New Zealand Gets Sex Work Right

Last night, I attended an event at the Rickshaw Theatre on Hastings just east of Main. The speaker was Catherine Healy, sex workers’ rights activist and national coordinator and a founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, and a former sex worker herself. Here is a small part of what I learned from Catherine.

Eleven years ago, on the other side of the world, a small green country—the one that got to play Middle Earth in the movie—took the sensible step of decriminalizing sex work. In reaching that goal, women’s groups of all stripes—including the YWCA, business and professional associations and the Moari Women’s Welfare League—gathered together to support the striking down of all criminal laws concerning prostitution.

Here’s what happened.

  • The number of sex workers did not grow.
  • The number of brothels did not grow.
  • Youth did not enter sex work in greater numbers.
  • Trafficking disappeared.
  • Sex workers began to expect—and get—better working conditions.
  • Sex workers found themselves able to refuse service (to say no), knowing they had the support of the society they lived in.
  • Clients began to come forward when they suspected a sex worker was being coerced or if they witnessed some other wrongdoing.
  • The law began to respond to sex workers as workers, and became available to sex workers as a resource.

In Canada, we are poised to do precisely the opposite: with Bill C36, we will criminalize sex workers’ clients, forcing sex workers to work where they will not be seen; we will criminalize newspapers, websites etc. that advertise sex work, making it difficult for sex workers to work indoors, because they won’t be able to communicate with their clients; and we will criminalize those who “receive a material benefit” from sex work, making it illegal to work for a sex worker in most capacities, including as hired security.

These are dangerous, backward steps that I believe are not supported by the majority of Canadians. Let’s learn from our own experience and from New Zealand’s success and choose a different path.