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May 1, 2017 | by  | in News Splash |
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Workers face hurdles to sell their services in Christchurch neighbourhood

“Residents hope prostitute camera becomes permanent feature” — The Press, May 19, 2016.

“Prostitutes continue to plague Christchurch residents”Stuff.co.nz, April 6, 2017.

“Prostitutes forcing Chch community into lockdown” — Radio New Zealand, April 18, 2017.

The section of Manchester Street south of Bealey Avenue in Christchurch has been a well-known location for street-based sex workers for decades. In the last five years, sex work activity has migrated to the north of Manchester Street into a more residential neighbourhood.

Since, residents have frequently complained about “disturbances” caused by sex workers and their customers.

The Public Places Christchurch City bylaw prevents “commercial activity” in a public place without a council-issued permit. This does not prevent people who offer a service, such as sex, from being present in a public place without a permit, although the actual exchange of sexual activity for money cannot take place in a public space.

Labour candidate for Christchurch Central, Duncan Webb, labelled this as “splitting hairs.”

“It’s like saying you can have an ice cream stand there on the street, advertise the ice cream there on the street, and that it’s not a commercial transaction if you go away and eat the ice cream somewhere private.”

Helen Beaumont, Christchurch City Council Strategic Planner, explained that it was less straightforward. “Mr Whippy usually has a van, with clear advertising, with a price list, in what is clearly a commercial exchange — but there are not those unambiguous cues with sex work.”

It is unclear why Webb chose the comparison of ice cream to describe sex workers, rather than more analogous provisions of services, such as labourers or tradespeople.

Webb said his concern is not about the sex work itself, but about “the byproducts of using the area for commercial use,” including littering, discarded condoms, arguments, and belligerent customers in a residential area. “It’s not St Kilda, it’s not K Road.”

He described the disturbances as “incredibly prevalent” and “really quite disruptive,” suggesting that there were incidents of varying frequencies — from a condom left on the footpath to “screaming matches at 2am” — on most days. “These people come and go and their identities change, but it’s an ongoing problem.”

Catherine Healey from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) expressed sympathy for the residents, and acknowledged “a genuine tension” between the interests of different parties in the area. “We really encourage our girls to avoid those deeply residential areas […] but it really is a tiny number of sex workers who are working in that area.”  

She stressed that the NZPC wanted to work with the council and the community to resolve the disturbances, but suggested that media attention had “completely overplayed” the issue. “There is a rich kind of description, a tone, used to talk about sex workers which overstates the prevalence of the disruption.”

While Webb was confident that the issues only stem from sex workers and their customers, Beaumont said that “Council staff have observed drunk and disorderly conduct in those areas, from people heading home from a night out, which is just as disruptive and not necessarily tied to sex work. That is also unacceptable.”

The behaviour being complained about appears to be covered by existing legislation and bylaws, such as the Litter Act 1979, the Summary Offences Act 1981, and the Resource Management Act 1991.

Webb suggested that there was a “serious problem” with enforcement, which is why current legislation is not sufficient to prevent the disturbances. “The reality is, police do not think it is appropriate to attend callouts for these incidents in this area.”

Beaumont said that if residents were being disturbed by illegal activity, the police were the appropriate avenue to pursue, and that the council is working alongside the police “to resolve enforcement issues.”

All parties agreed that part of a solution would include providing appropriate, safe, purpose built areas that are more attractive for sex workers and their customers. “The reality is that the real driver for this behaviour is the customers,” reflected Webb. In Switzerland and Germany, purpose built booths have been installed in designated areas to provide privacy and necessary amenities, such as rubbish bins and panic buttons if sex workers feel threatened.

The Public Places bylaw is currently under review, and is expected to be put out for public consultation in 2018. Beaumont said that the council was working with the community to provide solutions, and that a range of options were being considered, including the establishment of special purpose areas. She stressed that the council’s concern is about better outcomes for “the whole community — and that community involves sex workers.”

While Webb insists that a regulatory approach preventing women from proffering their services in certain areas is necessary “as a last resort […] which can help to protect a vulnerable group of people,” Healey is concerned that this kind of approach is a step backwards, not forwards. “We have long memories, which span decades of discrimination. When sex work was illegal […] we saw this cycle of women being arrested, processed, discharged, paying their fines, then being back working. A regulatory approach just won’t work, in the same way now as it didn’t then.”

Webb said he was “trying to approach the issue in a value-neutral way,” although “it would be an issue of grave sadness to me, if someone I was close to was working in the sex industry.” Healey suggested that “although they say it’s not about the sex work, there is so much stigma surrounding the work we do — of course it is part of the consideration.”

The stigmatisation of sex workers is part of an ongoing battle, according to Healey. “What other sector of society would be treated in this way? We are literally treated like pieces of meat.”

“We acknowledge and agree that there is an issue here that needs to be resolved. But sex workers […] are also facing hate, discrimination, and violence every day in these communities.”

Four street-based sex workers have been killed in Christchurch since 2008. There is no record of any resident being killed by a sex worker in Christchurch.

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