Recently members of the Red Umbrella Babies team read an article published in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work by Stephanie Wahab, professor of social work at Portland State University, and Gillian Abel of the University of Otago in Christchurch. The authors present the results of a qualitative study of social workers’ perceptions of sex workers in New Zealand, a country that has decriminalized prostitution. Even though the authors had not intended to focus on attitudes about sex work and parenting, social workers frequently mentioned this issue and, “discussions associated with stigma were particularly dynamic when the focus turned to mothers in the sex industry.” We interviewed Stéphanie and Gillian to find out more about what they discovered.
Red Umbrella Babies: Why did you decide to research social workers beliefs about sex work in New Zealand?
Stéphanie and Gillian: Social work does not have a great track history when it comes to working with people engaged in sex work, and this history goes all the way back to the mid 1800s. The ways that social workers interact with people in the sex industry has been and continues to be influenced by a whole range of variables and forces, including but not limited to laws regulating sex work. Because New Zealand was the first country to decriminalize sex work in 2003, it seemed to make sense to explore if/how social work practice with people engaged in sex work has been affected by decriminalization. ´
Red Umbrella Babies: Is there anything special about New Zealand that allowed that research to happen? If so, in what ways is New Zealand different from other places you’ve researched or the same?
Stéphanie and Gillian: Because sex work is decriminalised in New Zealand social workers have had to think about how they interact with sex working mums differently. Some have engaged with New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) to better understand what sex workers’ rights are under a decriminalised system. NZPC often have social workers who take placements in their offices. NZPC provide an support and advocacy role for sex workers who are experiencing difficulties – whether this is from brothel operators, police or others – including social workers. They counsel sex workers on what their rights are. We worked in collaboration with NZPC on this research. Gillian has a 20 year relationship with NZPC and has collaborated numerous times with them on various research projects.
Red Umbrella Babies is creative work by sex workers who are parents and the children of sex workers and our readers will be interested to know that you found out some surprising information about social workers perspectives on sex working mothers. How did this issue emerge in your study and what did you find out?
Stéphanie and Gillian: The issues that surfaced around mothers engaged in sex work were surprising to us (in that we hadn't planned on exploring them) and emerged systematically across the interviews with the social workers. As the first few social workers kept turning their attention to mothers during the interviews, we decided to intentionally ask all the social workers about it. Perhaps one of the most interesting findings was that all the social workers felt like the Prostitution Reform Act (2003) that decriminalized sex work made it so that judges could no longer remove children from mothers (social workers systematically focused on sex workers as women and never discussed male workers and occasionally trans folks) simply because she traded sexual services. Social workers believed that, prior to the Prostitution Reform Act, it was more common and accepted for children to be removed because the mom was in the sex industry. That said, some (not all) of the social workers argued that judges could still find means and ways to facilitate the removal of children, for example, by placing the mom under strict surveillance by the state, demanding that she participate in an unrealistic number of programs (parenting, support groups, drug testing/treatment etc) so that she would fail and have her children removed.
Another arm of our research is that we interviewed 15 youth under the age of 18 who traded sex to better understand their grasp of the Prostitution Reform Act as well as to explore their experiences with social workers. Most of the youth had been in the care system at some point and had experiences with social worker. They held quite negative feelings towards social workers who they positioned as uncaring, home wreckers and as rigidly following organisational guidelines in making decisions as to whether they were in risk in their homes or not. They were especially fearful of social workers finding out that they were working as sex workers because they felt that they would be judged as being unfit mothers – two of our young participants were pregnant at the time of interview, one had had her child removed from her care when the baby was four weeks old and one already had children who lived with her ex-partner but who she regularly had over at her house for weekends and holidays.
Red Umbrella Babies: In the US and other places sex workers fear being--and are--separated from their children because of criminalization, due to the whore stigma arising in custody proceedings, as well as because of the impact of arrest and incarceration on families. Sex work is decriminalized in New Zealand. What changes for families and their interactions with social workers when sex work is decriminalized and what remains the same?
Stéphanie and Gillian: Children can no longer be removed from their mother’s care because she is working as a sex worker. This challenges some social workers who take a particularly moral approach, considering that it is not the right environment to bring up children. However, the fact that sex work is now treated as an occupation like any other has provided protections for sex working mothers. Unfortunately, young people working on the street (as well as some older workers) are often unsure of their rights in New Zealand and there is still a fear around involvement with social workers, especially when they have been removed from their families when they were younger.
Red Umbrella Babies: Does your research reveal anything that we are sex workers and parents can do to create change in the US (and other places)?
Stéphanie and Gillian: No, our study didn't really focus on what sex workers do or can do to resist and/or subvert the influence and reach of the State on their lives and their families. We would have wanted to interview parents in the sex industry to answer this question and this wasn't part of our research question or design. That said, it would certainly make for a useful and important research project. Another one of our findings is that even with sex work being decriminalized and even when social workers speak of sex work as a form of work, stigma remains.
The article “The Prostitution Reform Act (2003) and Social Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand” was published “online first” in Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, May 11, 2016.