Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Sex workers are people too

In February 2001, Marie Jamieson, a 21 year old Auckland hairdresser, was raped and killed. A few months later, I found an article about her unsolved murder in North and South. I was shocked to read that, when it was revealed that Marie had used drugs, helpful calls from members of the public to the Police hotline shrunk to a third. It seems the death, and therefore the life, of drug-taker didn't matter so much - 'moral' people's lives are worth more than others.*

The horrific murder of Christchurch sex worker Mellory Manning left me bracing for a wave of stupid and callous comments. Amongst the first stories published after her body was found was to do with her having assaulted someone with a syringe - a story which is refuted by Mellory's partner. I saw a woman (who may or may not have been a Christchurch City Councillor) mouthing off on TV about the need to regulate prostitution like other industries. I was sympathetic at first; until I realised that she seemed to be motivated by disapproval of sex workers, not a concern for their safety, and simply wanted to get workers off the streets.

Other than these two items of 'news', I've been pleasantly surprised by the respect which the media has shown Mellory and her family. A picture has been drawn of a woman who was loving and loved, and whose loss will leave a large gap in the lives of grieving family and friends. It's a relief to see Mellory, at least in death, treated as a person, not a scandal.

There may be some cynical reasons for this. It's a slow news time of year, and the media looks to string out any stories available to it - including by reveling in human tragedy. After all, the media - and particularly TV - regards the news as a form of entertainment like any other, packaging it so we will know when to laugh and when to cry and when the story's over, as if we were at the movies.

Whatever the media's motivations, its mostly compassionate response to Mellory's death - in contrast to the voyeuristic 'she was asking for it with her lifestyle' bullshit I was expecting - is extremely welcome. If we're to protect the wellbeing of sex workers, regarding them as people worth caring about is a pretty fundamental first step.

* John Donne, in one of my favourite pieces of writing ever (Meditation XVII), disagrees beautifully. His words are worth a read, particularly in light of the current situation in Palestine.

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind,
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.


ms poinsettia said...

The Christchurch councillor was Sue Wells I think. Like you, I at first thought her call for greater regulation was motivated by concern (if misguided) until she started having conniptions at the thought of 'taxpayers' paying for security cameras down Manchester Street, which was the Prostitute Collective's suggestion. How much does she think establishing and enforcing regulations would cost? And why does she think it would even work? Furthermore, taxpayer-funded security cameras are already in other parts of town where 'middle-class' youths and not-youths get trashed and violent in their off-work hours but funding similar technology to protect women who work as prostitutes is asking too much?

Lucyna Maria said...

Getting sex workers off the streets IS a concern for their safety.

I regularly visit a person in the Wgtn psych ward, and he told me just the other week that ever second woman in there is a prostitute.

He recently managed to talk one of them into not working, into going home to her family, who wanted her home and wanted her off the streets.

Being out on the streets is dangerous. Women would be far safer in any other profession.

muerk said...

I'd like to see two things,first - safe houses where sex workers can bring their clients and they can be offered medical services, including drug and alcohol programs. Secondly - support to help move sex workers into training and new careers if they want it.

Emma said...

Well, until magic pixie dust turns up that miraculously gets sex workers off the streets, they should be protected going about their perfectly legal work, and surely security cameras are a pretty easy option. It also shows a marked contrast between our law and England's: the Ipswich killings were made much easier because sex workers would avoid areas with security cameras for fear of being arrested.

I completely agree with your assertion that sex workers need to be thought of as people. Sue Wells is basically a very nice person, but she clearly can't do this, nor has it occured to her to listen to sex workers when it comes to regulating sex work.

millsy said...

A single mother can make $1000 in a single night as a sex worker. Contrast that with $300 a week on the DPB (with all of its stigma) or $350 a week as a check out chick (and at the mercy of your boss).

Can you really blame women for risking their lives working the streets?

Anna said...

I think the point that prostitution defies successful regulation is absolutely crucial. It's basically a clandestine industry - husbands and pillars of the community don't want to be seen soliciting. As long as that remains the case, safety will be an issue. I think that's why it's so important to listen to the Prostitute's Collective - they know the industry and its dangers.

When so many so-called unskilled women's jobs pay such shite, it's easy to see how women opt for the sex industry, as Millsy says. Giving women in the industry choices is important, but they have to be viable choices.

Of course, many women defend the choice to be a sex worker, and that's fine, but I do find myself wondering what kind of life experiences might lead a person to regard prostitution as a viable choice. I don't want to be condescending to sex workers, but I do wonder if it's a choice that would be made by a person with meaningful options.

Anna said...

PS L-M - yes, prostitution is more dangerous than many or most other jobs, but the home isn't a particularly safe place for women either. And every woman, regardless of her profession, goes home at the end of the day.

ZenTiger said...

So is what you are saying Anna, that a prostitute who goes home is twice as likely to die?

Do we need video cameras in homes?

It is a tragedy and a crime that this person was murdered. Cameras on one street will not change the inherent danger. Why don't prostitutes use areas with cameras? Are you sure business will not move elsewhere, since "husbands and pillars of society" dictate the terms of shopping for sex?

It will also not change the high proportion of drug use and the destruction that accompanies the street walking lifestyle. Street walkers are not the self-empowered high earning prostitutes you no doubt expect them to be.

Emma said...

I don't want to be condescending to sex workers, but I do wonder if it's a choice that would be made by a person with meaningful options

Well, it obvious IS made by SOME women with meaningful options, people with Honours Degrees. People who go into the industry for a couple of years to pay off a student loan or avoid getting one, and then walk away and don't go back. We know because the're out there on the net talking about how much it pisses them off being told they must be abuse victims or drug addicts. (Link is NSFW!)

And Zen, I don't think Anna was saying that at all about street workers. The MoJ study, which should be the Bible for talking about sex work in NZ but is somehow never mentioned
( shows just how different street workers are from other sex workers. Though the section most likely to have a drug problem is still MALE sex workers.

Anna said...

That's a very strange interpretation of what I said, Zen. I don't think of sex workers as necessarily being self-empowered high earners - I think I made that pretty clear when I said I feel that women who become sex workers are likely to be ones without many options.

Women are more likely to be killed by partners and ex-partners than anyone else. Sexual violence and other violence against women is also more common in the home than outside. Once again, you've chosen to misunderstand. The point here is that simply barring women from activities which are dangerous doesn't necessarily work. It would be silly to bar women from having relationships with men to protect them from violence - getting the men to not be violent would be a better solution, would it not?

And the fact that clients determine the terms of shopping for sex is exactly why women aren't safe. Have a think about that one.

Anna said...

Thanks Emma - very good points, and thanks for the link too. You're right - it's important to remember that not every woman in the industry has been victimised in some way, and to resist the middle class urge to save 'fallen' women!

I think the lack of choice comment still holds though - the woman who works to pay back her student loan is probably doing so because of the loan, not because of the inherent attractiveness of the work. Some people go teaching in Korea or mining for the same reason, even though they don't particularly want to. Hell, some people even get married for financial reasons.

This isn't a moral judgement - it's more a reflection on the financial choices available to poor people generaly, and women specifically. Eg solo mums - between childcare costs, effective marginal tax rates and so on, these women get financially hammered. A solo mum has to earn quite a lot to give herself and kids a reasonable quality of life - and the sorts of 'legit' jobs available to many such women just don't do that.

And yes, the differences between sex workers on the streets and elsewhere in the industry are crucial - the Prostitutes Collective expressed concerns and offered a lot of useful insights into the conditions of street workers during the law reform debate.

As far as I can tell, the Collective do a stellar job of advancing the interests of the workers they represent, but ultimately, some women choose to be outside the ambit of their organisation. These women deserve equal compassion, and probably also need quite different strategies for protection than other sex workers.

In Mellory Manning's case, it looks like her choice to work on the street may have been related to drug/methodone issues. It's easy to take the mistaken impression from the media coverage that this is what the whole sex industry looks like - but although that's not correct, I think it's still important to respect that, for some women at least, abuse and drugs may have played a part in their getting into the industry.

Anonymous said...

It annoys me that the fact that she was a prostitute seems to be the main point in every conversation I hear about this case. I've heard people say she shouldn't have been in such a dangerous job. Well is it that dangerous in comparison to other professions?

Isn't it more dangerous to be a police officer, a roadworker, a boatie, a firefighter, a dairy owner?

When someone is shot working at a diary do we say they shouldn't have been working at a diary?

Nobody ever talks about a cop asking for it when they're shot or killed do they?

Hugh said...

Nobody ever talks about a cop asking for it when they're shot or killed do they?

I would. I might not use the phrase 'asking for it', though.

Anna said...

Anon, I think it's important to distinguish between focusing one someone's job in a way that blames them for their own harm - ie she was 'asking for it' by working on the street - and asking broader questions about someone's safety in their occupation, whatever that may be. It should be possible to discuss community issues to make sex workers safer without getting into a blame-game.

The ex-expat said...

One other thing that pisses me off is how Mellory Manning is continually referred to as 'sex worker/prostitute ' Mellory Manning. It is very rare that you'd here other murder victims constantly referred to as student blah-blah or accountant blah blah.


Anonymous said...

NZ Herald have been misspelling her first name a bit, variously spelling it 'Mellory' and 'Mallory' - and I'm not sure which way it should be spelt. But the media does seem to have been very respectful of her and her family as of yet. I am afraid that the NZ media (and police?) will forget Mellory soon because of her 'dangerous' occupation and stop publishing updates about her case. I have been doing searches on the NZ Herald site every couple of days on her but nothing has been published there (or elsewhere online) for the last 4 odd days. A number of women have been murdered in Christchurch in the last few years and all those cases I think have been handled very well by police and have also been solved. They have also had extensive and ongoing media coverage. I hope all this will be true for Mellory true. It looks like the police are doing a good job with her case and have received a lot of information to work through.

Ari said...

I was kinda disgusted that I was actually GRATEFUL for the largely respectful coverage this issue was given.

I shouldn't need to be grateful for people doing their job to a high standard, but such is our society sometimes... =/