Lawsuits accusing male bosses and coworkers of lecherous behavior are unfortunately common in courts across the Western world. So why the ubiquitous media coverage of what appears to be a standard sexual harassment claim in New Zealand, in which a 22-year old woman extracted $21,000 from her employer for "humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings?”
The slight wrinkle in this case is that the plaintiff is a prostitute, employed at a legal and regulated brothel. According to her complaint, the plaintiff claimed she felt debased and unsafe under the management of a brothel owner who tried to “break and control her,” so much that she couldn’t sleep or eat and began drinking excessively to soothe fraying nerves. According to the New Zealand Herald, the accused “said weekends were his ‘play time,’ when he liked to get stoned and have sex with them in his ‘special room’...[and] on occasions he told her details about the sex, including that he liked ‘young, skinny girls.’” In her complaint, the unnamed woman claimed that her boss peppered her with questions about “whether she was ‘shaved’” and “whether she would have anal sex with clients.”
The brothel owner denied any wrongdoing, but New Zealand’s Human Rights Review Tribunal concluded that his “self-described role as ‘protector’ of the sex workers at the Kensington [Inn] has led him to be overbearing and exploitative,” granting the plaintiff a significant sum in damages.
In the U.S. there is an assumption, unfair though it is, that “humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings” comes with the territory for prostitutes—so that one would file a sexual harassment claim in a (mostly) underground sex industry boggles the mind. But in New Zealand, where running a brothel has been legal since the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), there’s a national incentive to protect sex workers. “It’s been just fantastic, really,” Catherine Healey, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, told The Toronto Star of the PRA in 2010. In 2008, the New Zealand Ministry of Justice declared the new law effective in controlling abuses and keeping sex workers safe, concluding that “the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalisation of the sex industry have not been experienced.”
But with the normalization of prostitution comes the normal trappings of workplace law—including the thorny subject of sexual harassment. Those in the industry say there’s a thin line between dirty talk and unwanted lewdness. “The sexual discourse is part of the work,” says Carol Leigh, spokesperson for the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Networker in California. “So how do you separate sexual discourse from sexual harassment? If one is constantly called names around one’s sexuality that are derogatory, that would fall in the category of sexual harassment.”
The language of sex worker can seem shocking to some, but Dennis Hof, owner of the Nevada Bunny Ranch brothel, says explicit banter is second nature among the women who work there. “The girls are just having fun,” he tells me. “They’ll say things to each other that neither I nor any member of my staff would ever say to a girl.”
When asked to comment on the New Zealand ruling, Hof says the harassment claim shouldn’t necessarily be qualified as sexual. “[The New Zealand case] is more about frightening this girl and belittling her. That same thing could have happened if [the brothel owner] was talking to a male employee. I’m drawing a distinction between workplace harassment and sexual harassment.”
Indeed, the idea of sexually harassing someone whose job is to be sexually objectified presents something of a paradox. And Leigh says our puritan culture is partially to blame for not being able to discern between crude language and harassment (as the case of the New Zealand sex worker demonstrates, this is less of a problem in more sexually progressive countries.) “The difference between insulting someone sexually, harassing and attacking and having a discussion about sex—that’s something that can be distinguished. But it might be confusing for people in our culture who are not used to discussing sex.”
Because prostitution is legal in New Zealand, the country’s sex workers are afforded the same rights as any other employee—and harassment of any kind can and should be punished accordingly.
“The main thing that [this case] tells me is the fact that this person is a sex worker is not a license for sexual harassment,” Hof says. “I don’t look at that as ‘sexual’ harassment, because it could have been a female manager doing that, or a female manager doing that to a male. This is just general harassment to me. And it’s disgusting.”