Tuesday, June 11, 2013
Catherine Healy & Sandra Ka Hon Chu
New Zealand's model of sex work respects rights
Legislation protects sex workers from exploitation while accessing labour laws to promote their welfare and occupational health and safety
The Supreme Court of Canada's looming consideration of the constitutionality of laws governing prostitution has led to vigorous debate about the merits of the "Swedish model" of sex work as a means to address the harms sex workers currently face. This model underpinned by a philosophy of eradicating the demand for sex work and the view that all prostitution is inherently a form of violence against women criminalizes the purchase of sex and those who "promote" sex work, including sex workers themselves. Evidence from Sweden, however, reveals that the law perpetuates rather than addresses stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers.
Since its passage, street sex workers in Sweden have reported increased experiences of violence. Regular clients have avoided them for fear of police harassment and arrest, instead turning to the Internet and to indoor venues. In turn, greater competition for clients has driven prices down and forced sex workers to accept clients they would have otherwise refused, including those who insist on unsafe sex practices. When safer sex practices are being negotiated, both clients and sex workers must do so rapidly and often with unclear communication and in more secluded locales, to avoid lingering for fear of arrest. Sex workers who work indoors continue to be criminalized and are unable to work or live with others, including their partners, since it is illegal to share in any income derived from sex work. More broadly, sex workers are unable to access social security benefits that are available to all other workers in legal labour activities. As in Canada, the Swedish model wrests control from sex workers over their working conditions and institutionalizes an adversarial relationship between sex workers and the police.
Less discussed is the model of sex work employed in New Zealand. Ten years ago, the Prostitution Reform Act came into operation, decriminalizing prostitution and creating a framework to safeguard the human rights of sex workers. Sex workers are covered by legislation that protects them from exploitation while accessing labour laws to promote their welfare and occupational health and safety. In addition, these laws are conducive to public health because they enable frank displays of safer sex information in sex work venues. Nevertheless, the law sets important boundaries and prohibits the use of people under the age of eighteen in prostitution.
Sex workers and the police appreciate these laws that foster better relationships and create an environment whereby sex workers can more readily report violence or other crimes committed against them. Sex workers, including those who work on the street, in managed brothels, alone or with their peers from home, feel more able to refuse clients a strong indication that decriminalization of prostitution enhances their safety.
There is no substantiated evidence of trafficking despite repeated efforts by the immigration department to locate victims and traffickers. Nor is there evidence that young people are being induced and compelled into sex work by thugs. There is some way to go with reducing stigma, which can act as a barrier to speaking out about abuse. However, a recent case in New Zealand's courts highlighted that the balance of power has indeed shifted to support sex workers to address exploitation. A corrupt police officer was convicted and sent to prison for attempting to use his authority to extort free sexual services from a sex worker in exchange for ignoring her traffic infringements.
In Canada, it is increasingly clear that the current legal framework governing prostitution must be struck down. But it must not be replaced with the Swedish model of sex work, which would not make any headway in addressing violence against sex workers and the violation of sex workers' rights. The courts and Parliament owe a responsibility to sex workers to ensure that one deadly and unconstitutional regime is not replaced with another. In New Zealand, the sky has not fallen, and sex workers are better protected from violence and exploitation. If Canada is serious about respecting everyone's rights to health and security, this is a model worth consideration.
Catherine Healy is a member of the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective and Sandra Ka Hon Chu is with the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.
Created: June 12, 2013
Last modified: July 3, 2013
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