From Class Struggle 51 July-August 2003
The Prostitution Act Reform Bill was passed into law on the 27th June 2003 by the very narrow margin of one vote.Here we put a communist perspective on this issue and explain why we give critical support to this new law

A very short history of sex work

This much-debated piece of legislation, though long overdue, was only passed because a Muslim MP Ashraf Chaudhary could not in good conscience vote either for or against it and so abstained.
For this decision he has been pilloried by many as either indecisive, a traitor to Islam or bowing to pressure from his party leader. Asked on the night why he had followed this course of action he responded with the statement that though he could not for religious reasons vote for the Bill, he could not vote against it as it contained some important protections for workers.
Chaudhary was realistic enough to know that just because of his moral objections to prostitution, it was not going to go away. Therefore better to improve the law to make life safer for prostitutes than persecute them for what is a longstanding social practice.
Chaudhary is right. Prostitution has existed for as long as the patriarchal family as more or less ‘deviant’ sex outside marriage. The law and policing practices governing prostitution are the result of social attitudes that recognise that paying for sex outside marriage is widespread, but at the same time should not be ‘normalised’ as no different to marital sex. Why not?

In the patriarchal family the male head of the household was boss and his sons inherited his property.Marital sex was necessary to make sure that his sons were legitimate heirs. Women were paid for their sexual services by their upkeep and were also expected to be the moral champions of monogamy. Prostitution was tolerated because it fulfilled the need for sex outside marriage without threatening to destroy the patriarchal household.

Under capitalism this changed. The working class had no property to pass down to its sons. Instead the working class family became a ‘domestic factory’ for making babies to feed the bosses’ factories. To ensure that dad stayed around to feed the family production line, the ruling class tried to enact legislation to restrict extramarital sex. They also promoted the moralising myths that stigmatised prostitutes as deviants while their mainly male clients usually escaped the law.

Making up Morals
Those who opposed the Bill promoted lots of half-truths and untruths about the Bill and prostitution. They failed and the new Act will remove many of the negative effects of the old laws and in doing so will in time help to dispel some of the lies and myths that surround prostitution.
There have been myths perpetrated within New Zealand for many years about prostitution, most of which have come from the Church, the ‘moral’ right or the Radical Feminist movement These myths include the claim that prostitution was at one time illegal in New Zealand. It has never been illegal. Pimping, brothel keeping, living off the earnings and soliciting on the other hand are, and have been ever since the 19th century. The obvious effect of these laws is to penalise the prostitute (and the pimp) but not the client.
The main aim and force of the Act is to remove these ‘crimes’ from the Statute books, as the present situation marginalizes the prostitutes and their families.It makes them and their families not only into criminals but also into easy targets for gangs and those who would exploit them for profit.

Job satisfaction for profits

The second myth that the moralists like to perpetrate is that no woman would willingly choose to be a prostitute. But nor do other workers choose freely to work for wages. The truth is that no worker is free to choose under capitalism, as the alternative is starvation or living in an oppressive relationship. Some prostitutes claim that they are not exploited or abused, but are professionals. So do many other workers take a pride in their job. Like the prostitute who does not see that extramarital sex props up the bourgeois family, they also fail to see that their labour produces profits for the bosses and props up capitalism.
Many women ‘try’ prostitution for economic reasons but the vast majority of these women very quickly find that it is not for them. In other words they look for a better job. It is neither ‘easy’ money nor is it morally debasing to the women who choose it as their profession. In that sense prostitution is service that people enter to earn a living. The truth is that it is capitalism and the patriarchal family that create prostitution that are immoral, not the actions of the prostitute or the client.

Pimps stand over tactics

Under the existing legislation parlour owners have more power over their workers than any other group of “bosses”. Though the fiction was maintained that these women were private contractors they were required to work rosters that did not necessarily take into account personal circumstances or commitments.When they refused to do impossible shifts or missed shifts, they were fined (these fines could range from $10 to $50 or more per shift missed). In one case we know of a worker fined (docked) over $500 when she failed to show up for a shift even though she was ill and had rung to inform the “boss” that she would not be in.
Women in parlours were often required to go with any man that chose them and were unable to refuse if they wished to continue to work in that establishment. This was illegal under existing legislation (it was illegal to force or coerce any person to take part in a sexual activity) but because of their marginalized position women could not complain. Under the new law this form of coercion carries with it a sentence of up to seven years in prison.
The law change has made it possible for these women to legally setup their own “houses” or “brothels” without the stand over tactics of the “boss”.There was even a group of parlour owners who opposed the law change for this very reason.As the law stood if a woman had any criminal conviction, and in particular a drug conviction, she was not permitted to work in a parlour and these were often the women who ended up working on the streets.These are the most vulnerable of workers in the industry and the law change will allow them to move off the streets into brothels or to rent a room from which they can work, though many may choose not to change the way that they currently work.

Brothels to pay tax, GST and ACC

This bill now brings parlours/brothels under the same legal restraints as other employers/businesses thus offering a modicum of protection to the workers through the need for these “bosses” to comply with the minimum standards set down by ACC and OSH for the workplace to be safe.So while revenue collection may well be one of the objectives of the bill it is not the only objective, as was portrayed by some of those who opposed it.
Already most parlours (at least in Auckland) require that they know the woman’s real name – this is verified by photo ID and their real addresses, and these are kept on record.Some even require IRD numbers, therefore most of the women who work in the massage parlours are already known to and in contact with the IRD, as are many of the women who work privately.In some towns and cities in New Zealand women are even required to register with the police if they wish to work there, Dunedin for example.

Radical liberal hypocrisy

So called ‘moral’ grounds were not valid reasons for those on the left to have opposed this bill.It is no good claiming that capitalism must be overthrown to get rid of prostitution, but meanwhile doing nothing to help prostitutes to organise and improve their conditions while we prepare for the revolution. The removal of the blatant oppression of women who work in this profession by the parlour owners, the ”bosses” and those who rent apartments with rent plus ‘extra use’ charges were very valid reasons to critically support the Bill.These are the capitalists that profit from the present situation and they are aided by those who choose to use moral grounds for their objections.
It is also wrong for some opponents of this bill to disguise their real agendas behind a professed concern about the conditions and pay of working women. Even if these views are sincerely held, prostitutes are also working women and to use them and their occupation in this manner is to debase their value as women and as human beings, and to treat them as commodities in just the same way as the parlour “bosses” do.
Defeating this bill would have done nothing to assist or alleviate the inequality of wages paid to women workers, nor would it have brought about pay equity or have made any progressive political change to the capitalist system in New Zealand.It would only have allowed the blatant exploitation to continue.
On the other hand, giving critical support for this Bill does not mean that we endorsed prostitution, any more than fighting for wage increases means we endorse wage exploitation. On the contrary capitalism will never by overthrown unless the workers mobilise to demand what they need now to the point where they are strong enough to take it themselves! Prostitutes now will have the same legal rights as other workers to organise and bring about reforms that can hasten the end of the patriarchal family and capitalism.

Crime and drugs red herrings

Another myth is that prostitution causes crime. But the problems associated with drug dependency, mental illness, and suicide cannot be laid “at the door” of prostitution as often these problems are pre-existing.These are problems brought about by the capitalist system and are not the product of any one industry.As figures for the number of women working in the industry are only estimates and often only take into account street walkers or at best include parlour workers, it is impossible to state that statistically this is a more dangerous occupation than many others, including nursing, being a doctor or any other high stress employment.
Another argument raised to prevent the passage of the Bill was that of very young persons taking part in paid sexual activities. Under the old law a man had as a defense the belief that the woman/girl was of the age of consent (this was 16 except if she was working in a massage parlour where the minimum age was 18). This has now changed.All sex workers now have to be of the minimum age of 18 and the onus is on the client to be certain of this.
As for the frequency of assaults and murder, this is higher for streetwalkers than others in the industry as these workers are by far the most vulnerable.This Act can help them to be safer and to move off the streets if that is what they want.But the figures for both assault and murder of women still show that it is women who choose to get out of abusive relationships that are at the greatest risk of both being assaulted and murdered, not prostitutes.
All these myths and misconceptions aside, the workers in the sex industry now have the chance to bring to themselves the greatest protection available to workers everywhere: they are now in the position to either form their own union or to join an existing union and achieve the strength of collective negotiating both for conditions of work and payment.Like the workers in any other industry, this will give them the potential to have control over their labour and remove it from the bosses’ sole discretion. They will not need to rely upon the law and the law enforcement agencies that will often fail to administer the law. They can organise themselves to fight for and defend their rights. And in that they deserve the support of all workers.

All out for the sexual revolution

As Marxists we recognise that prostitution today is the product of capitalism and patriarchy and will not go away until we abolish both. Meanwhile capitalism requires us to sell our labour to survive, and the selling of sexual services is also necessary for the reproduction of bourgeois families and capitalist society. For some these services are performed inside bourgeois marital-type relationships as partners. For others, these services are performed outside the family as prostitutes.
Both services perform a necessary function to capitalism and their providers deserve the same protections as other workers and the same respect.The changes now enacted in the Prostitution Reform Act mark an important step towards equality of opportunity and employment rights for sex workers outside the family who will now be better organised to meet the oppressive tactics of their bosses and the ruling class and pave the way not only for the sexual revolution but for the socialist revolution!

1 comment:

Jodine said...

Thank you! Well stated and easy to understand. Jx