Prostituting women – an essential service?

by Don Franks 

As we face new unknowns against Covid 19, there’s something reassuring about level 2’s basic rules.

“Physical distancing – keep your distance when out and about. Two metres in public and in retail stores, like supermarkets. One metre in most other environments like workplaces, cafes, restaurants, and gyms.”

However, “there will be a few times at Alert Level 2 where it won’t be possible to maintain physical distance.” One such time would be when visiting your local brothel. That should be up and running now that Alert Level 2 guidelines have been set. Brothel reopening was apparently something of a government priority; negotiations about reinstatement started early. They involved the Covid-19 committee, health authorities, police, WorkSafe and the Prostitutes Collective.

You might wonder about this government decision. With strict distancing imposed in other areas, restricted numbers and no hugging at weddings and funerals, why hasten to restart prostitution? The country coped without it for several weeks, as we did without various other unessential services.

Male entitlement had put on pressure.

Prostitutes Collective national coordinator Dame Catherine Healy said she had spoken to many sex workers around the country and all of them had been lobbied by clients about returning to work during alert Levels 3 and 4.

“There was an impatience there coming in from the clients or a stupidity – I’m not sure which.”

She is relieved the industry has got approval for Level 2 because clients may have flouted the law, especially with regard to contact tracing, if sex workers were not allowed to work.

“It was felt that there would be a lot of belligerence if sex workers were forced to hang on until Level 1. In fact, we felt it would be entirely unrealistic and the harm that could result in terms of contact tracing.

“The important thing is sex workers aren’t going to be in breach of the law.”

Dame Healy said the rules are similar to most other businesses – about good hygiene practices and keeping records for contact tracing.

Prostitutes Collective hygiene practice guidelines for level 2, include not “offering kissing to clients” and “avoiding other people’s breath”. Some sex workers would also wear masks. In brothels, each sex worker will have their own room, and “be careful about social distancing”.

If it’s hard to see how physical distancing could be maintained in this case, it’s even harder to imagine accurate contact tracing. Commentator Anna Regina noted:

“A great many Johns are married or in relationships. Their partners often do not know (I’d contest most of the time they do not know) their partner is having sex with a prostitute. So how, pray tell, can these interactions be reasonably contact traced? What if a wife of said John presented symptoms of Covid19 and had no idea where it came from? Are we supposed to believe the John will confess to seeing a prostitute and allow for proper tracing?”

It will take just one infectious person to set off new outbreaks of Covid 19. The sex industry looks as likely a place as any. Women with close experience of the business agree, demanding a change of government attitude.

“Women are being forced back into brothels with no guidance on safety from the government,” said Michelle Mara, a co-founder of the survivor-led organisation Wahine Toa Rising. “Guidelines released yesterday for other industries which include close personal proximity, such as hair and nail salons, are completely inadequate for the sex trade,” she says.

With free retraining and 11,000 new jobs announced in the Budget, now could also a good time for the many women who wish to exit the sex trade to do that, she says.

“The government must start funding exit services, so women who want out can get support while they work through that process. It needs to be made clear that refusing to work in the sex trade doesn’t affect anyone’s entitlement to a WINZ benefit, for example. Instead, they play along with the pretense that it is “work like any other”. New Zealand needs to provide an alternative solution rather than maintaining existing frameworks that do not help the most vulnerable,” concluded Ms Mara. An alternative solution to the pretense of “work like any other” is long overdue.

As the Council of Disobedient Women wrote on March 8th this year:

“What other job has the inside of the worker’s body as the workplace? Why is the inside of a woman’s body considered both a service provider and the product?”

“Why do pro-sex trade advocates talk of harm minimisation and at the same time claim that the sex industry is not harmful? Why is the rate of PTSD higher in prostituted women than returned soldiers?

“How do sexual harassment laws apply to women in prostitution? Most jobs say verbal abuse will not be tolerated and unwanted physical contact is an offence.

“Would you promote prostitution as a first-time job with positive, increasing career prospects, salary, health and safety processes to your daughter, granddaughter, niece, young female family member or friend? Why is this the only job where being young and having no experience pays more? Why is this a job that recruits mainly young and often homeless girls? If it is so empowering why are the brothels not staffed by well-to-do men and women?

“Why is the unwanted sex in prostitution treated as consensual sex? Elsewhere in society this is recognised as rape. Does the exchange of money negate or lessen an act of abuse? If a sex offender pays money to his rape victim did the abuse not happen? Why is it acceptable for women’s bodies to be purchased for male pleasure, where only one party wants the sex?

“It is universally recognised that women in prostitution dissociate to cope with the unwanted sex. As a result, drug and alcohol abuse is common. Why in this job is it accepted that the workers will use alcohol and drugs, routinely in fact, at work? Why is being stoned or drunk during sex considered non-consensual sex in society but a norm and consensual for the sex trade?

“Powerful jobs are dominated by males. Yet over 90 percent of prostitutes are female and 99 percent of the customers male.

“If prostitution is an expression of self-determination why do so many prostitutes want to exit the industry? Why are there no services or funding for women who want to leave the industry when so many want out? On International Working Women’s Day 2020 we say no more lies, end the barbaric practice of men purchasing women for sex.”