What Happens When a Sex Worker Is Sexually Assaulted

“Sex work and consent: people think it's an inconsistency.”

|
Jun 13 2017, 12:27am

Illustration by Ashley Goodall

Sex workers have long fought to have their sexual autonomy and rights recognised. With full decriminalisation, New Zealand now has one of the most progressive approaches to sex work in the world. But our sex workers fought long and hard to have their work recognised, and say there's still some way to go.

Catherine Healy is a former sex worker and founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, which promotes the rights and health of sex workers. Her work was instrumental in the successful decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand. As part of VICE NZ's Sexual Assault focus week, we talked with her about her experience helping women who've been sexually assaulted, the nature of consent in sex work, and what's changed since prostitution was decriminalised in 2003.

VICE: In your work you've guided sex workers through reporting sexual assault. What's that process like?
Catherine Healy: If there's a typical pattern, it would be that a sex worker would say "can I make an appointment to come and see you" and then there would be a discussion about what had happened and we'd talk through options. Whether [the sexual assault] happened in the context of sex work or outside of the context of sex work, what weighs heavily is the fact that they are a sex worker and that perception that they may be entering into prejudicial turf. Our staff at NZPC would say "look we have particular relationships with particular police and we know that in those relationships they take sexual assault very seriously". [It's] vastly different in many respects than how it used to be before sex work was decriminalised in 2003. We couldn't trust the police: you'd have a relationship, but not an easy one. You couldn't trust them.

How has that changed? How was sexual assault of sex workers treated when you got into the field about 30 years ago?
[These days] a sex worker, in the context of consenting to some sexual acts but not others, is able to have that picked up [and recognised as sexual assault by the police]. But 30 years ago, when I sat alongside a woman and she was explaining this—that she'd consented to different things but not a particular act, and therefore had been sexually assaulted—the police officer was positively hostile. I recall him saying "you mean you're going to upset a man, a married man, and his family life, and you expect me to go out and arrest him?" It was clearly judgement-loaded.

What about the so-called Vice Squad that apparently used to exist in the 70s? Do you know anything about them?
Intimately. I met the Vice Squad. The Vice Squad were generally two police officers who would come around. Under the old Massage Parlour Act of 1978 any police officer had the right to enter any 'massage parlour', so-called. Massage parlours were licensed under the act and each 'masseuse', so-called, had to provide their real name. The Vice Squad would come around and ask for the names of the masseuses who were working there.

So the massage parlours were a front? They were, in essence, brothels?
Yes, totally.

Meaning anything you were earning was from sex work?
Masseuses weren't paid, at all, for massaging through the 80s. Through the 70s there was a small payment but mostly masseuses were paid directly by the clients for providing sex. So in other words most masseuses in the 70s would have been sex workers and definitely in the 80s all masseuses who worked in massage parlours would have been sex workers. You had to break the law to get paid. You had to solicit.

We all knew people who were arrested and charged, with soliciting—I was, certainly, and others as well. It meant that you were fined $200 and you couldn't continue to work in a massage parlour. And it was very, very hard to do anything if you were a sex worker who was evicted from the massage parlour, mostly people would go and be street-based sex workers, and street-based sex workers used to be arrested periodically as well. So that's what the Vice Squad did to our lives.

What I've read about the Vice Squad is mostly about trans women and the way they were treated in terms of being coerced for sex, i.e. cops saying stuff like "if you give me a blow job, I won't arrest you". If non-trans women were getting moved out of massage parlours and onto the street, I wonder if they also dealt with that? Is that something you were familiar with at all?
I can say I wasn't, and I was really keen to find that connection obviously, the police at that time weren't our best friends. I'm not saying it didn't happen but I'm just saying I was keen to find that connection, but I cannot confirm that. I haven't met the sex worker who says that she or he was coerced by the cops to provide a blow job. I've met sex workers who claim that happened to other people but I haven't met the one who told me it's happened to them.

You were involved in the process to decriminalise sex work in New Zealand, right?
Yeah, I was the first one to stand up in our organisation and speak out for it and we led that charge to have the laws repealed.

Can you explain the difference between decriminalisation and legalisation?
[With decriminalisation] I'm treated like you under labour law. I have the same protections as you under labour law. You don't have to get licenses and sit on a police database as a journalist, I don't either. Under a legalised model people usually have a license, individualised sex workers have a license and some authority has to hold that and some authority has to approve that—that's legalisation. That's a very restrictive model. Then you have the repressive model, which represses sex work completely and prosecutes the third parties and doesn't allow sex workers to have clubs they can work from with managers, because those managers become third parties. Sex workers are inevitably isolated from each other and their clients are prosecuted and that means the sex worker has to think for the client.

Why did you push to use what's become the "NZ model", which decriminalises sex work, as opposed to the Swedish model, where selling sex is legal but paying for sex is not?
Why would we want our clients to be prosecuted? Why would we want our clients to be scared off paying us for sex? How on earth could that have helped us, what a ridiculous law that is, and positively dangerous. Talking to our colleagues in Sweden, it really isolates sex workers. It stops them reporting crime to the police, they don't feel able to do that as readily because they know that potentially it alerts the police to where they're located and the police can just stake out their apartments.

That just makes it so dodgy and it's very hard under those circumstances to report sexual assault. You wouldn't, because you'd think 'ok the police are going to know where I'm living and, in that, they're going to know where my clients visit, and they're going to arrest my clients when they visit me'. It's a dopey, dangerous model.

How does the law impact migrant sex workers?
You cannot [legally] come to this country and be a sex worker, if you are migrating. So, we have sex workers who are working in breach of immigration law as well as the Prostitution Reform Act. If you need a work permit visa you cannot be a sex worker, simply put. And it's discriminatory and it causes real harm for people. It's a part of the Prostitution Reform Act and it's appalling legislation. It was put in as an anti-trafficking idea but we have always been very opposed to that because it doesn't reflect the aims of the Prostitution Reform Act and is discriminatory.

I'm reflecting on a [sexual assault] case where the migrant worker and the brothel operator were both in breach of immigration law as well as the Prostitution Reform Act and so when the assault occurred there was great anxiety about going to police. However, we were able to broker that with police quite smoothly and the police were superb and said, "Look, that's not our interest at this point, that's immigration and we can't promise that it won't come up as a defence issue but we can say at this point in time that our interest is in catching someone who's committed this crime, and we're not here to charge you with breaches of the Immigration Act".

One of the things that's clearly outlined in the law is that sex workers can refuse clients and can refuse certain acts with no reason needed. I think from the outside there's this sense that prostitution is like porn 2.0, anything goes.
Yeah, that's right, sex work and consent: people think it's an inconsistency. It's kind of telling that we had to explicitly have that in the law because of that concern that people really think sex workers and consent don't go together. Usually they don't appreciate that consent is a huge part of sex work. There are issues related to consent all the way through encounters. We felt it was very important to explicitly put that in. Even though one could say that the overarching law about sexual assault in the Crimes Act that covers everyone should of course cover sex workers, we felt it was important to repeat that and have it be explicit. Some people might say "oh but it's your job and that negates consent", and I have heard that said by some people and been quite shocked that they forget that sex workers are also part of society and are covered by all laws contained in the Crimes Act.

Need to talk?
Rape Crisis – 0800 883 300
Lifeline – 0800 543 354
If you've experienced a sexual assault you can report it to NZ police by dialling 111, or learn more here.

Follow Gwen on Twitter.

More VICE
VICE Channels