How sex work changed after two decades of decriminalisation in New Zealand


How sex work is regulated strongly influences how safe workers’ jobs are. In South Africa, where laws make it illegal to buy or sell sex, 70% of female sex workers in a countrywide survey in 2019 said they had experienced violence from clients in the previous year, while almost six out of 10 had been raped in that time.

When sex work is seen as a criminal offence, workers not only can’t report crimes against them to the police but they also often face abuse from law enforcement officials, with one in seven sex workers in the 2019 survey saying they had been raped by police officers in that time.

This might soon change. The justice department is reviewing public comment on a draft bill that, if signed into law, will make it legal for adults to buy and sell sex — which could make sex workers’ lives safer.

And it’s not only sex workers who benefit. Evidence from the United States and the Netherlands shows that sexual violence dropped across cities and states in places where sex work is not a crime. Making sex work legal also didn’t seem to inflate the industry in New Zeland, something critics in that country warned against when they  decriminalised sex work two decades ago.

But what do New Zealand sex workers say? Do they feel safer after their profession was decriminalised?

For Bhekisisa’s TV programme, Health Beat, Mia Malan spoke to sex worker Allan Heta Cleaver from New Zealand, who has been in the industry for more than 40 years, and has therefore practised before and after sex work was made legal.

Mia Malan (MM): How did your work life as a sex worker change after decriminalisation?

Allan Heta Cleaver (AHC): In my early days [before sex work was legal], I used to get arrested and have police charges for soliciting prostitution. The biggest change is that I can’t get arrested now. My job is now a recognised profession, which gives me a firm legal backing in the eyes of the government.

MM: Is it safer to be a sex worker now?

AHC: Absolutely. When sex work was illegal, we didn’t have a lot of options [of where we could work] and it pushed you into unsafe work spaces. These days it’s a lot safer because I can control where I work and I have safety procedures in place. I don’t have to be standing on the street and then get into a vehicle after having tried to quickly find out, for example, if the person is really a client or an undercover police officer instead, or whether there’s a chance I could get robbed or experience violence. 

MM: Where are you working from now that you don’t have to operate from the street anymore?

AHC: I’m a home-based operator, so I work independently [that is, not in a brothel]. I have a space [in my home] that’s separate from where I live, specifically set up for sex work. It has its own entrance and bathroom, so there’s no crossover between where I live and work.

MM: What kind of safety procedures can you implement that you couldn’t before?

AHC: My first interaction with a client now happens via cell phone. Having their number is safer because I can track who they are. I can also tell somebody I trust that I’m going to do a job, when it will be and when I’ll be finished. Being able to check in with a friend before and after helps me feel safer. When I’m working remotely, for example if I go into a hotel, I can call the hotel and confirm the name of the person in the room to make sure I’m going into a legit situation. I can also let somebody [a friend or colleague] know that I’m going to a specific hotel, give them the room number and tell them they can expect a call from me afterwards.

MM: The police seem to have become an ally for sex workers after decriminalisation. How’s that played out for workers?

AHC: If we were to be a victim of sexual assault, we know that we can call on the police now. We have a place to go to say “I’ve been robbed” or something like that. The police will act upon the complaint and pursue the perpetrator.

MM: How has the stigma that’s associated with sex work changed after decriminalisation?

AHC: The work has been taken out of the darkness, away from being a secret that only happens in shady spaces. Now we’re able to work [openly] rather than in a seedy environment as before.

MM: Which of New Zealand’s labour laws are particularly useful to sex workers?

AHC: It’s recognised work now. You can pay your taxes. For example, with the COVID-19 pandemic, as a sex worker you had access to government-funded benefits, because it is a recognised job. If you had all your paperwork done and you had paid all your taxes, you had access to these benefits, which you would not have had in the past.

Malan also asked Catherine Healy, the national coordinator of the New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective, what the country’s sex worker health clinics offer and whether they have experienced any obstacles since decriminalisation.

MM: Do you have tailor-made health services for sex workers? 

Catherine Healy (CH): Sexual and reproductive health professionals who work in our clinics specialise in catering to the needs of sex workers. They don’t explain [to workers] how to put on a condom — we  know that — but rather about other issues that are really important. For example, you might have a sex worker who tells the nurse, “I’m working 12-hour shifts, I’m exhausted.” The nurse might [refer the worker] to one of the peer support groups in the clinic, which can tell them about their labour rights. So, the nurse might be able to tell the sex worker about particular things that our organisations aren’t experts on. This tailor-made relationship between sex and health workers brings enormous benefits.

MM: What kind of challenges remain 20 years after the decriminalisation of sex work in New Zealand?

CH: We’d like to see anti-discrimination legislation. There is still discrimination, things like people not being willing to lease you a space to live in because you’re a sex worker.

We also have a piece in the legislation that’s anti-migrant. Politicians got the idea that if migrants were prohibited from doing sex work, it would prevent trafficking. We have to overturn that part of the law. It’s been a major concern for us because we have people who arrive in the country and are eligible to work in any other occupation. But if they do work as sex workers, they don’t  have the same protection as others.

By Mohale MoloiLinda Pretorius and Mia Malan

7 March 2023

Cover photo - Allan Heta Cleaver has been a sex worker for 40 years. His work life changed when his home country of New Zealand made his job legal 20 years ago.


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