On #DECRIM: Chelsea Geddes on New Zealand’s decriminalised prostitution system

This is an edited transcript of an interview with Chelsea Geddes about the operation of New Zealand’s fully decriminalised prostitution system (sometimes known as ‘sex work decrim). The interview was conducted by Jacci Stoyle in an informal meeting of the Cross-Party Group on Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CPG CSE) in the Scottish parliament on Wednesday 19 October 2022 and is followed by a Q&A. It was an informal meeting because the Scottish parliament was in recess at the time.

The interview

Jacci Stoyle: Chelsea Geddes is a prostitution survivor with 20 years’ experience in New Zealand’s fully decriminalised sex trade. She managed to escape after a prolonged struggle about a year ago and she’s a passionate writer and long-term activist against the sex trade.

Chelsea, it’s lovely to have you with us this evening. I know that you want to talk about the New Zealand model but I heard your speech at the ‘Students for Sale’ conference and I was very touched by how you got involved in prostitution. I think it might be helpful to give a little bit of that information to our listeners, because of the whole framing of prostitution as a choice. I want people to hear a little bit about the choices that you had at that time.

Chelsea Geddes: When I was 14, close to 15, I was kicked out of home. My home life was quite violent but the thing that got me kicked out was I’d started sneaking out to see my friends. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for anything other than for school or church.

My parents accused me of all sorts of things and took me to the hospital and demanded they perform a virginity test on me, which the hospital refused. So I got beaten up and kicked out with a letter of no trespassing for two years. I didn’t know this was not legitimate because I was only 14 years old – it looked official and I believed it was real. So I moved in with a paedophile man, because who else takes in 14-year-old girls?

Jacci: And things just snowballed from there, didn’t they?

Chelsea: Yes.

Jacci: The fully decriminalised system that was adopted in New Zealand in 2003 is held up by many people in the UK as the best system. Could you give us a brief introduction as to what it involves?

Chelsea: The full decriminalisation model decriminalises people bought in prostitution and also decriminalises the buyers and pimps, and any kind of profiteering. It isn’t a regulated system like legalisation might be – it’s more of a ‘turn the other way’ system. It’s easy to get a brothel license – you just have to fill out a brief form. It’s as simple as that!

Jacci: One of the claims about the New Zealand model that we often hear is that it recognizes ‘sex workers’ as workers, which means they are covered by employment law and have the same rights and protections as workers in other industries. What would you say to that? How does this work out in practice?

Chelsea: What this actually means is that prostituted women gain another pimp – the Inland Revenue Department, who wants to take a cut of the profit that pimps make in selling people for sexual use.

In brothels we aren’t covered by employment law because we fall awkwardly between definitions of employees and independent contractors. It’s disputed whose responsibility it is to pay the taxes and levies – whether that’s the job of the pimps or the prostitutes.

Because of that, there isn’t access to any of the protections of regular employment, like sick leave, the minimum wage, maternity leave, accident and emergency compensation, pensions, and protection from harassment. None of that.

Jacci: When you and I were chatting before, I was saying it’s a bit like people in the sales industry here who are supposedly self-employed but they can’t go and work for other people, and we were saying they don’t have the same freedoms but the employers, don’t take any responsibility for the things they’re not covered in law for – as you say pensions and sick pay and all of that.

Chelsea: In the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) Handbook, there’s a checklist that you can use to work out whether you would be an independent contractor or an employee and I did it and it came out that I was an employee. So, I was an employee being denied all my employee rights.

In this situation, you’d have to take it to court to have any sort of resolution and I don’t know many prostituted women who want to take on some big millionaire pimp in a court. I never did that and I don’t know anyone who ever has.

Jacci: Another claim we often hear is that the New Zealand model is the best legal approach to protecting the safety, rights and health of people who sell sex – do you agree with this claim?

Chelsea: No. Not even slightly. Not at all. There’s no safety in prostitution and especially not when buyers and pimps are decriminalised so you can’t make complaints because the police will do nothing.

Prostitution involves the sale of human rights that are supposed to be inalienable – the right to not endure torture or sexual harassment, abuse, violence and rape; the right to free expression and to fair and favourable work conditions.

All of these are missing for prostituted people and there’s no deterrent for any abusive practices or treatment of prostituted people because there’s no law enforcement against any of the people involved. Police don’t go after anyone here for any kind of involvement in prostitution whatsoever.

Jacci: We were talking yesterday about how there’s a different level of implementation of the law, where if you are assaulted or insulted at work or in a shop, or if you’re walking in the street and somebody attacks you, and you go to the police, they will recognise that this is against the law. But if you happen to be working in a brothel, the police say that it’s part of the job.

Chelsea: When I’ve gone to the police, they’ve just turned me away. One example that I used in my speech was I got concussed and mugged by a large man who was picking on another girl and I stood up for her so I got knocked out. After that I went round the corner to the police station and they turned me away. They actually told me to look in the public rubbish bins for my purse [that he’d stolen]. That was the only thing they said.

Jacci: I found that totally scandalous, that they don’t implement the law if it happens inside a brothel.

Following on from that, it’s often said that full decriminalisation makes it easier to negotiate condom use and to turn down unpleasant clients or specific practices?

Chelsea: I was actually really shocked when I read this question because how does decriminalising make it easier to enforce any boundaries? It’s actually impossible.

If buyers were criminalised, I’d be able to call the police on them if they crossed my boundaries. The threat of that would act as a deterrent for their worse behaviours. But under decriminalisation there’s absolutely nothing I could do. Men are larger and stronger than me and I’d have to fight them off basically.

It’s against the law to not wear a condom in prostitution in New Zealand and I think there’s up to a $2,000 fine but that penalty is applied equally to the sex buyers and the prostituted person as if it were an equal decision. Whereas we know that it’s the buyers who press for no condoms and force it on the women or coerce them with more money, when they’re in a desperate situation. You’re not going to call up the police and give yourself a $2,000 fine for not using a condom – you’re just going to deal with it.

Jacci: Absolutely.

Apparently, it’s written into the law that ‘sex workers’ have the right to refuse any client for any reason at any point. How does this work in practice?

Chelsea: Firstly, this only works if you don’t need the money. Most women in prostitution in New Zealand do need the money from every client because the pay is so low, there’s pressure to not say no.

For those in a position to be a bit choosy, as they’re making enough money, that doesn’t work in a brothel because the management force you into bookings you don’t want to do and they often just arrange bookings without even telling you, let alone asking you.

It would only be if you were working on your own and were in a position of earning enough money to be able to say no, that you might then be able to turn buyers down. But you’d also have to deal with the reaction of these men to being told no. Men who buy women don’t take no for an answer, so that could be a very ugly situation to deal with on your own.

Jacci: I know that you had great difficulty exiting the sex industry. Is there anything about the New Zealand system that made this particularly hard?

Chelsea: There are no organisations or services to help women exit prostitution under decriminalisation. When it’s viewed as legitimate work, it’s not treated as anything people need help to leave.

The cultural attitude that prostitution should be empowering to the women means that women are blamed for being disempowered as if they’re some kind of failure at their job or they are seen as mentally ill if they acknowledge that it’s not empowering.

There’s no public or private money to exit services whatsoever in New Zealand, so women are mostly trapped.

Jacci: The whole thing about decriminalising ‘sex work’ and prostitution is that it’s a job like any other so why would you need services to exit as it doesn’t make any sense? So decriminalisation is negating the fact that it’s something that you need help to leave, which is further disempowering.

People here claim that you can’t be deprived of social security benefits in New Zealand for refusing to work or continue to work in a brothel. What was your experience of this, given that you found it so difficult to exit prostitution? Am I right in thinking that this is not as simple as it might sound?

Chelsea: Anyone can get job seeker benefits in in New Zealand. You just have to prove that you’re actively looking for work. I’ve been on job seeker benefits at times throughout my life as well but it’s half of the minimum wage which is already lower than the calculated living wage and it’s not something anyone can live on long term, without the underlying causes of the joblessness being addressed.

We really need a welfare programme that supports people to move up into a better position rather than just leaving them to stagnate in an unliveable position where many will turn to crime, like selling drugs to get the money they need, or to prostitution. There are issues why they don’t have a job or why they didn’t finish school or whatever was going on and they’re just ignored and left to survive on benefits.

Jacci: Another justification for the New Zealand model is that it outlaws sex trafficking. This is also true in Germany, but it’s incredibly hard to prove in a court of law, and so in practice there are very few convictions compared to the estimated numbers of victims. How does New Zealand do in comparison to Germany?

Chelsea: I don’t think we do any better. No one ever asks anyone in prostitution if they’re there by choice. They just tell us that we are.

I don’t think there’s any investigation into prostitution in New Zealand because it’s been decriminalised so officials can wash their hands of it.

Germany will have more trafficking of women from overseas simply because it’s a larger country with land borders with other nations while New Zealand is a small island at the bottom of the world, completely isolated, and so New Zealand mostly traffics its own citizens into prostitution.

A lot of the women who are being trafficked don’t know that that is what is happening to them because it’s treated like a normal job and they’re told it’s a normal job. I myself didn’t realise that I actually fit the definition or criteria under the Palermo protocol of being a victim of trafficking. I was told all my life that it was my own fault and my choice and so I had no idea that I was trafficked. Nobody looks into that at all.

Jacci: Thank you so much. We know that Amnesty, the World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), and numerous other trade unions all have formal policies of support for full decriminalisation as implemented in New Zealand. What would you like to say to them?

Chelsea: I think that they should have listened to the survivors and radical feminist organisations that really tried to speak with them (and I’m speaking about Amnesty International) instead of implementing their policy, which was drafted by a pimp, Douglas Fox.

I think that was a really low move and I think he got to speak about that because, as an [escort agency] owner, he is a so-called ‘sex worker’, because this term encompasses everything and muddies the water. I think there needs to be an investigation into Amnesty International regarding corruption.

I’m not familiar with the other organisations but I believe that they take their lead from Amnesty International.

Jacci: Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we open it up to questions?

Chelsea: Just that there’s an idea that you can have a group of people that are split off from the rest of society, and you can treat them however you want and it won’t come back and affect the rest of the people.

Men will come and buy women in prostitution or porn for acts that they know that their girlfriends and wives wouldn’t put up with, and people seem to think it’s fine for this section of society to take on that abuse.

I’ve even seen officials in newspapers recommend that maybe criminal sex offenders should be given prostitutes to stop them from committing crime against the public. There’s really no way to treat a class of people like that and it not to come back and affect you.

These acts of degradation are in the pornography that people watch. The men who come to see us go back and interact with other people and so their wives and girlfriends also get pressured into these sorts of things too through their porn use.

I think it really affects every woman and if it doesn’t affect a woman specifically then it will affect her daughters growing up in that culture. That’s all I would like to add.

Jacci: That was absolutely horrifying to be honest but thank you so much for illuminating the so-called wonderful New Zealand model. Perhaps we could open up to questions.

Q&A

In this section, members of the CPG CSE and anyone else who attended the event were able to put questions to Chelsea.

Diane Martin: Chelsea thank you so much. It’s so important for us to hear from the people most affected by the horrific oppression and violence that prostitution is, especially as all we ever hear is the New Zealand model being touted as progressive, and so it’s your voice and voices of other survivors that are so key for us to dismantle it and to have specific information. I’ve made loads of notes and you’ve said a lot that we can add to our arsenal of myth busting.

As someone who founded and for many years ran an exiting service for women involved in street prostitution in London, I’m really passionate about exiting and it’s just so frustrating to think that there isn’t any help available that you absolutely should have had.

It might be a while before hopefully we can get the laws changed back – let’s have high goals – but in terms of exiting, how do you think this can be taken forward in the meantime?

I’ve met some great New Zealand feminists that have worked in the domestic violence and sexual violence arena. Do you think there are ways of linking up with organisations that are very women-centred and that would have a feminist analysis of prostitution?

Chelsea: I don’t know how that could really work in New Zealand because all of the women’s organisations follow our country’s legal position on it. It’s not considered part of violence against women. I’ve met people from women’s refuges who actually agree with me about prostitution but it’s not in their materials and they’re not officially able to view things this way. This would be their personal opinion that they keep to themselves, because New Zealand considers it a normal industry

Diane Martin: So they are expected to tow the party line and also because their funding would be attached to that?

Chelsea: Yes.

Diane Martin: That’s horrific. Thank you so much.

Ann Hayne: The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) argument is that decriminalisation is a harm reduction approach and that aligns with the aim of the well-being function for nurses. Do you want to say anything about that, Chelsea?

Chelsea: I don’t really understand how decriminalisation has any harm reducing properties apart from that the women are no longer criminalised. But under the Nordic Model, the women are no longer criminalised too.

I don’t think there’s any harm reduction at all. You can get discounted condoms and needle exchange but we already had a needle exchange before decriminalisation. I don’t think there is any harm reduction about this policy whatsoever. I think it increases harm, really.

Ann Hayne: I agree wholeheartedly. Whilst I’m not a nurse, I am based within health and I asked our nursing management about this when I came across a member of staff who took the position of full decriminalisation based on what their national union said. The nursing management told me in no uncertain terms that we must follow the organisation’s position rather than the union’s, because we are part of a local gender-based violence partnership – so I am now able to be very firm on that in my role as a gender-based violence manager.

We do have a complete disconnect between an idea of big organisations like the RCN, who have this message fed to them that it’s a kinder way to allow people to have choices in their life rather than accepting we need to stand up to it, because it’s a harm.

So, thank you, Chelsea, and thank you for your presentation. It’s fantastic to hear from you.

Linda Thompson: Thank you, Chelsea. I have followed you previously on social media so I feel really privileged to actually meet you face to face.

One of the things that I find really interesting is that recently there was research that came out which looked at the structure of the sex industry in New Zealand and it showed that actually there are links with organised crime, and that the idea that the legislation allows women to move up and take control and be independent business women with lots of options hasn’t manifested in practice. The legislation hasn’t allowed for that and the sex industry is heavily controlled, mostly by men, and there are links with organised crime.

What I thought was really interesting was an interview with Catherine Healey from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) and her retort was that the legislation just hadn’t had long enough to bed in. I think it’s very interesting that she will critique the Nordic Model in Sweden and say it hasn’t worked but there’s no allowance for it bedding in – which is a double standard.

I thought it was really interesting because it was the first piece of research that I had read that clearly articulated how the industry is actually operating under this model of legislation and it’s not doing what it was claimed that it was going to do.

Do you think it would be useful to foreground this when we talk about the industry.

Chelsea: New Zealand is one of the countries with the largest gang membership – I don’t know what number, but we’re up there. The gang members make most of their money off selling methamphetamines and they target women in prostitution to get them to buy methamphetamines because they also buy the women, and then instead of losing money, paying to rape women, they actually make money off the drug sales. They’re earning money off hurting women and off of selling drugs which hurt women and the whole community.

The current government’s a bit soft on crime. I think she funded the Mongrel Mob who are notorious for putting women on the block and gang raping them and stuff like that and she gave them public money to run their own drug detox clinics. So, the money confiscated from organised crime was being put back into the hands of these organised crime rings. It’s disgusting.

Janet Warren: I would like to know how difficult it is for girls coming out of prostitution to get work afterwards, because in this country one of the things you’d be asked is what you’ve done before and I wondered if perhaps as it’s decriminalised, it’s just counted as another job? And if it counts against you with future employers?

Chelsea: Decriminalising it has destigmatised buyers and pimps. They’re legitimate businessmen – the guys running the brothels. The women are very much still stigmatised – because that has to happen in order for them to think it’s OK to treat us like this – we have to be dehumanised.

So, it’s not likely that you would put on your CV that I worked at this establishment for 10 years, that I was a prostitute. It’s not going to make you look good or be hired in a normal job setting. Although maybe if you owned that business, it would.

It’s very hard because you have these gaps in time that you can’t explain.

Janet Warren: Yes, that’s what I was getting at. Because once you’ve left school, you have to account for your time and if you’ve been in prostitution, you would have to say that, wouldn’t you?

Chelsea: The way out is to really start at a bottom minimum wage job and hope you can find some way to work your way up because really no decent employer is going to take someone without any experience or qualifications.

When I exited, I worked in a factory for long hours and then I worked doing hard manual labour – asbestos removal. I moved up from there into an administration position in the office. I wouldn’t have been able to go straight from prostitution to any kind of decent work. I’m still in underpaid work but I’m hoping to be able to move up.

Teresa Little: Chelsea, you said that women are dehumanised and you talk about the ways in which the law reduces women and we’ve seen that in London with the way the police treat women, so that all women are diminished. Not just women who have been in prostitution but all of us. Every one of us, is diminished by this. That’s why the police in London are getting close to the criminals but they also get close to people in prostitution and they get desensitised. OK, there’s the male thing anyway, so we have to criminalise the men and decriminalise the women.

I’ll work as much as I can for this but I don’t have a lot of power, but anyone that has got power will have to work so hard to change the law. We’re going to change the law in Scotland if we can and if there’s anything we can do to lobby in New Zealand as well and get some kind of publicity to show that the model for Scotland that we’re going to have, which is the Nordic Model if we can get it, will work and will help women like you. But we really need to criminalise the men and get men to help us at least.

There are men here today.

Bryan: The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has said he’s horrified by the sexual attitudes of his own police force and that isn’t the case in most areas. It’s only in areas where there is a high level of prostitution that the police behave in this way and have this attitude.

Chelsea: I agree. I think that the way women are treated in prostitution, whenever it’s normalised or accepted, teaches men that it’s acceptable to treat all women this way and that there’s nothing wrong with these behaviours. There are some really destructive behaviours against women and against society, and it just proliferates when it’s decriminalised.

Beatrice Wishart: Chelsea, I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I’ve learned so much tonight and I’m sorry you’ve had the experience you have had and I agree with what others have said as well. It’s about changing attitudes.

I also heard about the Metropolitan Police report and I think it was just horrifying how bad it is and how we need to change social attitudes. I just wondered, in New Zealand terms, if it continues through the generations? How do how do you stop to that if it’s going on year after year and we’ve got particularly young men coming up and it seems to be acceptable behaviour.

Chelsea: I’m not sure how you stop that. It’s a sort of chicken and egg situation. New Zealand does have the highest domestic violence and family violence rates in the developed world and our attitude towards women is disgusting, and I’m sure that’s reinforced by decriminalised prostitution. Or did we decriminalise prostitution because we already had these attitudes about what women are for? Either way…

How you would really change that?

You’d have to really change how people view women and I think first by having the law on our side, reinforcing that we’re human, we have a right to not be raped as part of our work and for that to be really strongly enforced.

New Zealand has already decided and pats themselves on the back that they did something about prostitution when really they didn’t. When other countries that we have close ties to, like Great Britain, have implemented the right way and they see that it’s working, then eventually New Zealand’s going to have to say, well look…

Linda Thompson: Chelsea, I think it’s really interesting when you talk about the normalisation of this message that “sex work is work” and I think it’s become the standard and people feel you cannot say anything else.

I have real concerns about this but I think we’re seeing the impact of this filtering out into the broader understanding of services. I’ve heard of a member of staff, when a woman disclosed that she was involved in escorting and she was seeking help and this member of staff said to her, “Don’t worry, I’m totally fine with sex work I have no judgment at all. In fact, I pay for sex myself”.

Chelsea: Wow! I had a similar experience when I went to get counselling. They didn’t tell me they paid for it themselves but they did try to reassure me that it is fine.

What I really wanted was someone that I could talk to about the abuse I’d been through who wouldn’t blame me. When I’d ask for someone who wasn’t going to judge me, that’s what I got. Someone who thinks it’s perfectly fine and I don’t think that she realised that there was anything wrong in what she said. She was a very kind woman and she was probably doing what she was told is the right way to deal with it. So yes, it has infiltrated all the services that’s for sure.

Linda Thompson: Thank you, Chelsea.

Ann Hayne: Thinking about the previous conversation, if this was truly classed as work, the question that we always get in the violence against women sector is, what about the men – you could ask in reverse here. What about the men? Why are men not treating it as a daily business that they can go about earn their money, have no stigma attached to it, put it on a CV. Because let’s face it, they have orifices that would enable other men to be able to do what they want. The actual ridiculousness of this as a choice for women gets presented when you turn that around and put it back to them.

Chelsea: Men would never in a million years want to be treated the way that they treat women, that’s for sure. They’ve just never had to deal with that expectation or that pressure or they’ve never known the extent that women are in a financially worse place, especially if they have children to support. The stuff that gets lumped onto women as our responsibility.

Men have better options. They have no need to do this and they have dignity – they walk around with dignity. It would absolutely shock them to say, why don’t you go sell your own self? They know it’s not empowering.

Ann Hayne: There lies the reality of why this is classed as violence and nothing other than that.

Jacci: It seems to me that with decriminalisation, Chelsea, it’s a bit like you saying well theft, let’s decriminalise theft, so then you can’t complain if somebody steals anything because it’s not a crime anymore – even though there are some very real crimes that are continuing even though they are not recognised.

It’s almost like a slave trade but we’re not going to call it a slave trade now, we’re going to call it a choice. We’re going to decriminalise it so it’s no longer a crime.

A thump is a thump, but if it’s a thump in prostitution, it somehow doesn’t count. The law against it doesn’t have to be implemented.

It seems to me to be one of the cruellest ways of treating prostitution. You’d be better off in the Victorian times when it was recognised that people were poor and desperate and had no choices. To pretend it is a normal job is a form of gaslighting.

How do people feel about having a woman prime minister when you’ve got this huge violence against women and she is considered to be a good leader?

Chelsea: Yes – it’s very disappointing. I’m very disappointed in Jacinda Ardern. She’s our third female prime minister. Our second female prime minister was the one who brought in decriminalisation. So it’s all happening under women. I don’t think she cares much for women at all but she does call herself a feminist. I guess it’s just an image.

Jacci: You’d think that women would be fighting the cause of women’s emancipation but somehow, we’re going back into the Dark Ages.

I think that’s probably brought us to the end. Is there anything you want to finally add Chelsea?

Chelsea: No – just thanks for listening to what I had to say and taking it forward where you can. It means a lot.

Jacci: Which just leaves me to thank you very much. I know you’re having a busy week and we are so grateful you came here and for us to be able listen first hand to what decriminalisation is actually like. It’s been illuminating for me and you’ve been an absolutely wonderful guest. Thank you so much. I wish you well in your life ahead.

Thank you everybody.

[Laughter and applause.]

Watch the recording

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