Street sex workers: Christchurch’s ‘disposable population’

COMMUNITY: The relationship between Manchester St residents and sex workers has been analysed in a new Otago University study.

The turbulent relationship between the community and street-based sex workers has been analysed in a new study in a bid to find ways to ease tension. Julia Evans looks at the findings

Street closures and road works following the February 22, 2011, earthquake, forced sex workers to move north of Bealey Ave into residential Manchester St.

Since then the tension between residents and workers has been growing – the community called for a bylaw that could see them moved on by police, only to have it rejected by the city council.

Instead a collaborative approach encouraging workers back to commercial Manchester St is being championed through a working group.

The study Street-based Sex Work in Christchurch by Otago University Associate Professor of public health Gillian Abel and the New Zealand Prostitute Collective law and policy adviser Bridie Sweetman has just been released with the aim of helping inform that approach.

Sex and outreach workers, city council staff, and Manchester St residents were interviewed about violence, their relationship with the community, sex worker needs and location.

“It’s about understanding their story,” Miss Sweetman said.

“We’re trying to mediate with the community, as well as enhancing the safety and well-being of sex workers and work out what’s causing those tensions . . . it provides more information and I think the more information we have, the better.”

It will be presented to the working group, made up of the NZPC, city council, police, residents and social services, at its August meeting.

The report said sex workers are often thought of as “dispo-sable population” which makes the subject to “violence, abuse, discrimination and scapegoating.”

“It’s interesting that the stigma of street workers is still quite strong and it’s not as bad for indoor workers,” Dr Abel said.

“It is not a rare occurrence that people drive past, yell abuse or throw things. No other person in society would put up with this or be expected to do so.”

More than half of the street workers interviewed for the report said they experienced violence as an “unavoidable” occupational hazard.

Miss Sweetman said the stigma in Christchurch is slowly improving, with the working group trying to change that.

One outreach worker described a 19-year-old worker who was “gang-raped and dumped away from Manchester St.”

“I wish the contents of the report were less harrowing, but it’s about informing people of what is going on out here,” Miss Sweetman said. She said violence for local street workers is a “huge issue” in Christchurch. But it had been slowly diminished since sex work was decriminalised.

“There is much worse violence in Christchurch against sex workers than the rest of the country.”

Miss Sweetman said it was because a collaborative approach, such as the working group, had not been taken before.

“We’re so keen for the collaborative approach because of what we’ve seen from places like Manukau, and even further abroad. The literature coming out of there is positive.”

However, the report also revealed an improved relationship in the city between sex workers and police since decriminalisation.

“Sex workers are more likely to approach police, but a reticence to report violence remains, as well as a perception of bias,” it said.

Acting Inspector Stephen McDaniel said police have been meeting with the working group, which he said was “working well.”

“We’ve always had a good relationship with the prostitutes’ collective and most of the girls on the street too,” he said.

But since upping their patrols and encouraging workers to move south of Bealey Ave, Acting Inspector McDaniel said: “We’re happy, the girls are happy and the residents are happy.”

“Interviews with residents suggest a wish to move sex workers away from areas where they are undesired. However, interviews with the workers indicate that they would respond more positively to incentives to draw them towards areas that are better suited to their working needs,” the study said.

“Cities which have made space for street-based sex work in urban design have successfully created better conditions for street-based sex workers, as well as harmony for the communities they work in.”

City council head of community support, governance and partnerships John Filsell said until the working group met in August to consider the report it would not be known what would be taken from it.

“This means we do not yet have a view on the report and we may simply note it.”

But Miss Sweetman said the study highlighted a need for better amenity and more outreach workers.

A Linwood-Central-Heathcote Community Board decision to grant $40,000 to pay the wages of a street outreach worker to liaise between sex workers, residents and businesses 24/7 was delayed on Monday after the meeting did not reach a quorum.

Manchester St resident Matt Bonis said an outreach worker had already made a big difference in the area.

“She’s given her number to all the residents in the area. She comes straight away and makes them move on. As a consequence of that and winter, it’s been a lot quieter.”

However, Mr Bonis said the residents were still keen to see a regulatory approach taken after the bylaw was rejected by the city council.

“The collaborative approach is working at this stage . . . but we’re still worried about them coming back. They just need to be clear about where it is okay to go and where not to go.”

The study said toilets, a sharps disposal unit, extra CCTV cameras and better lighting would encourage the workers to move south.

“The need for a public toilet in this area was identified and explored in 2014 and met with opposition from local residents. No city council funding is currently set aside for this purpose or proposed in the Long Term Plan,” Mr Filsell said.

Mr Filsell said funding is available for an extra CCTV camera that will be installed on the corner of Manchester St and Aberdeen St. A new rubbish bin was recently installed on the corner.

SEXUAL ABUSE OR ASSAULTS – WHERE TO GET HELP:

The Safe to talk sexual harm helpline is available free 24/7:
• Call 0800 044 334
• Text 4334
• Email support@safetotalk.nz
• Resources, info and webchat atwww.safetotalk.nz

If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

You can also visit the police website for information about reporting sexual crime. http://www.police.govt.nz/advice/victims/victims-rape-or-sexual-assault.

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