Sex work has frequently been conflated with human trafficking, and corporate entities like banks are under increasing pressure to take action to prevent it. But the reality is much more complicated than that.

The financial services industry has a particularly chequered history when it comes to ethics, so news of Kiwibank’s new responsible banking policy launched this month ought to be welcomed.

However, the inclusion of adult entertainment businesses among those Kiwibank had committed not to work with made for disappointing reading. Adult entertainment businesses such as brothels and strip clubs were listed alongside weapon manufacturers, the tobacco industry and fossil fuels, on the assumption they cause significant harm to people and the environment.

While Kiwibank’s policy was disappointing, it is likely it was well intentioned. The stigma long associated with sex work means many people associate the industry and those involved in it with exploitation, violence and a variety of illegal activities.

In popular culture, sex work is often equated with organised crime and represented as dangerous and threatening. Researchers have pointed out that the stereotype of the ‘pimp’ depicts those involved in the management of sex work businesses as inherently abusive and exploitative.

Sex work has frequently been conflated with human trafficking in anti-trafficking campaigns, and corporate entities like banks are under increasing pressure to take action to prevent trafficking and modern slavery. When such representations of sex work are taken as ‘fact’, it may sound reasonable for banks to exclude the sex industry lest they be complicit in harmful practices.

However, the reality is much more complex.

Research with people who fulfil management roles in the sex industry suggest they are diverse with diverse motivations and can provide important services to sex workers. Not everyone wants to work independently and brothels provide a space for sex workers who prefer to work with others and have their marketing taken care of.

Of course, abusive and exploitative managers do exist, but they also exist in other businesses where they are able to operate under a veil of respectability. Hospitality, agriculture, construction and fisheries are all examples of industries in which significant exploitation can occur, but banks do not typically refuse to work with businesses that are part of these industries.

Whether intended or not, policies that exclude the sex industry are examples of structural stigma. This concept describes how stigma is embedded in institutional decisions taken to restrict the opportunities of specific populations.

While stigma impacts everyone who interacts with the sex industry to some extent, including managers, it is particularly pronounced for sex workers themselves, and discrimination is not unique to banking.

Finding a space to work from, interacting with health professionals, pursuing work outside the sex industry if they feel like a change, and travelling to other countries are just a few of the situations in which stigma can play out with serious consequences.

Institutions like banks have an important role in setting the tone for how sex workers are seen in society. Excluding sex work businesses sends a message that these businesses are not legitimate, and, by association, sex workers are set apart as deviant and problematic. 

While policies like this one are intended to reduce harm, they inadvertently create further harm through reproducing stigma that has significant impacts on sex workers.

It is also deeply unfair because sex work is decriminalised in New Zealand and brothels are legal businesses. Institutional policies that exclude sex workers are indicative of the work still to be done to undo the legacy of stigma and create a more inclusive society. Inclusion and diversity are integral to social responsibility and must be prioritised by organisations seeking to improve their practices.

Since news of the policy broke, Kiwibank has listened to feedback from sex workers and has committed to working with New Zealand’s sex worker-led organisation, New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, to improve the policy. For this, it should be applauded. This is an important step in the right direction and an example to follow for other organisations that seek to operate in a way that is truly responsible.

However, this situation raises important questions about the status sex workers have in New Zealand society and what further changes could be made at an institutional level to provide them with greater protection from discrimination.

While sex workers have important legal protection under the Prostitution Reform Act, there is no specific protection for them from discrimination. The Human Rights Act 1993 provides legal protection from discrimination to New Zealanders on the basis of race, gender identity, sexual orientation or country of origin, but provides no protection to sex workers against unfair treatment.

In Queensland, Australia, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of lawful sexual activity, meaning it is against the law to treat people less fairly because they work in the sex industry. While legislation is never a panacea, an amendment to provide the same protection in New Zealand would send a powerful message that discrimination is unacceptable. 

The most important shift, however, is attitudinal – and there is a lot of history to overcome. While Kiwibank’s policy was misguided, in listening to feedback by sex workers and taking action to put things right it has shown it is possible to change minds.

Dr Lynzi Armstrong is a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Criminology at Te Herenga Waka - Victoria University of Wellington.

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