This is a guest blogpost from Anthony Burn. Anthony was a lobbyist for the New Zealand Prostitute Collective, which successfully campaigned for a private members bill to be passed into law in NZ in 2003.
Anthony couldn’t make it to Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on 18th October 2010 when Dr Belinda Brooks-Gordon and Dr Brooke Magnanti aka 'Belle de Jour' spoke on ‘The Law and Policy of Sex Work’ which I chaired.
(There’s a podcast of the evening here and a New Statesman article by David Allen Green, convenor of Westminster Skeptics, who put the evening together.)
But over a pint or two of Pinot Grigio, Anthony kindly agreed commit his experience to pixels. And here it is:
Jourdemayne asked me to write this article after we had a conversation about the issue of prostitution law reform in the UK. I was excited to hear that some advocates for law reform were basing their proposals on the New Zealand model, a model that I was intimately aware of, having been hired as an advocate and lobbyist for the New Zealand Prostitute Collective, who successfully campaigned for Tim Barnett’s private members bill to be passed into law on June 25th 2003.
My role was to firm up public support for the bill critical to helping Tim lock in members of parliament who had previously supported the bill, but who were now wavering in the face of a ferocious alliance of radical feminists and churches, lead by the Christian lobby group Maxim. Maxim were a thorn in the side of any socially progressive movement in New Zealand, styling their tactics and presentation on American Christian right groups such as Focus on the Family.
The reform bill enjoyed its own broad coalition of support from liberal churches, victim support groups, and a wide array of public health groups. This support was at least as deep as the opposition's, but it was also quieter, and there was a real danger that the only voices the MPs would hear in the decisive three weeks before the final vote was the sky-falling-in stridency of the opposition.
By the time of the final vote, the New Zealand media was identifying the prostitution law reform bill as the most intensely lobbied piece of social legislation since the passage of the homosexuality law reform bill twenty years earlier.
Maxim and their cohorts were very adept at grasping the media megaphone and providing the kind of lurid, exaggerated claims that write their own headlines. My favourite piece of Maxim nonsense was the claim that legalizing prostitution would lead to brothel owners expounding the benefits of prostitution as a career choice at school career days. It should come as a surprise to no one that no school fairs have been visited by brothel owners since the bill passed.
If anything, the radical feminist objection to the bill was even more strident than the religious groups. One memorable moment just before the vote occurred in an interview between Tim and New Zealand television media personality Pam Corkery, a staunch feminist implacably opposed to the bill.
In a memorable exchange Pam accused Tom of authoring the most anti-women piece of legislation in New Zealand's history, and not stopping there, accused Tim of being intrinsically and irredeemably anti-women because he was openly gay. Tim did a very good job of laughing this accusation off, but what puts this exchange in context is that Pam Corkery had made her name championing myriad social causes, including many opposed by Maxim, and had once been a member of parliament for the most left-wing party in New Zealand. In almost any other circumstance Pam and Tim would have been on the same side of an issue, and yet Pam made the nastiest and most personal attack on Tim of the whole campaign.
This underlines the resonance of the emotional associations that prostitution triggers in many people’s minds, drawing together the strangest of bedfellows on the side of the opposition. It should also act as a warning to the UK advocates of reform of the many faceted vehemence they would face in the UK.
A small but noteworthy example of this was Harriet Harman’s support for the Swedish model of prostitution law reform that was also supported by some opponents of the New Zealand bill. The Swedish model was rejected by reform bill advocates because in Sweden it only exacerbated the problems of the current law by criminalizing the clients rather than the sex workers, thereby driving prostitution even further underground and compounding all the ills of the status quo, increasing the instances of unreported rape, rampant drug use, and increased HIV and other STD infections. Far from being a solution it only compounds the problem, yet it has always found favour with some feminists because it targets predominately male clients over female sex workers.
Tim included in his final speech a quote from Dr Basil Donovan, Head of Sydney’s Sexual Health Service:
“With the sole exceptions of the Cultural Revolution in China and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the law surrounding prostitution has no effect in its prevalence. Laws seeking to restrict prostitution merely promote corruption, brutality and sexually transmitted infections”
So how would the world look like to the average UK citizen if a law like this was passed? It would remain virtually unchanged to most of us who do not frequent the sex industry. The only truly viable sign of change in New Zealand for most people was the reduced presence of risqué massage parlour signs since the new law gave local bodies new powers to regulate advertising related to sex work.
But for UK sex workers the world would change dramatically as it did for New Zealand sex workers, and key to that transformation would be the sex workers’ relationship with the state. As Tim said in his comments prefacing the final reading of the bill:
“Under the Bill they (sex workers) will be under a public health umbrella. They will have the opportunity for an employment contract, the certainty of an Occupational Safety and Health Code, a safer-sex focused environment to work in. They will have new protection from a stronger law against coercion. Workers aged under 18 will not be criminalized, but their clients face longer sentences than under current law, with less opportunity to successfully defend themselves”
If there is one key campaign lesson I would immediately draw from the New Zealand experience is that the debate over prostitution reform can be highly emotive, sensational and irrational. Arguments in favour, therefore, have to be ready to provide irresistible case studies embedded into highly compelling emotional narratives to counter the emotional fire storm that comes from the opposition. Though these emotional arguments have to be made, they can and should ultimately be located back in the kind of entirely rational, pragmatic arguments that cemented my own personal support for reform.
An example of how this was effectively deployed in the debate over the bill was when Tim and the Prostitutes Collective provided a key waverer with a highly evocative case study of how the status quo was not working in her own constituency. They brought the MP into direct contact with the victims in that case study with the result that, on the night of the debate, the waverer supported the bill and cited the victims she met as the reason why she changed her mind.
A key emotive argument made on the night in New Zealand was made by Georgina Beyer, the world’s first transsexual MP and previously world’s first transsexual Mayor. Georgina recounted how, in the days when she was still a male prostitute on the streets, she was violently raped by a male client who avoided prosecution because Georgina knew if she approached the police about the rape she also would be prosecuted because of her profession.
Georgina said that voting for the reform bill that night would help put a stop to all the rapes of the Georges and Georginas out there, people who were too afraid to turn in their attackers because of the Victorian 'blame-the-victim' mindset of the current law.
Making resonant, emotive laden arguments for Prostitution Law Reform would be even more critical in a UK context, because prostitution law reform is exactly the kind of emotional political football that red-tops like 'The Sun' love to kick around for maximum shock value.
After Tim read the New Zealand Prostitution Reform bill a final time, a conscious vote was taken, with the bill passing by a single, solitary vote - 60 votes to 59, with one key, brave, abstention by the solitary Muslim MP in the New Zealand parliament.
Since that momentous (and wildly celebratory) night seven years ago, the bill has been law, and it has wrought a positive change in sex worker health, safety, rates of drug use, working conditions, worker benefits, and ability to leave the occupation at will. Needle exchanges and sexual health clinics also report a positive uptake by sex workers since the police no longer provide examples of needles and condoms as the evidence required to prosecute sex workers for their occupation in court.
I hope that the UK advocates for prostitution law reform continue to champion the New Zealand example as the way to remove outdated, biased, largely unenforced law, which leaves real problems untouched and nurtures harm.
I wish them the very best of luck in negotiating the minefield to bring about positive change in the world’s oldest profession, in the very society that brought us the Victorian moral mindset.