Monday, August 18, 2008

Oldest profession much like any business
Aug. 8, 2008

The business of sex is surprisingly unsexy when you’re getting all you want, and our little film crew has certainly had its fill this past week in New Zealand.
Four of us are down here right now trolling through a few of the country’s brothels - legalized five year ago when New Zealand scrapped its Canadian-style laws against adult prostitution and started treating the industry like any other business.
The most immediate result of our travels will be a documentary next spring on Global TV. But what I’m hoping will be the ultimate outcome is the beginning of change in our own country.
Like Canada, New Zealand has long had an active sex industry and many, many brothels regardless of laws against them. The sale of sexual services has been legal here all along, as it is in Canada, so the 2003 changes were primarily about acknowledging the right to safe, fair workplaces for the country’s estimated 4,000 sex workers.
The naysayers - and there were many of them - predicted the worst in the heated debate preceding legalization: Dramatic expansion of the industry; a flood of new “victims” forced into the work; a rise in trafficking and organized crime.
Fortunately, New Zealand academics had the foresight to launch thorough studies of the industry before and after changes to the laws. That virtually none of the dire predictions have come true five years on has done much to shift attitudes here about the industry. We’ve been hard-pressed to find anyone in our travels who has lingering concerns beyond the usual zoning and location issues.
“For the five-year anniversary, we had a little celebration in parliament and even the prime minister dropped in to congratulate us,” notes Catherine Healey, a founder of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective that played a pivotal role in the long battle for legal workplaces.
As you might expect, the most significant change since legalization has been for sex workers.
“Sex workers throughout the world can tell you how it feels to have to talk to the police when the work they’re doing is illegal,” says Healey. “They can tell you about that phone call from the school and the fear of losing their child because someone has found out what they do for a living. They live with the knowledge that they can be picked up by the police at any time.
“Since the changes in New Zealand, all of those feelings have started to dissipate. Sex workers now know they have rights, and that they’re not lawbreakers. They’re finally able to be honest about what they do.”
With everything about the industry now wide open, new regulations requiring “all reasonable effort” be taken to practise safe sex make it easier for workers to convince reluctant clients to use condoms. (One such client has already been prosecuted for refusing to do so.) Brothel managers can talk openly with workers about safe-sex practices rather than in the veiled and coded language previously used to guard against a new hire turning out to be an undercover police officer.
Workers are far more willing to go to police with concerns or with information about violent customers, a change particularly noticeable among those working the streets. One of Healey’s favourite stories of late is of the police officer who inadvertently blocked a street worker’s line of sight to potential customers when he pulled his car up one evening. Suddenly realizing his mistake, the officer apologized and moved the vehicle.
It’s not all happiness and light, of course. A simple law change doesn’t eradicate every bad brothel owner or end exploitation.
Immigrant sex work remains illegal, an attempt to prevent cross-border trafficking that has instead trapped some workers in the shadows. Municipalities aren’t uniformally happy about having to govern the adult sex industry by the same rules as any other business, particularly around location. Abuse still occurs, and disadvantaged children remain at risk.
But what was bad about the industry was even worse when it was illegal, note sex workers. They now have the same rights as any other worker, including the ability to take a bad boss to court for sexual harassment or breach of contract. Like any other citizen, they’re finally able to turn to the police for help.
And with workers newly free to talk openly about their profession, they’re comparing notes more often and making different choices about where they work. The single biggest change with the legalization of the adult industry has been a shift away from brothels into small “solo” operations of three or four workers.
“It’s not like we’ve done away with all the problems,” acknowledges Healey. “But when it was illegal, the laws were always there to compound whatever problems a person already had.”

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