On Adult Forum, New Zealand’s largest forum dedicated to sex trade advertising and reviews, men can speak freely – so freely that they can admit to rape, without consequence. That is what “GC12” did when he published the following:

She didn’t really want to be touched anywhere which I found pretty restrictive. Then she pretty much just laid there during sex with a strained look on her face. Not enjoying it at all. I actually wanted to pull it out and leave early but since I’d paid for half and hour I felt I should get my money’s worth.

“The specialist” also admits to rape, on the same site.

She appeared to be very reserved and shy. Looking at which I tried to start with a conversation just to make the situation comfortable for which got no encouragement or support. She seemed to having no interest in the service except for the sake of money and quickly getting the job done. No encouragement or support during the sex except for attitude and complaining (don’t do it like this, I don’t do that and blah blah blah).

And then there is “Danbo”.

Trouble was she wouldn’t let me touch her boobs (too sensitive) which were her best asset, in fact moved away when I tried to. That killed my mood right there. Wouldn’t allow fingering. Worst bj ever. Totally a cold fish. I mean iv done ugly before but there was just no sexuality there.

That there are plenty more of these flippant admissions on Adult Forum goes without saying – but a #metoo movement to match, of prostituted women speaking about these very incidences from their own perspective, is nowhere to be seen. That is because only one side of the punter-and-prostituted-woman equation actually has the freedom to speak.

The so-called “free speech debate” going on in New Zealand at the moment does not talk about this, because it is taking place over women’s heads. That in turn is because Hannah Gadsby is right – our culture values men’s reputations over and above any injury caused to women. And as second wave U.S. feminist Andrea Dworkin once reminded audiences,

the First Amendment was written by slave owners – and by men who owned white women as chattel. Women were property. And the First Amendment does not grant you a right to freedom of speech – that is not what it does. It says, that once you have spoken the government shouldn’t punish you for it.

Because of principles like this, and the fact that prostitution is legally and culturally legitimised in New Zealand, men are able to make free admissions of raping women in prostitution on online public forums with no fear of consequence, while survivors of the industry have nowhere to bring testimony, seek justice, or push for legislative change. They remain unheard.

Consider too the story of Louise Nicholas. During her childhood growing up near the Ureweras, Nicholas’ parents were involved with Search and Rescue. They kept the trailer for the rescue helicopter at the local police station, where, at the age of 13, Nicholas was first raped by a policeman. He continued to abuse her throughout her teens, with other officers kidnapping and abusing Nicholas when she was seventeen. By 1993, Nicholas brought her testimony to a lawyer and underwent several trials before watching from the stand while a jury declared the perpetrators Not Guilty.

In 2007 it was discovered that Nicholas’ lawyer, detective inspector John Dewer, conspired to bring about the Not Guilty verdict. Dewer was jailed for four and a half years for obstructing the course of justice.

As for the original perpetrator – he had already been granted permanent name suppression and could not be retried. We cannot utter his name.

A Commission of Inquiry following Nicholas’ case revealed a history of sexual assault and cover-up within the New Zealand police: 313 complaints against 222 officers were recorded over a period of 25 years. Louise Nicholas’ story and the revelations it produced; Adult Forum, and the lack of testimony coming from prostitution survivors to match its content – these examples illustrate the way that abusers, the legal system and our wider culture collaborate in the destruction of women’s lives.

Then consider that in 2017, 83% out of a sample of 500 women told the Backbone Collective how New Zealand’s Family Courts treated their abusers as “safe”. It is not surprising then, that in the seven years between 2009 and the end of 2015, 79 women who had already suffered a recorded history of partner violence were killed. Five women have been murdered in prostitution since pimps and punters were decriminalised in 2003. One in three is the oft-quoted figure for the number of women sexually abused in their lifetimes, and this figure is conservative.

Yet culturally and judicially, across the board, it is survivors and feminists who are blamed. The current climate of prostitution normalisation means that survivor and feminist critics of prostitution are the ones considered to be responsible for generating the “stigma” that causes the violence. Nicholas, in her case, was accused of provoking men to abuse her, even by not thinking to lock doors inside the house that were entered before she was assaulted. 233 of the 500 women surveyed by Backbone Collective were wrongly accused of being mentally unstable during Family Court proceedings – proceedings that can last the best part of a decade, and in which many women are also accused of splitting families to the detriment of children. Women are not only silenced, we are blamed.

It is fair to say that given this context, “free speech” is a relatively abstract and far-fetched concept for women. What could the so-called “free speech debate” currently taking place in New Zealand have meant to Louise Nicholas, at thirteen, seventeen, or while describing her abuse on trial for the umpteenth time only to hear another Not Guilty verdict? What could it have meant? What does it mean for women stuck in violent partnerships, or the women spoken of by “GC12”, “the specialist” and “Danbo” above? What does it mean for women who have survived prostitution in New Zealand, and have no forum to share testimony, seek justice, and issue their critiques?

I can say that the current free speech debates mean little to me, as a critic of the sex trade: just running this blog made it impossible for me to continue living in Wellington, the city I was forced to leave in January of 2017. Later that year, I discovered Victoria University’s student magazine Salient’s five-year history of sex trade promotion, with not so much as any critical counterbalance, and took the publication to the Press Council. The Press Council, as an industry body run by media representatives, dismissed my complaint. This year, I published a report on an open letter written by a self-identified “sex worker” asking for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective to be investigated for misuse of funds. My report was deleted without notice by Scoop founder Alistair Thompson – a self-proclaimed defender of the free press. Thompson claimed that he deleted my work not because of its content, but because it supposedly “lacks subtlety” in tone, and because he has deemed me “too combative”, though the e-mail in which he stated this was our first ever correspondence.

This situation is familiar, the one in which women are expected to sit silently and watch men discuss concepts like “free speech” in the abstract, whilst we accept blame for the injuries of male dominance and women’s subjugation. It reminds me of the opening to suffragist Emmeline Packhurst’s autobiography, My Own Story. Pankhurst writes,

The militancy of men, through all the centuries, has drenched the world with blood, and for these deeds of horror and destruction men have been rewarded with monuments, with great songs and epics. The militancy of women has harmed no human life save the lives of those who fought the battle of righteousness. Time alone will reveal what reward will be allotted to the women.

The final paragraphs of Pankhurst’s book were written in 1914,

when the armies of every great power in Europe were being mobilised for savage, unsparing, barbarous warfare – against one another, against small and unaggressive nations, against helpless women and children, against civilisation itself. How mild, by comparison with the despatches in the daily newspapers, will seem this chronicle of women’s militant struggle against political and social injustice in one small corner of Europe.

For the actions she took to make the world better for women, it was Pankhurst who was deemed the militant, the menace, the danger. In New Zealand today, men, granted the entitlement to pimp and purchase women in prostitution, are granted another right by default: the right to freely relay the titillations and disappointments of committing rape, from their perspective. Women are deemed too “radical” if they issue a challenge, and women in the industry – mostly poor, mostly with a history of homelessness and prior sexual abuse – are kept largely silent through a combination of poverty, laws and cultural values protecting their perpetrators over themselves, and the sexual terrorism itself.

This sexual terrorism is cyclical. Child abuse has more than once been called a “boot camp” for prostitution – at the same time, the Backbone Collective’s report on child abuse Seen and Not Heard shows that for 54% of abusive fathers, pornography is a factor in the abuse of their children. Pornography is of course little more than filmed prostitution, a kind of media that both depicts and incites violence. To illustrate: popular scenes today involve vaginal, anal and oral penetration by mutliple men at once; gagging, choking, bukkake – the list goes on. Gonzo porn now involves acts like “rosebudding”: anal penetration to the point of rectal prolapse. These acts occur while women are being called cunts, whores and bitches – and while this industry stays protected in the name of “free speech”.

Not only are prostitution and pornography protected, given the profit motive, they are actively normalised. Publishers like Bauer Media profit from pornography whilst selling complementary grooming literature in the form of magazines like Dolly and Cosmopolitan to young girls. Eating disorders have long been correlated with the normalisation of objectifying media, which exists everywhere from the sports to music to fashion industries, and which originates in porn and prostitution. Publications from Salient to The New Zealand Herald have tremendous license when it comes to objectification.

 

Free speech pundits should take an interest in widespread objectification of women and its origins in pornography and prostitution, even if they only engage in the debate for philosophical reasons – because pornography strikes at the heart of the free speech debate. That is because pornography – and its raping, choking, slapping and slurs – constitutes violence and media simultaneously. Yet there is little to no interest, and the consequence of this is that the dehumanisation continues, its normalisation continues, and women’s voices continue to be suppressed both in the justice system and public discourse.

Another current manifestation of women’s repression for the sake of male entitlements – as if we should need another – comes in the form of gender identity politics. Today, part of the reason why “free speech” debates are of such renewed interest – even if male commentators neglect to mention or properly examine this factor – is because the threshold between free speech and “hate speech” for women has reached an all time low. The rise of gender identity politics, with its slogan “transwomen are women” – and the advent of the lesbian-identified male and the “female penis” – mean that at present, women who assert that biological sex is real and immutable are already being perceived as engaging in “hate speech”. The slur “TERF” is used to identify these women, falsely accuse them of bigotry and mark them as fair game for aggressive retaliation.

This new threshold – by definition, impossible to transcend – requires constant policing. So it is the new order imposed by gender identity proponents that is responsible for the emergence of organisational policies and ambassadors promoting so-called “safe spaces”. This language of “safety” is Orwellian, because what we are really witnessing is the rise of a whole new attack on women’s rights as a sex class – on our freedom of speech, but more to the point, our safety. As Dworkin said: “Freedom of speech for women begins with an integrity of the body.”

The patriarchal nature of these millennial politics are easy to see: it is women who are being smeared, threatened, no-platformed, physically abused and rendered unemployed because of their insistence that biological sex is real and immutable. It is women who most need to defend this reality, because it is women who rely most on sex-based protections. It is also women’s spaces being targeted – safehouses, midwives organisations, sports, and women-only gyms – nobody is going after the All Blacks for being “trans exclusionary.”

The women who are dealing with this new assault most directly and most immediately are lesbians, who are now deemed bigots and “TERFs” for refusing to date males who say they are women. This includes women involved with our own New Zealand liberal political parties.

These moves cannot be written of as fringe extremism: the Human Rights Commission has been recently praised by ex-National Minister Wayne Mapp for acting as if laws which would penalise women’s organisations who make judgments based on sex are already in place, when they are not. The Green Party is pushing to make sex change declarations a simple, one-step process – nothing more than a visit to a Justice of the Peace. It is admirable, in some ways, to see a very pregnant Minister for Women openly deny biological sex – but she simply will not be able to maintain this line consistently. The low threshold for hate speech being imposed on women simply means that women can be targeted whenever we fall out of favour.

It is obscene that the debates on free speech and hate speech are taking place without acknowledgement of the rise of and normalisation of the slur “TERF”, and without acknowledgement of the context of this slur, the way it is used, and the threat posed to women’s safety, livelihoods, and rights as women to organise, assemble, seek refuge and participate politically – let alone to have freedom of “speech” as a form of expression independent of more immediate concerns.

To have a voice, yet not to acknowledge this situation, not to be concerned about it – to condone it – is to do no better than men in power did to the suffragists at the turn of the twentieth century; did to the anti-porn feminists like Dworkin, working with survivors at the turn of the twenty first, or did to Louise Nicholas as she faced trial after trial in search of justice.

Whether or not free speech commentators are interested in women, or think our concerns central or marginal, they should also consider this: the only way to make sense of these new, or reawakened so-called ‘debates’, and not to be left bewildered by them, is to understand patriarchy – and patriarchy not only as one form of power, but as central to our social order.

Attributing the present-day breakdown of civil discourse to cosmopolitanism mixed with the internet is simply not good enough. Not if you believe in the rights of women like Louise Nicholas, or the members of the Backbone Collective, prostitution survivors, or young lesbians who join campus queer groups only to have the gaslighting experience of their lives. These women must have a say in the shaping of our society. If you understand that, and you have a platform, then you need to do better, to think deeper, and to read the work of those feminists you have been avoiding – the feminists who examine what exactly happened to civil discourse, if such a thing ever existed.

Throughout these free speech debates, we should keep in mind these words of Dworkin’s – whilst knowing without doubt that she was advocating for women. “They have convinced many of us that the standard for speech is what I would call a Repulsion Standard,” Dworkin said. “That is to say, we find the most repulsive person in the society and we defend them.

“I say we find the most powerless people in the society – and we defend them.”

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