New Zealand is squandering an opportunity to help women in prostitution during COVID, thanks to decriminalization

The last week of April, New Zealand was at Level 4 of the country’s four-tiered alert system in response to COVID-19, and I was sick, but not from the virus. An article published at The Guardian described a supposedly gold-star response by the New Zealand government supporting women in prostitution during the coronavirus pandemic, and I wanted to vomit.

The piece offers testimony from two “high end” “sex workers” — “Lana” and “Alice” — as well as quotes from Mary Brennan, a “high end” brothel owner, and Catherine Healy, founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC).

Lana and Alice both describe how easy it was to access New Zealand’s emergency wage subsidy for workers whose earnings have fallen by at least 30 per cent due to coronavirus, explaining, “The form only took about three minutes to fill out and I didn’t need to disclose that I am a sex worker… I only needed to disclose that I am self-employed.” But things are not so easy for others. What The Guardian fails to mention is that “Lana” does not represent the average woman in prostitution — she is an exception.

Many women in prostitution are not in control of their own finances. Often their earnings go straight to a pimp (who might be a family member, boyfriend, or stranger) or is filtered through the hands of a brothel owner who takes so many “fines” and “fees” from each shift that the woman is only left with a small percentage of what she earned. Most are not able to declare where their income comes from due to fear or shame surrounding the conditions they “work” in, and are therefore not in a position to provide tax information on an online form. If they do declare their income as “independent contractors,” they risk being made to pay huge amounts of money, due to a tax audit based on “estimated earnings” — earnings they never saw — which could amount to thousands of dollars which they are not in a position to pay.

These are not women aiming to cheat the system by dodging tax, like businessmen with tax havens — these are women who are struggling, yet being presented as “workers” like any other, thanks to decriminalization.  But when compared with any other industry, this “work” would be classified alongside sweatshops and conditions of those in forced labour situations.

What other “independent contractor” has standard 12 hour shifts where they cannot leave or take breaks, with intense pressure to never reject a “client,” and are eventually paid under 40 (sometimes only 30) per cent of the money they earned and told they must return the next shift to collect it? Women can end up being paid nothing at all or in debt to the brothel on a quiet night, where they only get one “client.” The accumulative penalties (which are routinely over-imposed) — “shift fees,” “laundry fees,” “clothing and appearance fines,” and “late fees” — that women must agree to pay in their contract see to that.

The emergency wage subsidy a few “high-end sex workers” have been able to access requires information that is sent immediately to the tax department, along with all other identifying personal information. But to women in prostitution, the tax department is another frightening, grabbing hand they cannot pay. Most women in the sex trade also lack the appropriate paperwork to access the emergency fund, as they never received a copy of the contract they signed with the brothel, nor have they registered as a business with the tax department. Some don’t even have a bank account — especially the younger ones without ID.

Wahine Toa Rising, a survivor-led organization supporting women and children survivors of the Sex Trade in New Zealand, spoke to a woman who called NZPC for advice on what to do during the pandemic, since they were not allowed to work. She was encouraged to not bother with the emergency wage subsidy, and advised instead to apply for the Jobseeker benefit (commonly known as “the dole”). It is true that women in prostitution who are out of work due to the pandemic do not necessarily need to access the emergency subsidy, as they are, in fact, entitled to the Jobseeker Support benefit from Work and Income New Zealand (WINZ) at anytime, should they find themselves out of work. But in order to do so, they must sign a document stating they intend to leave this “work” permanently. When this woman asked NZPC about the repercussions of doing this, as she intended to go back to prostitution after the lock downs, and would therefore have to lie, she was reassured it didn’t matter, that no one would know, and she could just go back to the brothel later. Women who apply for the dole also must supply their Inland Revenue Department identification number (tax number) which will automatically trigger stressful questions about taxes — paid and unpaid. Unfortunately, this isn’t common knowledge and the NZPC tends not to advertise this information.

While The Guardian presents a narrative that New Zealand is supporting women in prostitution, things are not that simple. No special measures have been put in place to support women in prostitution impacted by COVID-19, who are in the closest possible contact with men. And on May 14, the government announced that “sex work” was permitted under alert Level 2.

Most women have gone back to prostitution at Level 2, because they feel they have no other choice — they are broke and they need to eat, pay bills, debts, medication; plus there is enormous pressure from pimps and brothel owners. Women don’t look for other work because prostitution is often all they know. Many have histories of sexual abuse or violence, especially Maori and other ethnic minority women, which grooms them for the industry and keeps them there. Women in prostitution know how common this is, because we talk to one another about how easy it was for us to get into prostitution on account of having experienced sexual abuse, unwanted sex, assaults, and male violence, as we felt we “might as well be paid for it.” (Another noteworthy fact: how many other jobs can you think of where child sexual abuse is a motivating factor for job choice?)

Other factors making it extremely difficult for women to leave prostitution include huge time gaps in their resumes, unexplainable to potential employers; pressure from pimps, boyfriends, and family for money; lack of hirable skills or education; lack of support or community outside the industry; and the sexual trauma and emotional toll endured during years of being treated without empathy or respect, as a masturbatory tool. NZPC and brothel owners contribute to this cycle by convincing  women this is where they belong, and that symptoms of  PTSD are merely work “burn out.” The suggestion to lie on official paperwork in order to receive financial support, when these women are in a particularly vulnerable and desperate state, only reinforces the view that they are not “normal citizens” who should be treated differently than others. So of course most return to prostitution.

More problems arise for the hundreds of “migrant” women in prostitution — many of whom, according to the U.S. Department of State, are in fact sex trafficked, as New Zealand is known as a “destination country” for sex trafficking. The emergency wage subsidy and the Jobseeker benefit are not accessible to those in New Zealand on a migrant visa. These women would not be able to give truthful information even if they did qualify, as they would likely be deported without support (or justice for any crimes committed against them). NZPC has advocated to remove Section 19 of the Prostution Reform Act, which states visas cannot be given to migrant women so they can work in the sex trade, perhaps in order to support their claim that sex trafficking doesn’t exist in New Zealand. When asked about sex trafficking during an interview on Radio New Zealand, NZPC member Anna Reed cavalierly said she would “love a working holiday” if she were young and beautiful. If NZPC gets it’s way and sex trafficked women become simply “migrant workers,” we have no hope of identifying or helping them escape this modern slavery.

New guidances have been offered to prostituted women under Level 2, but the reality is that already vulnerable, powerless women are being exposed to further risk, and now they have been made responsible for not only their health, but the health of others. Under Level 2, women in prostitution are required to use “condoms and dental dams” (which is normal procedure) and to do “contact tracing,” by asking for and recording johns’ personal information. Further, NZPC told women to “get agreement” from men to contact them if they are in close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19 or contract it themselves.

These women are already expected to check johns for signs of STIs, in order to protect themselves (which is not only awkward, but fraught with danger due to a potential asserting of boundaries, often met with resistance or hostility), but now must also, according to NZPC COVID-19 Guidelines, “check the client for COVID-19 symptoms.”

The NZPC does not specify how a woman is meant to convince a john to follow up with her, should he become infected. The likelihood that prostituted women would be able to track johns who pay cash and do not give their real name, let alone their phone number or email address, is small. Men care about their privacy more than the health of women in prostitution. Even if a john uses a credit card for his booking, the partial information received would need to be collected by a brothel owner or pimp on behalf of the prostitute. On the off chance a john were to follow up in this way, brothels do not have a reputation for responsibly reporting health violations. Reporting anything at all, no matter how dangerous, is not in their commercial interest, and these brothels are not even checked regularly for health and safety compliance by the Ministry of Health or local councils. Only 12 inspections occurred across the entire country between 2004 and 2015. Men rarely get turned away from brothels if they have STIs — the idea of a brothel owner and the Ministry of Health working together for the health and safety of a prostitute is laughable on many levels. The New Zealand sex trade is the height of “Don’t look,” as well as “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

The NZPC is either dishonest, or completely out of touch with the reality of the sex trade. Yet another example of this is the suggestion that, in order to maintain social distancing, women offer a “quarantine/medical mask fantasy,” and avoid the “moist breath zone.” Most women in prostitution are already faced with trying to avoid the rape zone, the harassment zone, the trauma zone, and the pain zone… While the “moist breath zone” may be something hairdressers and massage therapists can avoid, “sex workers” do not have this privilege.

If ever there were a time to implement the Nordic Model with exit supports, this is it. Many women who want to leave this dangerous trade are already halfway there: out of the building, off the street, getting a little respite, possibly with a small amount of income from the government. Extra support and services, including aid in leaving the industry, could have acted as a first step towards a full exit support system. It is heartbreaking to see this opportunity for women and girls in prostitution slip away, thanks to decriminalization.

Women in prostitution usually aren’t aware that, under the Nordic Model, similar and more accessible types of financial aid, government funded support to find other work, and assistance out of prostitution are available and that they would remain decriminalized while still in the sex trade. NZPC doesn’t advertise this information, yet they claim to represent the best interests of women in prostitution.

The decriminalization of prostitution is supposed to have made things better for women in New Zealand. Since the Prostitution Reform Act decriminalized the entire sex trade in 2003, including pimps and brothel owners, society has been conditioned not to challenge the NZPC’s authority and narrative. The organization has positioned itself as the voice of all women (and the few men) in the sex trade. This group of vocal, government-funded, relatively privileged women and their supporters insist we “listen to sex workers” and their “lived experience,” lest we be labelled ignorant, bigoted, or “whorephobic.” But “lived experience,” in this context, is limited to a narrative claiming prostitution is a “choice” that “empowers.”

The NZPC calls itself a collective, and presents itself as some version of a union, albeit a union where you are a member by default whether you know it or not. But this “union” does not represent the needs of the majority, especially not the disproportionate number of Maori and other women of colour who either want to leave the industry or would if they had viable options, encouragement, and support services. A government funded organization advising emotionally and physically vulnerable women and girls on their public website to just “apply for the dole” or take up porn is a twisted and emotionally harmful joke. And this joke is on women and girls who are, just like I was, young, confused, and already broken. Many are too traumatized and scared to ever consider blindly trusting a government department or organization with their information or faces. One of the first things you learn in prostitution (often the hard way) is that trust is a liability and a privilege very few can afford. It doesn’t take much imagination to start to figure out why.

Wahine Toa Rising highlighted the unaddressed needs of women in prostitution in letters to goverment ministers, but did not receive a response beyond acknowledgement they had been received.

There are a number of things the government could have done to support women in prostitution during all this, including to have set up a dedicated helpline women could call for information, safely, with their privacy ensured. In New Zealand, we recognize the specific, sensitive nature of women who have suffered sexual violence, and have a dedicated government funded Service for Sensitive Claims to provide counselling and other relevant support. There are also private helplines and services for women leaving domestic violence, that protect their anonymity and treat them with respect and empathy. Why is there nothing like this for women in prostitution? New Zealand Police anticipated a dramatic rise in violence against women during lockdown. However, the police can no longer routinely enter brothels to check on the treatment of women in prostitution, as decriminalization laws no longer allow it. The so-called “checks” for license compliance aren’t even happening.

Why is there nothing for women being abused in the sex trade? Or who are desperate to leave? Could it be that we no longer believe such women exist? Because women in prostitution are simply empowered workers, like any other?

Women in prostitution need, at the very least, to have access to a similar “sensitive claims” service, and refuges like those for women escaping domestic violence. And they need to know their information won’t be passed on, publicized, or shared with an organization like NZPC, which receives funding on their behalf.

Touting New Zealand’s handling of the needs of women in prostitution during COVID-19 as an example of the demonstrable success of decriminalization is a disgusting and dangerous manipulation of the reality for the majority of women in the sex trade. We need to consider the women who do not freely choose, who do not want to give blowjobs to sweaty, disrespectful, heavy-handed men. The women who are pimped out by boyfriends, family members, or gangs. Migrant women without the correct paperwork, brought here under false pretenses and promises, and who now owe money to their traffickers. Girls of 12 or 13, sexually exploited and called “underage sex workers.” And we definitely need to consider the many Kiwi women, who are scared, under the control of pimps and brothel owners, unable to pay the rent or buy food, and do not have access to “savings” to tide them over during a time like this, as NZPC suggests.

Women in prostitution risk so much, everyday, and suppress it. We push it down — sometimes with pills, drugs, booze, or dissociative willpower. If we allowed ourselves to have feelings — real feelings — we wouldn’t be able to lie to “clients” and tolerate the noxious smell of bins full of used condoms. We wouldn’t be able to rub the pimpled, hairy, sweaty backs of Dave or Phil or Sanjit before they roll over, all hands and no apologies for the bruises we end up with, inside and out. The only feelings we have are the instincts we use to avoid as much discomfort or violence as possible. Even NZPC acknowledges that women in the sex trade need to stop occasionally because things get too much — we know this is from the stress of violence, powerlessness, and sexual trauma, not “burn out.” Those of us who have escaped, and who help and support others to exit, don’t buy the, “It’s actually fun, empowering, safe, and it’s paying my university fees” line. You know why? Because these are the exact same lines we use on johns to make sure they don’t ask us uncomfortable questions. And now it is you who are not asking questions.

NZPC is speaking for all women in prostitution, now rebranded as “sex workers.” But this also includes the “sensual masseuses,” the receptionists, the camgirls, the pole dancers who give the occasional private dance, the pimps, the BDSM mistresses, the phone-sex workers, and the madams who have never been smashed into a wall, choked in spa pool, fisted and spat on by a drunk man twice their size. “Sex work” isn’t just a euphemism, it’s a cover-all to hide the reality that prostitution is just as violent, traumatic, and life-altering as it ever was. They call it “sex work” in order to legally support pimps, brothel owners, and all those that profit from our bodies, as though we are all in the same boat — they are us and we are them.

It’s little wonder NZPC is encouraging women to go into online prostitution and porn, offering websites and apps that help women sell themselves online during the pandemic. There is no support to exit, but plenty of support in finding new avenues of sexual exploitation. Women, desperate for real solutions to their financial and emotional distress, are being groomed and shoehorned into virtual prostitution and pornography, where their images are not secure, they have no “training,” and are vulnerable, as these online services expose them to further exploitation, male harassment, and psychological harm. Those of us fortunate to be able to look back recognize this as the same behaviour of those pimps and madams who first convinced us to “just try it.”

So excuse me while I try not to vomit when I read yet another article, from a lazy journalist who is happy to unquestioningly promote the narrative pimped by the pimp lobby itself. New Zealand has invested a lot of money in this narrative, but if you listen, survivors will tell a different story. A 2018 article by Janice Raymond quotes one survivor of New Zealand’s sex trade named Chelsea, who says, “No, decriminalization of johns and pimps has not improved our safety or lives. No, we are not satisfied with a Prostitutes’ Collective that merely dispenses condoms, we need real support services, we deserve more from our country.”

Women stuck in prostitution need real help: exit opportunities, protection, and support from organizations who are not profiting from their remaining in the trade. But we need to be acknowledged as even existing before that can happen. If the lack of response from NZPC and the Ministries of Health and Justice in New Zealand to the needs of women in prostitution during the pandemic have shown us anything about decriminalization, it’s that our voices — the ones belonging to women who actually need help — don’t matter.

Michelle Mara is a sex trade critical feminist, and support worker/kaimahi for survivors of the sex trade in New Zealand. She co-founded Wahine Toa Rising, and independently advocates for the Nordic Model. Support her on Patreon.

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