What if sex work was just work?

Tonight, I’ll be going out on street outreach, but when I see the police out on the street, they’re not harassing workers or arresting them anymore. Like they usually stop the car and have chats. They say, “Is everyone okay?” and then they move on.

(Annah Pickering, Auckland, February 20th, 2023)

In June 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalize sex work when it adopted the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). Basically, the PRA removed adult commercial sexual services from the country’s criminal laws. Instead, these services became governed by New Zealand’s Health and Safety at Work Act, like other types of work.

The history of how this reform came about in New Zealand is fascinating. Sex workers, organized as the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), drove the change through nearly two decades of campaigning. NZPC Aotearoa New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective, as it is now called, has continued to advocate for the welfare of the community, including Māori, other Pacific Islander, gay, trans, and migrant sex workers.

I wanted to know how sex workers are doing, twenty years on. Did the PRA fulfill its promise? Are work conditions better than they were before the reform? What still needs to be addressed? And finally, is the New Zealand model catching on more broadly?

I met sex workers and NZPC staff at NZPC offices in Auckland and Wellington in February 2023. We discussed all of this and more. I’m very grateful to all those with whom I spoke for being so responsive and open. Thank you Annah Pickering and Patricia in Auckland, and Cherida, Tanya, Chanel, Calum and Dame Catherine Healy (the founder and National Coordinator of NZPC, and a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her service to the rights of sex workers) in Wellington.

With Annah Pickering, Regional Coordinator at the Auckland office of NZPC, February 2023

Prior to 2003, sex work itself was not illegal in New Zealand, but many related activities were, so that it was almost impossible to engage in sex work without committing a criminal act.

The PRA repealed provisions that had criminalized offering sex for money (“soliciting”); setting up a work space to perform these services alone or in conjunction with others, managing such a space, or renting out space to others for that purpose (“brothel-keeping”); living off the earnings of a sex worker; or offering the services of a sex worker to others. Underage prostitution and coercive practices remain illegal. While minors cannot be charged with a crime related to sex work, those who pay them for sex, or who facilitate minors’ involvement in sex work can be.

The PRA also reflected political calculations, some of which are still contested by sex workers: its preamble states that the government is “not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use.” It requires sex workers to take “all reasonable measures” to adhere to safe-sex practices such as the use of condoms or dental dams. It forbids ads for sex work on radio, television, in cinemas and print media (except in classified ads), although brothels can advertise for staff. Local authorities can regulate the location and signage of brothels. Migrant workers may not engage in sex work, and can be deported if found out.

The campaign to change the law began with the establishment of NZPC back in 1987. From the beginning, Catherine Healy, its founder, wanted to address the criminalization of the sector, as well as to provide sex workers with information and support on the growing threat of HIV and AIDS and on health overall. A trip to the Australian state of New South Wales (the only location to have decriminalized sex work at that time) in 1988 provided the inspiration and the model, while a contract with the New Zealand Ministry of Health to provide sexual health information to sex workers began to establish NZPC as a trusted actor. In 1988, Healy was appointed to New Zealand’s National Council on AIDS.

With Dame Catherine at NZPC offices in Wellington, February 2023

I have to admit I am in awe of Dame Catherine (as she is universally called), and of the soft-spoken clarity and determination of her vision. She told me she was always confident that decriminalization would happen. Wow. Her confidence grew after conservative Maurice Williamson, then Associate Minister of Health, publicly expressed his support in the early 1990s:

I think we always felt it was going to happen. It was obvious it needed to happen. Public sympathy was there with us. Headlines in the papers, daily newspapers on our side. But I think that when ministers stepped in from cabinet, from Parliament, to say that it would happen, that’s when it was like, yeah, it will happen. (Catherine Healy)

It took years to build support for decriminalization among civic leaders, parliamentarians and the media. NZPC first presented its case to a parliamentary committee on law reform in 1989. In the ensuing years, NZPV worked with lawyers to draft a model law that would uphold the rights of sex workers. Allied academics continued to gather evidence and conduct research about the harms of criminalization, in the hope that facts would prevail.

It always felt like it was going to happen the next week or the next month. I think we wasted a bit of our time, because we felt we had to get the right political environment. Whereas now, I think we’d just get a bit cross and be more direct. We had faith that everyone would see our point of view, and the world and Parliament would put it right for us. But of course, that’s not what happened. You need to push. (Catherine Healy)

During that time, NZPC painstakingly built an impressive and often surprising coalition of support amongst mainstream women’s groups, conservative business associations and even faith-based groups, bringing on side the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the National Council of Women of New Zealand (NCWNZ), the Catholic Women’s League of New Zealand, the Māori Women's Welfare League, the Wellington Women Lawyers Association, and the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women.

Still, the government coalition, led at the time by the center-left Labour Party, was not willing to table the Prostitution Reform Bill as a government bill. An openly gay Labour member of Parliament (MP), Tim Barnett, put it forward as a private member’s bill in September 2000. Luck was on the sex workers’ side when the bill was one of three drawn out of the old cookie tin used to choose which of the 40 private members’ bills in the pipeline would be debated that session. The government coalition left the vote up to the conscience of MPs, although then Prime Minister Helen Clark was known to be supportive. The bill passed a first reading 87-21. But opposition was building, and the second reading came out 64-56. International anti-trafficking groups and “sex worker exclusive radical feminists” (SWERFs) even flew in American anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley to speak against the bill. The dramatic third reading, on June 25th, 2003, passed by one vote, 60-59, with one abstention. The PRA became law three days later.

NZPC and friends with red umbrellas, the international symbol of sex work. Dame Catherine is in the red jacket

The lives of sex workers changed dramatically, and in some respects, very quickly. No longer facing the prospect of being arrested and having a criminal record was a massive change for the better. Relationships with the police were transformed in often unexpected ways:

There was a big shift and, all of a sudden, we were on the right side of the law and you could call the police. And that was certainly a comfort to me when I started working as well, knowing that it was legitimate, like I wouldn’t have any issues if I had to report anything. (Cherida)

“I’m not getting arrested anymore.” That story is one that I heard multiple times from people who would work from street-based locations. Yeah. And I think that getting arrested and everything that came along with that, which meant things on your record, being treated really unfairly—and I’m talking physical violence from police as part of those processes—those are things that they now do not have to fear and do not experience. Those are things that were happening pre-decrim[inalization] that are not happening post-decrim[inalization]. (Tanya)

I went out one night and a worker said to me, I’ve got a client who didn’t pay me 100 bucks. But she said, I waved down the police officer that was driving past. I said to him, the client hasn’t paid my 100. The police officer marched the client over to the ATM and said, pay her 100. I’ve seen it with my own eyes! (Annah)

The police came to [NZPC]. They wanted to make sure all sex workers could report sexual assaults without being traumatized by their frontline staff. And so, they developed a resource with us. And that is progress. They have us in for training around issues like stealthing [a client removing a condom during sex] and how people should respond if the sex worker rings and lodges a complaint about stealthing or a sexual assault, or any assault for that matter. And so, that’s been good. Street-based sex workers have had lovely stories to share about telling the officers to move their car because it’s blocking their business. In fairness to the police, they’ve said, look, we don’t want to put off your customers by parking our cars here. Tell us, you know, if something happens, we’re here for you and we’ll come and sort it out. We had some students in a high-rise apartment throwing rotten fruit at sex workers beneath them. This is quite an old story now. And the police said, we’ll go and speak to them. (Catherine Healy)

Cherida and Tanya, community liaisons at NZPC offices in Wellington

Conditions of work improved, with some sex workers moving indoors and setting up their “small owner-operated brothel” [four or fewer sex workers working together] or renting out rooms as needed.

When I first started working in 2004, everyone was very collected in these brothels and massage parlors and agencies. And then over time, everyone just dissipated out into private working arrangements, independent arrangements. (Cherida)

Post decrim[inalization], we also talked to some big commercial brothels like, they don’t have enough staff because most workers decided to go work for themselves. And so we see, in the CBD [Central Business District], some of the commercial brothels rent out the rooms to private workers and street-based workers. And there’s only two of these brothels now. (Annah)

Stigma and social disapproval are still ongoing concerns, but there are important signs of change there too.

Talking to people working before decrim[inalization] and after decrim[inalization], there’s been a shift in how people experience stigma or discrimination. There seems to be a reduction over time. It’s still very much there, but I think legislative change trickles down into people’s mentality. And sex workers are now seen as legitimate, taxpaying, functional members of society by more people than before. (Cherida)

Before you came here today, we had the Auckland Council in here for two hours talking about working with us around a 20-year decriminalization exhibition in the city, using all of our [NZPC] national archives of activism that we’ve had for, like, 38 years. And I was sitting across from our Council representatives thinking, Who would ever think that the Council would be coming to us saying, “Hey, we’re going to offer you some space to run an exhibition?” You know, not in my lifetime! (Annah)

Because I’ve worked pre- and post-decrim[inalization], sometimes I have to pinch myself. When I came back from my Christmas break, I got asked to go and run a workshop with new sex workers in a club. I went in there and I did my presentation, talking about the law and sex workers’ rights and health promotion. Then I sat down, and the workers said we’re going to do our presentation. The workers did a presentation on PowerPoint on health and safety, how to talk to clients. In what we call the workers’ room, the girls’ room. And I sat there, you know, reflecting on my own experience pre-decrim[inalization]: who would ever have thought, in my lifetime, I’d be sitting in a girls’ room in a brothel, and they’d be doing a PowerPoint presentation on health and safety and how to talk to your clients? And, when I’m outside New Zealand—through global activism I’ve gone to other nations where sex workers are criminalized—I mean, I try not to get teary-eyed. Because people there are dying or people don’t have the same rights we have. And it’s hard for the new generation to understand that because they’ve never, ever experienced that. You know, they don’t know. Yeah, they don’t know. I just had to pinch myself because I thought who would believe me? And I shared that with Dame Catherine, I said to her, what do you think? In our lifetime, you know? (Annah)

I’m out as a former sex worker in my work and at my children’s elementary school. I’m the chair of the school board right now. I’m also on the rugby club committee, on our local rugby club, and since I’ve been part of this leafy suburb community, four women, four moms have come up to me and said, I used to be a sex worker. Like we’re everywhere! But nobody comes out until someone comes out. None of them would have told me that if I hadn’t just been like, oh yeah, I work at NZPC Sex Workers Collective, I used to be a sex worker, we’re a peer organization. And so, it is about coming out into the light and then everyone’s like, oh yeah, it’s okay. So, I think it’s a process, isn’t it? It’s a process. (Cherida)

At sex workers’ urging, the PRA mandated a formal five-year legislative review to make recommendations on improving the law, and incidentally, to check whether the predictions by anti-prostitution activists of increased trafficking and rampant disease would in fact materialize. The review report found that the numbers of sex workers had remained stable, there was no evidence of sex trafficking into New Zealand, only 1.4% of workers were underage, the prevalence of HIV and sexually transmitted infections remained very low among sex workers, and safer sex practices were nearly universal.

The peaceful offices of NZPC in Wellington
Need lube, condoms, sponges or other supplies? NZPC has you covered

But sex workers “can never sleep,” says Dame Catherine. For example, after the PRA was passed, sex workers and brothel operators had to wage a ten-year legal battle with city councils in Auckland and Christchurch that sought to use their zoning powers to prevent sex workers from working within city limits. Sex workers prevailed, and relations with local authorities are now calm.

Some issues remain unresolved. NZPC and allies are currently seeking to have section 19 of the PRA repealed. It prohibits migrants from engaging in sex work [all other occupations are open to them on a work or student visa], leaving them susceptible to exploitation. When I asked Dame Catherine why migrants should be allowed to sex work, she emphasized the realities of New Zealand’s location and its overall labor policy:

There are healthy migration patterns between us and a whole lot of Southeast Asian countries and China. New Zealand is encouraging of international students coming and studying here, and trade and business and everything. So, it’s inevitable that there would be people who are also here in this country as migrant sex workers. We’ve had migrant sex workers forever. You know, it’s ridiculous to think that you can legislate and say that you must not come to this country with the intention of being a sex worker. (Catherine Healy)

And sure enough, research shows that, as a result of their status, migrant sex workers in New Zealand become vulnerable to coercion and abuse, including being forced to work long hours, having to pay fines and bonds, having money withheld, having their passports seized, being forced to have sex without a condom or being raped by the brothel operator. Basically, the exact type of abuse that sex workers experienced under criminalization.

It’s a big issue because, actually, that section [19] within the legislation creates an environment for extreme exploitation. The research that’s been done around people doing sex work on temporary visas in New Zealand is that they’ve all knowingly and willingly chosen to do sex work. They didn’t come here under a different pretense. It’s what they came here to do. And then they find themselves in a situation where they’re in breach of their visa and some people around them might know that. That creates some really unsafe situations in terms of blackmail, extortion, physical violence, sexual violence, bribery. And then there is labor exploitation, because people are saying you owe money or they withhold money, knowing that you won’t go to the police or to NZPC because you’re really afraid of being deported. (Tanya)

The other struggle, which kicked off earlier this year, is being waged by Wellington strippers and dancers fighting for fair compensation and an end to abusive work conditions. Dancers have fewer opportunities to work on their own, because they need a venue with a stage and a bar. As Cherida noted, strip clubswhich have always been legalhave, in a sense, remained “unreformed” by the decriminalization of other aspects of sex work and have hung on to all the old practices, such as bonds and fines. The 19 dancers (@19FiredUpStilletos) who lost their jobs after demanding better conditions have mounted an engaging social media and lobbying campaign.

Given all the evidence amassed over 20 years of decriminalization, I wondered why the New Zealand model had not caught on more broadly. In the last two decades, countries such as Canada, Ireland and France have in fact gone the other way and opted for the “Nordic model” (Sweden being the originator) of criminalizing the clients of sex workers, with a view to “reducing demand.” While these “Nordic” laws are sometimes described as not criminalizing sex workers themselves, they in fact continue to criminalize various aspects of sex work, such as advertising or working indoors with other sex workers. Where the Nordic model is in force, sex work has been kept underground and there is evidence of increased violence experienced by sex workers. SWERFs and religious right-wing groups have been the principal advocates for this model.

Other countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have maintained a “legalization” model of regulation characterized by a limited number of licenses for brothels, strict zoning laws (such as red light districts), and regular health inspections for brothels and sex workers. This approach is rooted in the idea that sex work spreads disease and must be contained, and results in a de facto two-tier system of legal and illegal sex work.

Dame Catherine acknowledged the powerful forces at play against decriminalization, but she remains optimistic:

Look, South Africa is having serious discussions. Thailand, too. And, we know that in the United States, in Oregon and [other] states, there are politicians who are willing, and there are communities who are pushing. Belgium, of course, has approved decriminalization. They’re working on the implementation.(Catherine Healy)

In parting, I asked my interviewees what in their view was the greatest misconception about sex work. Their unanimous response was that “no one would ever choose to do this”.

People think that we don’t have any options or we don’t have a choice. Yeah, they think that it’s the last thing we could have chosen or that we’re so desperate that that’s the only thing we could choose. I’m not saying that is not the case for some workers, but in my experience, if I can speak for myself as a worker, it was the best option. There were other options, and there often are other options, but those other options just aren’t the right ones. For a lot of us, this really is the best option in terms of output versus income, and that kind of thing. (Tanya)

I was so intrigued by it that I was researching it, even though I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. I would look for biographies of people who’d been in the business of sex work. And I looked at it for years. Loved the stories, loved it. I just needed the courage, I just needed to feel confident enough to do it. (Tanya)

There’s this idea that because money changes hands, it’s not true consent. And I’m like, Well, where’s the line? Can I have sex with someone because I love them? Yeah, okay, you can have sex with them. If I just like them, then is that okay? Okay. What if I’m just physically attracted to them, but I don’t really care about their personality? Is that okay? Yeah. And what about if I just like what they’re giving me? No, not done. Unless they take me out for a dinner. Maybe if they give me a meal in a restaurant, that’s okay? But if they actually give me the cash that they would have spent? No, that’s not okay. Like, where do you draw the line about when it is it okay to choose your own consent boundaries? (Cherida)

A cartoon presented to Dame Catherine by her colleagues

When I was teaching, I was a sex worker at the same time. I had an overlap period of six months and I had to make a decision. And it wasn’t that I was a poor, poor teacher. I mean, teachers aren’t paid fabulously well, but it was adequate. But, I thought, you know, if I have to choose which door I would run back to and push open, it wouldn’t be the classroom, the door to the classroom. (Catherine Healy)

My body, my choice! In solidarity and celebration with NZPC and all New Zealand sex workers on this 20th anniversary,