Re-criminalising prostitution isn’t the solution



As soon as I saw this article  this morning I knew a blog post was on the boil. Short version – Elizabeth Subritsky from Freedom from Sexual Exploitation has submitted a petition asking the government to make the purchase of sexual services illegal. She has the support of some ex sex workers, and I understand why, but the solution she has presented is fundamentally flawed. There is a difference between sex work and human trafficking, and re-criminalising sex work is not the answer. Giving a damn about our vulnerable is.

I was a sex worker. Twice. Once illegally and underage at 17. Once legally at 24. So I speak from personal experience. The experiences of the women who have been brave and stepped forward to tell their stories to the Select Committee are very real, and they represent the experiences of a lot of NZ sex workers. While there are many sex workers who don’t fit the assumed stereotypical mould and do it for different and valid reasons, I wasn’t one of them. I was in the desperate club.

Damaged? Tick. Toxic family life? Tick. Abused? Tick. Whatever it took to survive? Tick. In a terribly dark place? Tick. Thought that was all I was worth? Tick. Substance abuse to dissociate? Tick. PTSD? Tick. Violence and rape on/because of the job? Tick tick tick.

Regret it? Yes, and no. Do I look back and think to myself WTF were you thinking? Yup. But I do not regret the experience. While it was a dark time, it taught me lessons I wouldn’t have learnt, created personal growth I wouldn’t have had otherwise, and turned me into a full time fighter for vulnerable women and children. When I was coming out of that dark place, well meaning people told me that everything happens for a reason. I felt like punching them. With hindsight they were dead right. I am sad I went through that experience, but I am also glad I survived and thrived.

Subritzky claims that the Prostitution Reform Act not only encouraged more men to buy sex, but also transformed prostitution into an acceptable, even attractive job for young, poor women in New Zealand. She says many women wouldn’t do it if it were illegal. Wrong x3.

Men have always bought sex. Always. You only get a few pages into the Bible when it’s first mentioned. This is not a modern problem. There wasn’t the great surge of paid sexual activity NZ conservatives predicted.  And while it has encouraged acceptance of prostitution as a semi-legitimate activity by society, there also hasn’t been a great spike in sex worker numbers either. Pffft they say – there’s more and more kids out in Manukau/Welly/Chch. THAT is a result of growing levels of poverty, abuse and desperation, and is STILL illegal. And lastly, I can definitely add myself to the majority of sex workers who would do it whether it was illegal or legal. When you’re desperate, or just a rebel, what does the law matter?!

The other issue that distorts the reasoning of this petitioner’s argument is that she is presenting the Nordic Model as a fix-all solution. The Nordic Model was made in an effort to prevent sex trafficking in Europe – a massive problem over there. There is a huge difference between sex trafficking and everyday prostitution. Are there both in NZ? I think so. I have heard anecdotes of international students being forced into prostitution to repay ‘living costs’ whilst here studying. Concerning stuff that needs addressed. But what this really means for NZ is that we need to strengthen our position on sex trafficking. Not re-criminalise all sex work.

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I want changes to the Prostitution Reform Act too. It was ground-breaking legislation written for an ideal world and time has shown that there are definite holes in it. But that doesn’t make it bad policy. It makes it policy which is in need of an update now we have some hindsight. However, going backwards and criminalising prostitution is the very last thing we should do. What actually needs to happen is a shift in societal and political attitudes.

Here’s a few of the issues that I think need addressed by us as a society rather than playing reversal politics.

  • We need a justice system that is active in prosecuting men who sexually and/or physically offend against sex workers. Sex workers do not get the protection they need from those mandated to protect them. The PRA bans coercion. Sex workers have the right to protection from assault we all do. Yet when a prostitute goes to the police, they are often laughed out the door. The law is there. Enforce it.
  • We need specialist services and support for underage & transgender sex workers. They aren’t on the streets for no reason. Young street workers are some of the most vulnerable people in NZ. It is utterly sickening to see politicians and community groups complaining about them – turning kids into an image problem they want to transfer into someone else’s patch. HELLO??!!! What on earth are you thinking? These ‘unwanted problems’ are children. Our children! Why are people focused on making them disappear and not helping them? Can you even begin to imagine the hell that is their lives? Quit whinging and protect them. Yesterday!
  • We need the government to supply funding and resources to stop the growing underground issue of trafficking in New Zealand. They are turning a blind eye to this issue and have been slammed. It’s time to stand up to our government and tell them that we want something done about this. We should be prosecuting men who pay for sex with people who have been trafficked into NZ, and also with local under-agers, along with their pimps. Not the odd sting. Serious resources. I wholeheartedly support adopting a Nordic Model type law in these cases. But not where the client and adult sex worker are engaging in consensual activity for money. What would that achieve? A return to the Dark Ages.
  • We need to make sure that every single person in New Zealand has the resources to survive. Poverty breeds desperation breeds prostitution. Again, that doesn’t apply to all sex workers but it does apply to many. So let’s get over this bene-bashing classist crap, and support our vulnerable.
  • We need to teach our sons that women – ALL women deserve respect, and how to communicate about sex. We need to teach our sons that just because they see something weird on a porno doesn’t mean they can do it because they’ve paid for sex. We need to stop educating our kids that sex workers are sub human scum.
  • We need more people like my neighbour who did not judge me, but supported me and my son through a difficult time with practical help; and fewer neighbours who tag a woman’s house with ‘whore’ when they find out what she’s doing and get their kids to harass her kid at school.

It truly is sad that the real reasons for the need for changes to the Prostitution Reform Act are because it seems to take legislation to force people, organisations and the government to give a damn about what is inflicted on sex workers. That it takes legislation to give them human rights. That it takes legislation for them to be respected.

Let’s stop trying to make them go away, and start fixing why they are there. How hard is that concept to grasp?


  1. Dear Racheal, please keep writing, awesome article! it is hard for the under-resourced to maintain a voice, and we see in this day and age a time of blatant and horrific exploitation of humans, any old human will do, it seems, for all purposes other than saving the environment and the planet’s indigenous peoples.
    Although it is said, prostitution is the oldest profession, I have to beg the question; surely the first prostitute had to have a pimp.
    Also I am aghast at how disrespectful our national news media was recently describing a murder victim as “former sex worker” as though it disqualified her from a serious investigation into the circumstances of her death.
    Thank you for your honesty and please keep writing as there is a serious need for alternative channels of consciousness for our young people and children regarding what they are worth.
    As ‘christians’ have now entered politics I shall be interested to see how they address this whole scenario, bearing in mind the famous remark:
    “Let he/she who is without sin cast the first stone”
    How I long to see a private member’s bill present to the house regarding minimum legal nutritional levels of care for children under 14 to whatever. Although we constantly hear, “It is not he government’s job to provide….blah blah blah…” it does seem to be the governments job to oversee and control whatever it is that takes their fancy, such as how many wapiti there are in Southland, ffs.
    Anyway, my rant, please keep writing and thank you.

    • I don’t think being “Christian” or religion has anything to do with this issue. I am a “Christian” and largely agree with Rachael’s stance on this particular issue. On others – not so much – but i agree with her right to voice them.

      Lumping all Christians in together is misguided at best.

      • Good point. I didn’t say in the blog, but it is worth mentioning that those amazing neighbours I had at the time were Christians. Real ones, not judgemental hypocrites. There is more than one breed of ‘Christian’.

          • Actually I meant the type of ‘Christian’ who goes into politics wearing a cockatoo on his head and delivering the vote which sells us all into slavery. No slur intended on any or all other Christians, I’m a big fan of the activist who overturns the moneylenders’ tables. Micheal Savage was a Catholic according to Wikipedia.

    • Thank you very much for your support Jane. I have been open about my past to a small extent but with all of this stuff going on re the police and with continued attempts to re-criminalise prostitution I realised it was time for me to start openly standing up for women like me. I will continue to write on this topic, and others that are rarely exposed to the mainstream 🙂

  2. Good article. Having known women who were doing this work both before and after the law change, I think it was the right thing to do. As far as I can see, the first people to benefit from recriminalisation would be dirty vice squad cops, who would quickly resume their old habits. Apart from that, I think you’ve said the things that need to be said. The law makes it legal, not compulsory. Any sort of compulsion comes from the socio-economic cesspit that Aotearoa has fallen into since the first ACT government.

  3. You say “We should be prosecuting men who pay for sex with people who have been trafficked into NZ, and also with local under-agers, along with their pimps.”

    How do they know the background of their providers? And why simply prosecute the end users? What happens to the networks behind the providers? Free to continue?

    Does the Collective have care providers for removing at-risk kids – boys and girls – from the ‘hot spots’, and connecting the kids to the kind of support that got the writer out of the trade and her dark times?

    Are there clear ways to use political contacts and influence to establish, and keep honest and honorable, a section of the police, plus welfare, to deal well with the youngsters and those suffering from exploitation? To come to know and remove the exploiters. To work effectively internationally.

    If it’s left to the pollies, there’ll simply be a scab of legislation over a gaping hole, where there instead need to be robust systems and services that those bean-counting creatures in parliament can’t cut on a whim. This is an ongoing issue.

  4. “You see only apart of me. My heart was burned with fear [years ago]. And that fear filled my heart with desperation and darkness.

    In the end, the darkness stole my body and ran away with it. But something was left behind, [something good, that you cannot see now].

    Darkness cannot exist without light. Now the light that was left behind, wonders alone, like a shadow. What you see before you is just like a shadow [of hope] looking for [the right time to shine].” ~ A heavily edited quote.

    When fear of dying, becomes a reality for a child living on the streets, and money is all that stops them from living, money becomes a good solution, stealing is another.

    I still do not like the idea of having it legal, but this is because of how people use this service. For most, when you purchase sex, you are not purchasing a service, you are purchasing a product. When you purchase a product, your purchase can be treated in any way you like, and another one can be brought if the other one becomes old, damaged or simply because a better one comes along.

    I do however see the potential good it can do.

    Still no one mentions the female attacker. Still little mention of attacks on boys. These petitions don’t care about the victims, they care about religious doctrines.

  5. Best article on the discussion I’ve read so far and I agree with the most of the points you have raised, especially about protection of sex workers, trafficking and vulnerable children.

    However, there are a couple of salient points that are worth considering:
    1. What effect does it have on the mindset of the client when they pay for sex (at their convenience) – does it affect their view of consensual sex, requirement for reciprocal positive behaviour in relationships, a skewed view of (mostly) women’s place in the world?
    2. How would it be possible for a client to distinguish whether a sex worker was consensual, or a trafficking victim?
    3. Your reference to neighbourhoods complaints might be less NIMBY, and more a disillusionment with the failure of several institutional safety nets to protect children, and to safeguard against inappropriate activities, eg. public drug-dealing would attract the same scorn.

    These discussions are all the better for being out in the open, and rationally debated. I’m looking forward to reading more of your blogs on this topic.

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