The Failure of the “New Zealand Model” According to Māori Women

By Jade Kake and Fern Eyles

As the last land mass settled, New Zealand’s experience with prostitution is comparatively rough and recent. Early accounts indicate prostitution’s establishment followed the onset of colonization. The early exchange of goods by whalers and traders for sexual access to Maori women rapidly became one of the primary industries in the Bay of Islands, leading at least one Iwi to launch a raid with intent to capture women for this purpose, and missionaries to refer to the area as the ‘hellhole of the south’. Despite this history, New Zealand’s approach to prostitution is regarded as progressive and liberal, and the so-called New Zealand model of full decriminalization is often held up as the gold standard internationally.

New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003, adopting a ‘full decriminalization’ model. Prostitution itself was not technically illegal, but loopholes allowed vast abuses within the industry — particularly from police who were notorious for the rape and exploitation of sex workers, often in exchange for not pressing charges. Contentious as it was, the bill passed in parliament by a single vote, legalizing soliciting (the request for, or advertising of, services), brothel-keeping, and living off the proceeds of someone else’s prostitution. Everything was now state-sanctioned and legal.

Demographics within New Zealand’s prostitution industry remain divided along racial and gendered lines — overwhelmingly women, with Maori and Pasifika disproportionately represented. Comprising roughly 16% of the population, it is concerning that Māori represent 31.7% of those in prostitution. Māori and Pasifika are more likely to be in the poorest paid and most dangerous setting — street work — than any other ethnicity (63.9% and just under 9.4% respectively). Both Māori and Pasifika are more likely to have entered the industry under the age of 16 than Pakeha (Caucasians), with Māori five times more likely: about a third of Māori participants enter under 18, with Māori twice as likely to have entered at ages 16 and 17. There are clear data gaps (the most recent data is from 2007), but based on what is known, the statistics are pretty damning.

More recently, survivor stories have started to be told, through groups such as Wāhine Toa Rising. What survivors have said, consistently, is that culturally-appropriate and discrete exiting services are what is truly needed, more so than funding for condoms and sexual health checks (services currently funded by the Ministry of Health and delivered by the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective). Exiting services should be implemented at the community level by community-based organizations who can address the unique position women within the industry have when trying to navigate government services, housing or employment, as well as providing access to substance-rehabilitation, counselling, and community support.

Seventeen years since it was passed into law, the Prostitution Reform Act continues to fail women, and particularly, Māori, low-income and migrant women. Among issues are various legal incommensurabilities. The maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment for facilitating or receiving payment for commercial sex with a person under 18 is consistent with grooming, but not with the 14 year maximum for sexual exploitation, 10 year maximum for sexual contact with a person under 16 — at which age just under 10% of women entered — or the 20 years’ maximum sentence for rape or trafficking of persons. Additionally, the New Zealand definition of trafficking within the Crimes Act 1961 considers trafficking as a transnational offence (although movement between states does not need to be completed for proceedings to be brought). This excludes the trafficking of adults and children domestically for the purposes of prostitution, and currently there appears to be no clear legal prohibition for these activities.

We are already seeing examples surface through the media. In June of this year, five men were arrested in relation to an underage sex trafficking in Northland (a region in New Zealand where we are both based), and face charges under the Prostitution Reform Act. Due to the inadequacy of New Zealand’s prostitution legislation, Marcus Barker — the first of the five men to be sentenced — received 12 months home detention for the charge of “unlawful sexual connection with a 15-year-old, receiving sexual services from her, and arranging for her to supply sexual services”. His sentence sets the tone for subsequent sentences relating to the case, as they must be consistent.

The unnamed man at the center of this continues to be referred to as the victim’s ‘boyfriend’ by local media, ultimately minimizing the situation to a technicality surrounding age, and not one of prolonged grooming, predation, and exploitation — particularly egregious considering an ‘intermediary’ is overwhelmingly involved with underage entry, and (as international research has pointed to) the likelihood of relevant services recognising the situation for what it is is low, as well as the slightly higher rate of sexual abuse of minors and comparative lack of disclosure in rural areas.

These issues are likely to be exacerbated, with the economic impact of COVID being disproportionately felt by women. Of the 11,000 New Zealanders who initially lost their jobs, 10,000 of them were women. Female-dominated industries have been heavily hit, and a lack of options (or economic coercion) may see more women enter the sex industry. For example — in April, Air New Zealand confirmed nearly 1500 cabin crew (the majority of whom are women) faced redundancy. In May, a strip club spokesperson told the media that “more than half of Calendar Girls’ online applications last month came from redundant cabin crew”.

Additionally, New Zealand’s economic response has focused on the development and delivery of physical infrastructure, which has seen increased investment in male-dominated industries (such as the construction sector), and not into the occupations and industries in which women are predominantly employed. This is particularly troublesome for rural areas as those from urban centres migrate into areas where economic options are already limited. Furthermore, women are already in industries where they’re more likely to interact with the public, creating a double burden of health — women themselves may be at risk, but women must also act as gatekeepers for not only friends and family, but strangers they encounter. New Zealand does not currently have a feminist economic recovery plan (or COVID-19 response and recovery policies that specifically target women), but we sure could use one.

It is difficult to quantify stigma, and so to definitively assert it has ended. It is not so difficult to recognize that whilst the 2003 Act went some way to removing barriers, attitudes remain. Men continue to hold misogynistic attitudes towards women — outting of sex workers is still seen as a punishment — whilst many quarters continue to blame women for the violence enacted on them (both within the sex industry and out). Workers forwent the government subsidy so as not to be identified as a sex worker. Inconsistent stances on public health have continued to allow marginalized groups to be targeted, with migrant workers — unable to receive support — being targeted during COVID-19 lockdown, whilst general breaches (like unprotected sex) of health and safety integral to the industry are not. Internationally (as well as locally), the New Zealand model of full decriminalization is praised for removing social stigma against sex workers. Not only is this patently untrue, it negates the very real material harm experienced by women in prostitution. By relegating prostitution to a matter of individual choice, and reducing prostitution regulation to a conscience / morality issue, we blatantly ignore historical factors, intergenerational trauma, and gendered and racialized power dynamics.

A fundamental rethink of the relationship between colonization and prostitution, and a serious examination of the ongoing cultural and social viability of the sex industry in a post-colonial environment, is urgently required here in Aotearoa. We would urge Kanaka, women in Hawaiʻi more generally, advocates and legislators to carefully consider whether the New Zealand model will serve the best interests of nā wāhine Kanaka Maoli, low-income women, migrant women, and women more generally.

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