Decriminalising Sex Work

London SlutWalk, via Wikimedia Commons

Sex work laws are a topic of hot debate in several parts of the world, including the UK. Even policy experts in this area can’t agree on the best way to protect sex workers’ rights. While some advocate the criminalisation of clients, sex worker-led organisations disagree; they say banning the purchasing of sex places sex workers in even more danger. Instead, they are calling for the decriminalisation of sex work – an approach which has been in place in New Zealand since 2003.

Myths abound regarding New Zealand’s model, including unsubstantiated claims that the sex industry has expanded, with pimps emboldened in the wake of the new law, and that sex trafficking is rife. So what do we really know about New Zealand’s policy of decriminalisation?

The passing of the Prostitution Reform Act followed years of work by New Zealand’s sex-worker organisation, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. Its purpose was to minimise harm, and so the law change not only removed legislation that criminalised sex work, but also afforded new rights to sex workers.

Decriminalisation in New Zealand differs from legalised regimes, such as that in Germany, since it focuses on empowering sex workers themselves, rather than the state, to have greater control over their work.

This approach recognises that sex workers are the best people to advise on their own working conditions, but to allow them to do this there must be a transparent environment in which sex workers can report their experiences without putting themselves or their clients at risk of facing a criminal record.

A requirement of the law change was that research would be undertaken in the years that followed to evaluate its effect. This study, completed by researchers from the University of Otago’s School of Medicine, highlighted many benefits: more than 60 per cent of the 772 sex workers who participated reported feeling more able to refuse to see certain clients, and 95 per cent said they felt they had rights after decriminalisation.

These rights mean the balance of power has shifted: sex workers can more easily hold to account those who seek to exploit them.

This is well-illustrated by a 2014 case in which a sex worker pursued a brothel operator who had sexually harassed her through the Human Rights Tribunal. She won the case and was awarded $25,000 (£13,777) in compensation.

Decriminalisation – of both the sale and purchase of sex – is incredibly important for enabling access to justice when crimes are perpetrated against sex workers. A study conducted with street-based sex workers indicated a significant positive change in relationships between police and sex workers after the law changed. It showed how decriminalisation supports sex worker’s safety strategies, enabling street workers to take their time in initial conversations with clients, without risking their clients being arrested and losing income as a result. It also means that clients can provide information to police when sex workers are assaulted. A woman I interviewed in 2009 was assisted by a client to contact police after she was attacked by a passerby.

As for trafficking, while there is evidence of trafficking into other industries such as fruit picking, there is neither evidence that trafficking into sex work is a problem in New Zealand, nor is there evidence that the size of the sex industry has increased since decriminalisation. In fact, research suggests that decriminalisation has had little impact on the sex worker population at all, apart to provide it with protection.

To make policy that truly benefits sex workers we must separate myths from facts. Despite the oft-repeated claims of its shortcomings, the academic evidence that has been gathered so far clearly supports the New Zealand decriminalisation model as an ideal starting point.

No law is perfect, but this is the best approach we have so far for supporting sex worker rights and facilitating access to justice. There is no alternative worth pursuing.

Dr Lynzi Armstrong is a lecturer in criminology at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. This piece was first published in The Independent, 29 May 2017.

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