Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

The Politics of Sex Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific: Tensions, Debates and Future Directions

Academic journal article Women's Studies Journal

The Politics of Sex Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the Pacific: Tensions, Debates and Future Directions

Article excerpt

Prostitution or sex work1 remains a polarising and emotionally charged topic across all sectors of society. It is a practice that is typically seen as morally suspect, dangerous, and problematic (Chapkis, 1997; Weitzer, 2009), inciting strong emotional, social, and/or political responses, and being subject to special legal treatment. There is frequently a 'pro/anti' divide in feminism, academia, and society when it comes to sex work (e.g., Jackson & Scott, 1996; Segal, 1994). Prostitution is typically seen as either degrading or exploitative of its (typically women) sex workers, or as legitimate work that has and will always exist, with some suggesting that it has the potential to be empowering and push the boundaries of acceptability and respectability when it comes to sex and sexuality (Jeffreys, 1997; Weitzer, 2005, 2009; Whisnant & Stark, 2004). The former stance is typically associated with a radical feminist perspective, which seeks to eradicate sex work, and the latter with a liberal feminist approach, which seeks to legitimate it (see Henry & Farvid, this issue, for a full discussion of the various feminist approaches).

Falling somewhere outside the above dichotomy are Marxist and critical feminist approaches. While Marxists maintain that all work, including sex work, is in some way exploitative in a capitalist context, they are typically anti-abolitionist, arguing that sex work cannot be eradicated and hence should be made as safe as possible for the workers. Those who take a critical feminist stance maintain that it is vital to examine the social, cultural, economic, and political context within which any sex work happens, looking for structural and daily inequalities or injustices, without undermining the rights or agency of those who work in the industry (Farvid & Glass, 2014, see also Schmidt and Henry & Farvid this issue).

The legal models regulating sex work represent the moral, social, and political climate of any given context. The sale of sexual services has typically involved unique laws and political management, resulting from (and often maintaining) the social/moral positioning of such activities. Many of the papers in this special feature cover the specifics of these models in detail (e.g., Armstrong, Henry & Farvid, Schmidt). But in short, the four main legal models are: criminalisation (where the buying and/or selling of sex is completely illegal); legalisation (where sex work is legal but highly regulated); the Swedish/Nordic model (where only the buying of sex is illegal, in an attempt to curb the 'demand' for it); and decriminalisation (where all adult sex work is legal, and while not morally sanctioned, prostitution is subject only to the same regulations as any other service industry). Before 2003, in Aotearoa/New Zealand it was legal to procure sexual services, but illegal to sell them - making the sex workers particularly vulnerable when it came to legal prosecution, their sexual and physical safety, and various forms of exploitation. This double standard led to a review of the law, where politicians, sex workers and advocacy groups, such as the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, worked together on the law change (Abel, Fitzgerald, & Healy, 2010). Although the Swedish/Nordic model focused on demand was also considered at that time, a harm reduction and human rights approach was ultimately favoured, which saw adult sex work become fully decriminalised in Aotearoa/New Zealand with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) (2003).

As this is the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work, there have been important ideological and material shifts within Aotearoa/New Zealand with regard to the industry. In this Special Issue of the Women 's Studies Journal, we seek to interrogate some of these shifts, as well as address some of the ongoing social, political, legal, and material issues that continue to shape the industry. In what follows, I initially offer a short critical feminist deconstruction of sex work, arguing that as it currently stands, it is a fundamentally gendered practice that is shaped by various sexual and social double standards. …

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