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Love for sale:
What will it mean if prostitution is legal?

By Paul Titus

The Prostitution Reform Bill currently before Parliament will decriminalise prostitution. The Bill would make prostitution subject to the same laws that regulate other businesses.

Proponents of the bill argue that prostitution has always been with us and always will be, so it should be made as safe as possible. Decriminalisation of the sex industry would make it safer because health promotion could take place openly and sex workers would be more willing to report abuse.

Opponents to the bill object on moral grounds. They believe it could lead to normalisation of prostitution, which they see as an exploitative relationship. Opponents propose a number of alternatives including criminalizing the clients.

Currently prostitution, the act of exchanging money for sex, is not a crime in New Zealand. However, other laws make it virtually impossible to work as a prostitute legally. These laws target those selling sex and they include prohibitions on soliciting (offering sex for money in public) and keeping a brothel.

Proponents of decriminalisation argue these laws create a double standard because they hold the threat of arrest over sex workers but not their clients. It also makes sex workers subject to unfair rules, fees, and fines set by massage parlours and escort agencies.

Presbyter of Durham Street Methodist Church Rev Patricia Allan says as a mother, she would not want any of her children in the sex industry. But if that were the life they chose, she would want the best possible protection for them from exploitation, marginalisation, harassment and disease.

"In my view, the Prostitution Law Reform Bill offers better safety for those who make this choice of employment, for whatever reason. Decriminalizing consensual adult sex makes good sense to me.

"It is too easy for us Christians to make moral judgements on people or matters from which we are removed," Patricia says.

"I've talked with some of those who are either sex workers themselves or who are closely in touch with this field. These conversations, along with listening to counter arguments, have given me a clearer resolve to support the Bill in its original intent. My knowledge of Jesus of Nazareth who companioned society's outcasts leaves me no alternative."

The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) is a government-funded, nation-wide organisation set up to prevent the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases in the sex industry. NZPC provides a range of services to those who work in the sex industry including information and advice on sexual health, condoms and lubricants, health clinics, and violent clients.

Christchurch-based NZPC regional coordinator Anna Reed says current laws hinders safe sex practices because having condoms on the premises of a massage parlour can be used as evidence of brothel keeping.

Anna says the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the sex industry are street workers. She believes decriminalisation would give them more confidence to report violent clients to the police.

"Decriminalisation is a human rights issue because the current laws deny us the right to work as we wish and they also allow a considerable amount of exploitation in the industry. Some owners and managers treat sex workers with a lack of respect that would not be tolerated in any other industry," Anna says.

She does not believe prostitution will become more widespread with decriminalisation. The hours are long, sometimes extending from 6:00pm to 4:00am. And, contrary to popular belief, the income for most sex workers is not high.

As currently proposed, decriminalisation will be accompanied by stricter rules against child prostitution. It sets 18 as the age limit for sex workers and puts tougher penalties on clients of anyone younger than that.

Rev Peter Williamson is on the executive of the Evangelical Network of the Methodist Church. He says there is a range of opinion within the Network about decriminalising the sex industry.

He believes most members of the Network would agree with the statement the Churches Agency on Social Issues (CASI) made in its submission about the bill. CASI wrote that human sexuality is part of God's creation, and sexual acts should be part of an on-going loving relationship. Sex that is bought and sold falls short of this ideal. Prostitution damages both people in this relationship and often results in exploitation, usually of women by men.

"Most of those within the Evangelical Network see prostitution as a distortion of the true nature of sexual activity. In a humane and civilised society, it is improper for one person to purchase the sexual services of another, and our law should reinforce this principle. Many would argue that the definition of criminal behaviour should include not only the prostitute but also the client."

Peter says he is on the liberal end of the spectrum of opinion within the Evangelical Network. He believes prostitution is always coercive and exploitative, even when women participate in it out of free will. Nevertheless, he says, the current laws should not continue because they target the woman who is the most vulnerable person in the exchange.

"It is extremely difficult for society to legislate moral behaviour. We have several choices regarding prostitution. Decriminalisation is better than leaving the laws as they are because it is not appropriate that the illegality should only land on women.

"The best choice out of a bad lot is to decriminalise prostitutes and criminalise the clients. While this doesn't answer all problems, it's better than treating the sex industry as just another business. To do this fails to take into account its moral circumstances. It normalises exploitative behaviour of clients, while ignoring the need to educate towards changing this bad behaviour," Peter says.

Since 1999 Sweden has had laws that criminalise clients. Anna says this system has not eradicated prostitution but pushed it underground. Sex workers there report an increase in violence because they must be more secretive to protect their clients. Also the Russian mafia and other criminal organisations have become involved in trafficking women, which was not the case before.