Is there anything wrong with prostitution? If you asked the average New Zealander she or he might suppress a grimace and answer, “Well, it’s legal, isn’t it?” More than that might be hate speech, or at least horribly judgemental. New Zealand legalised prostitution in 2003 and in the Queen’s Birthday Honours this year a Labour government (again) bestowed the title of Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit on the founder and boss of the Prostitutes Collective, Catherine Healy. The category “sex work/escort” is on Immigration NZ’s skilled employment list, despite its not being on the skill-shortage list.

Our South Pacific liberal paradise has been hailed by the pro-prostitution lobby as an example to the rest of the world, along with The Netherlands, Germany and a few other places, of enlightened policy that protects “sex workers” from abuse, disease, wage exploitation and stigma. However, if you ask any Kiwi who lives near one of the hotspots for (illegal) street soliciting, or has a “legal” supposedly domestic scale operation in their suburban street, you will likely hear a different view of things.

The truth is that the question of legalised prostitution is by no means settled. The Netherlands has moved to reduce legal prostitution rather than extend it. In the state of Nevada, which has had legal brothels for around 150 years, there are moves to get rid of them: in one county the issue will be on the ballot in November elections; commissioners in another have agreed to bring a bill for a state-wide ban into the legislature next year. These initiatives are, of course, being fought tooth and nail by those profiting from the legal brothels.

But bans are also opposed by academics like University of Nevada sociologist Barbara Brents. In a recent exchange of fire in The New York Review with British prostitution abolitionist Julie Bindel, Brents said she had conducted research on Nevada’s legal brothels for nearly 20 years and has concluded that they “provide a far safer environment for sex workers than the criminalised system in the rest of the United States.”

We are talking here about outfits with names like “Mustang Ranch” and “Love Ranch Cathouse” run by entrepreneurs who star in reality TV shows, run for political office, and make a lot of money out of merchandising sex.

Dennis Hof, owner of Cathouse and six other legal brothels and author of a best-selling book about his career as a pimp, won a Republican primary recently and is favoured to win a seat in the state Assembly in the November elections.

Lance Gillman, an elected official (commissioner) in another county, is trying to increase the number of brothels in his county. He proudly told Bindel that Mustang is modelled on a prison and he refers to the women as “inmates”, she reports. He designed a game called “Hunt a Ho” in which men pay to “hunt women in the desert with paintball rifles. “We get the girls, they are the prey, hunters come and find ‘em,” he has said in a TV promo.

Bindel argued in an article in the New York Review of Books that these places are not safe for women, and that furthermore they encourage an environment in which the illegal sex trade – involving trafficking –flourishes with the connivance of authorities. She adduced evidence from her own research and that of other scholars and activists, including the San Francisco based psychologist and researcher Melissa Farley. This group want, not full criminalisation, but the Nordic model in which purchasing sex is a crime but selling it is not; the idea being to dry up demand and move women out of prostitution.

Ostensibly, the debate between Bindel and Brent is about evidence, data. Bindel states, for example, that in Nevada:

  • Legalised prostitution has boosted the illegal market, making Las Vegas – where it is not legal – a major sex tourism destination, accounting for 90 percent of the prostitution in the state, which has more prostitutes per capita than New York.
  • The illegal sex market, encouraged in part by legalised prostitution, breeds trafficking – “more than 19,000 women and children being … bought and sold for sexual acts annually”. Girls are brought into the state on false documents. And, as Farley argues, organised crime corrupts the political and judicial system.
  • Claims that legalisation solves the problems of sexually transmitted disease are based on unreliable data, since it relies on an “honours system” of reporting. Women have to have regular blood tests but the men who use them do not. The “condom rule” in brothels is unenforceable and there is evidence it is regularly negotiated. There are no statistics on HIV infection since it is assumed there is no transmission. But other STI rates across the state are rising.
  • Her interviews with 50 women who have left such systems elsewhere reveal “endemic violence from brothel owners, feelings of stigma and shame, and a lack of services to support women leaving the sex trade.”
  • Legalisation does not typically encourage unionisation and protection of “workers’ rights”. Women are “strongly discouraged by their bosses from unionising.” The legal brothels are mainly out in the desert (isolated), the women live in under strict rules and anyway are independent contractors, not employees.

Brents for her part claims that “the science” is on the side of legalisation. Although she does not claim the system is perfect, and acknowledges that “selling sexual services is not for everyone,” she defends it. The 38 women her team interviewed over several years “told us these jobs had far more advantages than their previous jobs in straight jobs in restaurants, office management, or medical services.”

She also defends public health data showing there have been “no cases of HIV among women working in Nevada’s system.” Women told her they would not risk sex without a condom to get more money.

Brents claims the movement for a ban is “faith-based” and political rather than communal; that Bindel’s and Farley’s research has been discredited. On the other hand, the big names in health and human rights – the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, Amnesty International, the United Nations and the World Health Organisation — have all recommended legalisation. Though it will not inspire confidence in all readers, this list is certainly to be reckoned with. One cannot say the same for the UK’s Liberal Democrat party or the English Collective of Prostitutes.

Ultimately, however, this debate is about more than “the science” and the opinions of bigwigs. It should be about deeper things: the meaning and dignity of being a man or woman and of the sexual relationship. Unfortunately the protagonists in this exchange go not much further than conflicting ideologies of rights.

Julie Bindel is a lesbian feminist who views women’s issues through an anti-patriarchal, anti-heterosexual lens. She has called for the abolition of marriage, which she sees as an institution made by men for their own benefit. In fact, she would like to banish the whole concept of gender. In this light prostitution, with its predominantly male pimps and bosses, its objectification of women and commercialisation of sex, reveals the essential character of the heterosexual establishment: a system of, to use a phrase from her reply to Brents, “one-sided sexual gratification” in favour of men. To legalise this travesty and make out it is “work” fit for women is the last straw. No wonder she campaigns incessantly against it.

Barbara Brents is a progressive for whom everything comes down to a choice, which, if in the current state of society is inherently dangerous, should be made as safe as possible. “There are ways to conduct and regulate commercial sex that will reduce harm and protect a worker’s right to earn a living as he or she chooses,” she says.

Of the two, Bindel comes closer to an argument from human dignity in her disgust with the “renting out” the inside of a woman’s body as though it were “no different from working in a restaurant” – not to mention the buying and selling of trafficked women. These are grievous offences against the person, even when they are legal, and not just when it is men using women – which is Bindel’s perspective – but also when women allow themselves to be used – something she and other abolitionists never address.

The fact remains that feminist abolitionists, however radical their sexual ideology, are de facto allies with dignitarians and conservatives on this matter, and utilitarian progressives are not. That is how things are shaping up in Nevada, apparently, and it is something worth keeping in mind.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet