Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Decriminalise sex work to prevent trafficking and abuse

New Zealand has shown that decriminalisation helps keeps sex workers safe on the job. Who will follow their lead?

Catherine Healy Tanya Drewery Bridie Sweetman
11 January 2020, 9.49am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

While sex workers struggle to have their rights acknowledged and upheld in many parts of the world, most sex workers in New Zealand (Aotearoa) are able to work in a decriminalised framework. This means that their rights, occupational safety, health, and wellbeing are explicitly recognised in law and they no longer have to fear entrapment by the police.

One of the key advantages of decriminalisation over any form of criminalisation is the shift in mindset from prosecution to protection within law enforcement. This helps deter trafficking amongst sex workers because it enables them to report crimes committed against them without fear of reprisal. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Prior to 2003, most activities associated with sex work were illegal in New Zealand. Offering sex for money, brothel-keeping, procuring, and living off the earnings of sex work were all prohibited. It was practically impossible to be a sex worker and remain within the law. As a result, sex workers were extremely reluctant to disclose violence, coercion, and other crimes committed against them to the police. The risk of being identified and later prosecuted were too high. The police operated a fully detailed register of ‘known prostitutes’ and, along with other government officials, were conscientiously avoided.

This approach harmed sex workers by disrupting their livelihoods and reinforcing stigma. Sex workers were periodically arrested and shamed in court as ‘common prostitutes’. Even youth as young as fourteen were prosecuted for sex work-related offences and had to carry the stigma of conviction into adulthood. Those convictions closed doors. They derailed opportunities to seek other work, as well as hindered the ability to rent a property, borrow money or buy insurance. People were afraid during childcare battles that their sex work could be used to deprive them of custody or even access to their children.

Because most of what was taking place was illegal, sex workers had nowhere to turn when their managers became abusive.

Sex workers were not supported by the law in terms of their occupational safety and health. They were uneasy around health professionals, and there was always a sense that official documentation of their work status could be used to destroy their lives. Even in the workplace they had to disguise their sex work and could not have direct conversations with managers or clients to outline their services. Advertisements were coded and misleading, and there was little appreciation that massage parlours and escort agencies were sex work venues.

Managers, meanwhile, were unable to acknowledge the sex work occurring on their premises. They pretended that employees were there to massage or talk to clients, a pretence that prevented them from promoting safe sex practices at work. And, because most of what was taking place was illegal, sex workers had nowhere to turn when their managers became abusive.

The campaign to change minds

In 1987 the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) was formed. The primary intention was to reform the law and attitudes impacting sex work in order to enhance the occupational safety and health of sex workers and improve their rights.

Throughout the 1990s, the NZPC established relationships with public health networks, women’s organisations, and parliamentarians to consider the viability of decriminalisation in New Zealand. Many women’s groups were particularly disturbed by the gender inequality inherent in the prosecution of (mostly) female sex workers but not their (mostly) male clients, and supported law reform on this basis. Others got on board for a variety of reasons. Some politicians listened to the voices of sex workers and supported reform on the basis of human rights, health, labour law and access to justice. Others, sensitive to moral anxieties, lent their support only after the qualifier “while not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use” was included in the purpose section (section 3). There were concerns that decriminalisation would encourage more brothels and more sex workers, and so it was agreed that a committee established by the Ministry of Justice would conduct a review five years after the reforms came into effect.

In 2003, New Zealand decriminalised sex work by way of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (PRA). The PRA passed by just one vote.

Sex workers are now less tolerant of poor working conditions and expect safe environments that will uphold their rights.

The committee released its review on time in 2008. It found that the number of sex workers had not increased and that most sex workers were better off following decriminalisation. Another study noted that “The most commonly observed impact [of the PRA] was an improved sense of well-being in sex workers, attributed to their new rights and to the fact that sex work was no longer deemed ‘criminal’.”

Sex workers are now less tolerant of poor working conditions and expect safe environments that will uphold their rights. They expect the justice system to safeguard these labour and human rights. Successful prosecutions have taken place against those who seek to harm sex workers, such as violent offenders or brothel operators who have sexually harassed sex workers.

The police and sex workers have, in many parts of the country, developed productive relationships that focus on the prevention of exploitation and violence. This is an enormous change from the mutual suspicion and threat of prosecution that existed prior to decriminalisation. In 2018, NZPC and the police even co-authored a booklet to assist potential victims of sexual assault.

In 2013, an organisation calling themselves Freedom from Sexual Exploitation petitioned the New Zealand Parliament to once against change its stance on sex work, this time to “legislate for … a law which makes the purchase of sexual services illegal.”

NZPC vehemently opposed the petition, arguing that it would “cause major harm to and seriously undermine the occupational safety and health of all sex workers”. The NZPC noted that they are able to assist all sex workers, including those who want to change work. They further noted the ability of clients who were concerned about potential human trafficking to contact them and/or the police, a practice which would cease if clients faced prosecution. The PRA had also increased awareness of brothel operator obligations, making brothel operators more diligent about anti-trafficking measures such as ensuring sex workers were over the age of eighteen. The Justice and Electoral Committee dismissed the petition, grounding its decision in part in NZPC’s observations and the evidence of the 2008 report.

New Zealand still has further steps to take to achieve full decriminalisation, particularly in the area of migrant sex workers. Section 19 of the PRA makes it illegal for holders of temporary residency visas to work as sex workers. There is more work to do to make sure all sex workers have equal rights and protection.

Have your own ideas about effectively speaking about and arguing for the decriminalisation of sex work? Write to us.

This series has been financially supported by Humanity United.

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