24 May 2014

Buying sex shouldn't be criminalised: some thoughts on New Zealand's experience

Every so often our politicians declare that ‘it’s time to prosecute men for buying sex’; most recently with Caroline Spelman’s call for men to make their views clearer about prostitution. I’m one of few men who’ll own up to visiting brothels and spending time with call girls. Alas – for those getting hot under the collar with anticipation – my time spent cruising red light zones was strictly professional: I spent most of 2008 photographing sex workers in New Zealand for my dissertation, which documented how the country’s decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 had changed the industry.

New Zealand’s prostitution law reform sidestepped passing judgment on the ethics of prostitution, focusing simply on improving ‘the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers’. This might sound bureaucratic, but women in the sex industry are now protected by society, rather than marginalised from it. I remember the case of a bloke who’d pulled his condom off when he was in a brothel. The $400 fine the courts served him seemed paltry; but his name was published when the local newspapers covered the case. He was the bad person, rather than the ‘woman of ill repute’ he’d been visiting, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.

From 'The New Professionals' (Matthew Plummer)
My experience from the dozens I met in the industry was that sex work is remarkably mundane, and the stories I heard about the (mostly) men who paid for sex were pretty humdrum: widowers, couples who’d stopped having sex, and so on. But I can’t remember meeting sex workers who expressly disliked their job. Many were comfortable – even proud – of what they did for a living, with the main complaint being that decriminalisation had seen a slump in their earnings. This (I was told by an MP who debated the 2003 legislation) came down to basic economics, with price being a product of supply and demand. And on that basis criminalising the purchase of sex would be a nasty double whammy for prostitutes, as not only would they be at the mercy of clients on the wrong side of the law, but it would also drive down earnings: hardly the way to look after vulnerable people.

Of course the press loves running stories of women brought to the UK and forced into sex work; trafficked victims in heels and lipstick make for far more exciting copy than cases of domestic servitude or forced agricultural work. The English Collective of Prostitutes has done a comprehensive rebuttal of the girls-trafficked-into-prostitution misconception which is worth reading, and various estimates on the numbers of women being trafficked to Britain to work as prostitutes have proved to be wildly inaccurate. This doesn’t surprise me; statistics gathered by the police in New Zealand in the aftermath of the 2003 decriminalisation showed the numbers of active sex workers had been overstated by a factor of ten. The murky legal and social status of the profession makes gathering hard data almost impossible, and I can’t imagine that things are any different over here. Far better to bring it out of the shadows, with taxes paid and health and safety regulations enforced, rather than creating a needlessly dangerous underworld and wasting valuable police resources.

First published by Coffee House on May 16th, 2014