‘Decriminalising sex work is the only way to ensure sex workers have access to justice – and New Zealand has proved that it works’

by Lynzi Armstrong

This article also appeared in The Independent

Sex work laws are currently under debate in several parts of the world, and there are divergent views regarding which approach best protects sex worker’s rights and supports their access to justice.

While some advocate for a legislative framework which would criminalise clients of sex workers, sex worker-led organisations disagree, arguing that this approach places sex workers in danger. Instead, they are calling for decriminalisation – an approach which has been in place in New Zealand since 2003. However, myths abound regarding New Zealand’s model, including unsubstantiated claims that the sex industry has expanded, that pimps are emboldened, and that trafficking is rife.  But, what do we really know about New Zealand’s policy of decriminalisation and how it impacts sex workers?

The passing of the Prostitution Reform Act followed years of work by New Zealand’s sex worker organisation – the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. The purpose was to minimise harm, and so the law change not only removed legislation which criminalised sex work, but also afforded rights to sex workers.

Decriminalisation in New Zealand differs from legalised regimes such as Germany, since it focuses on empowering sex workers – rather than the state – to have greater control over their work. This approach recognises that sex workers are best-placed to advise on their own working conditions, and to enable this there must be a transparent environment in which sex workers can report adverse experiences – without risking themselves, or their clients being criminalised.

A requirement of the law change was that research be undertaken in the years following, to evaluate the impacts. This research, completed by researchers from the University of Otago’s Christchurch School of Medicine, highlighted many benefits. For instance – over 60 percent of 772 sex worker participants reported feeling more able to refuse to see certain clients. Furthermore, 95 percent reported feeling that they had rights after decriminalisation. These rights mean the balance of power has shifted, and sex workers can more easily hold to account those who seek to exploit them.

The powerful impact of these rights is well-illustrated by a 2014 case in which a sex worker pursued a case through the Human Rights Tribunal against a brothel operator who had sexually harassed her. She won the case and was awarded $25,000 in compensation.

Decriminalisation – of both the sale and purchase of sex – is incredibly important for enabling access to justice when crimes are perpetrated against sex workers. While earlier research indicated that some sex workers were still reluctant to report violence to the police, a later study conducted with street-based sex workers indicated significant positive change in relationships between police and sex workers. This research also demonstrated how decriminalisation supports sex worker’s safety strategies – enabling street workers to take their time in initial conversations with clients, without risking their clients being arrested, and losing income as a result.

Decriminalisation also means that clients can provide information to police when sex workers are assaulted. A woman I interviewed in 2009 was assisted by a client to contact police after she was attacked by a passerby.

As for trafficking – while there is evidence of trafficking into other industries, there is currently no evidence that trafficking into sex work is a problem in New Zealand, nor is there evidence that the size of the sex industry has increased since decriminalisation. In fact, research suggests that decriminalisation has had little impact on the sex worker population.

To make policy that truly benefits sex workers we must separate myths from facts, and despite oft repeated claims of its shortcomings, the evidence clearly supports the New Zealand model as an ideal starting point. While no law is perfect, this is the best approach for supporting sex worker rights and facilitating access to justice – there is no alternative worth pursuing.

Queer Muslim Sex Worker: a documentary

Queer Muslim Sex Worker is a groundbreaking podcast documentary about the real life of a young, genderfluid Londoner.

Through a series of interviews across a year of Maryam’s life, the podcast tells her real story as she speaks candidly about her gender, sexuality, Muslim identity, and demonstrates on-air how she interacts with clients via online messaging for sex work.

Maryam (not her real name) is from London, of Pakistani heritage and is highly involved in her local mosque.

Through the 42-minute podcast, listeners will follow Maryam’s incredible true story as she navigates her identities, meets new clients, and comes out as queer.

The podcast looks at how Maryam’s identities intersect and shape who she is, while letting Maryam tell her story in her own words.

“I’m from an immigrant, Pakistani, Muslim family. I am a queer, gender fluid sex worker who’s currently in a relationship with a woman and I am very involved with my mosque life,” Maryam says in the podcast.

“I will think sometimes, this is f***ing insane – half an hour ago I was scissoring my girlfriend, and the next minute I’m at the mosque translating a religious sermon against gay marriage.”

An independently-funded project, the podcast is produced and presented by journalist Amy Ashenden (formerly LGBTQ Correspondent at the Evening Standard, now Senior Video Reporter at the Mirror Online), who produced the viral documentary The Gay Word in 2015.

Producer and presenter Amy Ashenden said: “This podcast tells such a unique story, I’m really excited for its release.

“The interviews took place across a year so you’ll see how much Maryam’s life and identity change over the course of the documentary.

“Maryam’s story is extraordinary but it’s also her real, everyday life, and she tells it so candidly and articulately in a way I’ve never come across before. I hope people can learn a lot from her story and that it will make listeners rethink what it means to be queer or Muslim.

“I was very careful to ensure the documentary took an intersectional approach and that Maryam was telling her story in her own words and not misrepresented. I wanted to avoid simplifying the narrative or putting her into boxes, as that would erase the fascinating intersections of her identity. Retaining Maryam’s anonymity was also really important.”

The documentary is available with RSS so subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts, including iTunes, audioBoom and TuneIn. Why not leave a review on iTunes? You can also follow Queer Podcasts on Twitter.

Many thanks to Amy Ashenden for this post!

Erotic Performance and Spectatorship: New Frontiers in Erotic Dance

by Katy Pilcher

Erotic dance is one of the most contentious issues in feminist debates today and a source of fascination in media representations, yet little is known about those who perform erotic dance for women customers, or the experiences of these spectators themselves. Through vivid ethnographies of a lesbian leisure venue and a male strip show, Erotic Performance and Spectatorship examines the gender and sexual politics of erotic dance, simultaneously relating these to debates about sex work more widely. Drawing on insights gleaned through participant observation within erotic dance spaces; interviews with dancers, customers and management; together with a photo-elicitation venture with a dancer, this book subverts previous assumptions that only women perform erotic dance and only men spectate, and develops the debate beyond assumptions that erotic dance is either straightforwardly degrading or empowering.

Through the voices of dancers and customers, together with my own reflections on participating in strip venues, this book provides a distinctive view on issues including the politics of looking and being watched; the aesthetic, emotional and body work of erotic dance; questions of power; and the embodied experiences of dancers and customers in these spaces. I draw out some of the key and the ‘queer’ moments that I perceive to be central to dancers’ and customers’ experiences within non-conventional erotic dance spaces, as well as being the moments through which we can think about the contestability of normative power relations. I make links between participants’ definitions of both venues as in some senses representing ‘women’s spaces’, and the tensions with this notion; the complex ways in which customers and dancers negotiate the dynamics of looking and being watched through critically engaging with conceptions of a sexual ‘gaze’; and how the particular venues that dancers work within is crucial to their ability to be able to experience autonomy through their work role. I highlight how people with erotic dance spaces challenge and negotiate heteronormative gender and sexual power relations, and what this indicates for the theorising of gender and sexual power relations more broadly.

The book includes reflections on the sensory experiences of researching erotic leisure venues, and includes anecdotes of encounters during the research process that have influenced the conclusions drawn. I comment upon the status of ‘sex work research’ within and outside the academy and the impact upon researchers who may be stigmatised (Hammond and Kingston, 2014), or considered to be doing ‘dirty’ (Irvine, 2014) or ‘morally’ tainted research. Theorised through a feminist and queer lens, overall, I argue that people’s engagement with erotic dance as both performers and customers is complex, and the book highlights the pleasures and the politics of participating in erotic dance spaces.

If you would like to review this book for an academic journal (and receive a free copy) please contact Katy to arrange this on k.pilcher@aston.ac.uk. It can be purchased at a discount using code FLR40 on the Routledge website.