Thursday, March 28, 2013

Moral outrage? That'll be $600

Another report this week about prostitution in South Auckland, specifically young teens turning tricks in Otara, Papatoetoe and Otahuhu. According to the Herald's report, girls as young as 13 are making $600 per night. This moral outrage has been faithfully reported by NZ First MP, Asenati Lole-Taylor. And the proposed solution from NZ First is to move sex work 'off the street completely'.

Right. That'll work. I mean, it used to work, right? And it works everywhere else.

Hmm, maybe not. But first, there's a couple of things about the report that seem odd. For a start, Ms Lole-Taylor alleges she spoke to the young women in question, and the problem is that teenagers pretty much tell you what they think you want to hear. And they like to shock grown-ups. In other words, it's possible the testimony of a 13 year old talking to an authority figure might not be reliable. Then there's the $600 a night. Given that South Auckland is apparently awash in teen hookers, the laws of supply and demand suggest this figure is overstated.
Hunters Corner: Home of the rocking-est footware
 But the idea that the problem will go away just by banning street prostitution is naive if not dangerous.

There's been street prostitution in Hunters Corner and the surrounding suburbs for years. It's not a new problem although it ebbs and flows according to the state of the economy and the availability of more family-friendly work. Interestingly, one of the local constabulary reckons the number of hookers has gone up by about a third (and we're talking very small numbers) since the onset of the recession in 2009. So that suggests we're not seeing a sudden surge in the number of sex workers.

The other issue this moral panic conveniently overlooks is the severe housing crisis in South Auckland. Talk to almost any social worker and they'll have stories of teens getting thrown out of home because there's no room. Grandma and Grandad get to stay because they get pension income, teens get nothing so they're a-gonna. So we're seeing more homeless teens than perhaps was the case a few years ago. 

Then there's the teens that leave violent or abusive situations, preferring instead to live on the street. There's no halfway housing for them - all emergency accommodation is being used by families.

No matter what brave face these kids are putting on, streetwalking 13 year olds is a sign of desperation. And it's not just young women that are being victimised. A high proportion of Hunter's Corners' prostitutes are male.

The number of teenage hookers dropped off in the 2000s when the economy was bubblier than it is now. They didn't disappear, but there was a noticeable reduction. Teenage prostitution is not about moving hookers off the streets or the moral decline of Western civilisation. It's about economic desperation and a lack of housing. If we want those kids off the streets, that's what we need to be getting right first.