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Scoop Feature: Decriminalising Prostitution In NZ

A bill decriminalising prostitution is advancing in New Zealand's Parliament with issues of morality and public safety to the forefront. Supporters say the legislation contributes to the greater good by empowering sex workers and reducing health threats. Foes say decriminalisation will degrade the nation without achieving those goals. Dave Crampton reports.

New Zealand lawmakers mull arguments on decriminalising prostitution

By Dave Crampton

In this nation of nearly 4 million residents, most living in urban areas, it is legal to buy sex but not to sell it. Citing health and safety issues, members of Parliament are taking steps to shift the power balance between sex industry clients and workers.

In November, members voted 86-21 to advance legislation decriminalising prostitution. The Justice and Electoral Select Committee is now considering oral and written submissions on the Prostitution Reform Bill.

Although decriminalisation is not the same as legalising prostitution, lawmakers and religious groups are debating how the distinction matters in practical terms. Most politicians appear to support decriminalisation but not legalisation. Most Christian groups oppose both.

There are 8,000 prostitutes in New Zealand's sex industry, and more than 410 people have been convicted of prostitution during the past five years.

The legislation is a members bill, meaning it is a personal initiation of a member of Parliament as opposed to a government bill initiated by a minister of the crown. The initiator of the bill, Labour MP Tim Barnett, is also the chairman of the Justice and Electoral Select Committee. As the bill's sponsor, he was stood down from the chairmanship but remains a member. His place is taken by committee deputy Wayne Mapp.

The committee has received 140 written submissions and will be hearing oral submissions in a month. The bill is expected to be back in parliament by the end of May.

If the bill gets the green light, brothels and soliciting will become legal and prostitution a business defined as "the provision of sexual services." Sex workers will no longer be arrested for selling sex. Laws against procuring will be repealed, coercion will be illegal, and sex workers will be able to refuse sex without penalty.

David Lane, head of the Society for the Protection of Community Standards, a nationwide lobby group that promotes standards of public decency, says the bill proposes de facto legalisation, doing "exactly what it claims not to do" by imposing state specified conditions, such as ensuring the use of condoms and displaying safe sex information. Non-compliants face fines of up to $10,000.

"These activities (will be) effectively legalised, for they can be carried out in a public place, promoted through the media and high schools as state-approved business ventures and career alternatives for those over 18 years of age, and dealt with in the employment courts as state-approved business. If they are to be merely decriminalised as opposed to legalised," Lane asks, "then why are state-imposed regulations to be imposed on brothel-keepers?"

"Because it is consistent with health promotion guidelines issued by international bodies such as UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation," states Catherine Healy, the national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. The Prostitutes Collective, established by sex workers in 1987, provides support and advocacy, with a focus on creating a safe environment for sex workers. The national organisation maintains these "state imposed regulations" create an environment conducive to public health. They are strongly opposed to legalisation of the sex industry, preferring decriminalisation. The latter repeals the laws to provide support to sex workers, they believe, while the former licenses legal business and pushes illegal activity underground, thus creating a state-controlled "two tier" system.

Labour MP Georgina Beyer, the world's only transsexual member of Parliament, was convicted of "lewd behaviour in a public place" as a 17-year-old. She told Parliament that decriminalisation has many advantages and is conducive to public health.

"Sex workers will have the same status in law as their clients, with health promotion work taking place openly within the sex industry, with labour laws and safety regulations being openly applied. (The bill) also covers the protection of children from exploitation in relation to prostitution."

Under the bill, however, sex workers would be legally required to have mandatory health checks; their clients would not.

National Party MP Eric Roy, a Presbyterian minister, says it is absurd that sexual health will improve as a result of the bill, as its supporters claim.

"I am at a loss to understand how creating a climate which elevates lust and encourages promiscuity and multiple partners improves sexual health," he recently told New Zealand's Christian newspaper Challenge Weekly.

The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) in New Zealand is one of the few Christian-based organisations that support the bill, favouring a regulated form of decriminalisation. In a submission to the select committee, the group maintains that protection for the marginalised is a core Christian principle. The YWCA believes the bill will balance power between clients and workers and sex industry employers and employees.

The Christian Heritage Party, in its submission, contends that the bill is inconsistent. "The provisions . mean that although a sex worker could enforce contracts against an employer, no person could enforce contracts against the prostitute because this will amount to coercion," which is rape, argued party leader Graham Capill. "This goes against the principle that all persons should be equal before the law."

But coercion is not contract-based; it is about the forced provision of sexual services. Any employment contracts will need to be drafted in such a way that enforcement of that contract does not amount to coercion. The Prostitutes Collective pointed out that fining sex workers or withholding money is a common means of coercing sex workers, rather than through overt acts of physical violence. "The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective is pleased that coercion is mentioned in the bill. as its most systematic use is in relation to denying sex workers' the right to say no to sex, a basic human right," the collective said in a submission.

Although the YWCA does not condone prostitution, its leaders contend that the bill will help sex workers to leave the industry and reduce the number of street workers. Bruce Logan, of the New Zealand Education Development Foundation disagrees. "If the Prostitution Reform Bill is passed, prostitution will increase, more women will suffer, and the moral tone of our culture will be even further eroded."

Logan considers that the proposed legislation will do nothing to reduce the suffering of women caught in prostitution, maintaining that such legislation will create an environment in which human rights would be harder to maintain.

Street workers are more worried about the tax police than their human rights, according to Salvation Army Captain Fiona Kirk, who works among street workers in Wellington.

"They don't think it will make any difference to their rights. They are more concerned that they are going to be asked for the tax off their takings."

- Dave Crampton is a Wellington based freelance journalist, he can be contacted at

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