When we think of sex-work-friendly cities, Amsterdam probably comes to mind. We won’t go into why that’s more marketing than fact, but let’s set our sights on something more real. Follow me on this dive down under (pun intended) into the sex work scene in New Zealand. In this piece, we’ll look at the general policies, what it does well and what it has fumbled.
New Zealand claims to have decriminalized sex work in 2003 with overwhelming support from citizens and the government. And just like that, a country became at least equally as well known for its pioneering approach to sex work as it is for being built on stolen land and continuing to oppress indigenous people. Admittedly, it’s a great way to set yourself apart from the run-of-the-mill colonizers… But I digress.
The Prostitution Reform Act of 2003 replaced existing laws that made facilitating or engaging in sex work illegal. This decriminalization bill came out of consultations between public health experts, feminists, and, native sex workers. It turns out there was a lot of agreement on the measures that needed to be in place to protect the human rights and wellbeing of sex workers.
Zee Xaymaca (They/Them) is the Berlin Branch Coordinator of The BSWC (Black Sex Workers Collective).
They are also a "badass queer, Black, perpetually wandering heaux, writer, and sex work researcher." They are passionate about Black liberation, particularly for Black womxn who fight white supremacy with their very existence. Sex workers' rights benefit society as a whole and ensures the safety of the intersectionally oppressed so I got loud about it. I started The Popped Cherry Project as a virtual hub to share with others my journey to understanding life, sex work and human rights as a Black Feminist.
The bill’s writers agreed that the removal of criminal sanctions for sex work was paramount to sex workers’ safety. With the removal of criminal laws, sex work (namely, the exchange of intercourse for money or other resources) moved into legitimacy. Instead of criminal law, sex work regulations fall under labor and public health laws. Legal sex workers in New Zealand have the same labor rights and privileges as any other person entitled to work in the country. They have the right to negotiate a work contract and work in environments that meet minimum safety standards. They also have full access to the social institution, welfare, pensions, healthcare including occupational care, all of it. A sex worker who wishes to leave the industry cannot be forced to continue sex work. They are also not subject to the mandatory waiting period other professions have before being eligible for unemployment benefits. It is clear and commendable that New Zealand genuinely seems to value the autonomy of women in navigating and seeking to exit the industry… to an extent.
All that being said, New Zealand hasn’t really decriminalized sex work. It’s a ‘start’ that fails the test of inclusivity, respect, and recognition of sex work as work. There are a lot of restrictive provisions here so I’ll highlight a few of the most problematic ones for brevity.
Despite the fanfare about feminism and the genuinely meaningful attempts to protect sex workers, the politics of the Prostitution Reform Act starts to skew toward rescue and condescension about halfway through. New Zealand’s policy prohibiting non-citizens from engaging in sex work betrays the fact that the government has chosen ‘tolerance’ over respect. There is still an adamant refusal to recognize sex work as legitimate work highlighted by the fact that engaging in sex work or investing in a sex work business is grounds for visa refusal and deportation. You might remember that immigration law goes hand in hand with decrim. The way migrants are treated tends to reveal a lot about the values of a country. In this case, it implies that sex work is not legitimate work, but rather a vice to be tolerated. This is very much the rhetoric used in Legalization measures. So is it really that groundbreaking?
Without full decriminalization, the removal of all legal consequences for engaging in or with sex work, there will always be a black market for sex workers. Black markets mean no regulation, less agency, and no protection for those who must participate in it. Surprise! Anti-migrant policies have resulted in an underclass of criminalized sex workers who are… you guessed it, largely non-white. It turns out that Asian migrant sex workers are more likely to be given deportation orders for engaging in sex work than their white counterparts. The majority of persons refused entry to New Zealand on suspicion of intent to engage in sex work come from Hong Kong, Brazil, and Mainland China (Bennachie, et. al. 2021).
The infantilization of sex workers continues with a condom mandate under the guise of public safety. This regulation targets sex workers and stigmatizes them with a mandate that no one sees the need to apply to the general population. And before you go agreeing with the mandate, remember that sex workers are more likely to use condoms than your average one-night stand. The imposition of this mandate criminalizes sex workers once more as they are held liable for failure to use protection at work. This liability gives authorities one more reason to invade sex workers’ privacy whether condom use is a legitimate concern or not.
The last provision I’ll take to task is opening for recriminalization of all sex workers through zoning laws. While a New Zealander has the right to engage in sex work, town by-laws and regulations can still effectively squeeze out the industry. For some reason, this is difficult to grasp, so it bears repeating, sex workers don’t disappear. They go underground. Zoning laws, like the condom mandate, create opportunities to justify harassment. For example, a group of up to three sex workers in an apartment, otherwise compliant with the law, can be targeted by law enforcement under the pretext of violating arbitrary municipal zoning laws. According to New Zealand’s existing laws, home-based businesses are allowed to have up to 3 employees working out of a residence (Armstrong et. al. 2020).
Any law that seeks to limit sex workers’ rights in comparison to the general population is a dog whistle to suggest that there is something abnormal or deviant about sex work; something the population must be protected from. It reinforces stigmatization that isolates sex workers from their communities and social services. When we look at immigration policy in particular, there is an obvious undertone of ambivalence bordering on disdain for sex work.
Next time we’ll do just that. We’ll look specifically at how New Zealand uses policy to target migrant sex workers and what those policies mean for individuals.
Bennachie, Calum, Annah Pickering, Jenny Lee, P. G. Macioti, Nicola Mai, Anne E. Fehrenbacher, Calogero Giametta, Heidi Hoefinger, and Jennifer Musto. 2021. Unfinished Decriminalization: The Impact of Section 19 of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 on Migrant Sex Workers’ Rights and Lives in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Sciences 10: 179. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci10050179
Armstrong, L., & Abel, G. (2020). Sex Work and the New Zealand Model: Decriminalisation and Social Change (1st ed.). Bristol University Press.