Exposing the personal information of a vulnerable person—a practice known as “doxing”—is a cruel and dangerous act. This is especially true when the victim is someone working in a profession that carries as much stigma and personal risk as sex work. In New Zealand, one person who doxed a sex worker is paying for her actions.
Margaret Herewini-Te Huna was sentenced for one count of "posting a harmful digital communication" in a Wellington, New Zealand district court this week, according to the New Zealand Herald. Herewini-Te Hun posted derogatory and personal attacks against escort Danna Burton online, and outed her as a sex worker.
She will have to complete 150 hours of community work and pay an emotional harm reparation payment of $500.
Herewini-Te Huna posted the attacks—which included Burton’s place of work and where she lives— on a website that exposes infidelities and an online “STD registry,” according to the local outlet Stuff. Herewini-Te Huna did this after finding out that her former partner was seeing Burton. Burton’s family found the posts and ostracized her.
“It doesn’t just address that one situation, it also telegraphs to other people trading sex that your life does matter."
The Herald reported from the courtroom:
Reading from her victim impact statement, Burton cried, took shaky breaths, and had to pause several times as she described how the offending had ruined her relationship with her family. The first she knew of the posts was when her eldest daughter called her on April 22, 2016, having seen the information online. [...] The daughter's last words to her mother were "I'm so worried that they're going to find you one day dead in a gutter."
Being on the internet isn’t a free pass to act like a jerk, Hobbs said to the court, according to the Herald. “It's not a licence for people to forget about civility and other normal means of interaction that are so often forgotten about when tapping on a keyboard,” he said.
Kate D'Adamo, a sex worker activist and harm reductionist at Reframe Health and Justice told me in a phone call that it’s very common for abusers to use shame and stigma against women in general. Sex workers have an added layer of vulnerability, she said. Outing someone as a sex worker can cause them to lose their housing, job, education opportunities or personal relationships, as we saw with Burton’s case.
In the US and other countries where sex work is criminalized, going to the authorities is often not a viable option—for sex workers, and for women in general. D’Adamo noted that although the criminal legal system isn’t always (or even frequently) the answer to helping someone who has been victimized, not having the institutional option to report abuse to the authorities does a “myriad of things” to one’s mental wellbeing.
“First and foremost, it tells people they don’t matter in society,” she said. “Second, it reminds people they’re criminals in the eyes of the law and nothing else... and it really does remind you that not only does the system not care, but there’s a good chance that things like this will happen again. That, I think, is what often the most terrifying.”
New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003, becoming the first country in the world to do so. But as this case illustrates, even in places where sex work isn’t strictly illegal it, it still carries a heavy stigma. Burton’s case offers a bit of hope, D’Adamo said.
“Even if it’s New Zealand—that there’s a court in the world that’s willing to take this seriously is really meaningful,” D’Adamo said. “It doesn’t just address that one situation, it also telegraphs to other people trading sex that your life does matter. Unfortunately for people who trade sex, that’s often a rare message to get.”