with student contributors, who would not be able to repetitively publish the same perspectives on prostitution year upon year if these views did not have an originating source. That source is certainly not women in prostitution, who are overwhelmingly poor, disproportionately brown, and wield no influence over media and certainly not in shaping which narratives become commonplace. The sex trade lobby though, waits at every turn to make mascots of women who will parrot the notion that “women love sex work” – and student media, which loves to present itself as dangerous and risqué, is happy to take the cue.
Student magazines often attribute responsibility for sex trade promotion to guest editing women’s or “feminist” or “queer” groups and associations on campus. These groups in turn follow the lead of Gender Studies departments, as well as the sex trade lobby itself. The grassroots-sounding New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) is the New Zealand branch of an international sex trade lobby that operates as the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) and is the organisation behind the red umbrella logo. It is also responsible for normalising the phrase “sex workers”, which it admits encapsulates the pimps involved in running this lobby, and it encourages women to embrace the term “whore”, a tactic that Salient obediently followed through with in 2017. NZPC maintains close contact with many student groups and magazines, and in 2010 was found actively recruiting Chinese students on Auckland University campus with its Chinese language pamphlet Working in New Zealand.
As for Gender Studies departments: these usurped Women’s Studies late last century, as part of the backlash against second wave women’s liberation struggle. Many feminists have written about this backlash, the book The Sexual Liberals and the Attack on Feminism a notable anthology of records and perspectives on it. One local product of this misogynist backlash is NZPC programmes coordinator Calum Bennachie. A Gender Studies “academic”, Bennachie actually singled out Sheila Jeffreys, one of the authors in the Sexual Liberals anthology, in a 2010 article published in the NSWP newsletter. The article, titled Their Words Are Killing Us, uses Jeffreys as an example of the kind of feminist writer who is actually directly responsible for causing the violence in prostitution, since describing its exploitative nature supposedly generates the so-called “stigma” that in turn leads to violence. Few better examples can be found of how Gender Studies academics are actually involved in developing the doublethink of pro-prostitution, anti-feminist backlash.
In New Zealand, the complementary ideas that women can become responsible for violence just through perceiving prostitution as exploitation, while punters are merely lonely men who women in prostitution “choose” to allow to fuck them, are institutionalised and mainstream. NZPC promotes these idea with the help of government funding, university backing, and representation in both tabloid and leftist print, radio and digital media. It is an irony that the position that “women choose sex work” has become so boringly ordinary whilst still being presented as a “marginalised” perspective every time. You can find all number of articles in leftist media, tabloid media, university papers and journals, radio, magazines, that make a claim that “as a sex worker my voice is marginalised”. Please.
Full and comprehensive accounts from women who call themselves prostitution survivors, because they reject prostitution as either “sex” or “work”, are completely lacking. Where can we read or hear the voices of women who feel lucky to have got out of prostitution while they could, or still struggle to exit, without their words being steamrolled or twisted or undermined for industry’s sake? Only in the work of the feminists who men like Bennachie actively rail against and seek to censor and have no-platformed.
Really – can nobody see what is going on here?
It should go without saying that university research should not be bias toward industry and industry slogans. As long as academics favour industry bodies, they will alienate those actually prepared to provide the critical and conscience-driven accounts of profit-driven ideologies that universities have a statutory role to seek out. Academics who participate in reinforcing the NSWP’s “sex work is work” party line contribute to the marginalisation of survivors, and are in direct breach of their reponsibilities as intellectuals. Despite this, one consequence of the full decriminalisation, and therefore the legitimisation, of prostitution in New Zealand is that academic sex trade lobbyists are now a dime a dozen.
All of New Zealand’s major universities host pro-sex trade academics. Bridie Sweetman is a legal advisor for NZPC, and works alongside Gillian Abel, Lisa Fitzgerald, and Cheryl Brunton who generate pro-industry research at Otago University. Irene de Haan works with Natalie Thorburn at Auckland University on research that would be critical, if it did not call prostituted children “child sex workers” to promote an ultimately pro-sex trade stance – a stance Thorburn also takes to her role as Women’s Refuge policy advisor. Also at Auckland University, Madeline V. Henry works alongside Panteà Farvid, whose wordy and tangled views on prostitution include the notion that being a supporter of this hypercapitalist industry is “Marxist”.
Farvid recently guest-edited an entirely one-sided “sex work” issue of the Women’s Studies Journal. Her word salad editorial, while arguing that sex trade advocates are Marxists even though prostitution commodifies sex, also states that the industry is not sexist, even while it is “gendered” and allows punters’ behaviour to go under the radar; that it involves “asymmetries” of power, but is not abusive, and that it is somehow “disruptive” in a feminist sense because it makes the universal sexual and economic exploitation of women under patriarchy “more transparent”. This issue, which made no attempt at balance, let alone conscience-driven critique – also featured several contributions from NZPC, alongside Polly Stupples from Victoria University’s Geography department. Stupples’ article, about prostitution in Vanuatu and its prevalence, is titled “’I stap long blad’ (‘It’s in the blood’)”.
In her essay Prostitution and the New Slavery, published by Spinifex Press, Vednita Carter critiques such essentialist, sexist and racist explanations for why most prostituted women are women of colour. “Racist stereotypes in the mainstream media and porn portray Black women as wild animals,” she writes, “who are ready for any kind of sex, anytime, with anybody.”
Everything about African-American women is sexualised in pornography, even our efforts to win civil rights for our people. Another porn magazine ‘quotes’ a Black woman saying, ‘Black power comes in many forms, this is my favourite one: a big juicy chocolate jism stick totally filling my mouth.’
As Carter states, it is no woman’s inborn destiny to be sold as “brown sugar”, “black meat”, “black bitch” or “black ass” – to name a few tame examples of how pimps and punters refer to women of colour. As both Angela Davis and Catherine MacKinnon have pointed out, the idea of black women having innate, irrepressible, animalistic sex drives is typical to narratives promoting slavery based on both race and on sex – by now, any academic who supports the idea of prostitution as destiny should see female students and feminist groups on campus boycotting lectures.
Alongside Stupples, Victoria University was also the stomping ground of Bennachie, NZPC’s aforementioned programmes coordinator, who is currently involved in a sex trade lobby and academic collaboration geared openly and explicitly toward sanitising language and discussion around sex trafficking. Lynzi Armstrong, also from Victoria University, demonstrates how this sanitisation works in Farvid’s “sex work” journal: the circumstances in which trafficked women are exploited get glossed over with the language of “migrant sex work”. So-called “migrant sex workers” are unfairly disadvantaged in New Zealand. This is not because they are lured overseas, often from marginalised communities, often under false pretences, often trapped through debt bondage, passport confiscation and threats of deportation and then bribed into enduring long hours of assault whilst pimps keep the money. No. They are unfairly disadvantaged because our laws, which still criminalise the prostituting of women on temporary visas, unfairly restrict the opportunities foreign women have to travel across the world in order to be fucked by the New Zealand boy racers, abusive husbands, farmers, rugbyheads, hipsters and corporate wankers who are so clearly internationally sought after.
Armstrong is now managing a project with assistance from Cherida Fraser, another pro-sex trade academic associated directly with NZPC, who is based at Victoria University. Her callout for sex trade research participants (predictably, for “sex workers” to interview), recently posted on Facebook, was decorated with the NSWP red umbrella logo. This exemplifies the current academic landscape with regards to prostitution, and the engagement I had online with Fraser was also illustrative of a typical studied ignorance and disregard both for prostitution survivors and the university’s critic and conscience role among sex trade academics today.
Nothing exemplifies this disregard, though, quite as clearly as this testimony from April 2016, which was published on social media by a woman who had just returned home from a shift in an Auckland brothel that she, and every other woman she knew there, hated being stuck in.
So me and my bestie got booked by a woman tonight. She said she worked in corrections (sex offender stuff) and that she used to manage a brothel, and that she’s written about prostitution for the uni (I assume auckland uni) and that she considers herself a feminist but is pro-porn and pro-prostitution. I did not mention my position on the topic, she booked us for 3 hours. Words cannot describe the level of awkward.
This climate also replicates another dynamic that campus feminism simultaneously claims to abhor: the demonisation of women in the face of explicitly sanctioned male sexual entitlement. When universities hand out handcuffs during “Sex Week”, publish accounts of women loving “sex work” in student media, publish papers on how prostitution is “in the blood” of indigenous women, and host seminars on the question of just how much women love pornography, this amounts to a great deal of pressure on female students to step up and sexually peform. When they do respond accordingly – like when a 30-year-old woman e-mailed her lecturer with an invitation to sex in Bali in 2016 – guess who does face consequences? The woman in question was suspended from Auckland University.
Remind me again how we are living in a “postfeminist milieu”? Because while this student was suspended, NZPC faced no consequences for trying to recruit Chinese students on campus; Carwyn Walsh was not suspended for publishing an image of a woman being raped from behind on the cover of Massive; Bennachie’s academic career is not affected at all by the fact that he has spent years disseminating booklets to women through NZPC that instruct them on how to tolerate demand for anal penetration, and to yell “FIRE” if someone tries to rape them in the back of a car. These men remain unscathed despite their blatant promotion of abuse, whilst a woman without any power to abuse is banished for sending a forward e-mail. This, incidentally, is the same double standard we see in jurisdictions where women in prostitution are criminalised but pimps and punters are not; the same dynamic results from a fully decriminalised sex trade that also does nothing to address male power to victimise and assault. In New Zealand, under a policy of full decriminalisation that normalises prostitution, university academics act like a pimp lobby, whilst females who do nothing but comply with their messages are still found guilty.
This double standard is not only woman-hating, it is contrary to the university’s statutory obligations. Academic research is not supposed to be bias toward any industry – academic research should not favour industry bodies or sport industry logos. It would not be acceptable for a human geography academic to publish a call for oil industrialist interviewees decorated with the British Petroleum logo; or for an anthropologist to seek fashion industry interviewees through a callout covered in Nike ticks. Neither of these would attract the voices of those who carry a weighty testimony that speaks to violence, exploitation and devastation. Equally, it is totally inappropriate to see academics doing call outs for interviewees in prostitution that promote the red umbrella. This is not only sexist and biased, it is corrupt.
It is time that students pushed back. Students have a history of protest because students have a role to play in social change: critical thinking should be based on looking at the impacts that dominant ideologies have on those who might be negatively affected by them. Once it is clear that a particular ideology serves a few at the expense of many who are wounded by it and by its implementation, that ideology needs to be challenged by all who can see its harm, until it is changed. This is the kind of awareness that universities should encourage students to value and engage – this is their role.
Given the corporatisation of universities, of which sex trade academics are one expression, students cannot rely on waged staff to feed and mobilise their consciences nowadays – it will not happen. Today, students need to take it upon themselves to use the resources available to them to think critically and from the conscience. It is up to students to take initiative in actively protesting the promotion of the sex trade going on in their university: the ideological and industrial promotion, and the direct promotion to female students of getting fucked for money as a viable career option. No female student will be able to undo the effects of being violently raped by a punter or a pimp, once it has happened; nor will she be able to hold the university that made the industry appeal to her accountable after the fact. Students must begin speaking out and organising collective resistance now, before more students take the bait that is so prevalent on campus. In a word, it is time for students to tell sex trade academics: Time’s Up.