Source: Massey University
New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003 with the Prostitution Reform Act. Almost 20 years later, how have ideas about the sex industry changed?
Dr Gwyn Easterbrook-Smith is a tutor at the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication on Massey University’s Wellington campus. Their new book Producing the Acceptable Sex Worker considers this question by looking at how sex workers have been discussed in the news media.
“I’m interested in looking at media representations because for a lot of people, that’s one of the main places they learn about the sex industry,” Dr Easterbrook-Smith says. “Most sex workers carefully manage who they tell about their jobs, because of the stigma which is still attached to the work. So, many people either don’t know, or don’t know that they know, a sex worker. That lack of personal knowledge or experience makes the media a really important site where ideas about the industry can be reproduced or challenged.”
Dr Easterbrook-Smith’s research found that post-decriminalisation, some sex workers were increasingly presented as acceptable or respectable, but that acceptability was highly contingent and not available to all sex workers.
“While obviously people of all genders do sex work, I found that women, both trans and cisgender, were vastly more likely to be discussed in coverage of sex work, which I think is important to note since a lot of the narratives around the work are quite gendered,” Dr Easterbrook-Smith says.
Sex worker rights organisations often focus on the idea that sex work is work, and this came through in some media coverage of sex work in Aotearoa New Zealand – although this was more likely to be the case if the women involved were cisgender, charged relatively higher prices, and worked indoors.
“When sex workers did have their work treated as a real job, this was often accompanied by an explicit or implicit comparison to other sex workers, suggesting the stigma of the job may just be shifted around rather than genuinely reduced.
“Sex workers who continued to be stigmatised in news media coverage were often those who were marginalised in other ways – transgender women, particularly those who do street-based sex work, and migrant sex workers, who are specifically excluded from the protections of the Prostitution Reform Act.
“The ways that they were stigmatised as sex workers were often linked to other groups which they were also a part of. This really highlights the importance of paying attention to the multifaceted nature of people’s identities, that is, taking an intersectional approach, to discussing sex work.”
Producing the Acceptable Sex Worker also discusses the persistent influence of stereotypes about sex work, which influence the sort of stories that are told about sex work, even when the stories are being refuted.
“One thing I found quite a lot in some of the older texts I analysed, dating from the earlier 2010s, was an emphasis on people not ‘looking like’ a sex worker. Well, what do you mean by that? What does a sex worker look like? And obviously the intention there is that the reader is going to understand this as a positive thing, but in doing that, you’re reinforcing the idea that ‘sex worker’ is this negative identity which people should distance themselves from. What you’re seeing there is the comparison between different kinds of sex workers, but also the issue where old stereotypes about the industry can be really limiting, shaping how it’s discussed, even in fairly positive coverage.”
Producing the Acceptable Sex Worker, published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, is available on pre-order now from Amazon.