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A tale of how sex workers made history

In 2003 something extraordinary happened in New Zealand. It very nearly didn’t happen at all.  Against all odds, after two decades of campaigning, and by the margin of just one vote, sex work was decriminalised. We don’t mean pseudo-decriminalisation, where the focus of criminalisation shifts to clients. This was a real and spectacular change. So how did it happen? And what does it mean for sex workers, clients, and the sex industry as a whole? Join us in a deep dive into the makings of a sexual revolution.

The first piece of anti-sex work legislation applied in New Zealand was the English Vagrancy Act 1824. This decidedly vague law could be used against sex workers behaving in a ‘riotous or indecent manner’ in any public space. Subsequent laws essentially riffed off this original colonial import, including an 1866 law which introduced prison and hard labour for ‘common prostitutes’ found to be acting outside the bounds of decency in public spaces (note 1). By 1884, sex workers could be imprisoned simpy for loitering – riotous or not. It likewise became illegal to run a ‘refreshment house’ which allowed sex workers to gather, which sounds like repression of a good time in general. Eventually this law evolved into the complete criminalisation of brothels.  Jump forward a century and variations of suppression of ‘indecent’ or ‘riotous’ loitering by sex workers continued, culminating in a 1978 act which outlawed solicitation inside venues more broadly (note 2). Lawmakers evidently realised massage parlours were being run as de facto brothels, and took action to end them. The parlours were now deemed public spaces, and also had to be licenced – although evidently that wasn’t too challenging. It became illegal for parlours to employ anyone convicted of drug or prostitution-related offenses, and as you might guess, this didn’t stop sex from happening there, but did cause a whole lot of problems for sex workers.

Despite the law being actively enforced, there was plenty of sex work happening and plenty of brothels masquerading as massage parlors. Sex workers were arrested both in the streets and in indoor venues. Police would go undercover to massage parlours, pose as clients, before raiding the place and arresting the sex workers, charging them with solicitation (note 3). Solicitation charges meant fines, names in the paper, and no more work in the massage parlors. This actually kept sex workers in the industry as fines mounted and alternative work became harder to access. Instead, criminalisation drove sex workers into riskier underground venues and into the street. Street based workers were not only more vulnerable to arrest but also violence and harassment, which went unreported. Police kept records of everyone working in the industry, even when they hadn’t been arrested or charged. Condoms were confiscated, and used to build evidence against a sex worker.

It was in this context that in 1987, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) was born (note 4). They were soon doing such effective advocacy that, come the early 1990’s and the height of the AIDs crisis, the government funded them to advocate for safer sex amongst sex workers. They ran HIV prevention programs and even provided a medical clinic (and which continues to this day). But the NZPC kept coming up against a wall of police repression and confiscation of government funded safer sex materials. They had had enough. The NZPC threatened to reject funding from the Department of Health, and to stop cooperating with the government, unless meaningful action was taken toward decriminalisation and the protection of sex workers began (note 5). Thus, a long process of parliamentary committees and reports began.

If the low-down on slow-winding democratic processes and unexpected alliances are your thing, check out the references at the end of this post, but for the sake of brevity let’s skip ahead to the dawn of the new millennium, where Labour MP Tim Barnett makes an entrance. Tim Barnett, who had been working with NZPC and Dame Catherine Healy for some time, finished a first draft of the Prostitution Reform Act in September 2000, and this bill was pulled out of the parliamentary biscuit tin just a day after he had placed it there (note 5). For anyone new to the New Zealand parliamentary system, this is essentially a ballot system where any individual MP – if they have the luck of the (actual biscuit tin) lottery – can sponsor legislation. Perhaps it was fate, or maybe years of hard work by sex workers and allies was noticed and aided by divine intervention, but change was afoot.

The proposed Prostitution Reform Act, or the PRA for short, faced intense opposition. As well as the predictable outrage by conservative Christian groups and radical anti-sex work feminists, some of the larger, more unscrupulous brothel owners also fought the reform. This resistance from particular actors of the sex industry was because brothel owners would be required to be licensed and vetted.  The PRA would also give sex workers the ability to work in small cooperative brothels without their involvement at all. Not only that, the new law explicitly forbade fining sex workers, which was common practice, and required contracts, and occupational health and safety codes to be implemented, which were not. In short, sex workers would have autonomy, and be able to legally challenge shady management (which, it turns out, has come to pass).

There was also opposition from MPs fearful that decriminalisation would produce an influx of migrant sex workers. This led to a late addition of a clause making it explicit that only New Zealand citizens and permanent residents are legally allowed to do sex work here. This compromise ultimately allowed the bill to pass, but the NZPC maintains that this exclusion exacerbates migrant sex worker exploitation, and it remains a contentious aspect of an otherwise revolutionary piece of legislation.

Finally then, in June 2003, after a pivotal speech [see note 6] from transgender MP and former sex worker Georgina Beyer, a final vote was held. Everyone knew it would be tight, but a surprise last minute abstention by Muslim MP Ashraf Choudhary got it over the line: the bill passed 60 votes to 59.

Was there riotous and indecent behaviour in the parties which followed? That would be telling. But twenty years later, the change in the sex industry is happily profound. Sex workers report problems to the police, including problems with management, and are taken seriously.

Research shows the panic over an increase in sex worker numbers was unfounded (note 7), and there is no evidence of trafficking. Sex work records held by police were wiped, and working conditions have been transformed; the prevailing condition is safety and autonomy. And yes, condoms are in bountiful supply.

Want to know more about the ins and outs of New Zealand sex work law, or the kinds of services sex workers offer here? Ask me anything!

Sexy sidenote: As for the massage parlours, post-decriminalisation they either became legitimate full service brothels, foregoing the massage table completely, or stuck to massage with a happy ending. Funhouse, opening in the Wellington CBD in 2011, was the first to offer both sensual massage and escort services, with separate rooms tailoring to the different services. Do we sometimes start in a massage room and end up in a bedroom? Well, sometimes…….but more on that kind of fun in another post.


  1. See: Jordan, J., (2010). Of whalers, diggers and ‘soiled doves’: a history of the sex
    industry in New Zealand, in Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., & Healy, C., (Eds). Taking the crime
    out of sex work: New Zealand sex workers fight for decriminalisation. Bristol: Policy
    Press, pp 25-44.
    See also: Stevan Eldred-Grigg (1984) Pleasures of the Flesh Sex & Drugs in Colonial
    New Zealand. Reed Education.
  2. See: Healy, C., Bennachie, C., and Reed A., (2010). History of the New Zealand Prostitutes’
    Collective, in Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., & Healy, C., (Eds). Taking the crime out of sex work: New
    Zealand sex workers fight for decriminalisation. Bristol: Policy Press, pp 45-55.
  3. See: ‘A double standard’ (1984) Documentary directed by Clare O’Leary by
  4. Read about the NZPC formation here:
  5. Barnett, T., Healy, C., Reed A., and Bennachie, C., (2010). Lobbying for
    decriminalisation, in Abel, G., Fitzgerald, L., & Healy, C., (Eds). Taking the crime out of
    sex work: New Zealand sex workers fight for decriminalisation. Bristol: Policy Press, pp
  6. A transcript of Georgina Beyer’s speech can be found here:
  7. Abel, Fitzgerald & Brunton, (2009), The impact of decriminalisation on the number of sex
    workers in New Zealand, J Soc Pol 38(3) 515-531