What Would It Look Like to Decriminalize Sex Work? Just Ask New Zealand.

Members of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective marching at a Slutwalk in Wellington. 

In June 2003, New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalize sex work. The country’s landmark passage of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) has come into focus again recently as Amnesty International voted to adopt a resolution advocating the decriminalization of sex work. News reports about the vote were littered with mentions of the New Zealand model, which Amnesty’s newly adopted policy echoes.

The vote itself was controversial. Even before delegates had voted, decriminalization opponents drafted a protest letter accusing the organisation of wanting to “legalize pimping.” Several high-profile celebrities, like Lena Dunham and Anne Hathaway, endorsed that letter, sparking pushback from sex worker advocates. New Zealand, for its part, has been through all of this already. Back in the early 2000s, the country was wracked by many of the same debates popping up right now, in the wake of Amnesty’s vote last month.

Before 2003, New Zealand had a smorgasbord of sex work laws cobbled together from several different pieces of legislation. Keeping a brothel, soliciting sex, and living on the earnings of prostitution were all illegal, but the actual purchase of sex wasn’t. Sex work was systematically marginalized, and sex workers were regularly hassled and arrested by the police, advocates say.

Now, New Zealand is unique in that it—for the most part—treats sex work like any other kind of work. It’s different from the “Nordic model” of sex work legislation, which criminalizes the act of purchasing sex, but not selling it. The Nordic model was pioneered by Sweden in 1999 and was later adopted by Norway, Iceland, Canada, and, as of this year, Northern Ireland. New Zealand’s decriminalization of sex work is also different from legalization of sex work. When prostitution is legalized—like in the Netherlands, Germany, Costa Rica, and many other countries—the government generally writes up a great deal of regulation around sex work that can carry criminal charges if it’s not adhered to. Both legalization and the Nordic model, many advocates say, end up causing many of the same harms that straight up criminalization does.

Since 2003, many people have hailed New Zealand’s approach to sex work as the most progressive in the world. And that is, in large part, thanks to the work of Catherine Healy. Healy is the national coordinator and co-founder of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), which educates people about sex worker rights, offers info on how to file taxes as a sex worker, provides free condoms, and provides support for the work of female, male, and transgender sex workers.  In 2003, Healy helped lead the charge for sex work decriminalization in New Zealand. And for the past 12 years, Healy has been living and organizing in a country that could be a model for the world, if Amnesty International’s sex work standards get traction.

Decriminalization sex work is favored by many in the industry because it takes away the threat of jail time for sex workers and doesn’t require people to register with government IDs. And since the PRA, Healy told a reporter earlier this year, New Zealand is “the best place in the world to work in the sex industry.” Of course, not everyone agrees—New Zealand's system is still controversial. Writer Rachel Moran (who favors the Nordic model) argued in The New York Times last month that New Zealand's model discourages the government from providing “exit strategies for those who want to get out” of sex work. 

I rang Catherine Healy for her view on organizing sex workers in New Zealand and how decriminalizing sex work has impacted the nation.

CARLA GREEN: How did New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act come about?

CATHERINE HEALY: The police were arresting us. We would be charged with soliciting and get a conviction, which would impact on our lives. A conviction for prostitution-related offences doesn’t look good on CV. You could imagine.

So we built a support base to get the law changed. And from that period, it took fifteen years to see that actually happen in the Parliament. We built great support with the women’s organizations, which was very critical, really. Because in other parts of the world, the feminist voice speaks harshly against sex work per se. But in this country, the women’s organizations acknowledged the lack of rights and the harm that that did cause sex workers. A lot of the public health bodies, like the New Zealand AIDS Foundation, the drug lobby group, etcetera, supported the call. As did some faith-based groups—like the YWCA, supported us too. The nexus was human rights, very often.

I well recall supporting, in my role as an organizer for NZPC, a woman who was reporting a rape to the police. The woman was well-reminded by the police officer that it was her actions that were illegal. Because in this country, the clients were allowed to pay for sex, but the sex worker wasn’t allowed to ask for money for sex. So there was that imbalance immediately.

Do you see any parallels between the discussions back then around the New Zealand vote in 2003 and the discussions now, internationally, around the Amnesty decision?

Yes—the conflation of sex work with trafficking, the idea that all sex work causes harm towards women, and that you can’t disassociate that harm from the nature of sex work. The fact [is] that sex workers need access to justice—violence is reduced if you can speak out. There was also a very well-respected feminist who played out that feminist line: that [sex work is] harmful in its very nature. That’s opposed to what we were saying, which is: For goodness sakes, it’s work to us, we recognize it as work, respect our voice.

Have you found an effective way of convincing people who are vehemently opposed to decriminalization, like the celebrities who signed the letter leading up to the Amnesty vote?

It’s never going to be one particular voice, is it? It has to be the recognition that there are diverse voices who can change and move the hearts and minds of people. I remember, right in the eleventh hour, before the vote went down, there was a politician who was Māori and didn’t want to talk to us, who were European [New Zealanders]. He wanted to talk to Māori. And Māori in our organization were able to talk to him.

Ours is a secondary voice [that] becomes immediately dismissed in favor of people who have probably never been inside a brothel. All things play a part and community leaders are very important. The researchers, the heads of other organizations; they’re all very important. But the authentic voice, the people who have been living the experience, is utterly crucial.

Have there been efforts to repeal the Prostitution Reform Act and re-criminalize sex work?

There have been political attempts to challenge the law. In February, for instance, there was a bill that went through the Parliament in various forms to try to reconstruct street-based sex work and create zones [where prostitution would be banned]. We don’t have zoned street-based sex work, so that’s quite radical. There were a few quite heated debates around it, but 109 of the politicians voted it out, which is great.

What is still left to be done in New Zealand around sex workers’ rights?

There was a discriminatory piece put in the PRA that has created a problem for us. If you come here to study, you can work in most occupations, but not sex work. So we do have a situation where international students, who are studying here and who are sex workers are afraid that they might get found out and deported. So we’re concerned about migrant [sex workers] being made more vulnerable.

But having said that, decriminalization means that more people are able to speak out, so we tend to get clients who are whistleblowers who will say, “Look, I’m not sure if she was free to come and go, can you guys check it out?”

Do you see that happen quite a bit, clients being whistleblowers of situations they suspect could be coerced?

Enough for us to say it’s a positive outcome of decriminalization. Because people have an expectation that things should be working well, and that sex workers should be in a good position. So there’s the raising of the bar.

New Zealand stands as the only country that’s decriminalized most aspects of sex work. You can keep a brothel, you can hire sex workers. It’s really important that that is decriminalized, so that people know exactly what they’re getting into. As opposed to presenting to a massage parlor, which used to happen in my day, and thinking that your job was going to involve massage. I kid you not.

People should look hard at this model. And I don’t want to say it’s perfect, because it’s not. It has its flaws. It’s quite a nuanced discussion, but the big issues have been addressed. It’s a working model. And it’s worked.

Related Listening: Our “Sex Work is Work” podcast explores sex workers' perspectives on decriminalization. 

by Carla Green
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Carla Green is a radio and print journalist interested in reporting on cases of social injustice and movements for social justice.

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