‘Women enter the sex trade for money and the trade makes promises of loads of cash that it never delivers. The trade perpetuates the very poverty the woman is trying to escape’
At the World’s Oldest Oppression conference at RMIT last month – an Australia-first gathering of sex industry survivors and abolitionists – a number of woman who had left the industry shared their stories. Ally Marie, recruited into the industry as a vulnerable 21-year-old survivor of child sexual, was one of those speaking for the first time. (You can watch a recording of her speech here). Another was Sabrinna, who spent many years in the industry in New Zealand and Australia. She also volunteered off and on over more than two decades for the NZ Prostitutes Collective.
Now Sabrinna has joined forces with other survivors to expose its life-destructive realities. Here is an expanded version of the speech she delivered at the conference, in which she argues decriminalisation has not lived up to its promises, and that the only way forward lies in the adoption of the Nordic Model (recently legislated in France) which criminalises buyers but not prostituted people.
Hi, my name is Sabrinna. I’m originally from Melbourne but moved to New Zealand when I was 14, so most my talk will centre around NZ. I worked for too long, in too many ways; street, massage parlour, bars, hotels, escort agencies and brothels and in too many places; Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, parts of the West Coast of the South Island, Brisbane and Sydney.
I also volunteered for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) on and off over a 25 year span pre and post the Prostitution Reform Bill, passed into law becoming the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) in 2003.During my time at NZPC, I helped with the consultation process to write the PRA.
Under prohibition, ‘massage parlours’ rented rooms inclusive of a massage that the women were not paid for. Women negotiated their own money. Solicitation was the illegal part of that transaction and word games used to get around solicitation laws. These solicitation laws only applied to prostituted persons, not the Johns.
The streets rarely had pimps in NZ. Women negotiated their own money and used different word games to get around solicitation laws.
Escort agencies sold all-inclusives that only stated suitable attire for a date, company and the choice of a fantasy, e.g. ‘Girlfriend’, ‘Wife’s Sister’, ‘Daughter’ etc. No sexual services were overtly included. Women got paid a small fee and negotiated extras.
Police violence was rampant, using the threat of a criminal record. Women offered sex and money for a free pass.
There were clear boundaries on safe sex practices that were ‘policed’ by other workers. Kissing was an absolute no-no. No condom was considered absolutely gross and dental dams got used. Workers who broke with these practices were shunned from within the trade.
Did Decriminalisation Work?
Decriminalisation changed all this.
Massage Parlours became brothels and set the prices through ‘all-inclusives’. They left the girls to deal with the fallout of men expecting bareback, anal, passionate etc. ‘All-inclusive’ is not really all inclusive but of course, johns expect it to be. Where once men paid per/service, now they can have sex as many times as they can within the time frame booked.
I’ll note here that 20 years ago I was getting paid more than current prostituted people in NZ. Inflation has ballooned during this time, so a dollar then and a dollar now are not nearly similar. That is the result of giving power to the pimps. They’re usually men and they look after men’s interests.
The aforementioned expectations of ‘all-inclusives’ have become routine. Through doubles and bi-doubles I saw the difference first hand; unsafe sex for a price. The more one is prepared to do, the more jobs, and the more money; though still less in terms of buying power than when safe sex practices were an absolute.
Police brutality did cease, though helpfulness is very much at the discretion of individual police officers. As far as I am aware there has been no change in reporting violence since decriminalisation.
One place I worked for mysteriously had a bunch of Thai girls move in above the brothel, none of whom spoke English. None of whom ever exited the brothel for any reason, and all of whom had to ask for food, tampons, cigarettes and any other expenses. These were then purchased for them. I’m not blind enough to think they were on holiday. It looked like trafficking to me. [Jade, a NZ contributor to Prostitution Narratives, relates a similar account. Both worked for the same brothel owners – Ed.].
How Pimps Were Kept Safe
Originally the goal of decriminalisation was to firmly place the power into the hands of women. We wanted decriminalisation of all wanted parties, criminalisation of all unwanted parties. This proved too difficult because it isn’t clear what separates a brothel owner from a pimp, other than location. I’m now convinced that a brothel owner is a pimp.
Also, what are security staff doing, if not, ‘living off the earnings’. The avoidance of these words is what kept the pimps safe and decriminalised. The biggest difficulty is partners, whether married or not. A partner may be deemed to be living off the earnings by simply living with a woman working in prostitution. Yet, ‘the boyfriend grooming tactic’ is well known and in high use. How to differentiate a pimp grooming a woman and an actual partner is one that needs very careful and intense analysis in the writing of any Nordic Model legal structure.
When the PRA was passed, it was agreed that the law would not, under any circumstances be revisited for a period of ten years. At the end of the ten year period, it would be assessed to see if it did or did not work, with regular assessments and statistics being gathered during that decade. The pressure to ensure it worked was huge because to return to full criminalisation was the only alternative offered. In New Zealand there really wasn’t any great opposition to decriminalisation beyond those who wished to keep it under prohibition.
This meant that every problem encountered had to be dealt with by helping agencies using the new legal structure. It also meant that any huge unresolvable problems needed to be minimised and/or buried. So, the unsafe sex negotiations I had seen and been expected to undertake myself and thus fight off, were not recorded. We all knew it was happening but no-one spoke about it. For the right of it or wrong of it, this was a forced situation on those in the industry and on all helping agencies.
The Harm Minimisation model has been and remains the basis of NZPC policy. The first thing that must be noted is that the name itself automatically admits inherent harm in the industry. So, this is one area that all sides of the debate agree upon; there is unavoidable inherent harm within the industry that can at best, be minimised but not eliminated.
Under decriminalisation the power went to the pimps and johns despite that never being the goal. I respect the people I worked with at NZPC because I know they, like me, wanted everyone in the sex trade to have legal protections, power of conditions and negotiation, and a way to be as safe as possible. It’s been very hard to admit we failed but I feel morally obligated to do so. I still want the original goal and I believe the Nordic Model offers the best chance of making that happen.”
The Nordic Model is the only model that criminalises the John. I believe this is the pinnacle reason for opposition. Who does it criminalise? Men, average men, celebrity men, young men, old men, male politicians, husbands, sons, fathers, uncles, neighbours, men of good standing, men already criminals etc. Using women for sexual gratification under any circumstance is so normalised in society that many people have trouble seeing this as anything other than an attack on men and male sexuality.
What is rendered invisible is women. Prostituted persons, most of whom are women, are rarely, if ever, referred to as women. Usually called sex workers, prostitutes, whores, street walkers, escorts, ladies of the night, hookers and many other titles; all designed to ‘other’ the women in these industries. They’re not like you, your friends, your family, the people you know. But actually we are. In this way, women become invisible and replaced by ‘object’.
Harm Rendered Invisible
We know that abuse increases risk but we do not fully know why. We know that amount of sex makes no difference. The difference lies specifically in abuse. This is quite a recent area of psychology but it’s a significant one in looking at prostitution. Again, it’s not the amount of sex that needs to be looked at but the abuse within the industry. This is real harm. It is also invisible harm.
The long term problems rarely appear in the harm minimisation model because long-term harm often appears, or is noticed and diagnosed after a woman has left the industry. So, she no longer appears in the statistics. This is part of the industry’s abuse; to take years and years of her life, in return for money that has more hands dipping in to take a cut than any other job ever does, and to follow it up by dumping her on her ass, alone and impoverished with no support and more problems than she entered with. (Some of the physical and mental harms to women are documented by Melissa Farley here).
Women enter the sex trade for money and the trade makes promises of loads of cash that it never delivers. Ironically, the sex trade perpetuates the very poverty the woman is trying to escape.
For those of us who have exited, we face hidden discriminations. Huge gaps on the CV, outdated and unused qualifications with high student debts, vast experience with no way of demonstrating it on job applications, fear of being outed to family, friends and potential employers.
I have been too afraid to tell a counsellor for fear that the rapport we’d built would be destroyed in a single sentence. Our intimate relationships are compromised. Do we tell or remain silent? Does he or she have a right to know? If I do tell, will it become common knowledge? Will it be placed on a revenge porn site? Will they use it every time we disagree? Whore! This is stigma.
Stigma has not left under decriminalisation or under legalisation. It exists no less strongly now than it did in the bad old days of prohibition. It’s my personal belief that stigma cannot be legislated away. It exists because no one wants their baby girl to do that. No one wants their mum doing that. No one wants their partner doing that. No amount of legislation will change this instinctual response to abuse. We want to protect ‘me and mine’.
The services we need to exit
I’m fighting for the rights of people in prostitution to have more power while in it and more options when leaving it. I’m also fighting to protect the next generation from being lured into the sex trade by glamourised and false images.
Harm minimisation or harm reduction focuses only on the industry itself. We need to start focusing on the individuals in the sex trade. Irrespective of legislation I’d like to see non-religious, unbiased, non-judgemental exit services across Australia and New Zealand. A place where a woman can go and say,
‘This is where I’m at.’
‘This is where I want to be.’
‘These are the blocks in the way.’
The service will then provide options to help remove the obstacles. The woman makes her decisions. No decision is made for her, and no decision she makes is up for debate or judged; even the decision to return to prostitution or remain in prostitution. That is my definition of agency and empowerment.
Male sexual entitlement is the problem
I hate online debating with the people who defend all sex as positive irrespective of context. They tell me that the real harm is stigma.
I remember when a street walker was run over by an unhappy John, backed over, run over a second time, backed over a second time, and run over a final time. I remember the ambulance turned up, pronounced her dead and left her body on the road. I remember the press taking photos. A couple came into NZPC. They found out their daughter died by reading about a dead prostitute without a name in their local paper.
Stigma is the problem? Stigma does pose problems but it is not the real violence. When the ‘sex-pozzers’ say they’re being triggered by violent language, and stigma is the worst of the worst, I feel like screaming. That is not violence; not even close.
John smashes his wife’s head against the home wall and then storms out of the house. He jumps on a train and tells an 11 year old girl she looks sexy in her school uniform. He buys sex and bashes a woman’s head against the brothel wall. Society tells us he hurt his wife due to his poor childhood. Society tells us he was only complimenting that girl. Society tells us he harmed a prostitute because of stigma. Bullshit.
Male sexual entitlement taught him he owned his wife. Male sexual entitlement taught him public space is male space and females are his to comment upon. Male sexual entitlement taught him that sex, bought, given or taken is his right as a man. The problem is male sexual entitlement and male violence. The Nordic Model is the only model that recognises the actual problem.
Four sex industry survivors share their stories at Gold Coast Prostitution Narratives launch
Ally-Marie, Kat, Alice and Kim shared their stories of survival in the sex trade in Australia, New Zealand and the UK at our second launch of Prostitution Narratives: Stories of Survival in the Sex Trade. The Gold Coast launch, which saw a packed audience at the Surf City Café, followed on from the first launch in Melbourne earlier last month. Special thanks to emcee Erica Bartle (of Girl With a Satchell fame), City Women and everyone who supported the event, and especially the survivors who so bravely related their experiences. Stay tune for information on future launch events!
‘These pages are chiselled from the pain of your lives’: MTR speech at Prostitution Narratives book launch, MTR