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onthejob
April 13, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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On the Job

Waitress, receptionist, dentist, lawyer, sex worker. All job titles which give no description of that person’s worth. After 11 years of legalisation, Steph Trengrove looks into the sex industry and talks to the women underneath the job title.

Ava has two children, a tertiary education, and her own business.

She’s also a sex worker.

Mary is a successful business owner, has lived overseas, and is about to begin work on her book.

She runs an escort agency.

These two intelligent, well-spoken, independent and dignified women belong to an industry that is completely legal. Since the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, their jobs are just like any other in the eyes of the law, but because the way that they choose to make a living involves S-E-X there seems to be an assumption that they are not entitled to the same protections and safeguards as any other employed New Zealander.

Our society tends to assume that people who act outside of dominant social norms and values are reprehensible. Because sex workers get paid to perform sexual acts, they are seen as deviant and consequently labelled immoral, unclean, dangerous, even diseased. They are identified wholly by the activity they engage in that falls outside of what is ‘normal’, and reduced solely to what we have decided their occupation defines them as.

Sex workers are robbed of many of their employment rights by the social stigma that dubs them ‘undeserving’ of such humane and basic protections. In theory, the Reform Act gave sex workers the right to workplace rights including health and safety; the right to unionise and collectively bargain for better wages; the right to leave work, take breaks or resign easily; and the right to take an employer or client to court. It is due to prejudices within New Zealand society that much of what is laid out in the Reform Act remains theoretical.

The Reform Act made it a crime to coerce a sex worker into providing sexual services, just as any employee is protected from being forced into doing something that they do not want to do. Now, theoretically, sex workers can prosecute people who do so. However, as Ava explains, “although we have the freedom and the backing of the courts and hopefully our employers to seek justice… it takes a very brave woman to stand up and put herself in the position where she’s going to be scrutinised. It’s still that whole attitude of ‘How can a sex worker be raped?’”

These women are in many cases prevented from seeking justice for illegal behaviour within their workplaces, because they are frightened of the judgment that will be passed on them should they actually access their right to do so. Never mind that these women remain violated humans. They are sex workers. There are people who will deem them unworthy of justice, because taking money for sex offends their sensibilities.

Mary explained that despite her girls now having the ability to go to the Police, Human Rights Commission or Department of Labour, “only girls who are willing to put themselves out there” tend to actually seek prosecution. There remains an element of “What did they expect?” and this is firmly standing in the way of the Reform Act being properly brought into effect.

The Act also changed police activity surrounding sex work. Police are now legally obliged to protect sex workers at work, just as they would a worker in any other job. “Before the reform… we had an armed hold-up at one of the places I managed,” recounts Mary. “There were three girls involved; one of them, the receptionist, had a sawn-off shotgun held to her head… We were at the police station all night after that, all night and there was no victim support, they didn’t even offer us a cup of tea. The cops were nice enough but you could feel it was this whole thing of “Well, they’re hookers, they probably live with armed robbers,” so there was no support offered of any type.”

Mary says that with the reform, a situation such as that would likely be dealt with differently. “But you have to find the right [police officer]. Just because they are legally and morally bound to look after us just like any other industry doesn’t mean that they will.”

Even the people who are supposed to protect these women, without question, judgment, or hesitation, are in some cases prevented from wholly doing so due to the continued existence of prejudice within New Zealand society as a whole. “You’ll find a good cop who has no judgment, just like you’ll find a good person on the street who has no judgment,” says Mary, while Ava believes the “attitudes of the police run parallel with the attitudes of the public.”

Ava explains that now that sex work is legal and legitimised, the calibre of girls within the sex industry has changed. “That whole cliché of the drug-addicted, desperate, really young and naïve, doesn’t have the mind to gain an income through another means, it’s just been completely blown away. The girls, especially through our place, they’re beautiful, and so smart, some of them have double degrees. They’re people training to be lawyers and doctors [who] just don’t have the time and don’t want to come out of their study situation in thousands of dollars worth of Student Loan debt.”

No sex worker should ever have been judged. But now with the legitimisation of the sex industry, such prejudice is even more appalling. Girls within this profession are like any other; they are not necessarily damaged, desperate or dumb, they have merely chosen to work in an industry that pays well without demanding exorbitant amounts of time out of their week.

Ava says that being a sex worker allows for her to provide for her two children while still having enough time free to be there for them, a reality that would be unattainable in many other professions. She says it’s the same with her colleagues who are studying. Sex work allows them to come out of their tertiary educations without a Student Loan, while still affording them enough spare time to fully dedicate themselves to university.

Mary says she had an idyllic childhood: “I’m Catholic, and I was brought up in Eastbourne. I had a very, very happy, well-balanced childhood. Our parents had us because they wanted us, they loved children. The only abuse I ever suffered was having to go to church every Sunday.” She has managed and owned several escort agencies, and is now incredibly successful. Just like many other motivated, driven business owners, she loves her work and is passionate about her industry.

Women like Mary and Ava are tax-paying, responsible, upstanding New Zealand citizens. They are not breaking the law, they are not causing trouble, they are not harming anyone. And yet devastating judgment is passed on them and women like them by many within our society. Because of this, they remain marginalised. They remain unable to fully access the protections and privileges that our legal system actually grants them by right. They are dissuaded from seeking justice, disallowed unbiased protection from authorities, and immediately stereotyped because of the way in which they earn a living.

Subsequently, Mary calls the Reform Act a “first step”. She says there is still a long way to go before she, and the women who work for her, will be treated the same as all other employed people. Unfortunately, the binding laws that lay out equality for her and her colleagues remain insufficient, thwarted from being realised by the archaic and judgmental mentalities that are still rife among us New Zealanders.

We do not have any right to judge the way in which these women, and around 4000 women like them, choose to make a living. In doing so, we are responsible for preventing them from reaching the equality that they have been promised by law.

If we can abolish these lingering prejudices, and accept these women for the women they are, rather than judging them for the work they do, then equality is more than possible. Institutionally, it is there. All it needs now is us.

Sexy Time – A timeline of sex and the law
4000 BCE – The Egyptians castrated males convicted of rape. A woman found guilty of adultery would find herself without a nose.

100 AD – The Teutons, a Germanic tribe, suffocated women in excrement as punishment for prostitution.

Middle Ages – Both the guilty human and their animal partner were burned at the stake as punishment for bestiality.

1200s – The early Christian church forbade couples from having sex on Wednesdays, Fridays and, of course, Sundays.

1700s – A French prostitute could be spared punishment if she was willing to join the opera.

1861 – In England, the death penalty for anal intercourse between men was repealed, and replaced with life imprisonment. The same sentence applied in New Zealand, alongside flogging, whipping and hard labour. Progress!

1961 – The Crimes Act repealed life imprisonment for sodomy in New Zealand.

1985 – Section 128 of the Crimes Act was enacted, outlawing marital rape by excluding marriage as a valid defence to a charge of sexual violation.

1986 – The Homosexual Law Reform Act decriminalised sexual relations between men, as well consensual anal intercourse between heterosexual partners in New Zealand. Apparently, sex between women has always been fine.

1990 – 16 American states had laws against the use of dildos.

1995 – The latest of a range of amendments relating to permissible evidence at trial was introduced in section 23A of the Evidence Act 1908 (now found in section 44 of the Evidence Act 2006). Questions or evidence relating to a complainant’s sexual history or reputation is prohibited, unless deemed strictly relevant by the Judge.

2003 – The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 legalised brothel-keeping, living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution, and street solicitation in New Zealand. Our prostitution laws are some of the most liberal in the world.

2005 – The Crimes Amendment Act introduced a raft of reforms driven by changing social values. Sexual offences are now defined in gender-neutral terms, including the offence of “sexual violation” (what most people think of as rape). New offences, like meeting a young person under 16 after sexual grooming, have been created in response to international trends in the sexual exploitation of children.

2014 – “I’m a policeman” is no longer a defence to rape of prostitutes in Hawaii, after a legislative amendment last month which means police can no longer have sex with prostitutes as part of their undercover investigations.

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