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Church leaders unconvincing over prostitution law reform
by Graeme J. Davidson
, July, 2003

"Terrible how they treat the young and vulnerable"

For Christians, there is no more combustible area of ethics than human sexuality,” says Andy Crouch in a recent article in re:generation. It’s hardly surprising then that a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Tim Barnett to decriminalise prostitution incited 32 of the nation's top Church leaders to send an Open Letter to the members of the New Zealand Parliament asking them not to support the Bill. Despite this last-minute plea of the 30 men and 2 women clergy, and others who were opposed to the Bill, a narrow one-vote majority passed the Prostitution Reform Bill into law.

The new law means that:

  • Prostitution is no longer a crime in New Zealand and is subject to the same laws and controls that apply to other business enterprises, although there are restrictions on advertising, the location of brothels and the importing of prostitutes from overseas
  • The human rights of sex workers against exploitation is protected, along with their welfare, occupational health and safety, which is also beneficial to the public health
  • It’s illegal to use children (under 18) for purposes of prostitution, and laws enabling children to be prosecuted for prostitution are repealed

A TV popularity poll after the Bill was passed showed that 75% were against the reforms. The Church leaders were on the side of the majority. But are the Church Leaders right? Their arguments against the reforms aren’t convincing.

The five points in the Open Letter to All Members of the New Zealand Parliament from New Zealand Church Leaders are based on the utilitarian ethic of minimizing harm for prostitutes and the public. This gives an impression of Church paternalism towards sex workers, especially as the Prostitute's Collective was supportive of the Bill and claimed it would help considerably to reduce the risk of harm to sex workers. (See also Church leaders accused of arrogance and ignorance.)The Church leaders did not answer the Prostitute's Collective's substantive case for the need for fair treatment and equity with other industries — the application of Kant's Categorical Imperative, which is a necessary check on the rights of minorities in the face of a utilitarian approach of seeking the benefits for the greatest number.

Here are the points raised in the Church Leaders' letter (in brown font) along with editorial comments on each of the points raised (in dark blue font). The full text of the letter is available below.

1: We fully support any measure to reduce exploitation of or risk to prostitutes, but are not convinced the Bill offers much in this regard. Many prostitutes are young and vulnerable and hence easily open to exploitation by powerful and unscrupulous brothel owners. Even with legal employment provisions available there will be many ways in which such protections can be circumvented.

This is equally true of other employers in other industries under current New Zealand employment laws. Supermarkets, model agencies and other employers exploit young people and those who are desperate for work. Why single out the sex industry? Many employers in all sorts of organisations circumvent the law. Typical examples are how the laws against ageism, race, gender bias, sexual orientation or ‘constructive dismissal’ are circumvented by finding other grounds for why a person is unsuitable. At times, the Church itself is accused of such practices. To be consistent, the Church leaders would need to raise concerns about exploitation in the workplace as a whole and show a willingness to demonstrate this in their own employment practices.

2: While to a small degree exploitation of prostitutes may be reduced under the new Bill, a much wider form of exploitation is opened up. The normalising of prostitution sends a message that the commercial selling of one’s body is an acceptable function in society, and will draw many other young and vulnerable people into the business.

Many people 'sell' their bodies to be ‘exploited’ by industry — labourers, models, sport's people, actors and dancers — which is regarded as 'an acceptable function in society'. Prostitutes selling their bodies for sexual acts is not desirable for Christians and others who believe that sexual relationships should be reserved as an expression of committed love between couples. Nevertheless, not all agree with this position and many people today dissociate sex from love and treat sex as another appetite to be satisfied. Decriminalisation of prostitution will not automatically draw greater numbers of the ‘young and vulnerable’ into the sex business than are already drawn to the industry. As with any business, customer demand determines supply. Too many suppliers usually lowers profitability, which makes the business unattractive for suppliers. Because something is legal does not mean that it is always socially acceptable. There are many things that are legal that are not socially acceptable. Examples would be smoking, gambling away most of the family income, excessive drinking, letting your young children watch TV until the wee small hours every night, adults watching 'R' rated pornographic movies or visiting porn sites on the Internet. It could also be argued that prostitution may lose some of its allure now that it's legal, especially as brothels and prostitutes can be more easily identified, financially audited and taxed on their earnings.

3: We fully support measures to improve the health of prostitutes, such as through the provision of safe sex material, but such material is already readily available. Decriminalising brothels will not greatly assist this objective.

In many countries with legal prostitution, the brothel's licence is dependent on a regular positive health check of the premises and the employees similar to health checks on food premises. That would be an improvement on the previous clandestine arrangements, and, if not, it ‘s not going to make the situation worse.

4: By legalising brothels the way is opened for commercial operators freely to enter the field with no other motivation than the making of money. The victims will be the prostitutes and the social and moral fabric of society. Associated activities of drugs and the trafficking of women are likely to increase.

Profit is the key motive for any business and brothels are no exception. Any worker in any organisation could be a potential victim of unscrupulous employers. So, the point is not specific to this law. Even a few Church employees in New Zealand have won cases in the employment courts for wrongful practices by Church employers. (Clergy have found it more difficult to bring cases as they are deemed to be 'employed by God'.) They too have been victims, as has the ‘social and moral fabric of society’ because it weakens faith in the Church as an upholder of morality. Like other legitimate businesses, the Government can audit the financial dealings of prostitutes and brothels. This will make it harder to launder drug money. Laws already exist to prevent the trafficking or enslavement of people. Decriminalising prostitution should make it easier to monitor and to prosecute those who infringe these laws within the sex industry.

5: Decriminalising brothels elevates prostitution to a normal feature of society. As when controls on any activity are relaxed there is bound to be an increase in such activity. We recognise that prostitution is a reality in society, but do not accept that it is a desirable reality.

Christians are certainly not encouraged to use prostitutes or become sex workers, and for Christians it is not a desirable reality. Nevertheless, New Zealand is probably the most secular of Western societies and has ambivalent attitudes towards prostitution. It’s generally regarded as undesirable but necessary for some who need these services, provided the service is discreet and not run by major crime organisations. Prostitution is already elevated in society through films, such as Pretty Woman, (see Exposing the "Pretty Woman" Myth: A Qualitative Examination of the Lives of Female Streetwalking Prostitutes) and there is a fascination with the life of prostitutes, as there is with prison inmates. My own experience of working as a chaplain among prostitutes was that many of their clients did not want full sexual intercourse or exotic sex. They needed a sympathetic ear and a cuddle. Also, as has already been mentioned in answer to point 2, there are lots of things that are a reality in society and not desirable. These range from fatty fast foods (adding to obesity and heart disease), motorbikes (high probability of having an accident), smoking, staying single (shortens life and adds to higher probability of ill health), TV (violent crime in New Zealand rose four-fold after its introduction) and so on. Demand rather than legality makes these activities popular. The Law often comes to sanction and/or regulate what is already common practice and in this respect the decriminalisation of prostitution recognises the popularity of the industry. It also recognises the changing attitudes of tolerance in New Zealand to a wider variety of sexual activity as well as the need to regulate some of its practices.

As with any commercial enterprise, we don't have to use the services provided by prostitutes and we can persuade others not to. We can also work to provide alternative rewarding career options for prostitutes and those who would otherwise be attracted to work in the sex industry.


Open Letter to all Members of the New Zealand Parliament
from New Zealand Church Leaders

P O Box 37 148
Auckland
20 June 2003  
                                                                                            Email:dean@holy-trinity.org.nz

Dear Member of Parliament

Prostitution Reform Bill

We write to express our conviction that the Prostitution Reform Bill does not serve the best interests of prostitutes or New Zealand society. We would respectfully recommend that it not be supported.

Having studied background documents, and the Bill itself as amended at second reading, we base our conviction on these considerations :

1.       We fully support any measure to reduce exploitation of or risk to prostitutes, but are not convinced the Bill offers much in this regard. Many prostitutes are young and vulnerable and hence easily open to exploitation by powerful and unscrupulous brothel owners. Even with legal employment provisions available there will be many ways in which such protections can be circumvented.

2.       While to a small degree exploitation of prostitutes may be reduced under the new Bill, a much wider form of exploitation is opened up. The normalising of prostitution sends a message that the commercial selling of one’s body is an acceptable function in society, and will draw many other young and vulnerable people into the business.

3.       We fully support measures to improve the health of prostitutes, such as through the provision of safe sex material, but such material is already readily available. Decriminalising brothels will not greatly assist this objective.

4.       By legalising brothels the way is opened for commercial operators freely to enter the field with no other motivation than the making of money. The victims will be the prostitutes and the social and moral fabric of society. Associated activities of drugs and the trafficking of women are likely to increase.

5.       Decriminalising brothels elevates prostitution to a normal feature of society. As when controls on any activity are relaxed there is bound to be an increase in such activity. We recognise that prostitution is a reality in society, but do not accept that it is a desirable reality.

Amendments agreed to at the second reading of the Bill which place constraints on the operation of brothels (eg advertising, restrictions on location, importing of prostitutes from overseas), do not remove our basic concerns.                                                                                               

Our hope is that the Bill will not proceed, and that wider consideration will be given to alternative approaches. There has, for example, been much debate about the Swedish approach which is based on a strong philosophical objection to the very activity of prostitution as being exploitative of women and men. It has led to a reduction in prostitution, and has been accompanied by Government programmes to assist people out of prostitution and associated drug addiction. Such an approach would seem worthy of consideration in New Zealand.

Anglican Bishops
The Rt Rev John Paterson, Anglican Presiding Bishop/Primate and Bishop of Auckland
The Rt Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe, Pihopa o Aotearoa
The Rt Rev Dr Penny Jamieson, Bishop of Dunedin
The Rt Rev Derek Eaton, Bishop of Nelson
The Rt Rev John Gray, Pihopa ki te Waipounamu
The Rt Rev Dr Tom Brown, Bishop of Wellington
The Rt Rev Muru Walters, Pihopa ki te Upoko o te Ika
The Rt Rev Brown Turei, Pihopa ki te Tai Rawhiti
The Rt Rev David Moxon, Bishop of Waikato
The Rt Rev Philip Richardson, Bishop in Taranaki
The Rt Rev Te Kitohi Pikaahu, Pihopa ki te Tai Tokerau
The Rt Rev Richard Randerson, Assistant Bishop of Auckland

Catholic Church
His Eminence Thomas, Cardinal Williams, Archbishop of Wellington
Most Reverend Patrick Dunn, Bishop of Auckland
Most Reverend Robin Leamy SM, Assistant Bishop in Auckland
Most Reverend Denis Browne, Bishop of Hamilton
Most Reverend Takuira Max Mariu SM, Assistant Bishop of Hamilton
Most Reverend Peter Cullinane, Bishop of Palmerston North
Most Reverend Owen Dolan, Coadjutor Bishop of Palmerston North
Most Reverend John Dew, Assistant Bishop of Wellington
Most Reverend John Cunneen, Bishop of Christchurch
Rev Monsignor Vincent Walker, Vicar General, Dunedin

Presbyterian
The Rt Rev Michael Thawley, Moderator, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand
Jane Pritchard, Moderator, Auckland Presbytery
The Rev Douglas Lendrum, St David’s Church, Auckland

Methodist
The Rev David Pratt, District Superintendent, Auckland


Salvation Army
Campbell Roberts, Divisional Commander, Canterbury North West
Ross Gower, Divisional Commander, Auckland


Baptist
Brian Winslade, National Leader, Baptist Churches of New Zealand

Anglican Deans of Cathedrals
The Very Rev David Cappel Rice, Dean of Dunedin
The Very Rev Charles Tyrrell, Dean of Nelson
The Very Rev Dr Douglas Sparks, Dean of Wellington


 

 

 

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