In terms of attitudes towards prostitution, New Zealand and Europe are almost as diametrically opposed as they are in geography. Kiwis have opted for wholesale liberalisation of the sex trade, while Europeans are increasingly restricting it.
Does the New Zealand liberal approach provide a model or a warning? Henri Astier looks at its prostitution industry six years after decriminalisation, in the first of two articles.
New Zealand prostitutes groups lobbied for the 2003 reform
When “Sophie”, a medical worker from Christchurch, fell behind on her mortgage payments last year, she found that her job was not paying enough. Her only option was a temporary career change: she became a prostitute.
“I needed money fast so I didn’t lose my house,” she explains.
A soft-spoken 30-something with a shy smile, Sophie does not look like the stereotypical scarlet woman, even in the low-cut dress she wears at work.
She does not feel like one either. “I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I don’t do drugs. I’m a vegetarian,” she says, adding that she had qualms about her new job.
But the city centre parlour she joined – basically a pub with a sitting area at the front and bedrooms at the back – was not the drug-fuelled dive she had imagined.
“All the women here are lovely,” she says. “We spend a lot of time sitting and talking. I’ll stick it out a bit longer.”
Some might question the morality of Sophie’s choice, but legally it cannot be faulted.
Since the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, brothels have been allowed to operate more or less freely.
I make twice what I was earning in retail – it’s by far the most gratifying work I’ve ever had
Sex workers have the same rights as everyone else. In the eyes of New Zealand’s law, the oldest profession is just like any other.
This policy stands in marked contrast to Europe. In 1999 Sweden criminalised the purchase of sex services, and several countries are introducing similar laws in an attempt to combat trafficking.
Ask New Zealand sex workers what they think of Swedish-style strictures, and the response is overwhelmingly negative.
“Whether you’re prosecuting the men or the girls, you’re still prosecuting the business,” says “Lucy”, 23, from Wellington.
Lucy works in Bon Ton, an exclusive establishment in the capital where an hour-long session costs NZ$400 (£140; $200). She says the reform has given her the opportunity to work for a legitimate business in a safe environment.
“I make twice what I was earning in retail. I am appreciated by customers and my boss. I can work whenever I want to – it’s by far the most gratifying work I’ve ever had,” she says.
Lucy’s manager, Sarah, also believes criminalising clients would be a disaster for the industry and put the girls at risk.
Bon Ton caters to gentlemen who want to be “pampered in every way”
“This would scare away the quality customers,” she says. “We would be left with the dangerous sort. The nasty men won’t go away.”
Bon Ton – which thrives on “quality customers” like lawyers and civil servants – certainly looks like an ideal showcase for New Zealand-style liberalisation.
The bedrooms look like luxury suites, the upstairs office looks like – well… an office, and the workers say they are treated with respect.
Sarah insists she has zero tolerance for abuse and will back the girls even if they refuse a client. “I can’t force a woman to have sex,” she says.
As she speaks another girl appears at the door, draped in a towel. “Myah” looks at the work ahead, and realises that a client who often insists on having oral sex without a condom wants to see her.
“I don’t want him,” Myah says. “No problem,” Sarah replies. “I’ll tell him you’re not available.”
NZ PROSTITUTION REFORM ACT
Brothels allowed to operate
Up to four prostitutes can set up collective as equal partners
Advertising sale of sex legalised
Brothels require certificate and registration by court
Sex work subject to normal employment and health and safety standards
Myah is not afraid to turn down work. Her health is at stake, and the law requires a condom for any commercial sex act. “It is my legal right to make that demand,” she says.
But are the benefits from legalisation confined to high-end businesses like Bon Ton?
According to Catherine Healy of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC), better and safer working practices are now the norm.
Across the industry, she says, women are now aware of their rights and exploitative brothel owners are becoming marginalised as a result of the reform.
“Sex workers say: I can work across town,” she says. “The dynamic has altered.”
Anna Reed, who was a sex worker in Christchurch for 23 years and is now NZPC’s local spokesperson, agrees that exploitative practices have become rare.
“Owners used to demand huge fines for being late. They used to hire and fire workers without reason.” But now, she says, “girls feel more able to stand up for themselves”.
Another key benefit of decriminalisation, according to Ms Healy, is a sea change in relations with the police: “If you’re the one committing a crime, you won’t ask the police for help.”
Advocate Catherine Healy says the law has empowered sex workers
Now, Ms Healy says, the girls find law enforcement officials are on their side.
This idea was borne out by a parliamentary report last year, which gave a positive assessment of the reform. It said prostitutes were more likely to report violence to police, and officers were treating their complaints seriously.
Some brothel operators, however, are not so sure the reform has made a big difference.
Bon Ton owner Jennifer – who got into the sex business after decriminalisation – says some old-style establishments are still exploiting people. “This is still an industry in transition,” she says.
Monique, who ran brothels before 2003 and now owns Capri, a “Gentleman’s club and garden bar” in Christchurch, also plays down the impact of the reform – but for the opposite reason.
She says relations with police were good even when bordellos operated illegally. And then, as now, exploitation of girls was never widespread, Monique adds.
“We now have a fat, legal agreement with the workers but they are treated the same.”
A sure sign that New Zealand’s sex trade has not been entirely revolutionised is that society still frowns on it.
Last year a teacher was sacked when it was learnt that she occasionally – and perfectly legally – moonlighted as a prostitute.
We get so pissed off when politicians portray us as victims
Many sex workers keep a regular part-time job to avoid leaving suspicious gaps on their CVs.
They tell only trusted friends about their main activity. None of the working prostitutes and madams interviewed for this report was ready to give their real names.
Brothels may be legal but most New Zealanders prefer not to live next to one.
Bon Ton never mentions an address in its adverts – only a phone number. In Christchurch operators had to fight a proposed zoning law that would have kept them out of most areas.
But the overwhelming majority in the business feels huge progress was made when the industry emerged from the shadow.
Anna Reed says she loved working as a prostitute – “I had sex, money and men!” – and resents enduring cliches about a job no-one in her right mind could willingly embrace.
“We get so pissed off when politicians portray us as victims,” she says.
“It’s important to blow down the stereotypes about sex workers – particularly that of the poor girl who is coerced into doing it.”