New Zealand’s relatively recent decriminalisation of sex work, and its unusual success in combatting COVID-19, have both attracted international media interest. This accessibly-written book uses the lens of news media coverage to consider the pandemic’s impacts on both sex workers and public perceptions of the industry.
Analysing the stigmatisation of sex work in both short- and long-term contexts, the book addresses the impacts of intersectional oppressions or marginalisations on sex workers, and the ways sex work advocacy relates to other social justice movements. It unpicks how New Zealand’s decriminalisation approach functions under stress, offering valuable information for advocates, activists and scholars.
Media representations are key texts where knowledge and understandings of sex work and sex workers are produced and reproduced for the general public. Existing literature has identified that media coverage of sex work often acts as a proxy for ‘lived interaction with the sex industry’, (Hallgrimsdottir et al, 2006) and that media produced by sex workers for clients, such as advertising copy or social media postings, is sometimes misunderstood as an authentic representation of their jobs (Grant, 2014). Prior research into media coverage of the sex industry in New Zealand following the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) found that sex workers often felt that the media sensationalised or misrepresented the industry, or that media coverage perpetuated stereotypes about sex workers (Fitzgerald and Abel, 2010, p 204). Research internationally has identified narratives within media accounts which position sex work as a social problem in need of a solution (Van Brunschot et al, 2000; Hallgrimsdottir et al, 2006). In the case of coverage immediately following the passing of the PRA in New Zealand, reporting focused on politicians’ voices, rather than those of experts with specific knowledge of the industry, and also utilised moral frameworks to underpin discourses about sex work (Fitzgerald and Abel, 2010). In-house/indoor sex workers are more likely to be allowed to speak about their lives than street-based sex workers, and media representations of indoor sex work sometimes frame it as offering financial advantages and as the ‘lesser of two evils’ within the industry (Farvid and Glass, 2014, pp 57–8).
Giving an overview of the core topic areas for the book, this chapter summarises the current functioning of New Zealand’s sex industry. Although prostitution has been decriminalised since 2003, migrant sex workers are still excluded from the protection offered by decriminalisation, and the vulnerabilities this produced became clear during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. The history of treating sex work as a public health issue, and viewing the sex worker as a disease vector, is contrasted with the way that New Zealand’s legislation uses a dominant frame of labour to position health concerns as workplace health and safety. Sex worker activist and advocacy organisations frequently develop peer education and health initiatives, and this history is explored for the way it contextualises peer-led efforts during COVID-19. Exploring the existing international research into the effects of the pandemic on sex workers allows for an exploration of how New Zealand’s combination of an unusual legislative approach and unusually successful COVID-19 response produced improved outcomes for many sex workers. The media is a key site where the stigmas of sex work are produced and challenged, and an explanation of this function justifies the selection of objects of analysis in this research.
In 2020 New Zealand responded to the COVID-19 pandemic with a nation-wide lockdown that successfully stopped community transmission of the virus for a period of time. The impacts of the pandemic on all businesses were explored in the media. Questions about how sex workers would respond were raised very early in the response, prior to restrictions on movement and trading being introduced. Key themes in analysed media during this period included the impacts on the physical activities sex workers could perform; sex workers as community members and public health advocates; the misbehaviour of clients attempting to breach lockdown; a move towards producing online content; and sex workers’ ability to access financial support aimed at businesses. Media coverage contained elements of stigmatising narratives and stereotypes, such as the sex worker as a vector of disease, but effective uses of the media by sex workers helped to counter these. Sex work was sometimes considered alongside comparable industries, suggesting a discursive shift to being discussed in the register of work, without its status as a job first having to be justified.
In 2021 New Zealand began to face increasing difficulties in keeping COVID-19 out of the community, and the largest city, Auckland, was kept in a state of lockdown or heightened restrictions during the latter part of the year. The impacts of this on sex workers is explored in this chapter through the lens of media texts. Key themes that emerged here were online sex work and the impact of OnlyFans’ planned ‘porn ban’; inconsistent access to economic support; workers who broke the lockdown or crossed regional boundaries to work; and changes to the precautions sex workers were required to take in their interactions with clients. The impacts of the pandemic on multiple-marginalised groups, including migrant sex workers, are examined here, as well as the impacts of banking discrimination.
This chapter summarises and synthesises the dominant themes in media discourse about sex work and COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021. First, it explores the way that sex work was treated during a national public health crisis is explored, addressing how stigmatising narratives of the sex worker as a disease vector were deployed, and which parts of the sex industry these focused on. Second, the ways that sex workers were made vulnerable are analysed, including economic vulnerabilities. These are considered with reference to which parts of the sex industry are especially exposed to this precarity – notably workers who experienced intersectional oppressions. Third, the chapter addresses how sex workers made use of media coverage to assist with the project of destigmatisation, offering counternarratives, and rendering themselves as part of the broader community. Within this, sex workers’ use of humour to convey key messages about their jobs are explored. Finally, the chapter considers how New Zealand’s model of decriminalisation functioned under stress, and what strengths of this legislative approach are apparent from the research.
This Conclusion highlights the ways that experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic were mediated and influenced by socio-economic position, and how a microcosm of this can be seen within the sex work community. Some questions about the experiences of sex workers cannot be answered by analysing media texts, and this chapter highlights areas for future study: in particular, the experiences of workers who are beneficiaries, and workers who live with a disability or chronic illness. Finally, the chapter offers a summary of changes and progress that can be seen when comparing this corpus of media coverage to coverage from the previous decade. There are subtle but important shifts in how sex work is discussed more frequently as a job and the language used to describe it, but the position of sex workers who are affected by intersectional oppressions remains fraught.