A New Zealand Feminist’s View of the Decriminalisation of Sex Work
Green Party Aotearoa New Zealand MP Jan Logie talks about why she supports the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act that decriminalised sex work in New Zealand.
by Fraser Crichton
In her maiden speech to the New Zealand parliament in 2012, Green Party MP Jan Logie said proudly, “I stand here today as a Lefty, feminist lesbian.” As a feminist Jan Logie’s credentials working in the women’s movement are impeccable. Logie has worked tirelessly for women’s rights for twenty-five years. She was the coordinator of the Wellington Women’s Refuge and the executive director of the YWCA Aotearoa New Zealand and has volunteered with Wellington Rape Crisis, Youthline and HELP Sexual Abuse Crisis Line. Logie has served on the front lines of the women’s movement and few people in New Zealand can talk as eloquently on issues surrounding women’s rights, sexual assault, domestic violence and LGBTQI rights.
During her time as executive director of the YWCA Logie was one of many New Zealand feminists who successfully campaigned for the decriminalisation of prostitution through the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 and she continues to advocate for decriminalisation. But why does she choose to support legislation that some see as enabling the sex industry?
“I support the decriminalisation [of prostitution] because I’m a feminist,” says Logie. The New Zealand model removes criminal sanctions from most aspects of sex workers’ lives. Outdoor sex work is legal, as is indoor work and running a commercial business. The legislation does, however, preclude migrant workers and mandate the use of condoms. Under decriminalisation, sex workers have access to the same health and safety rights as any other worker and if they need to approach the police they can do so without fear of arrest.
From a feminist perspective, Logie supports fundamental rights for sex workers. She acknowledges that many sex workers are vulnerable to violence but says, “decriminalisation has given them access to the police and rights under our law and I personally don’t think it’s a consistent feminist perspective to deny those people those rights.”
In feminist discourse, sex work is perhaps the most polarising topic. Some strands of radical feminism believe sex work is the antithesis of women’s equality and seek the eradication of prostitution through legislation. This approach is motivated by the belief that sex work contributes to, or is an aspect of, men’s violence against women and that a society that tolerates prostitution perpetuates this.
Many radical feminists support the Nordic or Swedish legislative model that criminalises clients anticipating that this will ultimately result in ending demand for sexual services. For Logie to say that her feminism leads her to support decriminalisation directly challenges this evangelism.
I personally don’t think it’s a consistent feminist perspective to deny those people those rights
Those in favour of the eradication of prostitution argue that women only engage in sex work out of economic necessity and that this denies them agency; if you’re poor then you can’t possibly make informed choices. Having spent much of her life working with vulnerable women, Logie is well aware of the nuanced arguments around financial vulnerability.
Logie says, “The reality is there are a lot of different people doing sex work and the media, at least here in New Zealand, was full of stories of tragedy - that sex workers were these kind of victimised women who’d had terrible experiences in their lives that lead them to no choice but to do sex work. Well, the reality is far more complex than that.”
Logie acknowledges that there are people working in the sex industry who are financially vulnerable but equally many people “very sensibly and rationally and with emotional intelligence” choose to work. Logie goes on to say, “I don’t think it’s up to anyone else to make judgements.” Logie strongly believes that whether through choice or economic necessity if someone works in the sex industry they still deserve fundamental rights.
The reality is far more complex than that
“I do not believe that anyone can say - even if you are talking at that higher level that this is violence against women - […] that if you don’t consent to a sexual activity you don’t have access to justice,” says Logie. She goes on to say that only through decriminalisation can sex workers be on a level footing when reporting sexual assault, violence or robbery to the police. When sex workers are criminalised — either directly or indirectly through brothel keeping laws or laws criminalising clients — it denies workers the right to access justice.
Whilst, Logie believes access to the police without the possibility of arrest is important it is not the only aspect of decriminalisation that improves safety. Logie says decriminalisation also, “enables sex work to happen in environments that are regulated like any other workplace would be which absolutely improves the safety. Where as, if you criminalise the client you are keeping the whole industry underground and you are not able to regulate to improve the conditions around the work, and that puts the workers in danger.”
Although the Nordic Model is touted as an approach that doesn’t criminalise workers in reality where it has been introduced sex workers working together for safety continue to be charged with brothel keeping and evicted from their homes or deported as a result of reporting violence to the police, and as their work is driven underground sex workers are also more vulnerable to violence.
Logie is not alone as a feminist in supporting the rights of sex workers. Decriminalisation in New Zealand was only possible because of the support of feminist organisations including the Women’s Refuge, the National Council of Women of New Zealand and the Māori Women’s Welfare League. Internationally sex workers’ rights movements are increasingly gaining support in their fight for decriminalisation from feminist organisations including Women Against Rape and Sisters Uncut.
The quest for women’s equality in society and the eradication of violence against women are vital goals that all feminists share. However, legislative approaches that directly or indirectly criminalise sex workers do nothing to serve this cause. One reason the sex workers’ rights agenda is increasingly heard internationally is because many people, Jan Logie amongst them, recognise that sex workers urgently need access to rights in the complex social reality of now.
Fraser Crichton is a Scottish documentary photographer and writer currently based in Melbourne. He works on personal documentary projects in a variety of media including writing, photography and video. He is currently working a long term project exploring and supporting sex workers’ rights.