Every so often our politicians declare that ‘it’s time to prosecute men for buying sex’; most recently with Caroline Spelman’s call for men to make their views clearer about prostitution. I’m one of few men who’ll own up to visiting brothels and spending time with call girls. Alas – for those getting hot under the collar with anticipation – my time spent cruising red light zones was strictly professional: I spent most of 2008 photographing sex workers in New Zealand for my dissertation, which documented how the country’s decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 had changed the industry.
New Zealand’s prostitution law reform sidestepped passing judgment on the ethics of prostitution, focusing simply on improving ‘the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers’. This might sound bureaucratic, but women in the sex industry are now protected by society, rather than marginalised from it. I remember the case of a bloke who’d pulled his condom off when he was in a brothel. The $400 fine the courts served him seemed paltry; but his name was published when the local newspapers covered the case. He was the bad person, rather than the ‘woman of ill repute’ he’d been visiting, which seemed pretty reasonable to me.
My experience from the dozens I met in the industry was that sex work is remarkably mundane, and the stories I heard about the (mostly) men who paid for sex were pretty humdrum: widowers, couples who’d stopped having sex, and so on. But I can’t remember meeting sex workers who expressly disliked their job. Many were comfortable – even proud – of what they did for a living, with the main complaint being that decriminalisation had seen a slump in their earnings. This (I was told by an MP who debated the 2003 legislation) came down to basic economics, with price being a product of supply and demand.