Prostitution law reform has worked in NZ

Today, as it was before the change in law, sex work is widespread, and mostly occurs in a low-key way in minor towns and in every major city throughout New Zealand. Yet the industry has not grown in the last ten years. It’s not obvious that the sex trade has been decriminalized: brothels are not on every corner, nor are “sex for sale” signs flashing at the unsuspecting.

However, inside, brothels now display safer-sex information prominently. Sex workers are allowed to work in managed brothels with no size restrictions, or to collectivize and work as equals with colleagues, or to work alone. Home occupation and standard business zoning laws generally apply — although there have been some city councils who have been successfully challenged in court for the development of unreasonable bylaws restricting the location of brothels. Street-based sex work is allowed and there is no regime of licensing or mandatory testing of individual sex workers.

Sex worker registers are a thing of the past, in recognition that it is not sex workers who need monitoring as criminals. However, operators of brothels, and anyone involved in directing sex workers for profit, are required to have an operator’s certificate. These certificates are issued by the District Court and withheld from people with specific convictions, including those for violence.

The PRA enables sex workers to reach out for help and access justice if necessary. While the police were previously the enforcers of anti-prostitution laws, they are now widely regarded by sex workers as their allies in the prevention of violence. The police, too, report the effectiveness of decriminalization in building non-coercive relationships with sex workers as a violence prevention strategy.

While decriminalization has not stopped all violence — as no law alone could achieve this in any context — there is overwhelming evidence that decriminalization has enabled sex workers to decline contact with people they perceive to be potentially dangerous clients.

The law also explicitly reinforces the right of sex workers to refuse to continue providing services to any client, to prevent the confusion that sex workers give away this right as contractors to brothel operators. The government has published guidelines with input from sex workers that expands on this, and which address issues of security and safety in the context of sex work.

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