The issue of what to do about prostitution in Hawaii has been going on for a long time. The idea of adopting some sort of decriminalized or legal model has been around, but not seriously taken up by our Legislature. Perhaps it is time we had this discussion.

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People involved in selling sex, (who prefer to be called sex workers), have been agitating for legal reforms in various places around the world for many years. Various models exist. The U.S. has followed a largely prohibitionist one adopted early in the last century. Sex workers oppose the U.S. polices and point to New Zealand as the best legal framework currently in use.

The local nonprofit Harm Reduction Hawaii will be sponsoring presentations by Dame Catherine Healy here on May 9 and 10. She is a former sex worker and advocate for sex worker rights. In 1986 she was a cofounder of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.

She was made a Dame of the British Empire due to her long time work aimed at giving recognition to the human rights and the labor rights of this often marginalized and stigmatized group.

Thanks to her and folks like her New Zealand adopted a broad based decriminalization of prostitution in 2003. Recent reports from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women indicate there is no evidence of sex trafficking there. This is in a country with four times the population of Hawaii.

The Models

Societies have dealt with prostitution and other forms of sex work, such as stripping, pornography, etc., in various ways. For prostitution the models break down into a) complete criminalization, b) worker only decriminalization, c) broad based decriminalization, and d) regulated legalization.

Aside from some rural counties in Nevada the U.S. currently uses the complete criminalization model. Buyers, sellers and managers are all subject to arrest and incarceration regardless of the element of consent.

Some women’s groups support the worker (i.e., seller) only decriminalization. That is based on the policies established in Sweden and often referred to as the Nordic or Swedish model. Under Sweden’s Sex Purchase Act it is assumed that prostitution is a form of violence against women.

Waikiki is Hawaii’s tourism epicenter. It is also where prostitution thrives. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The consent of adult women to engage in such acts isn’t considered relevant to the guilt of men paying for sex. The Swedes consider this approach necessary to achieve a gender equal society and indicate that any harm done to actual workers is simply less important than their utopian ideals.

Sex worker-led organizations are very opposed to this model since it ignores the harm done to their personal well-being and infantilizes adults by dismissing their ability to consent to acts of sex for money. By contrast the New Zealand laws do not criminalize acts of consenting adults, be they those of buyer, seller or manager. This is the broad based decriminalization favored by sex workers. New Zealand workers are free to choose to work in brothels, or independently.

The fourth method is what sex workers call “legalization.” This means a regulated model which limits labor options. Typically the only legal way to work is in highly regulated brothel system. Such a system existed in Hawaii prior to 1944 and exists in Nevada, and in many foreign countries today.

The limitations are considered undesirable by workers who feel their labor rights should include the ability to work independently. Many do not believe they should be forced to share their income with managers. In Hawaii a prostitute strike occurred in 1942 in response to the limiting conditions set for brothel workers here by the Honolulu Police Department. At that time the police were the ones writing the rules.

Harm Reduction Hawaii’s Efforts

Harm Reduction Hawaii has been working to get intelligent discussion created that can move us towards better policy. Many of us within the group of harm reduction-oriented service providers have been dealing with issues surrounding the sex industry for decades.

Our local coalition includes a number of legitimate experts many of them former workers. We have brought a number of important international speakers to Hawaii in the past year and a half, including experts on racial, immigration, and third world issues.

We have presented a former sex trafficking victim who has become an advocate for sex worker rights and a black trans woman who was victimized by the Arizona State University’s rescue program. We have set up meetings involving sex workers and their advocates, with agencies doing rescue work.

These groups have differing perspectives and have not traditionally spoken to each other. Yet we feel people who are both honest and civil can sit down and have conversations. We have held a useful meeting between Honolulu police and sex workers.

We believe evidence-based approaches need to supplant the sorts of hysteria that has often taken over the public press in discussions over sex work and sex trafficking. We have published and circulated a best practice guide for social service providers.

Let’s Learn From New Zealand

New Zealand offers a model of how prostitution can be handled by a society without causing harm. However, we recognize the difficulties getting our public leaders and media to listen to what needs to be heard. Very little attention has been paid to any of the many constructive things we have done as noted above.

We hope the attention we are now beginning to get will lead our elected officials to take an open minded and evidence based approach to these issues. We hope those of you reading this will contact them and urge them to do so.

They have not been taking advice from the many of us who are dedicated to reducing harms. The results are bad public policies that not only fail to help real victims, but actually make their lives harder, as they do with all persons selling sex.

“The working conditions for sex workers in New Zealand are the best in the world.”

The working conditions for sex workers in New Zealand are the best in the world. Anyone serious about worries over trafficking should take notice. Public health concerns over the spread of disease (which were the priority basis for the Hawaii Kingdom law decriminalizing prostitution in 1860) seem to have no relevance with our government today.

Instead, Oahu’s prosecuting attorney has engaged in a crusade against massage parlors. This undermines efforts at controlling the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. No evidence of sex trafficking is being found and no good reason has been given by the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for its actions. They are creating harm with no benefit suggested to offset it.

So let’s talk, listen and try to focus on the logic of policies that work. If folks take a good long look at New Zealand maybe we can create better laws.

Dame Catherine Healy is scheduled to speak at the State Capitol Auditorium on Thursday, May 9, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

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About the Author

  • Tracy Ryan
    Tracy Ryan is executive director of Harm Reduction Hawaii, a non-profit whose mission is to educate and promote the use of harm reduction approaches to solving social problems, such as addiction and homelessness. Ryan has more than 20 years of experience working with persons in the sex industry, their problems and the law.