It’s time for New Zealand’s porn critics to reject ‘sex work’ ideology

The porn industry drives prostitution, which means critics of pornography cannot challenge one without challenging the other.

As New Zealand wakes up to its porn problem, the country’s sex trade lobby is eager to offer solutions. Television New Zealand (TVNZ) has gathered 18 segments from the network’s news programmes in an online archive exploring the issue of pornography.

One video produced for Sunday includes an interview with songwriter James Wong, who discusses the damaging impact porn consumption had on him and his relationships. In another, White Ribbon ambassador Richie Hardcore appears on Breakfast, and argues that porn promotes sexual “cruelty.” Two pieces cover Olympic runner Nick Willis’ public revelation that he developed a “porn addiction” after starting to watch porn as a teenager. Willis describes his porn use as “a rollercoaster ride of shame and justification.”

These segments paint a bleak picture of the effect porn has on men’s self-esteem and perceptions of women. Not to worry: another segment reassures us that a solution is at hand. Mary Brennan, who runs a Wellington brothel called Funhouse, is creating educational videos to teach men about “consent.” Handcuffs, whips, straps, and bondage gear are shown hanging from the walls in her brothel. “Most sex workers,” Brennan claims, “are a lot stronger about boundaries and safety than maybe some women who haven’t had the support and the nurturing that the sex industry can bring.”

But testimonies from women who have survived prostitution tell a different story. Jade (who keeps her last name secret) wrote about her experience of being prostituted in Auckland from adolescence in the 2016 book, Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade. If Jade does indeed have “stronger boundaries” than other women, her chapter makes it clear she did not gain them thanks to any “support and nurturing” from the sex industry, nor did these “stronger boundaries” help her fend off porn addicted punters. Jade writes:

“I was at the mercy of the clients who would take advantage of my lack of personal boundaries. I would be left with bruises all over my body from the rough sex, men always wanted to imitate hardcore porn, acting out the sexual violence they were feeding on. The drunker they were, the angrier they would get until they were in hateful rages. Those were the times my vagina would bleed from the trauma. I had no one to tell or to help me as we (the girls) were experiencing the same thing.”

The organization officially tasked with helping girls and women like Jade is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, who are also currently supporting Brennan to make her “consent” videos. NZPC receives $1.1 million per year from New Zealand’s Ministry of Health, ostensibly to offer “harm reduction” and outreach services. In 2010, a portion of this money went toward producing Stepping Forward, a 125-page booklet women can pick up if they visit an NZPC drop-in centre. This manual offers women guidance on “how to stay a happy hooker” (“all work and no play makes Jo a dull ho!”), as well as how to handle punters who demand anal penetration — a practice that has been popularized by porn.

Stepping Forward advises:

“If your anal/rectal muscles are relaxed and entry is on the right angle there should be no pain. It is not uncommon for it to take 20 minutes or longer for the anus and rectal passage to expand and embrace the length of the girth of a penis or object (porn actors have years of experience…) The anal/rectal relaxation process involves getting the sphincters to work in-sync with each other… This has to do with body memory and the more your body becomes familiar with something going in and learns to relax with the sensation, the easier it will become.”

Stepping Forward makes an understatement out of Hardcore’s lamentation that porn takes the “warmth out of sex.” For their work to be truly effective, critics who express concern about the impact of porn on male consumers also need to address the impacts of porn (and pro-sex trade material like Stepping Forward) on women like Jade.

The rate of sexual violence against women in prostitution is higher than in any other context — yet Stepping Forward reframes prostitution as nothing more than a job like any other, thereby reducing rape to just another workplace hazard. Porn critics who are serious about challenging social norms in order to end violence against women must also reject this sanitization of prostitution. It is inconsistent — and arguably sexist — to challenge porn from a consumer perspective while accepting prostitution as just “work” that women do. And let’s be honest: as long as there is prostitution, it will be filmed to make porn.

The New Zealand public is largely unaware that NZPC promotes so-called “sex work” not as a grassroots “collective,” but as a branch of the international sex trade lobby, that is to say, The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). The NSWP advocates for the conditions — legal and cultural — that are most favourable to pimps, punters, and pornographers. To this end, the lobby encourages women in prostitution to “call ourselves whores,” and pushes for the language of “sex work” to replace and sanitize discussion of prostitution. The organization argues that prostitution is legitimate business, and that, therefore, pimps and sex buyers should be decriminalized alongside prostituted women. This legal model is otherwise known as full decriminalization, or the “New Zealand model.”

At least five prostituted women have been murdered in New Zealand since 2003, the year that the pimping and purchase of women for sexual use was fully decriminalized. Stepping Forward advises women that to “deal with violent clients, make as much noise as possible to attract attention. Try calling ‘FIRE’, a passerby will probably pay more attention.”

A climate in which pimping is legal and where the state distributes instructions to women in poverty about how to tolerate anal penetration — then leaves them to fend off violent men for themselves — provides the ideal conditions for pornographers. Pornography is simply what happens when prostitution is filmed: around 50 per cent of prostituted women have had pornography made of them, and most of these women are poor. As long as women in financial strife can be prostituted with a big thumbs-up from The Man, they can also be filmed. And pornographers are in business.

A climate that supports pimps to advertise women for hire and allows punters to rate these women on Internet forums drives demand for porn, as well as enabling its production. In 2015, Pornhub — the largest porn site on the Internet — conducted market research that ranked New Zealand fifth among the most prolific porn consuming countries. Pornhub will not be at risk of losing traffic from New Zealand men as long as New Zealand continues to normalize prostitution as “sex work,” rather than challenging it as violence against women — the raw material of pornography.

One concern shared by New Zealand’s porn critics is that online pornography is a poor sex educator. Sexual health nurse Nikki Denholm and sex therapist Jo Robertson recently launched “The Light Project” to help parents talk with their kids about porn. Classification Office chief censor David Shanks appears in one of TVNZ’s segments to argue that online pornography is “the last thing that you would want young people using as a primary source of information about what sex is.” The unprecedented lack of regulation means that many sites “just focus on degrading, humiliating acts or even promote sexual aggression and rape,” he says.

There are specific abuses that have become typical in porn, like two men penetrating a woman vaginally, at the same time; or three or more men penetrating a woman vaginally, anally, and orally, all at once. “Gagging” — in which a man thrusts his penis down a woman’s throat until she chokes — is another brutality that pornographers film on a routine basis for online audiences. In “bukkake,” several men ejaculate onto a woman, and “ass-to-mouth” scenes show a man shoving his penis directly from a woman’s anus into her mouth. “Rosebudding” is a relatively new term that describes a man raping a woman anally until she suffers rectal prolapse — again, for the purpose of recording videos for men to masturbate to.

Porn is dangerous because it shows men using women as objects for their sexual gratification — in other words, it depicts prostitution.

Yet New Zealand’s media remains happy to defer to NZPC — and pimps themselves — on the issue of prostitution. In 2016, ex-NZPC spokesperson Anna Reed casually referred to sex trafficking as a “working holiday” in an interview with Kim Hill. Later that year, Radio New Zealand ran a podcast series called The Oldest Profession, in which critical voices — namely, RMIT senior lecturer Meagan Tyler and SPACE International representative Sabrinna Valisce — were vastly outnumbered by and sandwiched between endorsements of the sex trade. One woman who was identified as working in a “boutique agency” said:

“It’s a wonderful working life. I’m working on my home and [doing] stuff that I’ve always wanted to do to better my life, in different ways that working a nine-to-five job has always gotten in the way of.”

New Zealand’s media does not just sanitize, but routinely promotes the sex trade. In 2017, Stuff, New Zealand’s biggest news site, ran an advertorial in the Business section for Graeme, a Hamilton pimp who was looking for “out of town staff” to cover a busy period that would coincide with Fieldays, a four-day farmers’ convention. Last year, liberal website The Spinoff collaborated with a woman who runs a Taranaki brothel to produce a video called, The Hookers of Hawera, which effectively advertised her brothel. Following the Women’s March in 2017, the same outlet published an article informing women that the NZPC “advocates for the rights, health and well-being of all sex workers,” adding, “Remember to include these women in your feminism, otherwise it’s not feminism.”

Sex trade promotion is also par for the course among university academics and in student media. Searching “prostitution” on Salient, Victoria University’s online student magazine, turns up nothing critical. Meanwhile, typing in “sex work” results in screeds of articles glorifying prostitution for an audience that includes plenty of porn-hooked male students, and young women accruing debt while living on meagre student allowances. In 2015, Phiona Baskett, owner of two Wellington escort agencies, told these women in an op-ed that if you’re in the sex trade, “You’re not just hot — you’re so hot men will pay hundreds of dollars to sleep with you.”

In 2010, NZPC was caught actively recruiting Chinese students in particular with its Chinese language pamphlet, Working in New Zealand. If we are concerned that porn is a poor sex educator for boys — what about the sex trade lobby grooming New Zealand is dishing out to girls?

On New Zealand’s largest online forum for sex trade reviews, a punter going by the username “GC12” illustrates the attitude he holds towards women he hires for sexual use in a “review” titled, “Don’t Bother”:

“Went to see M____ today… Friendly greeting, albeit timid. Speaks good enough English to have a conversation. Started off with a pretty decent massage but it didn’t last long. 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.”

When TVNZ approached NZPC for comment about how porn is making men like GC12 increasingly “rough,” the organization’s national coordinator Catherine Healy simply responded, “I think it’s very important people are able to talk, be it somebody who’s an operator of a brothel, or a sex worker or a client or the general public.”

Healy’s foremost concern is to promote “sex work.” The NZPC does not care about women like Jade, who reject the label “sex worker” because it sanitizes the violence of prostitution, but porn critics need to.

Globally, the porn industry generates more revenue than the top 10 web technology companies combined, including Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. Porn profiteers do not need to worry about a bit of negative consumer feedback. Since porn depicts violence against prostituted women, what really threatens the porn industry is challenges to the widespread acceptance of  “sex work” narratives that ensure pimping stays legal, buying women acceptable, and demand for porn high.

Without prostitution, the porn industry would wither and die. “Sex work” ideology sustains both industries, so serious porn critics need to tackle it.

Renee Gerlich is an independent writer and feminist activist based in Wellington, New Zealand. Follow her on Twitter @renee_jg.

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