Stop blaming sex workers for their murders

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News that yet another young woman has allegedly been murdered by a man in New Zealand made for a sombre start to 2020.

Bella Te Pania was 34 years old. Media reports stated that she had been working on the street as a sex worker at the time of her death, and that the man who has been charged with her murder allegedly attacked her while she was out working. 

Countless women have been murdered by violent men in New Zealand in recent years – though our shamefully high rate of violence against women is a trend that goes back much further.

Te Pania, along with all women who have died in this way, deserved to be safe.

Violence against women is endemic in our society and while campaigns such as #MeToo have shifted our societal discourse to some extent, the murder of a sex worker (and specifically women who work on the streets) often provokes a particularly insidious form of victim blaming.

For instance, some may question the validity of sex work as a source of income and will infer that the victim would have been safe if she had a “real” job that didn’t involve payment for sex.

Others may argue that street-based sex work should be illegal – under the mistaken illusion that this will eradicate the street-based sex industry and subsequently eliminate any risks.

Such statements overlook  that street-based sex work still occurs when criminalised, removes responsibility from the perpetrator, and neglects to consider that the murder of women by men is far from unique to sex work.  

However, while all women can be victims of men’s violence, it is well-documented that women who work on the streets as sex workers are particularly vulnerable. So, why are sex workers vulnerable to being targeted by violent men, and what can we, as a society, do to change that? 

To understand, we must think about patriarchy and how it has shaped our society, creating a context in which men are considered innately powerful and dominant, and women subordinate and inferior to them.

The Madonna/whore dichotomy describes a deeply ingrained societal norm with a long history, which infers that women who have sex with multiple partners are “bad” and responsible for their own demise, while women who are sexually moderate are “good” and deserving of protection.

In selling sex in a public space, street-based sex workers defy these gendered norms and are subsequently portrayed as “throwaway” women who have little value in society.

This message legitimises the actions of men who are violent, downplays the seriousness of their actions, and renders sex workers more vulnerable to being targeted by them. 

Also relevant are the laws relating to sex work. Numerous studies have documented how laws which criminalise sex workers, clients and third parties place sex workers at increased risk of being victimised and undermines their safety strategies.

New Zealand has decriminalised sex work, which has been resoundingly positive in improving relationships between street-based sex workers and the police, meaning that they can more easily report violence, along with affording them with rights to challenge exploitation.

Unfortunately, no law can prevent murder if a person is intent on perpetrating it – if this were possible, murder would never occur in any context. 

While there is no way of legislating that sex workers will never be murdered by violent men – violence against sex workers is not inevitable.

Indeed, while sex workers are vulnerable in each encounter with a client, much of the research indicates that most interactions between sex workers and their clients are problem free.

And New Zealand’s decriminalised model has created a context in which sex workers can more easily manage risks and access justice if they are offended against.

What more can we do to take a stand against those men who are violent, and support the right of sex workers to be safe in their work?  

This starts with thinking deeply about our attitudes relating to sex workers and asking ourselves honest questions about why we may think the way that we do.

It means rejecting the message that sex workers are deserving of violence and that street-based sex workers are lesser humans.

It requires valuing all sex workers and the diverse contributions they make to society, calling out jokes about them, taking a stand against discrimination, actively listening to what sex workers say and respecting them as the experts on their lives. 

Bella Te Pania should have  gone home safe to her friends and whānau. Confronting these issues will not bring her back – but we can ensure that the burden of why she did not return falls squarely on whoever attacked her. 

Lynzi Armstrong is a senior lecturer in criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her PhD research explored the experiences of street-based sex workers managing violence in New Zealand, and her most recent project examines stigma and discrimination relating to sex work across four jurisdictions. This piece was first published on Stuff, 9 January 2020.

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