As you read this, I’m somewhere in Auckland, in the midst of an intense few days immersed in the New Zealand sex industry. I want to learn, and there’s no better way to do that than to go see things for yourself.
New Zealand had laws very much like ours governing the sex industry up until 2003, when the country changed course and decriminalized prostitution. I figure it’ll be a great place to look for really current information on what happens when a country stops viewing its sex workers as criminals.
Thanks to a law student from the University of Victoria, Hillary Bullock, I’ve got a binder full of information on how New Zealand made the transition. She was looking for a class project and I was looking for exactly what she delivered, which was a detailed report on how that country made it happen.
It was a remarkably fast transition. Introduced in 2000 by Labour MP Tim Barnett, the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed into law just three years later. Most aspects of consenting adult prostitution are now legal, while the “genuine harms” of prostitution have been separated out to be managed in different ways.
Like Canada, New Zealand’s laws up to that point made it a crime for an adult to solicit sex for money in a public place, keep or manage a brothel, or live on the earnings of sex work. Like us, the country tolerated a bustling sex industry while maintaining pretence of trying to eliminate it, trapping sex workers in a grey zone of quasi-legality. (Also like us, they had laws and policies prohibiting children from working in the industry and preventing exploitation and violence, and those laws have rightfully remained in place.)
If you’ve watched the creeping progress through government of any issue of significance, let alone one as controversial as this, you recognize how amazing it is that in just three years, New Zealand made it all the way to decriminalization. How did that happen?
That’s an important question for people like me, who want to be part of making something happen sooner rather than later on the same front here in Canada. Here’s how it unfolded in New Zealand:
Barnett had been a long-time advocate of sex workers’ rights, and it was his bill that ultimately got the attention of New Zealand’s House of Parliament. But many other organizations had been pressing for reform as well, including the Federation of Business and Professional Women, the National Council of Women, the national YWCA, and the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective.
Not all of the groups condoned prostitution. But they came together in recognition that continuing to pretend the industry didn’t exist was simply making things much worse for the people working in it.
Barnett’s bill was sent to the Justice and Electoral Select Committee for a hard look, and the committee drafted a four-stage process for reform.
• First, identify the risks from the activity. Coercion, sexually transmitted infections, and being trapped in the industry were all seen as examples of risk associated with prostitution.
• Next, identify which risks could realistically be dealt with by law, and which required public education, better community services, etc.
• Third, separate the risks that do need a special legal solution from those that could be covered by current law. Thus the issue of sex workers ages 16 to 18 was to be dealt with differently than the regular employment policies that would apply to adult sex workers.
• Lastly, create new prostitution law.
It all came to be, but not without considerable dissent. The law squeaked by in a vote of 60 to 59, ultimately helped along by a passionate speech to parliament from a fellow MP who was a former sex worker. “It is about accepting that which occurs, and it is about accepting the fact that the people who work in this industry deserve some human rights,” Georgina Beyer told her peers.
Those opposing the law cited a number of concerns going into the reform: growth of the sex industry; more visibility of street prostitution; an increase in violence against sex workers; the spread of disease and organized crime; the exploitation of children.
Research before and after the new law took effect found that hadn’t happened. Meanwhile, the the newly regulated industry could now be brought to task for the first time around health and safety issues, workers’ rights and contractual obligations.
That’s not to suggest that everything problematic about the sex industry vanishes when you decriminalize. But if the worst didn’t happen when New Zealand sex workers were finally given the right to earn a living, what’s our excuse for continuing to do nothing?