Q&A: Ahi Wi-Hongi doesn’t need to be rescued
Ahi Wi-Hongi is a current sex worker based in New Zealand working with the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) in a Community Liaison role. Ahi is an activist for transgender people’s rights in New Zealand with Gender Minorities Aotearoa. They talk here about how decriminalisation has improved sex workers’ relationship with the New Zealand police and why the safety of sex workers has improved under decriminalisation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
“Safety is one of the main concerns for most sex workers”
The 2003 Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work in New Zealand (Aotearoa). Under decriminalisation, sex workers can choose to work with friends for safety. Earning from the proceeds of sex work through a commercial sex business (or brothel) is legal. Street-based sex workers work free of prosecution and police harassment, and clients of sex workers are not criminalised. Under the New Zealand model, sex workers have access to the criminal justice system and to health and social services just like anyone else.
What is the most common complaint sex workers around the world have?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “The most common complaint sex workers have is not having enough clients. It’s really important clients aren’t criminalised because we need to be able to find clients to pay our bills. When clients are criminalised it means we have to go to greater and greater lengths to find clients. That means sex workers are more likely to go to unsafe places to find clients, more likely to accept clients that they wouldn’t otherwise accept (if the client seems a bit dodgy you might usually say ‘no’ but if you can’t find other clients then you might say ‘yes’ to them) and, it means sex workers are more willing to do things that they might not really want to do. If you have more choice about your clients then you are able to say these are the things I want to do and these are the things I don’t want to do; including using condoms and things like that. Where sex workers have to go to great lengths to find clients it means they are much more likely to do unsafe sex and to have to put themselves in dangerous situations.”
Before decriminalisation what was life like for Māori transgender sex workers?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “Prior to the law reform a lot of Māori transgender sex workers were street-based which means that they were exposed to a lot more violence — it’s a lot more dangerous to work from the streets — and street-based sex workers are the front-lines in terms of risks; including when it was illegal to do sex work. It meant that the police were going around the streets chasing sex workers down and arresting them, so that meant a lot of Māori transgender sex workers were getting arrested all the time. That meant always trying to run away and work from somewhere that was more discrete, always trying to hide from the police and going into more and more dangerous areas to try and avoid being seen. It meant people would be arrested and processed and you’d get fines and you’d have no money to pay those fines, so you would have to go back out on the street to work again to get money to pay the fines; just a never ending cycle of stress and danger.”
How much of a concern is safety for sex workers?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “Safety is one of the main concerns for most sex workers. There are lots of things that sex workers do to keep themselves safe. One of those things is being able to talk to peers and work together with other people to keep safe. Sometimes people work in brothels for safety because there is security there and there’s people around and you don’t have to take clients into your own house.”
“Before decriminalisation sex workers didn’t trust the police. It was the job of the police to arrest us, so sex workers were really scared of the police and we would never call them, and clients knew that we would never call the police”
Has decriminalisation changed the relationship between the police and sex workers?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “Before decriminalisation sex workers didn’t trust the police. It was the job of the police to arrest us, so sex workers were really scared of the police and we would never call them, and clients knew that we would never call the police. That meant that there was more of a likelihood that clients would steal from you or not pay you or maybe even assault you or try to rape you. The relationship with the police has changed so much now. If a member of the public or a client commits any sort of criminal offence against a sex worker now they will call the police.”
“Most street-based sex workers have moved indoors now. There are very few people still working on the the street. Street-based sex work was always disproportionately Māori people, so it means that’s had a huge impact on Māori sex workers in particular.”
Since decriminalisation how has life changed for Māori transgender sex workers?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “Since decriminalisation we’re not illegal so we don’t have to worry about the police arresting us and we don’t have to write our names down in a register. Most street-based sex workers have moved indoors now, there's very few people still working on the the street. Street-based sex work was always disproportionately Māori people, so it means that’s had a huge impact on Māori sex workers in particular.”
What criticisms do you have of the New Zealand sex industry?
Ahi Wi-Hongi: “Within the sex industry it’s still really common to run brothels that are based on gender. Almost all brothels in New Zealand are for women who are not transgender and there are very few brothels for male sex workers or for transgender sex workers. That’s actually a contradiction with the human rights legislation as it’s employment discrimination on the basis of gender so I would like to see that changed.”
Fraser Crichton is a Scottish documentary photographer and writer currently living in Wellington. 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.