Sex workers disagree over bank’s principled stand

Kiwibank's initial plans to blacklist the adult entertainment industry ran into opposition from the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, but the bank is being urged to stick to its guns by Wahine Toa Rising - a new trans-Tasman group set up by ex-sex workers. Yvonne van Dongen reports

Last month Kiwibank rolled out a "responsible banking policy" stating that it would no longer deal with any companies involved in the extraction, production or manufacture of coal, oil and gas and blacklisting the adult entertainment industry, casinos, military grade weapons, synthetic drugs, palm oil, tobacco and predatory lending.

But after representations from the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, Kiwibank agreed to work with strip clubs and brothels that could demonstrate good practice. The NZPC argued that banning brothel owners would have a flow-on effect to the people who worked for them.

Since then, Wahine Toa Rising has written to Kiwibank applauding its initial commitment to support vulnerable women and children by refusing to engage with "the sex trade profiteers” and asking them to reconsider. Kiwibank is still considering its response to WTR.

Prior to Covid-19, WTR spokeswoman Ally Marie Diamond planned to come to New Zealand to talk to sex trade survivors as well as the NZPC.

“I believe NZPC looks after the small minority of women who choose to be 'sex workers' and not the profiteers and that is great. However, WTR is here to support the majority of vulnerable women and young people who are massively overrepresented in the sex trade in New Zealand."

Wahine Toa Rising spokeswoman Ally Marie Diamond. Photo: Supplied

Diamond says WTR has many contacts in New Zealand as well as an online private survivors' network for women in and out of the trade.

Diamond is a 48-year-old New Zealander of Māori Pasifika descent, now living in Queensland, who with other former sex workers, including madams, have banded together to form this trans-Tasman organisation. WTR campaigns for what is known as the Nordic model of prostitution (aka the equality model). This model decriminalises those prostituted, provides services to help them exit, and makes the buying of people for sex a criminal offence.

On behalf of WTR, Diamond has spoken against bills promoting full decriminalisation of the sex trade, as practised in New Zealand, at the South Australian and Northern Territory parliaments late last year. South Australia rejected this option; Northern Territory accepted it. Meanwhile, Queensland and Victoria are also considering full decriminalisation.

Diamond’s argument, and that of many feminists, is that the sex trade is not work, but a sustained attack on vulnerable women and girls.

“Sex work is a glorified term for paid rape. The men I had sex with never paid me for my time or company. They paid to penetrate me in every single hole they could find, even when I said no. Enduring this 20 times or more a day is not work. What these men did was abusive even if they didn’t realise it. Sex work corroded my mind, my body, my soul. It’s been years since I was in the trade but even today I fight to survive, to live, to feel worthy, to be loved, to dream.

“Decriminalising brothel owners and sex buyers is like saying decriminalising murder will make it happen less often, or decriminalising rape will make it occur less frequently. It is as ridiculous as it sounds.”

Like the majority of sex workers, Diamond was sexually abused as a child. In her case it was by relatives who belonged to a church where sexual abuse of girls and boys “seemed to be an epidemic”. She says she learned from an early age that all she could expect was to be abused by men. Diamond entered the industry in 1993 when she was 16 and left when she fled New Zealand for Australia in 2000. By then she says she had a personal story that would make Fifty Shades of Grey read like a fairytale.

Diamond is disappointed that Northern Territory will follow the New Zealand model but encouraged that South Australia is currently drafting legislation based on the Nordic one. This model currently operates in Sweden, Northern Ireland, Ireland, France, Canada, Israel, Norway, and Iceland. In 2014 the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation, recommended that all member states implement this model.

New Zealand has gone down a different path. In 2003, New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalise prostitution. That is, to repeal all laws or provisions against prostitution.

A third model is legalisation, where the activities involved in the trade are legalised, with often specific regulations imposed, as occurs in Senegal, Victoria and Queensland, the Netherlands and Germany.

But campaigners for the Nordic model see some hope in the Australian outcome. At least the different results in two states in the same country will provide a good test case for both models, says Lisa Olsson, a Swedish human rights lawyer living in Australia.

In Sweden the Greens and feminists led the charge for the Nordic model after extensive research arguing that prostitution is a system of gender inequality where rich men exploit vulnerable women.

The popular image of the young white woman turning tricks while she’s doing a degree is the exception, says Olsson. Mostly the trade is made up of poor women with a history of sexual abuse who experience high levels of PTSD and often violence from their clients. “You can’t decriminalise your way out of the inherent violent nature of this trade,” she says.

Olsson says Germany has experienced rapid growth in prostitution and trafficking. Also, in both the Netherlands and Germany, organised crime kept control of the industry. Meanwhile, a Swedish government report noted that organised criminal groups perceived the country as a bad market and struggled to establish themselves there.

Olsson knows some sex workers reject the analysis of the woman as victim and acknowledges that this might not be the case for everyone. But with a higher demand for sexual services (which happens with decriminalisation/legalisation), sex trafficking grows rapidly, and trafficked people are definitely victims.

“Legalising and decriminalising prostitution leads to more human trafficking and worse conditions for everyone in the sex industry as prices go down and organised crime gets stronger.

“Brothels and pimping bring in a lot of money to organised crime, who are the real owners of most brothels.”

This is not the case here, says the national co-ordinator of the NZPC, Dame Catherine Healy. She estimates there are about 3500 sex workers in New Zealand, most of whom stay two to four years in the trade. There is no link between organised crime and sex work, she says. 

Healy says although New Zealand is the outlier internationally, decriminalisation is advocated by the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, Amnesty International, and peer-led sex worker organisations throughout the world. Critics say most of these NGOs are comparing decriminalisation with criminalisation, not with the Nordic model. Nevertheless, Healy remains convinced New Zealand’s model is the better one.

“All the research I’ve read says that it creates enormous harm in sex workers' lives because they don’t want their clients to be identified. They also work in isolation, landlords are lent on, they are thrown out of flats. They don’t have the choices we have in this country.”

But Healy acknowledges the work comes with a higher risk than other jobs and the number of sex workers killed since the law change (at least eight) is a matter of concern, but “a lot of sex work happens without consequence. Women have strategies to avoid encounters with dangerous people”.

She takes issue with feminists who say the nature of sex work is inherently violent. “Some women feel empowered. There is no one size fits all.”

But last year ECPAT (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes) castigated the Government for having its head in the sand about the extent of sex trafficking in this country. The comments came after the publication of the US State Department's 2019 Trafficking in Persons report, which described New Zealand as a hot spot for sexual exploitation.

Nevertheless, the Ministry of Justice’s report to the United Nations that year stated that independent research in 2018 on the migrant sex industry “found no evidence of trafficking”. Despite occasional reports of exploitation of foreign sex workers, investigations showed “no evidence of systemic exploitation”. Although last year, Immigration New Zealand did find migrant sex workers working here illegally.

This denial of sex trafficking protects pimps by keeping them out of the spotlight and in the shadows of New Zealand's sex trade, say supporters of change like Olsson and Diamond. They say this is ironic given that decriminalisation lobbyists argue that criminalising pimping only drives prostitution “underground”.

Perhaps the questions sex work raises are as powerful as disputed research. Questions asked by sex trade survivors like Ally Marie Diamond such as: "Would you promote prostitution as a first-time job with good career prospects, salary, health and safety processes to your daughter, granddaughter or friend? Why is this the only job where being young and having no experience pays more? Why is this a job that recruits mainly young and often homeless girls? Why is the rate of PTSD higher in prostituted women than returned soldiers? Why is there zero concern about workplace deaths in the sex trade and WorkSafe in New Zealand completely ignore it? If sex work is so empowering why are the brothels not staffed by well-to-do men and women?

“If you find these questions disturbing, why wouldn’t you want to ban the purchase of women for sex?” says Diamond.

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