Sex workers challenging stereotypes: a case study in Dunedin, New Zealand
This thesis examines the nature of social stigmatization surrounding prostitution in New Zealand, and the ways in which the public reacts to perceived problems of prostitution. It is important to recognise that prostitution is a broad term that encompasses situations from forced sexual slavery and trafficking of women, to legal, voluntary sex work. In New Zealand sex work is largely voluntary, as in many other 'western' countries. The 1995 UN Beijing Women's Conference differentiated between forced and voluntary prostitution, reflecting the opinion that different forms of prostitution exist, not all necessarily abusive or exploitative. In New Zealand, as in other places, prostitution is quietly tolerated; laws exist to criminalise it but no serious attempt is ever made to eradicate the problem. Many would argue, though, that it should be eradicated. Prostitution is construed as a social problem. For many people the institution of prostitution represents the degradation of women. 'Red light' areas, street walkers, and brothels are viewed as a symbol of urban decay and a direct assault on proper moral standards. By contrast, however, many prostitutes themselves view sex work as a legitimate occupation, and argue that it should not be subject to moral condemnation or prohibitive legislation. This gap between public perceptions of prostitution, and sex workers' own opinions are an important aspect of the 'problem of prostitution'. Prostitutes are typically treated as 'other', differentiated from 'respectable' women. Many sex workers criticise the simplistic stereotypes that are often used to characterise the 'prostitute world', however. The stereotypical portrayals of the prostitute usually involve themes such as prostitutes as degraded victims; as spreaders of disease; or as junkies. Prostitution is a metaphor for criminality, violence, drugs, and degradation. But while these are often taken as common sense 'facts' of prostitution, many sex workers contest these characterisations that are assumed to be inherent in prostitution. Many workers argue that those stereotypes of prostitution are not how they have personally experienced selling sex. The wide range of sex workers' experiential voices that have emerged over the past few decades has led to a change in the nature of theoretical discussions on prostitution. First-hand accounts have problematised universal theories on prostitution by the diversity of opinions and experiences from different women and men selling sex. Workers have described situations of complete control and sexual empowerment within the contract, to situations of abuse, exploitation, and degradation, and everything in between. These contradictions exist between workers as well as within the individual worker. The diversity and complexity of experiences have therefore disrupted large-scale theories that seek to reduce prostitution to universal models. This thesis will examine the tension between sex workers' attitudes and the public conceptualisations of prostitution, looking at what the prostitution contract means for different groups. It also investigates how the popular stereotypes and myths surrounding commercial sex are constantly evoked, typically characterising prostitution as a site of violence and degradation. The sex workers' own perspectives are explored to show how the stereotypes usually fall short of giving a reasonable representation of commercial sex.
Advisor: Leckie, Jacqui; Smart, Pamela
Degree Name: Master of Arts
Degree Discipline: Anthropology
Publisher: University of Otago
Research Type: Thesis