Friday, February 21, 2003

New Zealand Press Association

Socially responsible or pandora's box?

Labour MP Tim Barnett's Prostitution Reform Bill was before Parliament today. Mr Barnett says his bill will significantly reduce opportunities for exploitation while addressing community concerns, but opponents claim it will open a Pandora's box that will be impossible to close. NZPA's RUTH HILL spoke to both sides.

WELLINGTON, Feb 19 — After 30 years on the game, Megan is more convinced than ever that prostitution is not a crime.

"Who's the criminal?" says the owner/operator of a Wellington massage parlour.

"We now have licenses to operate these places, we pay tax — and this is a crime?

Earlier in her career when Megan was working on the streets of Sydney, where she was arrested 72 times for loitering and soliciting.

"It was a very corrupt system there — you had to pay off the cops.

The constant threat of a bust meant sex workers were forced to take risks, she says.

Decriminalisation in New South Wales has improved the lot of sex workers there no end by removing "the fear factor", she says.

Catherine Healey, national co-ordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, says although prostitution itself is not currently illegal, someone can be imprisoned for five years for running a "brothel", which could even be her own bedroom.

While convictions were rare nowadays the current law "still affects peoples' lives in many ways, from finding accommodation to travelling overseas," she says.

"Once you have a criminal conviction, it makes it difficult to exit the sex industry and find alternative work."

Ms Healey says Labour MP Tim Barnett's Prostitution Reform Bill currently before Parliament has strong community support and is essential to ensure the wellbeing and rights of the people involved in the sex industry. "It is about health, not hype and hysteria," she says.

The bill would:

  • introduce safe sex information requirements;
  • strengthen laws against coercion of sex workers;
  • raise penalties and reduce defences available for clients of sex workers aged 16 to 18; and
  • establish a review committee, which among other things will look at ways to help people avoid entering the sex industry and to help them leave the sex industry.

While sex workers have done "extraordinary work in encouraging a condom culture right across the country", it is difficult for some to insist on safe sex when clients have "the law on their side", says Ms Healey.

"In the early 1990s, when there was a lot of enforcement, it was incredibly hard for us.

"Often we'd get calls asking our outreach workers to stay away with their condoms because the police were out and about."

It is "nonsense" to imply that decriminalisation will mean there are no controls at all, and it will not lead to sex workers setting up shop on every corner.

"Most people don't want to work on the street, and most clients do not want to be seen hanging around the streets, so market forces will ensure that doesn't happen.

"What it will mean hopefully is that we will be able to sort out zones for street work with councils in a non-combative way." However, opponents say decriminalisation will make "a bad piece of law worse".

Future New Zealand MP Larry Baldock, a former missionary who worked in a refuge for Filipina prostitutes, says the bill "can't deliver".

"This bill implicitly rejects the notion that prostitution needs to be or can be controlled," he says.

"This bill actually removes all controls."

But the idea of no controls at all is unacceptable to the community at large, so little by little, through the select committee process, the bill is being weighed down with more and more controls, he says.

"It will end up being a legalisation bill — not just a decriminalisation bill — they won't admit it, but that's what they've got.

"All overseas experience shows that wherever there is a legalisation regime, the illegal, unlicensed sector grows much faster because there's always more money to be made in the illegal sector.

"It's doomed to fail."

However, Mr Barnett who has nursed the bill through parliament over the last six years, denies it will be unworkable.

All the changes coming in the committee stage — such as allowing councils more control over zoning and disqualifying "bad people" from running brothels — do not change the essence of it, he says.

"The law needs to be changed because it is inconsistent, applied differently in different parts of the country, is endlessly confusing and barely enforced.

"At the moment, prostitutes are essentially being criminalised while clients are not, and that feeds some of the risks. "Good law minimises the risks."

While Mr Baldock admits there is "some hypocrisy" in the status quo of "pseudo legalisation", it doesn't necessarily follow we should dump it.

If we want better sexual health services, we should give more funding to the Prostitutes' Collective and other social agencies who are helping prostitutes, he says.

"The way we can help prostitutes is to offer them a better way of life, better economic opportunities and emotional support.

While there will probably always be a market for sex, that doesn't mean society has to "encourage it", he says.

"What this legislation will do is take away any controls at all, so the police will have no more power to intervene than they could in business of a corner dairy or a post office."

The Maxim Institute (a research and social policy organisation concerned with "family, education and welfare") agrees law reform is necessary. Spokeswoman Jenny Horst says would like to see New Zealand follow the Swedish example and make it illegal to pay for sex.

With decriminalisation, there would be nothing to stop brothels opening up next to schools, kindergartens, churches, or any other public place, she says.

"Market forces will take over if prostitution is legalised and there will be an increase in supply, as has happened overseas.

"A licensing system may attempt to control those market forces, but trying to deal with prostitution as if it is simply another economic activity totally ignores the reality of the sex trade…

"In Sydney, where prostitution was decriminalised in 1995, attempting to deal with illegal brothels and zoning issues has cost local authorities hundreds of thousands of dollars a year."

She claims only four out of 170 New South Wales local councils suport the existing system.

However, Ms Healey points out that just because only four councils have instituted bylaws, does not mean the rest don't support the system. "It's simply not an issue for them."

She quotes John Bright, a Cabinet Office appointee to the New South Wales Sex Services Premises Planning Advisory Panel, as saying the majority of councils have been "happy to fully embrace the principles of decriminalisation of prostitution".

New Zealand Press Association — 02/20/03

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Created: April 13, 2003
Last modified: April 13, 2003
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