Selling sex legally in
BBC News Highlights 3/17/09
Does the New Zealand liberal approach provide a model or a warning? Henri
Astier looks at its prostitution industry six years after decriminalisation, in
the first of two articles.
When "Sophie", a medical worker from Christchurch, fell behind on her mortgage payments last year, she found that her job was not paying enough. Her only option was a temporary career change: she became a prostitute. "I needed money fast so I didn't lose my house," she explains. A soft-spoken 30-something with a shy smile, Sophie does not look like the stereotypical scarlet woman, even in the low-cut dress she wears at work. She does not feel like one either. "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do drugs. I'm a vegetarian," she says, adding that she had qualms about her new job.
But the city centre parlour she joined - basically a pub with a sitting area at the front and bedrooms at the back - was not the drug-fuelled dive she had imagined.
"All the women here are lovely," she says. "We spend a lot of time sitting and talking. I'll stick it out a bit longer."
Since the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, brothels have been allowed to operate more or less freely. In the eyes of New Zealand's law, the oldest profession is just like any other.
NZ PROSTITUTION REFORM ACT
Brothels allowed to operate
Up to four prostitutes can set up collective as equal partners
Advertising sale of sex legalised
Brothels require certificate and registration by court
Sex work subject to normal employment and health and safety standards
Lucy works in Bon Ton, an exclusive establishment in the capital where an hour-long session costs NZ$400 (£140; $200). She says the reform has given her the opportunity to work for a legitimate business in a safe environment. "I make twice what I was earning in retail. I am appreciated by customers and my boss. I can work whenever I want to - it's by far the most gratifying work I've ever had," she says.
Lucy's manager, Sarah, also believes criminalising clients (As they have done in Sweden) would be a disaster for the industry and put the girls at risk. "This would scare away the quality customers," she says. "We would be left with the dangerous sort. The nasty men won't go away." Bon Ton - which thrives on "quality customers" like lawyers and civil servants - certainly looks like an ideal showcase for New Zealand-style liberalisation. The bedrooms look like luxury suites, the upstairs office looks like - well... an office, and the workers say they are treated with respect. Sarah insists she has zero tolerance for abuse and will back the girls even if they refuse a client. "I can't force a woman to have sex," she says.
As she speaks another girl appears at the door, draped in a towel. "Myah" looks at the work ahead, and realises that a client who often insists on having oral sex without a condom wants to see her. "I don't want him," Myah says. "No problem," Sarah replies. "I'll tell him you're not available." Myah is not afraid to turn down work. Her health is at stake, and the law requires a condom for any commercial sex act. "It is my legal right to make that demand," she says.
But are the benefits from legalisation confined to high-end businesses like Bon Ton? According to Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), better and safer working practices are now the norm. Across the industry, she says, women are now aware of their rights and exploitative brothel owners are becoming marginalised as a result of the reform.
Another key benefit of decriminalisation, according to Ms Healy, is a sea change in relations with the police: "If you're the one committing a crime, you won't ask the police for help." Now, Ms Healy says, the girls find law enforcement officials are on their side. This idea was borne out by a parliamentary report last year, which gave a positive assessment of the reform. It said prostitutes were more likely to report violence to police, and officers were treating their complaints seriously.
Brothels may be legal but most New Zealanders prefer not to live next to one. Bon Ton never mentions an address in its adverts - only a phone number. In Christchurch operators had to fight a proposed zoning law that would have kept them out of most areas. But the overwhelming majority in the business feels huge progress was made when the industry emerged from the shadow. Anna Reed says she loved working as a prostitute - "I had sex, money and men!" - and resents enduring cliches about a job no-one in her right mind could willingly embrace. "We get so pissed off when politicians portray us as victims," she says. "It's important to blow down the stereotypes about sex workers - particularly that of the poor girl who is coerced into doing it."
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