Phil Taylor

Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

Street legal: Ten years after prostitution decriminalisation

Ten years after prostitution was decriminalised, sex workers still operate on a suburban shopping street - to the frustration of residents.
Hunters Corner is the focus of concern for groups wanting to clean up the prostitution scene. Photo / Janna Dixon
Hunters Corner is the focus of concern for groups wanting to clean up the prostitution scene. Photo / Janna Dixon

The campaign to clean up Hunter's Corner in Papatoetoe has created some unlikely bedfellows.

Debbie Baker, a committed Christian, set up Streetreach 12 years ago with the aim of helping prostitutes get out of the game. Back then, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective were like, "who the heck are you?" Today the groups are allied in their opposition to a bill that would give councils power to ban street prostitutes from areas such as Hunters Corner in Papatoetoe and South Mall further down Great South Rd in Manurewa, introduce fines - for sex workers and clients and give police powers of search and arrest without warrants.

"For me to be defending them when we are against prostitution is huge," says Baker. Though the collective sees prostitution as a legitimate choice - and since 2003 a legal one - Streetreach believes prostitution does harm to those involved.

"My philosophy is to ask what happens in a person's life to make them choose to become a prostitute because I have never talked to anybody who said that when they grew up they wanted to be a prostitute."

As well as her small team handing out hot drinks and food, Baker helps those who want to quit the industry move towards that goal.

She knows "dozens, hundreds" of prostitutes and says "lots" have exited over the years. Getting out is not as easy as it sounds and usually involves addressing complex reasons that got them into the industry.

A parliamentary select committee is considering whether to tweak or abandon a bill drawn up by Manukau City Council and picked up by Auckland City Council after the Super City was formed. NZ First MP Leau Asenati Lole Taylor has a member's bill promoting controls. The background is a long and often bitter campaign by residents and business owners to rid their once seemly and quiet slice of Auckland life of street hookers who have lowered the tone. They are accused of scandalising and trashing the neighbourhood, having sex in public places and in daylight, fighting, shouting and leave the detritus of their trade in carparks and the back doorways of businesses.

Positions are entrenched. The prostitutes agreed a few years ago to stop working by houses on streets adjacent to Hunters Plaza and, according to Baker, did. They don't want trouble, she says. "There are some girls who are doing naughty things out there and we talk to them and we tell them off but you cannot blame all the issues on the prostitutes." Business closures have in the past been blamed on prostitutes. There are half a dozen shops currently for lease (though one appears to have recently been taken up by a business selling legal highs) in the otherwise busy shopping strip, but times are tough everywhere and Baker says that's not the fault of the sex workers.

Animosity is historic. When Baker spoke at a residents meeting, she was heckled. "It would totally annoy me if I was a resident, but the way they are going about it is not conducive for any change. It just gets people riled up. It's not solving a problem.

"Unfortunately, prostitution is decriminalised; there are holes in the law but banning street prostitution [in areas such as Hunters Corner] is not going to make the problem go away."

An application Streetreach made for funding to a council community board was rejected. Why wouldn't the council want to work with the agencies who work with the girls?, "To be honest it sounds like hate. This has brought us and the collective together. The girls have rights. I might not like what they do but they have the right to work without being hated."

The problem, according to those who want them banned from Hunters Corner and South Park, is that the law has given them all the rights without any responsibilities. Stallholders at the Friday night market in the Hunters Plaza undercover carpark must get permits, agree to strict hours of operation and clean-up, none of which applies to street prostitutes, points out John McCracken, a policeman-turned real estate agent who was born and bred in Papatoetoe and chairs the Otara-Papatoetoe Local Board. "If a manufacturing plant made as much noise as street prostitutes at night, there would be several laws or bylaws to bring it into line. Nothing exists for street prostitution."

When Pat Taylor, chairman of the Hunters Corner Town Centre Society, does a sausage sizzle for Rotary he has to get "$2 million public liability insurance". The street sex workers get a free ride, able to work where they wish, untroubled by insurance, tax, rates, brothel fees. And all while some collect a benefit.

Both men were active members of PRROS (Papatoetoe Residents Reclaiming Our Streets) which ran "name and shame" night patrols that provoked some violent confrontations with prostitutes. They photographed men cruising for sex, traced car registration plates for addresses and wrote warning of the risk of infection, enclosing the letters in scented pink envelopes to catch the attention of any females in the house.

Baker describes the campaign as "vigilante stuff". Taylor baulks at the label but acknowledges some saw it that way. "At the time it was just a sheer sense of frustration that we didn't seem to be getting anywhere and it was getting worse." Taylor, an ex-banker from Howick, bought motels in Papatoetoe with a plan to stay five years. That was 18 years ago. It is a wonderful, vibrant community, he says, "a true melting pot", and the people are reasonable. Had Remuera or Newmarket had a similar problem it would have been nipped in the bud, he reckons.

The patrols stopped in 2009 after police, community groups and the prostitutes collective helped broker a voluntary curfew with sex workers who agreed to stay off the streets between 6pm and 6am.

It had seemed logical to let both the sellers and buyers of sex know they were unwelcome and numbers did reduce for a while, says Taylor. At the peak the group claimed 30 prostitutes were working the streets around Hunters Corner, though the Collective disputed the figure. Mo Fameitau, the local business association's crime prevention officer, puts the number now at 20 to 25 on a busy night, though Baker, who visits twice a week, says it is less.

Fameitau says a turf war that in November erupted into a brawl between local prostitutes and outsiders had settled down as the groups got used to one another. Otherwise the problems were the same: alcohol, fighting, harassing drivers, and the mess - tissues, condoms, sometimes faeces.

During shop hours Fameitau, a Tongan, will move the prostitutes on from the mall and "School Corner" (outside Papatoetoe Central School) a block to the south in a cat and mouse game. "They just tell me to go back to my country," says Fameitau. "They put the finger up. 'Get out of my own land, I can do whatever I want'."

Decriminalisation was seen as a way of reducing the risk of harm for prostitutes. Research suggests the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, which made prostitution legal, has been a boon for brothels but expectation that street workers would choose to move indoors hasn't occurred. There has been little change nationally in the number working on the streets. Some did private work as well but few reported giving up street work, researcher Dr Gillian Abel said in a 2012 paper funded by the Health Research Council and the Justice Ministry.

"The most marginalised prefer the streets for what to them are very good reasons," Abel wrote. "The money and autonomy made sense to them." Those on the streets were more likely than those working from brothels or home to have some Maori blood, be transgender and under the age of 18. Many had drug habits to support. They could attract more clients on the street and spend less time with them.

"There are motivations to work on the street and different perceptions of risk that will ensure that the size of this sector is unlikely to change significantly ... Applying more stringent regulations to this vulnerable sector is not the answer."

Which leaves the question of location. Should it be left to happenstance or be governed?

Putting prostitution on a legal footing was driven by the goals of improving health and decreasing exploitation of sex workers - with a by-product being savings on police resources. As for location, the law allows councils to refuse resource consent for brothels in places where it was likely to cause "a nuisance or serious offence to ordinary members of the public". But when it comes to restricting where sex can be sold on the streets, the law is silent.

McCracken says he has been surprised by opposition to imposing controls on street prostitution. "I wonder at the wisdom of an act that offers these people the freest form of commercial activity in New Zealand. What were we expecting? Harmonious social behaviour? For all street workers to decide of their own accord to keep the noise down and retire by 10pm in consideration of the community (giving them time to do their GST returns)?"

Once upon a time Hunters Corner was a popular drive into the countryside, topped off with a visit to Elizabeth Hunter's famous tearooms, which gave the locality its name. Now it's a 20-minute commute from downtown Auckland and is so notorious that North & South magazine reported that a courier package addressed to "Hookers Corner" was delivered without question.

Blame the Great Blackout of 1998. The CBD became a deserted place of humming generators while at Hunters Corner, the red light went on. Attracted by the lights of Papatoetoe, which was on another electrical circuit, the girls and queens of the night settled in with their latex boots and sequins. The customers soon learned where to find them - and there went the neighbourhood.

"We are not trying to recriminalise prostitution," says McCracken, "it's about where it has the least impact." The bill would let local politicians specify where street sex workers couldn't operate, but they would first have to prove it had caused a problem. No-go areas might include anywhere within 250 metres of residential areas and schools.

"We are not here because of businesses screaming loudest. It's the poor bloody residents. People have moved out of bedrooms that face the road and into garages so they can get a decent night's sleep. You tell me that is fair. Why is it then that are we bending over backwards to accommodate these street workers who don't give a toss about society?

"We get thrown back at us this Justice Department report where we are meant to make all these changes ... fencing off carparks and the backs of businesses, having the toilets open 24 hours. They were using them as brothels. These were supposedly toilets that couldn't be destroyed. Well, we had to repair them so many times it became cost-prohibitive. So how much does a community have to spend on maintaining an environment just to accommodate the business of prostitution?"

The bill is opposed by NZ Police who say gathering evidence would be costly, requiring undercover officers and surveillance.

Georgina Beyer, the world's first transsexual mayor and a former prostitute who went to school in Papatoetoe and who championed the push to decriminalise sex work, told the Herald it was naively assumed that when prostitution was liberalised street workers would all but disappear. They were a subculture and though she has suggested the law be looked at again, she says making it illegal in certain areas may not change much at all. "It wouldn't matter what regulations you put around it, it's going to operate wherever its going to operate,"she says. "For street walkers it's where there happens to be a client."

- NZ Herald

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