In terms of attitudes towards prostitution, New Zealand and Europe are almost as diametrically opposed as they are in geography. Kiwis
have opted for wholesale liberalisation of the sex trade, while Europeans are increasingly restricting it.
Does the New Zealand liberal approach provide a model or a warning? Henri Astier looks at its prostitution industry six years after decriminalisation,
Business is slower than before, partly because of the bad economy but also, according to government officials, due to the Anti-Sex
Trafficking Law, which was enacted five years ago amid great fanfare.
However, except for cosmetic changes, the lucrative sex trade is still very much around, experts say. The only difference is that since the law was enforced, the sex trade has evolved.
More visible outlets such as the one in Yeongdeungpo have taken the brunt of the law as have the once notorious neighborhoods of northern Seoul's Cheongnyangni and Mia-ri Texas, which are both scheduled for urban redevelopment.
A tell-tale sign that business was, if not booming, reasonably healthy came earlier this month when the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency announced it would transfer hundreds of police officers in southern Seoul. The move has been widely interpreted as an
effort to sever ties between the police and entertainment establishments offering sex services.
Nowadays, adding to the sex-for-cash businesses, hyugae-tel (resting rooms), where customers can call up sex workers and then later join them at another venue, are expanding rapidly, while commercial sex offered online, which is harder to track, is also
Still, government officials say the implementation of the law from five years ago has helped significantly reduce the scale of the sex industry.
If you look at the numbers, coming down from a 24 trillion won industry to a 14 trillion won one is a step forward, said Cho Sin-suk, an official at the Ministry of Gender Equality. According to ministry estimates, there were 269,000 active sex
workers in Korea in 2007, a decline from 320,000 five years earlier.
To try to curb prostitution, Korea introduced a special law in 2007 that gave the authorities the power to deny the issuance or renewal of passports to men who had a track record of purchasing sex.
In addition, the Ministry of Justice is running an education and awareness program for men who have been prosecuted for buying sex. Last year, 17,956 men took part in the program.
One of the problems facing the police is that it is very difficult to prosecute an individual for buying sex services because of the lack of evidence, a point highlighted by an Asia Foundation study in 2006: It has become a new trend in the sex
industry to use other body parts [hands] to perform sexual service without having intercourse. Up to now, the Korean courts have made different decisions on whether to regard this as sex trade or not, the study said.
A police officer who declined to be named admitted that the current focus of all crackdowns is geared toward the better known red-light districts as a successful campaign is more visible to the public.
We have limited resources and there is only so much you can do, said the officer: We know that when we close the red-light districts these women will just use another venue. There is no perfect solution.
The numbers seem to reflect the reality. In 2003, the number of men arrested for buying sex services stood at 12,737 but that number is expected to reach 40,000 this year.
Eradicating one of the oldest trades is perhaps a Sisyphean challenge for the government and law enforcement agencies, a task made doubly difficult by the ingrained attitude among many men that commercial sex is not wrong.
Three years ago, in a survey of 448 males by the Korean Institute of Criminology 58.5% said they had experienced buying sex at least once. In recent surveys conducted by the Ministry of Gender Equality that number still hovers around the 50% mark.
You can't put a plug on sexual desire. People who look like they never would buy sex suddenly go wild once they get some alcohol in their system, said a salon-owner: This is almost a recession-proof business.
Auckland Council has backed a bill which could see prostitutes banned in any area of the city. The Regulation of Prostitution in Specific Places Bill was proposed by the former Manukau City Council. If the Bill is passed the Council will have the power
to pass bylaws to ban sex work in any specific part of the city.
However councillors agreed that at this stage they will only use the bill to ban prostitution at the known hot spot at Hunters Corner and Manurewa.
The Bill would allow police to stop cars and make arrests without a warrant, purely on suspicion of street prostitution - and fines of up to $2,000 could be issued.
The bill has been met with opposition by the Prostitutes Collective, Family Planning and several councillors, who say it will drive sex workers underground and undo improvements set up through the Prostitutes Reform Act as set up in 2003.
Police are also not convinced of the merits of a ban and have made a submission to the Government Select Committee considering the bill pointing out that working with agencies may be a far more effective way to address the issue.
Sex workers in New Zealand expect to be rushed off their feet as 95,000 sports fans arrive for the Rugby World
Cup, with brothels across the country doubling condom orders for the tournament.
Mary Brennan, a dominatrix who runs a bondage brothel in Wellington and is known as Madam Mary to her clients, said she had already received pre-bookings from South Africa, England, Ireland and Canada.
The English are known to be particularly deviant, she said, citing the public school background of many England rugby fans. Whenever I hear an English accent I know there'll be some good business there.
New Zealand introduced some of the world's most liberal prostitution laws eight years ago, when sex work was decriminalised, allowing brothels and street workers to operate legally New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective
coordinator Catherine Healy said many visitors during the September 9-October 23 tournament would be surprised at how openly the industry operates.
A law that would have allowed Auckland authorities to ban prostitution in specified places has been scrapped by a New Zealand parliamentary select committee. Instead, councils have been urged to look at other ways to control street prostitutes, such as
using bylaws controlling hawkers . In recommending the local bill not pass, the committee said:
We consider, however, that the matters covered by the bill are not appropriate for a local bill because the problem the bill seeks to address is not unique to the area covered by the bill.
It would also affect the rights of the public in that it would impose constraints on the activities that can occur in specified areas within the Auckland district. Those activities are not specifically prohibited in any other parts of the country.
Many complaints about street-based prostitution relate to noise, littering, slow-moving motor vehicles (kerb-crawling) and disorderly behaviour. These kinds of behaviour can be dealt with by bylaws already in existence.
The committee said the bill would have challenged the legal meaning of the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalised prostitution and among other things safeguarded the human rights of sex workers.