Tensions between street prostitutes and the communities in which they work will be explored in a new two-year study focused on Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
The Otago University research will also investigate violence against sex workers: an issue highlighted by four high-profile Christchurch murders since prostitution was legalised 13 years ago.
Associate Professor Gillian Abel’s project further looked at relationships between underage street workers and their minders, pimps or boyfriends; how councils approach regulations; and how sex workers interact with police.
Her work, funded by the Lottery Commission, aimed to contribute to a healthier and safer sex industry in New Zealand, while suggesting ways to ease tensions between sex workers and residents of the areas where they work.
It had been a particularly contentious issue in Christchurch’s Manchester St, where some frustrated residents have been pushing to have streetside sex workers moved back into the back into the CBD.
Last month, residents showed a city council meeting photos of sex workers, a pimp, and litter including beer bottles and condoms.
They told councillors how they’d made more than 300 calls to the police complaint line with “no action” – and one resident had gone as far as keeping a log of sex workers’ activity outside his home.
In past cases, there have been attempts by councils to address the perceived public nuisance effects of street-based sex workers to residents and shop owners while they wait for clients.
These have included calls to ban sex workers into less-populated areas – something that could make them more vulnerable.
“Research is needed to look at how street-based sex workers see their relationship with those in the community in which they work and equally how the community view their relationship with sex workers,” Abel said.
“Addressing this issue has the potential to explore other avenues to addressing tension between them.”
She believed the issue of violence against sex workers also needed to be better explored.
“There has been debate about whether violence has reduced since decriminalisation especially in the light of four well-publicised murders of street-based sex workers in Christchurch since the law change.”
Those killed were Ngatai “Mellory” Manning in 2008; Suzie Sutherland, and a 24-year-old, who has permanent name suppression, in 2005; and Renee Duckmanton last May.
Abel said research was needed to explore what sorts of violent incidents were reported or not reported to police, and whether doing so was related to any trust in police.
Research carried out before decriminalisation found 57 per cent of street-based workers surveyed said they started working before age 18.
Just under 10 per cent of this group reported being forced to work, compared to two per cent of those aged over 18 years.
Many young workers paid minders, boyfriends or pimps a portion of their money – and Abel’s study would look at whether prostitutes were being coerced to work.
New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healy welcomed the study.
“New Zealand comes under the spotlight for taking an integrative approach to sex work and sex workers and what we believe is a very strong model for good law and policy,” she said.
“But nevertheless, it’s important that this model is scrutinised, so we can build our evidence.”