Hassling and Shaming Prostitutes is No Solution

Several articles have recently described ongoing tensions between street-based sex workers and other residents in Christchurch.

While street-based sex workers have worked in Christchurch for decades, the major earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 displaced sex workers from their traditional workspace on Manchester Street into more residential areas.

Tensions between street-based sex workers and the communities in which they work are nothing new. Such tensions occur all over the world, in an array of diverse legislative frameworks, including places where sex workers risk significant penalties for working on the street. Despite this, some individuals have called for legal restrictions on street-based sex work as a strategy to stop sex workers from working in residential areas.

We don’t need to look back far in history to understand that repressive laws do not decrease street-based sex work – sex workers worked on the streets in New Zealand prior to decriminalisation when they faced soliciting charges.

In numerous places around the world such as Sweden, the UK, Canada, and the US sex workers continue to work on the streets despite punitive laws which criminalise the selling and/or the purchase of sex. Repressive laws do not inhibit street-based sex work, nor resolve tensions that exist between sex workers and others in their communities. There is no doubt, however, that repressive laws have significant impacts for sex workers. When street-based sex work is restricted, sex workers must work quickly to avoid the attention of authorities.Our decriminalised framework in New Zealand means that street-based sex workers have the freedom to use their safety strategies – such as taking their time to talk to potential clients before accepting their business, and having detailed and explicit conversations about what services they are prepared to offer. This is an incredibly important impact of decriminalisation that should not be under-estimated. Of course, this doesn’t mean that violence won’t happen, but an environment which enables openness and transparency is essential to minimising risks of harm – a central tenet of our unique legislative framework.

Repressive policies also have negative impacts on relationships between sex workers and police, since police are required to control and punish sex workers. The decriminalisation of sex work enables a context in which police can foster positive relationships with sex workers on the street, and help sex workers who are victims of crime. A heavy handed regulatory approach would undermine this significantly.

When considering community tensions it is essential to contemplate why sex workers choose to work where they do. Perceptions of safety, availability of amenities such as toilets, lighting, proximity to potential clients and other sex workers are all relevant factors.

Research also indicates that autonomy is a key reason for working from the street – specifically the ability to choose where, when, and with whom you work. Attempts to restrict street-based sex work would not over-ride this desire – it is likely that street-based sex workers would continue to work in locations that best suit their needs. Thus, while some residents in Christchurch may feel that restricting street-based sex work would result in sex workers relocating, such restrictions are unlikely to have the desired impact.

The language used in recent articles on tensions between some residents and street-based sex workers also merits attention. One headline described street-based sex workers as ‘plaguing’ Christchurch residents. In a recent opinion piece street-based sex work was described as a ‘social ill’ and as “the seediest, drug- riddled and deadliest arm of the industry”. Such language reinforces the stigma that is associated with sex work and dehumanises street-based sex workers.

A study undertaken in Canada examined how repeated media descriptions of attempts to remove street-based sex workers from residential areas coincided with a significant increase in murders of sex workers on the streets of British Columbia. Thus, it is essential that commentary in this area is approached with care – the use of dehumanising language to describe street-based sex workers is both dangerous and unnecessary.

The purpose of this article is not to minimise the problems that some residents describe experiencing, but to re-balance this recent commentary to emphasise what evidence tells us about regulatory approaches to street-based sex work.

Banning street-based sex work from residential area is not a solution to tensions between sex workers and some residents. Furthermore, we must be mindful that street-based sex workers are also members of our communities, who are often subjected to appalling abuse and harassment by passers-by when they are working. They deserve our support, and it is essential that any initiatives intended to resolve community tensions do not jeopardise their safety and rights.

Lynzi Armstrong is a Lecturer in the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. Her PhD research explored how Christchurch street-based sex workers managed risks of violence in their work. This article first appeared on the Stuff website, 24 May 2017.

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