The reality of New Zealand’s decriminalised sex trade

This is the text of Chelsea Geddes’ speech in the morning session at the ‘Students for sale: Tools for resistance’ conference, held in London on 15 October 2022. The recording of the session is online. Chelsea’s speech starts at 17:50.

Good morning, London! I’m Chelsea Geddes. I’ve come here today, from the other side of the world to share an insight with you into what prostitution really is.

My experience and expertise comes from more than 20 years in this industry. In New Zealand, where do doubt you will have heard it said that we have the “best” and “most progressive” prostitution reform law and policy, having opted for full decriminalisation of the sex trade back in 2003; the criminalization of prostitution, we are told, being the root cause of associated exploitation and harm.

On the flip side, decriminalised prostitution is being aggressively marketed to young girls as ‘sex work’, as an equal exchange between consenting adults, as harmless fun for men, and even as empowering for women.

Well, it’s not.

I remember reading advertisements for strip club and brothel workers when I was a child in my early teens, they were in the normal jobs section of the newspaper. These ads stood in stark contrast to the rest of the jobs on the page. The “Showgirls” club in my city of Auckland – advertised for bikini dancers, saying you get to keep your bikini on and make a lot of tips. No experience or dancing skills were required, just easy money.

“Femme Fatale”, the largest and most well-known brothel in Auckland, and indeed the whole country, advertised for women to massage, and “rub shoulders with friendly gentlemen”. No experience required. They boasted a pay rate of up to $2,000 per shift, saying they “prefer to see themselves as a stepping stone to bigger and better things”. All other jobs in the newspaper didn’t compare. They required qualifications, experience, and offered up far less money.

You had to be 18 to apply for these “jobs”, but by the time of my 15th Birthday I was already being prostituted – in a small live-in computer shop, next to my high school, owned by the paedophile Brian Edward Avent who took me in after I became a homeless youth.

You see, New Zealand has the highest rates of domestic and family violence in the developed world, the OECD, and my home life was violent. I was a good kid, a straight A student, but my parents were old-fashioned and very strict. Normal teenage things that all my friends were allowed to do, I simply was not. There is no way to ground a kid who is only allowed to leave the house for school and church anyway, so all punishments were physical.

I had no idea what kind of people were waiting for me out in the real world. I just felt that no-one else was treated like I was at home and the black and blue bruises all over my body told me that my parents were the ones I needed protecting from. When I was finally kicked out of home for sneaking out to see my friends, I decided I didn’t need my parents anyway.

I wanted to stay in school, and I needed an adult to take me in permanently. In retrospect, I should have gone to child youth and family services and been placed into a caring foster home. But I was a teenager, and I didn’t want new parents. I wanted to look after myself but I just needed somewhere to live. I missed my pet cat dreadfully and I couldn’t go back to pick her up without somewhere to bring her home with me to. A school friend introduced me to Brian.

Brian would later be convicted of 47 charges related to sexual assault against 14 boys aged 9-16. I was only 16 at the time of his arrest, but somehow didn’t factor as a victim of rape and abuse by this man, because without him I was homeless. I was without parents and had nowhere to go. I had plotted to take his home video collection evidencing his crimes to the police the day I could move out, but that day would not come until I could get a job and pay rent to live somewhere else. I was thus labelled a prostitute. Reading the job ads in the newspaper everyday inspired my goal in ‘bikini dancing’ as my way out.

As well as sexually abusing me himself, Brian used me as bait for the boys. He made them all practice sexual acts on my body and filmed them. It was physically uncomfortable, unbearable and I squirmed and reeled back but it didn’t help.

He was also psychologically tormenting; I was the only female and was treated as a freak show of the developing female body. I was routinely humiliated. I would climb up onto the handbasin to wash my body in the toilet downstairs, because, whenever I’d used the shower in the bathroom upstairs, washed myself, picked my nose, bent over to shave my legs, I would step out of the shower only to find a camcorder with its bright red light staring right back at me the whole time. He would show the video to the boys, and they all laughed and made fun of me, while ogling my naked body and making lewd comments.

I was the joke.

I focused myself on dieting so that I would be thinner than Kate Moss by the time I was 18 and walked into Showgirls for a job, bikini dancing. And I was. I was 5’6” and 46kg: I had reached my first goal. I thought it would be glamourous like the Las Vegas dancers I had seen on TV, with big feathers, and sequins and smiling people having a great time, giving me bunches of money for just being fabulous.

Then my entire life of abuse could come to an end, and I’d have a new future. I planned to finish school, and then put myself through university. To have the money to not need a student loan going deep into debt; to get my BSc in Physics and have a worthwhile career.

I wrote out my master plan which included getting married before age 21, graduating university, buying a home. All my life goals.

But the strip club was not glamourous or classy and people were not shoving tons of money at me. I began table-top dancing in my little outfits and heavy make-up, for drunken, rude, handsy men, waving cigarettes which burned my bum, and they asked for private dances.

As it turns out you don’t make any money bikini dancing and keeping your bikini on like the advertisement said. You had to go into a small room with these guys with no witnesses and take all your clothes off to get money. It was the same for all the other girls.

And since you’re doing that now you also have to dance on the stage in front of a crowd and get naked there too. The only dance instruction received was ‘dance for three songs and be naked by the end’. The management were demanding; they took 20% of all money earned. And paid no wage.

When smoking in bars was banned, I took it up, because only smokers got to put on a coat, go outside, and have a break.

The men were worse, they would hold out a $1 dollar Showgirls bill (the club currency) and ask, “what will you do for this?” after I’d just danced naked in front of them. What more could they possibly want before handing over one measly dollar (that’s 50 pence in your currency)? They would assault girls by sticking a finger up them while on stage, or by putting their hands on your breasts. Sometimes girls’ drinks were spiked, and rape only narrowly avoided.

During this time, I met a boyfriend, who was friends with one of the waitresses. He was spending all my money and didn’t help me with rent or bills either. I had savings goals, so I left and went to Femme Fatale, to “rub shoulders with FRIENDLY gentlemen, earn $2,000 a shift, and have a stepping stone to bigger and better things.”

They were 12-hour shifts. The men paid $250, the club took their cut of $150. Then the club charged me a $40 shift fee, a $40 Ad fee, and $20 for condoms and lube, making the first booking of the night a freebie, for which I was paid nothing. This is standard.

There weren’t any friendly gentlemen. These were rapists. Even accepting that you had to have sex, they constantly pressured and forced more.

They rip condoms off, they try to kiss you and shove their tongue down your throat, they viciously bite necks and nipples, smack and swear at you. They ask for discounts. They want to do it twice, three times, four times, but they don’t want to pay twice, three times or four times.

The cover of ‘Stepping Forward: New Workers’ Kit’, a handbook issued by the NZPC to women and girls involved in the sex trade.

I read some literature produced by the NZPC – that’s the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective who are supposedly our “workers union”.

The first impression they gave me was that if we could convince the men that we were professionals providing a service like any other job, they would treat us better, there would no longer be ‘stigma’ and stigma is what caused the harms we experienced.

This does not work.

Being polite, professional, and getting the job done efficiently, means the men complain that you are ‘clinical’ and want their money back. ‘Clinical’ is apparently unacceptable because this is not a clinic, I was not a health professional, and these people were not looking to buy a service like any other job.

They were looking to sexually harass, rape, abuse, violate, and degrade attractive young women, and they paid to get away with it. Even that they often did begrudgingly. I was to be dominated by men and they were going to do whatever they wanted to me, while I struggled to uphold a modicum of health and safety, protect myself from injury, and hold onto my dignity.

During this constant battle, I was to humour and lie to these men that were there to use us that they were somehow interesting, and that we weren’t completely disgusted by them. Especially when they would say things purposely to upset us. I just had to not let them see that it got to me even if it did.

They are on some power trip, that’s what they come in for.

And with all these “complaints” I was still the No. 1 rated lady on Femme Fatale’s website for many years.

On a busy shift I might have seven or eight bookings, making my genitals red, raw, and swollen. No-one was earning $2,000 a shift. And even at the end of the shift when we are paid out, there was no guarantee they’d hand over our money. They might write on an envelope that they owe us X amount of dollars, so we have to come in and work another shift to get it. Sometimes it built up for a long time and I worried if I’d be paid at all.

Ugly, smelly, fat, drug-addled men pounded away on top of me, dripping cold sweat onto my skin and in my eyes. I got ear infections because I would turn my head so they couldn’t try and kiss me, and they would pant moisture into my eardrum instead.

All you can do is continue to firmly state your boundaries, while trying not to make them angry. One guy smacked my ass hard, and that day I couldn’t help smacking him back in the face. He left throwing a tantrum to get his money back from the front desk as I yelled down the hallway to him, “You shouldn’t hit people if you can’t handle being hit back”. I didn’t even get paid for what he did to me because he demanded his money back.

Some men were easier compared to others, but they were all ultimately the same. My human rights to bodily integrity, safety, free expression, to not endure torture, had been sold.

The brothel streams porn to the rooms, which encourages the men to pressure us for any number of bizarre, dangerous, unhygienic, and degrading acts against our bodies, because they’re seeing those other poor girls experience them on screen.

I learnt, when I was not already too sore, to twist my body posture into the most painful position, because it seems that the more painful it was for me, the faster they came and the faster I could get them to fuck off out of the room.

Doing maths in my head helped distract me from thinking about what was happening. So I would count how many hours I’d booked so far, how much money I’d made, minus fees, what I planned to buy when I left, how much more I needed, how many more bookings that was. Without being noticed, I’d glance at my watch and count down the minutes.

I would go home to bed with visions of a hundred men’s faces morphing into each other in front of my eyes, hovering over me, and I’d be jolted awake by them. I would kick and punch in my sleep. When I stayed at a friend from the brothel’s place after we’d finished a shift, I saw that she did it too.

In New Zealand brothels, under decriminalisation, women are told they are independent contractors and responsible for paying their own tax, but they won’t be given any independent contractor freedoms, you don’t get to choose the rate charged for you, you don’t get to choose when or where you will work or who you will see. If you are thought to be working on your own without the brothel taking a cut, they will fire you or steal money from your pay.

When I was at another brothel called One33, the management deducted hundreds of dollars from my pay for smoking a cigarette in a car in the carpark. Even though the car belonged to another girl from the club and she and I were just sitting in it because it was raining.

These businesses lie. They lure you in; they trick you; and trap you.

Women in brothels will be treated like employees – except they won’t get any employee rights, no ACC – that’s our accident and injury compensation scheme – no reliable wage, no sick leave. Nothing.

In the NZPC handbook, they include a table with questions and scores to help you determine whether you are an employee or an independent contractor, but the only way to really resolve it is to go to court. As far as I’m aware no-one has ever done this. Why would anyone want to? Especially when it seems there’s a chance they might rule against you and bill you for a back log of taxes as an independent contractor, which you can’t pay.

In New Zealand brothels, under decriminalisation, police can’t help anyone. The men can do absolutely anything short of killing someone and nothing will be done.

I have gone to the police station after being punched in the head and concussed by a really large man who was verbally abusing a young new girl in the lounge. She was sitting there looking terrified. I told him to leave her alone, he laughed and asked me, “Do you want to die?” so I took a step closer and said ‘Yes’.

The police station was just around the corner from the brothel, so with my spinning head I and a few of the girls walked over and told them about the attack. He had also stolen my purse. They didn’t do a single thing, just sent us away, told me to look in the public rubbish bins to see if he’d thrown my purse in one.

My best friend was overdosed with GHB by a man who booked her. Then he must have panicked and overdosed himself too, or he was already about to OD just from over-indulging. When they were both discovered unconscious, the manager was crying because my best friend wasn’t breathing, but she couldn’t call an ambulance in case they sent the police too.

The boss’s apparent No.1 rule is “no police ever”. The mark of any truly legitimate businessman, right?

Luckily one of the girls called an ambulance anyway, My friend died in the ambulance, but was resuscitated, twice. They were both taken to the critical care ward at the hospital and survived. There was a small something in the news about an ambulance at the brothel location with no details, and a response from NZPC: “Hope everyone feels better in the morning”. Never mind that the brothel policy would have ended with dead bodies if it had been followed. Never mind that my best friend went home in the afternoon to be beaten by her boyfriend for it. She remains trapped in prostitution to this day, despite having a university degree because of her addiction to homebake heroin – to ease the pain of prostitution.

It’s somewhere between hard and impossible to succeed at university while working until 6am under these conditions, switching back and forth from being awake all day to being awake all night. Not making friends at uni because you can never go out when invited on Friday or Saturday nights as these are the money-making nights. Doing drugs with gang members because you’d rather sit there doing that and keep them talking, than have to get on top of them.

Gang members frequent all of Auckland’s brothels. They specifically target prostituted women to get them addicted to methamphetamines, so that they can make money off of their abuse of prostituted women, by selling them drugs for more money than they pay to rape them.

Decriminalised prostitution also negatively impacts prostituted women in ways unrelated to the prostitution itself. When I had briefly left prostitution to pursue a relationship with a man who told me he loved me and I thought I loved too. He physically assaulted me by strangulation up against a wall during an argument because I had refused to dress up “slutty” and be degraded for him.

I had a mini-stroke two days later surely caused by the event, and a massive handprint bruise on my neck. In court, after police pressed charges, my ex-boyfriend had come up with a story to excuse the strangulation, and his story was that I was some kind of sexual deviant who had wanted to be strangled and that the incident occurred during sex. He was able to bring up my history in prostitution as evidence supporting his story against me, and to paint me in this light in front of the entire courtroom.

I was not, however, allowed to bring up any of the previous charges I had found out about from police for domestic violence against his previous partners. And I was not allowed to bring up that he had violated his conditions after arrest by stalking me and drinking and had spent the past few days in remand. It’s because prostitution is decriminalised that he had ammunition against me in court.

He was found guilty by the jury, but sentenced to only three months home detention. I could have died, and if I had and was not there to defend myself against these allegations, he might’ve got away with it entirely.

Female students have the sex industry’s target on their back, they’re young and attractive, and they are financially strapped at a point in life where they seek to break away from family and gain a new independence. Plus, they’re ambitious.

The sex industry’s propaganda machine could potentially derail a whole generation of women’s success.

Snatching young women on the brink of greatness capable of forging real careers in fields they’re interested in and have talent for, stealing them away from all that, to be ground up in the machine to serve male orgasms.

However long you originally plan to be in prostitution, you will be stuck there longer – this is something even the NZPC admit. Over this time, you will not be gaining any real-world job skills or experience, you will not be advancing, or getting promotions.

You will miss out on the life you deserve to be living in safety, financial security, with lots of friends and healthy relationships.

It is no “stepping stone” to bigger and better things.

Common experience when it comes to exiting prostitution is a feeling of sunken costs. When you have suffered so much already, how can you leave before achieving anything from it? Without that degree, without that house. What would you even do? How would you explain your absence from the work force for so long in a job interview? Integrating back into society is not an easy task and the job-seeker benefit is not designed to sustain life for any great length of time. That’s not what it’s for and you cannot survive that way.

At one point during my time in prostitution, having dropped out of uni, not achieved anything in my master plan, and having shrunken my scope of ambition down to just survival for many years. I decided to find a new place to live, somewhere nicer where my home wouldn’t be repeatedly burglarised while out all night, and to see a psychiatrist.

I wanted to focus on my goals again, give uni a second try, but only after resolving whatever was wrong with me that stopped me from succeeding the first time.

Since ‘sex work’ was apparently a job like any other which certain self-identified feminists patted themselves loudly on the back for defending, and no excuse for the failure in my life, then it must have been me.

I had been reading psychology texts online trying to decipher the problem myself and decided I had attention deficit disorder (ADD) or something and that this was why I failed at school.

Because I was good at my subjects once, I got straight As, top in the class in high school, but I struggled with motivation and work output and I started falling behind in university.

Unfortunately, to afford this healing endeavour I had to go into the brothel a lot more often – psychiatrists are not cheap. I told the psychiatrist, after a 10-minute meeting, that I think I have ADD. He told me No, I didn’t. I said OK, what about BPD? And he agreed. So, I was organised to see a psychologist to do DBT regularly. A Type of talking therapy that’s based on cognitive behavioural therapy.

I requested someone who wouldn’t judge me for being a prostitute. I was paired up with a very friendly woman who said something along the lines of it being a choice and that she thinks we would both agree on that.

I didn’t respond, I just went quiet, not knowing what to say.

In my own time, I thought about what she had said to me. I realized that this is what’s being said by the propaganda to facilitate a massive switch of blame, from the perpetrators of the abuse onto the victims.

The unspoken part of “it’s a woman’s choice”, is “therefore, it’s her fault.”

I had started researching prostitution online and I started saying online the things I wasn’t allowed to express in real life, about my life circumstances and about prostitution.

I learned that I met the criteria in international law under the Palermo Protocol of being a victim of sex trafficking. That’s the UN convention that was designed to clamp down on trafficking. Of the hundreds of women, I met during my years in prostitution, most, if not all of them, met the criteria too.

But this is clearly not understood by the New Zealand government.

They decided to decriminalise all that happens to women and girls in prostitution. They turn a blind eye to them and take no responsibility for them – their own citizens.

I have been speaking out against prostitution since around 2009 and I’ve been fully exited from prostitution since 2021. I wish I could have stood and fought for my country to get the Nordic Model of prostitution reform which reflects the reality of prostitution as sexual abuse and exploitation, holds the abusers – the pimps, traffickers, and buyers – criminally responsible, allowing survivors to access justice, and provides support services to its victims rather than gaslighting them into thinking there’s something wrong with them because they don’t feel empowered when men violate them.

But I was only 14 at the time of our prostitution reform in 2003, and I had never heard of the Nordic Model. The argument seemed to be whether prostituted women should be criminalized or if prostitution should be decriminalised. It didn’t leave room for a third option. I knew I was not a criminal, that I wasn’t the one who had ever committed any kind of crime against anyone. It just never occurred to me that the system could ever truly be on our side.

The NZPC – as an organization set up specifically to fight for the full decriminalisation model – does not offer up any information about the Nordic Model to the prostituted people it claims to serve.

Everyone prostituted alongside me who I have spoken to about the Nordic Model, have never heard of it before. Aside from some fears or worry that they might not be able to earn the money they need and that they might still be stuck, they all agreed it was ultimately the right way to deal with prostitution.

Here is an excerpt from the “New Workers kit” book that NZPC hands out, even to underage children, with pages giving tips on how to endure unwanted anal sex. There are also pages pathologizing any negative effects of sexual abuse as a made-up condition they label “sex worker burn out syndrome”. This is being used to groom women into accepting severe abuse.

I’m here because I want the people of the UK to see this for themselves, to hear the voices of women prostituted under the decriminalisation model.

Please don’t make the same mistake New Zealand did.

Watch the recording

Here is the recording of the morning session of the “Students for sale: Tools for resistance” conferenceChelsea Geddes’ brilliant contribution starts at 17:50.

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