by Lynzi Armstrong

This article also appeared in The Independent

Sex work laws are currently under debate in several parts of the world, and there are divergent views regarding which approach best protects sex worker’s rights and supports their access to justice.

While some advocate for a legislative framework which would criminalise clients of sex workers, sex worker-led organisations disagree, arguing that this approach places sex workers in danger. Instead, they are calling for decriminalisation – an approach which has been in place in New Zealand since 2003. However, myths abound regarding New Zealand’s model, including unsubstantiated claims that the sex industry has expanded, that pimps are emboldened, and that trafficking is rife.  But, what do we really know about New Zealand’s policy of decriminalisation and how it impacts sex workers?

The passing of the Prostitution Reform Act followed years of work by New Zealand’s sex worker organisation – the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. The purpose was to minimise harm, and so the law change not only removed legislation which criminalised sex work, but also afforded rights to sex workers.

Decriminalisation in New Zealand differs from legalised regimes such as Germany, since it focuses on empowering sex workers – rather than the state – to have greater control over their work. This approach recognises that sex workers are best-placed to advise on their own working conditions, and to enable this there must be a transparent environment in which sex workers can report adverse experiences – without risking themselves, or their clients being criminalised.

A requirement of the law change was that research be undertaken in the years following, to evaluate the impacts. This research, completed by researchers from the University of Otago’s Christchurch School of Medicine, highlighted many benefits. For instance – over 60 percent of 772 sex worker participants reported feeling more able to refuse to see certain clients. Furthermore, 95 percent reported feeling that they had rights after decriminalisation. These rights mean the balance of power has shifted, and sex workers can more easily hold to account those who seek to exploit them.

The powerful impact of these rights is well-illustrated by a 2014 case in which a sex worker pursued a case through the Human Rights Tribunal against a brothel operator who had sexually harassed her. She won the case and was awarded $25,000 in compensation.

Decriminalisation – of both the sale and purchase of sex – is incredibly important for enabling access to justice when crimes are perpetrated against sex workers. While earlier research indicated that some sex workers were still reluctant to report violence to the police, a later study conducted with street-based sex workers indicated significant positive change in relationships between police and sex workers. This research also demonstrated how decriminalisation supports sex worker’s safety strategies – enabling street workers to take their time in initial conversations with clients, without risking their clients being arrested, and losing income as a result.

Decriminalisation also means that clients can provide information to police when sex workers are assaulted. A woman I interviewed in 2009 was assisted by a client to contact police after she was attacked by a passerby.

As for trafficking – while there is evidence of trafficking into other industries, there is currently no evidence that trafficking into sex work is a problem in New Zealand, nor is there evidence that the size of the sex industry has increased since decriminalisation. In fact, research suggests that decriminalisation has had little impact on the sex worker population.

To make policy that truly benefits sex workers we must separate myths from facts, and despite oft repeated claims of its shortcomings, the evidence clearly supports the New Zealand model as an ideal starting point. While no law is perfect, this is the best approach for supporting sex worker rights and facilitating access to justice – there is no alternative worth pursuing.

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