Sunday, December 1, 2002

Ruth Laugesen

p. 6.

Prostitutes ready to come out of shadows

Under the new law prostitutes will have employment contracts and enjoy Osh safety standards.

MEGAN JEBSON sashays on high heels among the clotheslines on the back balcony of her central Wellington massage parlour, hanging up freshly washed towels from the clients. I hand her the pegs.

A block away is the former private boarding house where 30 years ago she had her first client. Now she owns one of the penthouse suites there. "When I first started working, there were no parlours, doll," she says. "We just went to the old Bistro Bar and hoped for the best."

Dressed in her working gear of filmy black mini, G-string, black stockings, and bust-baring top, Jebson, 49, makes her way back inside to the sunny kitchenette that her "girls" use for tea breaks. The paintwork is fresh, the carpets plush, and the showers down the hallway spotless.

Prospective clients can be seen on a TV screen before the door is opened, "you never know, one of the girls' fathers might turn up".

Jebson pours herself a mid-afternoon drink from a single-serve bottle of Lindauer, nibbles on a Kit Kat chocolate bar and answers the phone, her appointment pad for the day half-full.

After 20 years owning massage parlours, Jebson is Wellington's longest surviving madam, although she just likes to be called the boss. She flourishes with pride the company accounts prepared by a real accountant. "Listen doll, I personally didn't start making money in this trade until I became legit. Until I registered with the IRD and registered as a proper business," she says.

"In my house the ladies can't work here unless they have got an IRD number. That's how we stay in business. That's what I tell the girls. If people don't pay tax, they can't put the money to proper use because they're too busy hiding it. If you get cash, you won't put money in the bank, you'll spend it."

So does she take bookings and look after the laundry? "No! I've got a following after all these years, doll," she hoots.

Is she living off the earnings of prostitution, which is specifically banned by our laws? "Oh no," says Jebson, mock-scandalised. "As far as I'm concerned we're running a massage parlour. What goes on behind closed doors is a decision for the young ladies and the client.

"They could be running a hand-holding club or doing handstands for all I know. They are paying for a private time out and how they choose to spend it is nobody's business but their own."

Jebson is one member of New Zealand's 4500-strong sex industry, which stands on the threshold of becoming completely "legit".

On Friday, parliament's justice and electoral select committee gave the nod to Labour MP Tim Barnett's private member's bill, which seeks the decriminalisation of prostitution. By the end of February there promises to be a fierce debate over the bill in parliament.

The bill, it could be argued, is already having an impact. In the two years since it was introduced into parliament, the already light police enforcement of prostitution laws has become lighter still. A couple of years ago police recorded a total of 53 prostitution-related offences. By the 2001/02 year, that had fallen to 29.

These days, says Barnett, we have "Kiwi prohibition" of prostitution, much like our half-hearted ban on cannabis. Technically, selling sex for money is legal in New Zealand. But a number of laws inhibit it, making it impractical to stay on the right side of the law for long. It is illegal to solicit, to keep a brothel, to live off the earnings of prostitution and to procure a woman for intercourse.

Massage parlours are also regulated, with operators required to keep lists of employees. Anyone who is convicted of a prostitution-related offence cannot work in a massage parlour for 10 years, marginalising them into the more risky street or suburban escort trade if they choose to remain in the business.

But Jebson doesn't seem overawed by the threat of prosecution, describing the coppers at Wellington Central just down the street as "really, really good", saying they don't hassle the workers.

So what difference would it make if prostitution was legalised, if lax enforcement has got us most of the way there already? Prostitutes Collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healy says some sex workers themselves aren't too sure they want to become "legit". "Some are saying, we like it the way it is. We are not getting busted," she says.

But she believes bringing the industry a little of the way out of the shadows would allow sex workers to stand up to some "absolutely atrocious and appalling" practices. It is common practice, for example, for massage parlour owners to require workers to pay a bond of between $300 and $600 which is withheld if a worker calls in sick or doesn't turn up.

A system of fines is used to discipline workers and in many cases the workers have no right to refuse customers or to carry out particular acts. Some "houses", as they are called, explain to workers when they sign on the list of sexual acts that clients can request. "They are quite disenfranchised. A lot of people don't equate the word 'no' with sex workers. That is an incredibly important word. There are all too few situations where sex workers can say 'no'," says Healy.

Being legal will mean prostitutes can have employment contracts enforced, will come under occupational and health rules and can go to the police more freely if they are assaulted, says Healy. Barnett's bill would scrap the laws regulating massage parlours and dismantle offences relating to prostitution. A new section in the Crimes Act would make prostitution under the age of 18 illegal, with those assisting child prostitutes liable for imprisonment of up to seven years.

Health measures are spelled out — anyone operating or in control of a brothel has to take all practical steps to ensure condoms are used. They must also provide information on safe sex.

And significantly, the new law would spell out the right of sex workers to say "no". Anyone coercing someone to provide commercial sexual services would face up to seven years in jail.

But one of New Zealand's best known feminists, Sandra Coney, says it is fanciful to imagine the lives of prostitutes might change for the better. She is lining up among those fighting the bill.

Coney is predicting a law change would bring more brothels, more prostitution and more competition. The result would be women would be expected to do more unsafe and degrading things to keep up with competition.

Those who care about women's rights should be trying to shut down the industry and help women get out, says Coney. She proposes the law should be changed to criminalise the clients instead.

Coney has found herself on the same side as the Christian lobby fighting the bill. Her position points to a split among feminists on how to view prostitutes — women who are to be supported, or women who are letting the side down.

Lining up to back the bill are the establishment feminist groups such as the National Council of Women, the YWCA and the Federation of Business and Professional Women of New Zealand.

Barnett says although intellectually Coney has an argument, in the real world it doesn't make sense. He says the criminalisation of prostitution makes it difficult for women to leave the industry, because their police record hangs over them.

Di Yates, a Labour MP who is opposing Barnett's bill, says she cannot condone parliament giving the big tick to an industry that exploits and abuses women.

She isn't convinced by the argument that we should accept prostitution, because it has always been with us.

Back at the Fleur de Lys, Jebson will be watching the MPs determine her fate with interest. She counts up $80 in cash from a client who has just left. Her ladies are not just about "laying on their backs and taking the money".

"If they're given encouragement to treat it more like a business, in my experience that's what they'll do. Make it so they're not living in fear."

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Created: December 5, 2002
Last modified: December 5, 2002
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