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Auckland Council: Numbers Games?

Thu 30 May 2013 In: Comment View at Wayback View at NDHA

Is Auckland Council confused about the number of street sex workers on Papatoetoe's Hunters Corner? There seem to be conflicting statements and statistics about how many there might be. Of course, it's not difficult to see why this might be the case. It is one of the hallmarks of "moral panic" arguments against the public presence and existence of marginal social groups that without deliberate repression of their allegedly "escalating" numbers, "normal" or "everyday" residents will be "overwhelmed" by an "influx" of such "deviant" individuals. Thus, anecdote and tabloid media exaggeration substitute for more detailed and rational, statistical analysis. Why might there be any increase in the number of street sex workers in Papatoetoe? There might be contextual reasons involved. For one thing, the Auckland Council bans sex workers from working from council rental accommodation and undertaking escort work from there, forcing vulnerable transsexual women (and sometimes, impoverished cisgender Maori and Pacific Island women with dependent children to feed and rent to pay) to choose between homelessness, imprisonment and the necessity of street sex work to pay the bills, pay rent and insure that tamariki have food on the table when they get home. For another, restricting sex work to brothels alone is no solution either, unless there is an antidiscrimination law change banning discrimination against transsexuals in the workplace and accommodation, as brothels can and do discriminate against employing transsexual sex workers. Added to which, there is a recession on, and other marginal employment options may have been closed off due to factory and business closure, necessitating resort to street sex work to people who may not have any other option. The Ministry of Justice has written a useful discussion paper which does estimate how many street sex workers there might be in this context, and suggests why this might be the case. As part of the regulatory process following the establishment of the Prostitution Law Reform Act 2003, the Ministry of Justice established a Prostitution Law Review Committee, which publishes reports on aspects of sex work within New Zealand society. In April 2005, it published The Nature and Extent of the Sex Industry in New Zealand. It is worth quoting this document in greater detail, which I will now do. According to the report, there is considerable differentiation between indoor and street sex work. Escort agencies and brothel sex workers constitute a different population of sex workers from street sex workers. There has been a decrease in some forms of sex work, such as sex work oriented toward maritime industry works due to changes in fishery and maritime mercantile employment, which has therefore declined. According to a pre-decriminalisation police survey (2001), sixty-eight per cent of New Zealand sex workers work either within residential brothels, escort agencies or as independent contractor/private escorts. Street sex workers made up only about ten per cent of all New Zealand sex workers. Auckland had twice as many street sex workers (360) as Manukau (150), with Christchurch constituting half that number (75) and Wellington numbering only fifty observed street sex workers. The report also noted that as many as thirty per cent of street sex workers were transsexual women, due to their absence of alternative employment options. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective also examined the issue of numerical representation of sex workers, noting that most sex workers who injected intravenous drugs worked indoors, as it was perceived to be easier to conceal or dispose of drugs or syringes in that context. In May 2008, the Prostitution Law Review Committee issued another report, on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. The statistical breakdown noted that apart from Manukau City, where there were more street sex workers, most sex workers worked from either escort agencies, brothels or as private contractors from their own accommodation. One can only suggest that the presence of Manukau's anomalous concentration of street sex workers is probably due to its self-defeating anti-rental accommodation bans, and that its former council therefore partially created their own self-labelled "problem" in this context. Nor can the level of street sex work on Hunters Corner be solely attributed to the existence of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 and its associated decriminalisation of street sex work, as the Auckland Council's own anti-sexworker propaganda comments that there was a perceived "problem" during the nineties, according to the local Manukau Courier newspaper- before decriminalisation. Logically, then, if criminalisation did not affect the number of street sex workers in the first place, then how would recriminalisation do so? But were the numbers exaggerated by the (now defunct) "Papatoetoe Reclaiming Our Streets" vigilante group, former United Future List MP (and current Conservative Party candidate) Gordon Copeland and the late Mama Tere Strickland, purely on anecdotal, impressionistic and second-hand accounts? All of the above opposed decriminalisation of sex work, especially street sex work, and may have presented subjective opinion as "factual" data to increase populist support for "moral panic" against these vulnerable individuals. The Ministry of Justice (2008) Report suggests that this is exactly what happened. The Ministry also noted that similar anecdotal claims about "increased" levels of street sex work from New South Wales following the Prostitution Reform Act 1979 there also lacked factual basis and statistical verification. The report also has a specific section on the context of street sex work. It notes that "push factors include abuse, family dysfunction and breakdown in care giving, exclusion from school, homelessness and a lack of money." These may disproportionately affect transsexual street workers due to deliberate and discriminatory exclusion from (religious) emergency shelter or housing provision. Significantly too, the report highlighted the vulnerability and social exclusion of street sex workers. It stated that: "Street-based workers are also more likely than sex workers in other sectors to have started sex work under the age of 16 years. They are less likely to be in any other paid employment, to have attained a tertiary education or to be currently studying. The socio-economic and background characteristics of street-based workers tend to be less advantaged than others ." "[...]Street-based workers were significantly more likely than other workers to report not knowing what else to do (other than sex work), not knowing how to leave the industry, and not knowing who to ask for help to leave." It also noted that the Human Rights Commission's Transgender Inquiry (also 2008) verified that this was often the case for unskilled Maori and Pasifika transsexual women. It is a hazardous occupation, as they are at risk of sexual violence from feral clients. They lack contact with healthcare professionals or mental health services. Complicating the picture in Manukau City is the presence of a higher transient street-based population, and the report suggests that street sex workers have been scapegoated for crimes committed by transient vagrants and homeless alcoholics, especially given the high concentration of liquor outlets in Central Manukau. Apart from the questionable Manukau City (Regulating Prostitution in Specified Places) and Prostitution Reform (Control of Street Prostitution) anti-sexworker private members bills in New Zealand, how have other jurisdictions dealt with street sex work? Usefully, the Prostitution Law Review Committee discussed several options from alternative models of regulating street sex work. In the United Kingdom, client kerbcrawling and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are often used, but may have the effect of forcing sex workers out to unsafe working street areas where they may be at greater risk from unsafe and predatory clients and they are also deterred from contacting social services. Under British prohibitionist sex work law, all forms of sex work are still criminalised. Sweden's prohibitionist "Sexual Purchases Act" is also criticised for a poor statistical basis for its claims of controlling sex work, forcing sex workers to relocate to adjacent nations and receive reduced earnings. Sex worker occupational safety has also been compromised due to reduced negotiating time for fear of detection of entrapment, and the entry of organised crime and illegal underage youth sex work has also been condemned by sex workers rights groups and decriminalisation and reform advocates, including many reformist Swedish feminists opposed to the status quo. Sydney has an innovative 'safehouse brothel' system that might be usefully adopted here, though, and the Netherlands has a 'tolerance zone' for street sex workers where they can contact social and medical services if necessary and relax after engaging in their work activity. The Review of Street Based Prostitution in Manukau City in April 2009 recommended this approach, much as it did Ipswich City's approach to exit counselling, social service outreach and fostering social inclusion for street sex workers in the United Kingdom. What about the health consequences of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, any advances which could be threatened through this ill-advised bill? In 2007, Lisa Fitzgerald and Sarah Brunton worked on a health and safety assessment report for the Ministry of Justice for the Ministry of Justice. About one tenth of all sex workers are street sex workers, and as noted above, "street-based workers were significantly more likely than managed or private workers to report some Maori ethnicity, identify as transgender, have started working in the sex industry before the age of 18 years and to have lower levels of education. They were also more likely than participants in other sectors to have worked in the industry for more than 10 years." As well as this, "Maori and Pacific participants [were] more likely than New Zealand European participants to have entered the industry before the age of 18 years and also more likely to identify as transgender." Reportedly, half of all street-based sex workers had no other source of income. Forty seven per cent of all street sex workers reported that they had 'insufficient' information before entering sex work, and thirty three per cent stated that they had no such information at all. Predictably, transsexual sex workers reported that transphobic discrimination was a barrier to alternative forms of employment other than sex work. Again, street sex workers report negative experiences of sex work at a greater level than other branches of the sex industry. These included: "the refusal of a client to pay, having had money stolen by a client, having been physically assaulted by a client, having been threatened by a client with physical violence, having been held against their will and having been raped in the last 12 months." However, positive perceptions of police and healthcare access had improved since decriminalisation. Were that to change as a result of recriminalisation, Fitzgerald and Brunton's research indicates that street sex workers would be especially vulnerable to escalation of the above. Moreover, Manukau/Auckland City's antisexworker ban on council flat use for private sex work and, one suspects, vigilante antisexworker activity has led to further street sex worker isolation from health and crime referral service options. From Otago University, Dr Gillian Abel made a specific submission to the Local Government and Environmental Select Committee on the Manukau City (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill. She noted that in jurisdictions where street sex work is banned, such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and even the Netherlands, street sex workers have been difficult to reach in terms of sexual violence prevention and occupational health and safety initiatives. As Fitzgerald and Brunton have noted in their report above, only about ten per cent of sex workers are street sex workers. They are "less accessible by health professionals, social workers, care organisations, youth workers and others. This increases their vulnerability" and risk of the above. According to Dr Abel, sixty three per cent of street sex workers are of Maori or Pacific Island ethnicity. Twenty three per cent of street sex workers are transsexual women, and fifty-one per cent report not having had any significant employment outside street sex work. Only six point five per cent reported that they were under eighteen, however. Transsexuals reported that they often experienced employment discrimination in this context. Almost all of the street sex workers that Dr Abel interviewed for her doctoral thesis reported that they were doing this for economic survival reasons, half of all street sex workers reported that they had no other source of income and one third reported that they could not access parental support, nor government benefit assistance. Even for those who could access benefits, they were inadequate to survive on. Significantly, Dr Abel concluded that there was escalated risk of violence and assault against street sex workers if the bill went ahead and became law. There would be greater problems in terms of health and social worker access. The Summary Offences and Litter Acts were sufficient for any bona fide problems from street sex workers in Manukau City. Lack of ongoing education access for children and adolescents in care, lack of identification documents, lack of emergency housing, lack of methadone drug rehabilitation programme access and raising the minimum wage were viewed as more positive deterrents for youth sex work than prohibitionist anti-soliciting legislation. Dr Abel has written several further articles on the above, cited in her submission and reproduced below in the recommended resources section of this article. In other words, my conclusion is the same as it has been throughout this series of articles about Manukau City Council (now Auckland City Council) and its vindictive, obstructionist and prohibitionist attacks on the rights of South Auckland street sex workers. The Auckland Council's attitude seem based on unsubstantiated anecdote, populism and moral panic. This is no basis for sensible and proportionate legislative response to the issue of street sex work. Recommended: Prostitution Law Review Committee, Ministry of Justice: The Nature and Extent of the Sex Industry in New Zealand: An Estimation (April 2005): Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostution Reform Act 2003 (May 2008): Ministry of Justice: Review of Street-Based Prostitution in Manukau City (April 2009): Lisa Fitzgerald and Cheryl Brunton: "The Impact of the Prostitution Law Reform Act on the Health and Safety of Sex Workers" Ministry of Justice (2007) Dr Gillian Abel" Submission on the Manukau City (Regulation of Prostitution in Specified Places) Bill: REFERENCES Abel, G. (2010) 'Decriminalisation: A harm minimisation and human rights approach to regulating sex work', PhD Thesis, Public Health and General Practice, University of Otago. Abel, G. (2011) 'Different stage, different performance: The protective strategy of role play on emotional health in sex work', Social Science and Medicine, 72, 7, 1177-1184. Abel, G. and Fitzgerald, L. (2008) 'On a fast-track into adulthood: An exploration of transitions into adulthood for sex workers in New Zealand', Journal of Youth Studies, 11, 4, 361-376. Abel, G. and Fitzgerald, L. (2012) '"The street's got its advantages": Movement between sectors of the sex industry in a decriminalised environment', Health, Risk and Society, 14, 1, 17-23. Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L. and Brunton, C. (2007), The impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the health and safety practices of sex workers: Report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee, Christchurch, University of Otago university otago. Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L. and Brunton, C. (2009) 'The impact of decriminalisation on the number of sex workers in New Zealand', Journal of Social Policy, 38, 3, 515-531. Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., Healy, C. and Taylor, A. (eds.) (2010) Taking the crime out of sex work: New Zealand sex workers' fight for decriminalisation: Policy Press: Bristol  Politics and religion commentator Craig Young - 30th May 2013    

Credit: Politics and religion commentator Craig Young

First published: Thursday, 30th May 2013 - 10:00am

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