Prostitution law: a South Sea model?

Success is such a slippery term. Particularly, it would seem, when it comes to prostitution. Does success mean getting government job training? Or does it mean getting out of the business altogether? Judging by the New Zealand decriminalisation experience, success means more of the former. And some Canadian activists have gone there to learn, possibly with the intent of importing such measures here.

They could just as easily have gone to Sweden, which has rejected its former easy-going attitude and criminalized the purchase of sex; or to Norway, which has followed suit; or to the Netherlands -- a model for New Zealand’s law -- where the city of Amsterdam is fed up with its image as a prostitution capital and is closing down sex shops; or to practically anywhere in Europe where the presence of large numbers of trafficked women in the sex trade is forcing reviews of legalised regimes, Britain being the latest to reintroduce criminal measures.

Perhaps the Canadians did -- or will -- look at all that. They will certainly need to take it into account when considering the rah-rah reports about legalised prostitution they might hear from certain New Zealanders. They will need to take note of a recent statement from the National Council of Women (NZ) saying it is “alarmed by the passing down of lenient sentences for men convicted of having sex with girls under the age of 18 under the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.” “What reform exactly?” they ask, admitting that they supported the law change because they thought it would give protection to those over 18.

In fact, those Canadians with the time, tenacity and possibly insomnia required to read the New Zealand Government’s recent Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 may come away feeling something other than unvarnished enthusiasm for the legalization of prostitution. It contains a guarded optimism about the reforms but is inconclusive about any outright success.

Rewind to the turn of the millennium. After much debate, New Zealand's parliament passed the Prostitution Reform Act by a hair’s breadth—60 to 59—with one abstention. The intent was to ensure safety for prostitutes—the law concretely stating it will "create a framework to safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation; promote the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers; contribute to public health; and prohibit the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age."

As a result, the government identified different sectors of supply in the sex market they would like to control: private indoor workers, managed workers and street sex workers. The Department of Labour kicked in with a 100-page tome for sex workers called A guide to occupational health and safety in the New Zealand Sex Industry. (Rare is the government document for which a "sexually explicit" warning pops up before download, as is the case here.)

The guide outlines such areas as "the roles and responsibilities of sex workers and clients", and "smoking in the workplace", among others. ("Exposure to second-hand smoke causes an estimated 388 deaths a year in New Zealand — almost the same as the national road death toll —and it is a significant health risk in the workplace.")

Controlling this newly-respectable occupation would require diligent monitoring, but the report indicates that is not happening. "Decriminalisation on its own did not provide enough protection for sex workers," the authors write. The "Brothel Operator Certification System" has been found wanting— it needs "the addition of a criterion that a certificate holder must be willing to facilitate inspections". One client has been charged since January 2008 under section 9 (safer sex practices) and was fined $400. Is this what human rights for prostitutes means?

A New Zealand-based research group, The Maxim Institute, fails to see how the reform has been successful when it does not recognize that prostitution possesses inherent risk. Summer Gill, policy analyst at Maxim highlights that the most egregious areas of failure are amongst underage and street prostitutes. No one, she says, can enforce restrictions on age, as kids don't carry ID. Neither do they magically cease to be exploited upon turning 18. "The law makes it extremely difficult for these purchasers [of under age sex] to be prosecuted," she says. "They almost need to be caught in the act for the police to prove that they have done anything wrong."

Exit strategies for underage prostitutes are weak too, she adds. There, the lengthy government report agrees: "There is currently little dedicated support available for those wishing to exit the sex industry."

The report therefore reads as a very cautious statement of "success". The government cannot accurately gauge whether prostitutes are less victimized than before decriminalisation because monitoring of newly state-sanctioned brothels is poor. Government committees can write about prostitution reform including its overblown pretensions to help sex workers but it is not clear that the lot of prostitutes on the ground has actually changed since 2003.

Rebranding prostitution as "sex work", complete with on-the-job safety tips, doesn't change the job itself. If success is defined as improving the rights and conditions of prostitutes, then New Zealand's decriminalisation experience is far from encouraging.

Andrea Mrozek is manager of research and communications, Institute of Marriage and Family Canada


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