On March 21, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would go on lockdown in response to COVID-19. She explained:
“We are fortunate to still be some way behind the majority of overseas countries in terms of cases, but the trajectory is clear. Act now, or risk the virus taking hold as it has elsewhere.
We currently have 102 cases. But so did Italy once. Now the virus has overwhelmed their health system and hundreds of people are dying every day.
The situation here is moving at pace, and so must we.
We have always said we would act early, decisively, and go hard. And we will.”
Ardern introduced the four-tiered alert system the government would be using, to first Prepare to tackle the virus, then Reduce risk of community transmission, then further Restrict person-to-person contact, and finally Eliminate risk by imposing full quarantine.
By Monday, March 23rd, New Zealand moved to Alert Level 3 and prepared to move to Level 4 after 48 hours. Our borders are closed and people are being asked to stay home and remain two metres away from each other, for instance when “undertaking essential shops.” Essential services are still operating, and schools are closed except to the children of people who keep them running. Ardern has clarified that “there will be no tolerance” for breach of orders, adding:
“The police and the military will be working together, and there is assistance at the ready if required. If people do not follow the messages here today, then the police will remind people of their obligations, they have the ability to escalate if required, they can arrest if needed, they can detain if needed.”
Many New Zealanders take pride in Ardern’s leadership. The government has prepared financial packages for employees, businesses, and sole traders to reduce the financial burden as people are asked to self-isolate to stop the virus from spreading, and laid out the details on a Unite Against COVID-19 website.
Women’s Refuge, an organization that oversees a network of domestic violence safehouses throughout New Zealand, has acknowledged that one of the biggest concerns of the lockdown is that many women and children are not safe at home. Chief executive Dr. Ang Jury explained that, “although it’s clearly very necessary, self-isolating will likely mean an escalation of violence for many women.”
The alternative for many women would be to join the 34,000+ New Zealanders who suffer severe housing deprivation. Homeless women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts, also because of the high risk of sexual violence. For women, the threats of domestic violence, homelessness, and prostitution are connected, and many women in prostitution have suffered domestic violence as well as homelessness and transience.
This begs the question: what advice is the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) issuing in response to COVID-19? This is a question that needs to be asked for another important reason: prostitution also lends itself to the spread of disease. The Ministry of Health funds NZPC to the tune of $1.1 million per year ostensibly for this reason: to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). The NZPC’s approach is to distribute condoms, pamphlets, and a 125-page manual titled, Stepping Forward, to “assist” prostituted women in dealing with the problem themselves. About half of Stepping Forward is dedicated to describing common STDs, using small, badly photocopied images of genital warts, gonorrhea, and chlamydia as they appear on men’s genitals.
A handbook produced by the Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health Service advises women in the sex industry that, in the event of condom breakage, they should remove semen by “squatting and squeezing it out using vaginal muscle exertion. Fingers can be used to scoop.”
In 2005, a 24-year-old woman was strangled, bound, raped, run over, and killed after an argument with a john resulting from his refusal to use a condom.
Those who defend decriminalized prostitution often argue that completely eliminating the risk of the violence and disease involved with prostitution is not possible, because prostitution is inevitable and cannot be stopped, and because it is essential — some men simply cannot live without sexual access to women. So, offering women pamphlets and condoms, and normalizing prostitution by legitimizing it legally, is the best that can be done.
Yet after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced, NZPC updated the front page of its website to announce that prostitution must be halted by midnight on Wednesday. The page reads:
“COVID-19 INFORMATION: INSTRUCTIONS TO STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY 25 MARCH 2020
NZPC recognises that sex work is work and is the main form of income for a number of people.
However, with New Zealand going to a Level 4 alert, sex workers are asked to comply with the requirement to stay at home during the four-week period of isolation indicated by the Government. Only those in essential services will be permitted to work. Sex work is not classed among the essential services (doctors, pharmacists, police, ambulance, fire, vets, food production, and supermarkets).
Therefore NZPC wants all sex workers to comply with the four-week closure.
Failure to comply could result in officials arriving at your place of work to enforce compliance.”
The message concludes with a link to the Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) website, and to the government’s Unite Against COVID-19 site.
There are a few concessions involved in this notification on NZPC’s website. One is that prostitution can be stopped — and immediately — if the political will is there and the need is considered urgent. The fact that the rate of sexual violence against women in prostitution is higher than that committed in any other context has simply never constituted an urgent enough threat. The second concession here is that men do not actually need prostitution — it is not essential, a human need, or a right. It is something men can live without.
There are also some assumptions underlying NZPC’s decision to target prostituted women with its instructions to “STOP PHYSICAL CONTACT SEX WORK BY MIDNIGHT WEDNESDAY.” According to studies that NZPC helped to carry out, 72 per cent of these women are stuck in the sex industry due to circumstance. A 2007 survey conducted by NZPC to review the current laws showed that 10 per cent of women in prostitution say they “don’t know how to leave,” 8.5 per cent say they “can’t get help to leave,” 24 per cent “don’t know what else to do,” and 29.5 per cent “have no other income.”
Yet NZPC assumes that it is these very women who have the power and responsibility to shut down the industry. They assume it is the “supply,” not the “demand” — or more accurately, the victims, not the perpetrators — who should be threatened with state intervention in case of “failure to comply.” Will prostituted women be arrested? Are we going to see a return of the brothel raids that police used to carry out before the Prostitution Reform Act? Will this be endorsed by NZPC?
That the NZPC is putting full responsibility in the hands of these women, who have little if any alternative, and threatening them with police intervention if they fail to comply, demonstrates that the organization is not a feminist one, nor anything resembling a union standing for workers’ rights.
This response to COVID-19 highlights the fact that full decriminalization of prostitution does not actually protect women.
On Tuesday, the survivor-led organization Wahine Toa Rising (WTR) sent a letter to ministers in parliament asking, “What financial and other support is available for women and young people who are currently in prostitution,” and, “What measures are in place to ensure women and young people in prostitution are protected from catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus?”
The least that a Ministry of Health-funded organization could do for women in prostitution in response to COVID-19 is to demand an allocation of funds from the government to help women exit the industry safely, and to insist on the banning of buying and pimping women, rather than threaten abused women into staying home, when they are part of a demographic that makes them especially likely not to have a safe home to go to.
NZPC tends to minimize the true hardships involved with prostitution. In a 2017 article announcing the launch of a safehouse to help women exit the sex trade, NZPC programmes coordinator Dame Catherine Healy claimed that only 10 per cent of women need assistance leaving prostitution. This does not agree with global research, survivor testimony, or NZPC’s own surveys.
This leads to another point: prostitution is an industry that profits from crisis, and this crisis may be no exception.
The workforce is gendered — this is the problem that pay gap campaigning points to. Care work tends to be feminized — 92 per cent of New Zealand’s nursing staff and 72 per cent of teaching staff are women. In industries and sectors that are not “feminized,” women tend to be paid less, considered more dispensable, and are more at risk of losing work and a living wage. In cases where companies are shedding staff, women will likely carry the burden disproportionately. Airlines, for instance, are likely to be sending stewardesses home as they reduce business.
This is how crisis tends to unfold and one reason why it typically leads to an expansion of the sex trade — because women still need to shelter and feed themselves and their children during economic crises. Men will exploit their increased dependence regardless of the circumstances. Hell, they are apparently already making corona virus-themed pornography.
If New Zealand’s sex trade expands because of women’s vulnerability and the economic fallout resulting from COVID-19, it goes without saying that this will lead to a spread of disease, and not only this respiratory illness. Syphilis is on the rise in New Zealand. In the year ending March 2019, 548 cases were reported, up from 82 in 2013.
Yet NZPC continues to simply hand out condoms and pamphlets and promote the legitimization of the sex trade. It offers no exit services, and, as stated, even undermines the need for them when other people take on the task. It does not protect women from danger. The advice NZPC offers women in Stepping Forward, in terms of “dealing with violent clients,” is:
“Make as much noise as possible to attract attention. Try calling FIRE, a passerby will probably pay more attention. If you wear a whistle around your neck, blow it in his ear.”
NZPC later says that “getting loud” can “backfire because some clients are just wanting you to do this so that they have an excuse.”
Before the lockdown was announced, on March 19, liberal news site The Spinoff released an article titled, “Covid-19: What happens when touching people is part of your job?” which included reference to prostitution. In it, Healy casually advised women in prostitution:
“There’s also cam work, but that’s not a big money earner generally. When you think we have several thousand sex workers at the moment, the best suggestion is for them to find alternative income.”
That week, Healy responded to an inquiry she received from a woman asking her for help by sending her a screenshot of the WINZ Job Seeker form, totally ignoring the fact that the nature of her job is to help women whose circumstances are desperate.
Prostitution is also correlated with family violence through pornography, of which camming is a form. The filming of prostitution to make pornography has been called a “public health crisis,” and in New Zealand, approximately 54 per cent of child abusers are known to use pornography. Many of these porn-consuming men will now be spending more time at home, with their children.
As Wahine Toa Rising founder Ally Marie Diamond says:
“Full decriminalization only protects the pimps, buyers, brothel owners, and those who profit from the sex trade. As COVID-19 has proven, women in the sex trade in New Zealand are not protected. They are not safer, they are ultimately in more danger now than they would have been prior to 2003. When are we going to start opening our eyes and waking up to what is happening around us? It really is time to look at it another way.”
Another thing COVID-19 has proven is that when a threat is considered urgent enough and the political will is there, the government and the New Zealand public are willing to commit to a course of action that will not just reduce but eliminate that threat.
While we are in isolation, many people will be reflecting more deeply on their lives and relationships. Prostitution and porn affect us all. They perpetuate rape and objectification and there is no end to how much and how deeply they affect sexual relations and the culture we live in. Right now, these industries and their normalization are contributing directly to a situation in which many women and children are unsafe, including at home, under quarantine.
Perhaps a few questions for us all to consider while we are on lockdown are these: isn’t men’s violence against women and children an urgent threat, worthy of eliminating? Can it end as long as rape is accepted as inevitable, and normalized and made profitable through prostitution and porn? What would it really look like for us, individually and collectively, if we took the steps necessary to eliminate the threat of men’s violence against women and children from our lives, and from our culture?
Renee Gerlich is an independent feminist writer based in the Wellington region, New Zealand.