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August 2010

Sex workers have the legal right to ply their trade like any other person within society. They have a right to make complaints and those complaints should be investigated robustly, Detective senior sergeant
David Harvey

Prostitution law reform – the consequences

By Paul Titus

In June, 2003 Touchstone examined arguments for and against the decriminalisation of the sex trade prior to Parliament’s vote on the Prostitution Reform Bill. The bill passed into law by the thinnest of margins.

Now, seven years later, we re-examine the issue to see what changes it has brought.

Groups who work with prostitutes are very supportive of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA). In their view, it gives sex workers better access to health care, more control over their work conditions, and a greater ability to refuse clients.

They say it has created a better, more open relationship between sex workers and the police, and police confirm this is the case.

Those who oppose the reforms are concerned decriminalisation sends the wrong message to young people, and that it could open the door to sex trafficking in New Zealand.

Working conditions

The NZ Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) supports the rights of sex workers and educates them about minimizing the risks of the job. The Collective helped draft the PRA, and its leaders say it has improved the health and safety of those in the industry.

Christchurch coordinator of the NZPC Anna Reed says before the reforms the police could use possession of condoms or literature about HIV-AIDs to build a case of prostitution. Under the Act, sex workers and their clients are required by law to use a condom.

The reforms also give sex workers more say over how they conduct their business. It gives them the right to refuse to serve a client and it enables them to work individually or with one or two partners from a private residence.

“Under the law change workers have the right of refusal to turn down clients. Previously in brothels they could be fined if they turned down a client. While there is always room for improvement, workers are now more able to stand up to bad managers,” Anna says.

“The ability to set up owner-operator businesses gives workers more control of their hours and conditions, and the competition puts pressure on brothel managers to pull their socks up. And when there is more transparency in the industry it has less appeal to the criminal underworld.”

While figures vary in different centres, research suggests about half of all sex workers operate from brothels, about 40 percent from private residences, and about 10 percent are street workers.


Despite these improvements, prostitution is still a dangerous occupation. Since 2005 three prostitutes have been murdered in Christchurch, and when this article was being written newspapers carried headlines about the disappearance of Auckland escort Carmen Thomas.

National coordinator of the NZPC Catherine Healy cautions that incidents such as these should not create unrealistic standards for the sex industry.

“It would be fantastic if violence was not present in human relations but it is. If a husband kills his wife we do not hear the argument that marriage should be banned. The same is true of other industries. When a taxi driver is killed, no one says we should get rid of taxis.”

Detective senior sergeant David Harvey is in charge of policing the Christchurch central business district. This includes Manchester Street, the most visible street prostitution scene in the city.

David says prior to the PRA the prevailing attitude among the police and the community was that prostitution was a victimless crime and prostitutes were largely left to look after themselves.

Since the reforms, spurred on by the high profile murders of sex workers, the Christchurch police made a decision to work more closely with the NZ Prostitutes Collective.

“Since that time our philosophy has changed. We accept that sex workers have the legal right to ply their trade like any other person within society. They have a right to make complaints and those complaints should be investigated robustly,” David says.

“I believe we have developed credibility and trust after we have conducted a number of good investigations in which we have treated them professionally. I think the girls started to realise police were interested in the robberies, assaults and sexual violations that were happening to them.

“They could see that if they passed us information about someone suspicious we would do something about it.”

Anna Reed cites the case of former policeman Nathan Connolly as an example of cooperation between sex workers and police that would not have been possible before the PRA. Nathan was convicted in November of misusing his authority to get sex from a prostitute.

Debbie Baker works with Streetreach, a Christian-based confidential support service for those involved in Auckland’s sex industry. Streetreach tries to address what has happened in a woman’s life that makes them turn to prostitution but it does not try to convert them.

Debbie says she was initially against the prostitution law reform but now supports decriminalisation. Nevertheless, she would like to see amendments to the law so the industry is more actively policed.

“There are still bad brothels out there. They pressure girls to go with clients when they don’t want to. Some don’t keep good records. Some hire under aged girls,” Debbie says.

Numbers in the industry

Critics of the PRA said it would lead to an increase in the size of the sex trade.

A provision of prostitution reform legislation was that its effects reviewed after five years. As part of that review, research conducted by the by the University of Otago School of Medicine found that the number of women working as prostitutes has increased some but not dramatically.

In Christchurch, for example, the researchers estimated there were 375 prostitutes in 1999, 392 in 2006, and 402 in 2007, an increase of about seven percent. The research did identify a shift from brothels to private operations while the percentage engaged in street prostitution remained unchanged.

Streetreach’s Debbie Baker says her own observations indicate the number of prostitutes working in Auckland have increased since the reforms.

Manukau City Council has taken aim at what it sees as a negative consequence of the PRA, increased street prostitution at several locations near residential areas in Papatoetoe, Manurewa and Otahuhu.

Senior policy advisor Manoj Ragupathy says since the law change behaviour of street prostitutes has become more outrageous and aggressive. The city council has unanimously supported a bill before Parliament that would give Manukau the right to ban street prostitution and impose a $1000 fine on those who break the law.

Debbie is strongly opposed to the city council’s move. She says it is political grandstanding by the council and a silly law that will “victimise victims”.

“Streetreach and the Prostitutes Collective have worked with the street workers to get them to comply with requests that they do not work in residential areas, work where there are lights, and cut down on noise.

“It is silly to fine street workers because they will simply have to go out and do more work to pay a fine,” she says.

Under aged sex workers

Lobby group Family First says the PRA sent a message to young people that society condones sex work. National director of Family First Bob McCroskie says there is some evidence the number of young people in the sex industry has gone up but it is hard to quantify.

“This law was passed by politicians who were out of step with most New Zealanders’ views. We would prefer to see a system where buyers are prosecuted, which has been successful in Sweden,” Bob says.

In regards to under aged sex work the PRA prohibits people under 18 from sex work and it increased penalties on those who organise under aged women to work for sex and those who pay for their services. The young women themselves are considered victims and it is not illegal for them to sell sex.

The government’s 2008 review of the act found it has not increased the number of under aged women in sex work. David Harvey says as far as he can tell the number of under aged sex workers in Christchurch has not increased.

NZPC Auckland coordinator Annah Pickering points out that young people who engage in prostitution are often runaways who sell sex as a last resort.

“The problem is not sex work itself. It is the reasons that those young people are not in school or with their families. With decriminalisation, it is easier for social agencies to get access to young vulnerable people.”

Sex trafficking

Trafficking is defined as transporting a person within or between countries for sex work with some element of coercion or deception.

Under the PRA, it is illegal to compel a person to provide sexual services for money. Only Australians are legally entitled to travel to NZ to work in the sex trade.

The government’s 2008 review found no links between the sex trade and human trafficking.

Bob McCroskie says there is anecdotal evidence that trafficking is occurring and some women are being brought to New Zealand from Asia for sex work. He cites the recent case of a Malaysian woman was forced to very work long hours in an Auckland brothel after the owner took her passport.

The Prostitutes Collective says the Malaysian woman’s case illustrates the benefits of the reforms because other sex workers informed the police about the situation. They say if the industry was forced underground, trafficking would be more difficult to detect.

Supporters of the Swedish law, which prosecutes the buyers rather than the sellers of sex, say it has given the authorities the ability to limit trafficking significantly more than in other European countries.