A woman who runs a children's play group at her local Baptist church keeps one detail of her life secret from most fellow congregants: She was a prostitute for two years. Alana (her "working name") now lives for God. Today she assists local sex workers with health and tax issues, as well as those who want to leave the world's so-called oldest profession.

Her workload may very well increase next year. Parliament, supported by nearly every national politician, is set to decriminalize prostitution in a country where it is illegal to sell sex but not to buy it.

New Zealand's significant Protestant minority, meanwhile, is divided on the legislation. Most Christian leaders say it will lead to a season of "open slather" in prostitution in this prosperous nation of 3.8 million people. Others, however, including the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and people like Alana, support the measure as a way to protect sex workers.

Morality vs. Safety

The YWCA, while not condoning prostitution, maintains that protecting the marginalized is a core Christian principle and that ultimately the bill will help women leave the sex trade.

"We know that people are being exploited in the industry, but they are being ignored," says Jan Logie, the YWCA's executive director. "There is no protection. Our primary concern is for their safety."

There are 8,000 sex workers in New Zealand, according to the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective, a charitable organization. During the past five years, only 410 people have been convicted of prostitution-related offenses. Under New Zealand law, prostitution is not an offense, but soliciting, brothel-keeping, and living off the earnings of prostitution are. The measure would repeal current laws against procuring sex, and coercion would become a recognized offense.

"Safe sex" would be mandatory; prostitutes would be able to refuse sex without penalty. Prostitutes would be able to report any violence without fear of harassment from authorities.

Parliament voted 86-21 last November to advance a Prostitution Reform Bill to a justice and electoral select committee. The committee is scheduled to report to Parliament on November 6. Should the bill pass, offenses relating to prostitution, male and female, would be decriminalized within six to eight months, and prostitutes would become legal, self-employed, taxpaying workers.

Prostitution is defined in New Zealand law as "common lewdness for payment." The reform bill relabels it as "the provision of commercial sexual services." David Lane, secretary for the Society for Promotion of Community Standards, a nationwide Christian-based lobby, says he is appalled that all reference to morality is excised from the bill.

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Rather than decriminalization, Lane says, the bill proposes de facto legalization, doing "exactly what it claims not to do" by imposing state-specified conditions on legal businesses, such as the use of condoms and the posting of safe-sex information. Those who do not comply would face fines up to $10,000.

"I think if legislation could address morality effectively, that would be the way to go," Logie says. "But I can't see how you can legislate on that. This is the best solution we can come up with."

But the Christian Heritage Party, an openly Christian party that opposes the country's secularization, contends the bill is inconsistent and does not address the attitudes of prostitutes' customers. Party officials maintain that the bill is unlikely to promote sex-worker safety, as suggested by proponents.

"If this bill passes into law, the state will effectively be condoning promiscuity," party leader Graham Capill told the select committee. "Educating prostitutes about sexual health issues, while condoning the promiscuity which gives rise to sexual health risks, appears to us to be irrational."

Little Protection for Minors

Christians from both camps agree that the legislation, which also would mandate prosecution of those who solicit prostitutes younger than 18, would likely force underage prostitutes further underground, exposing them to increased violence and leaving them with fewer rights. Sex workers younger than 18 are not included in the bill.

Alana, who now opposes prostitution but supports the bill, is someone who experienced firsthand the unequal balance of power between prostitutes and their customers. Raised as a Christian, she was raped by her grandfather, who was later imprisoned for the offense. Alana turned her back on God and started working at age 17 for an escort agency, then from her own bedroom. As a prostitute, she was raped twice. She agrees that the bill does not go far enough in protecting child prostitutes.

"The under-18 thing is really difficult," Alana says. "If you are going to prosecute clients for soliciting under-18-year-olds, you are going to force them underground. I believe everybody has the right to be protected."

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Related Elsewhere

The 1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices for New Zealand reported on abuse and involuntary detention of prostitutes in a country where 1 out of every 16 women is sexually abused.

The New Zealand Herald has a report of New Zealand members of parliament visiting Sydney's red light district for research.

Related Christianity Today articles include:

The Prodigal City? | While 10,000 evangelists take the day off in Amsterdam, local ministries continue their long, personal mission. (Oct. 2, 2000)

Churches Rescue Thailand's Sex Tourism Workers | Protestants and Catholics work against $2.2 billion industry. (Nov. 29, 1999)

The Anti-Madams of Asia | Christian women lead girls out of sexual bondage. (Oct. 4, 1999)

Angels of the Night | A Chicago street ministry reaches out to male prostitutes working the street. (Jan. 11, 1999)

Prostitution Museum Prompts Protests (April 27, 1998)

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