Monday, April 17, 2006

David Garrett: Sex law does more harm than good

Despite being a member of the legal profession, I frequently find myself agreeing with the aphorism, "The law is an ass". That is not the fault of lawyers - most of our law is made by politicians, not judges.

Another favourite maxim of mine is, "If it ain't broke don't fix it". There is no better illustration of the wisdom of both those sayings than the Prostitution Law Reform Act.

The principal mover behind the bill that became the act was MP Tim Barnett, who said on a number of occasions that the philosophy behind his bill was "harm reduction".

There now seems to be a remarkable consensus - with the exception of the Prostitutes Collective, some politicians, and certain woolly headed academics - that the result has been exactly the opposite of Mr Barnett's stated aim.

Under the old Massage Parlours Act, the law maintained a useful fiction. Those who worked in brothels ("massage parlours") were "masseuses" and not prostitutes, and officially you went along to such an establishment for a massage from a scantily-clad young woman, and a chat. Yeah, right.

Everyone knew that massage parlours were not where you went to get treatment for a sore back, and the world's oldest profession got on with it behind closed doors.

Significantly, soliciting on the street was illegal, although the police rarely prosecuted that offence. Street prostitution continued - as it always has and always will to some extent - but the police retained the power to arrest street prostitutes if they had to.

Clients knew where to go if they fancied something a bit more picaresque than a parlour, and provided everyone stayed within limits defined by custom and changing social mores, all but the moral fanatics were happy.

Contrast that situation with what we have now.

There has been an explosion of teenage and pre-teenage street prostitutes in Auckland and Christchurch. Although the police could theoretically check the ages of street hookers, they would need vast resources to do so, and with false ID being so easy to obtain, there would probably be little point.

Not long after the act was passed, a street hooker in South Auckland was shot, presumably in a dispute over territory. There have been at least two murders of street prostitutes in Christchurch.

South Auckland business owners report coming to work to find "business" still going on near their premises, and the detritus of the previous night's activity in their doorways and backyards. Significantly, they all say that this did not happen before the new act.

Harm reduction? I don't think so.

It is relatively easy to make law in this country, but very difficult - and very rare - to unmake it. Part of the reason is that such a step involves politicians admitting they made a mistake - an even rarer phenomenon than ministers resigning in the face of some horrendous blunder in their department.

Repeal of bad law usually takes at least one full term so the repealers can blame the mistake on "the last lot."

This law is a disaster, and almost everyone can see that. The Prostitutes Collective - surely a union with very few paid-up members - remains stubbornly behind the "reform". Perhaps the reason is that their spokeswomen are - to put it delicately - perhaps no longer so active as they once were and may have little understanding of the reality at Hunters Corner at 3am. Those familiar with the streets - such as Mama Tere, of South Auckland - openly contradict the Prostitutes Collective's view.

It is unrealistic to return to the fiction of the Massage Parlours Act, but Mr Barnett and his cohorts need to find a face-saving way of undoing what they have wrought - and quickly.

* David Garrett is an Auckland barrister


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