Decriminalise prostitution – Five years ago, New Zealand stopped arresting sex workers. Their lives have improved and the UK should now adopt the same approach
What can the UK learn from New Zealand’s approach to sex workers? Quite a lot, actually. On Wednesday June 25, sex workers and brothel operators mingled in parliament with a range of people – Catholic nuns, public health experts, and politicians – to mark the 5th anniversary of the decriminalisation of prostitution. Even the prime minster, Helen Clark, dropped in to pass comment on the success of giving rights to sex workers.
Throughout the day, participants heard from researchers who had been commissioned by the ministry of justice – included in the legislation was a requirement that a committee, appointed by the justice minister, be established to review the law and to assess its impact on the sex industry within five years. It was no surprise to me that these researchers found overwhelming evidence to contradict the wild claims of opponents to the Prostitution Reform Act. Opponents had claimed that, as a consequence of liberalising the law, brothels would create havoc in every neighbourhood, with thugs moving in to traffic women and children. Yet none of these claims came true.
One researcher surveyed 772 sex workers from across the country, while the other interviewed government and non-government stakeholders, including labour and health officials, and brothel operators, about their reaction to decriminalisation. The overwhelming response to the legislation has been positive. Police have moved from clogging courts with prosecutions for soliciting to preventing violence against sex workers. As one said: “Now, if I have any trouble, I can pull out my phone and call the cops, and they will come”.
We may be a small country, but we are part of the Asia-Pacific rim with its dynamic migration patterns. Motivated by claims of trafficking, immigration officials have raided brothels, seeking victims. They haven’t found any. As one sex worker told the audience: “I can stand up for myself. My boss may be an idiot, but he won’t try to push me around. I know the law”.
The chair of the prostitution law review committee – a retired Police commissioner and one time vice cop – said that people were gobsmacked when he told them the committee had found that many sex workers enjoy their work. Researchers confirmed that many sex workers don’t want rescuing – they want rights.
The committee concluded that the act has had a marked effect in safeguarding the human rights of sex workers and improving their occupational safety and health. I believe the UK could reorient its laws to achieve this reality. And the sky won’t fall in.