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New Zealand sex work activist celebrated as Dame

4 Apr 2019 20:04:42

24 September 2018. Sex worker advocate Dame Catherine Healy says receiving her Queen’s Honour feels like “being brought into the fold”.

Dame Catherine celebrated her achievements at an investiture ceremony in Wellington this evening, where she was honoured for her commitment to better conditions for sex workers.

After the ceremony, she spoke about the sense of belonging being made a dame created, and how there was still a way to go.

Dame Catherine left a $400-a-week teaching job 30 years ago and began working in an illegal brothel in Wellington.

She co-founded the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective in 1986, promoting safer sex practices and advocating for sex workers, before spearheading the move to make prostitution legal.

“It’s been a long haul, and, you know, of course it goes in the blink of an eye when you reflect,” she said.

Dame Catherine spoke about how she was once arrested during her time as a sex worker, and said even now she still catches herself thinking she needs to “behave”.

“It meant a lot when the law was repealed and that could no longer occur.”

Following the news she was being made a dame, she told the Herald the early days of running the collective were difficult – with the collective unable to even take out a listing in the telephone directory.

The collective gained funding from the Ministry of Health to provide condoms to workers, as the threat of HIV and Aids “loomed terribly large”, but even these were seized by police at times as evidence of illegal activity.

“The police, poor things, had to count the condoms on occasion to produce the evidence … thankfully the police don’t have to do such an awful thing [now] and can focus on the right kinds of things that sex workers need them to focus on,” she said today.

The Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 transformed sex workers’ conditions and security. Dame Catherine watched from Parliament’s public gallery as it scraped through by a single vote.

“We’re world leading in terms of protecting the rights and safety and health and wellbeing for many people who are involved in sex work at some part of their life.”

She said much of the feedback she’d received from those in the industry since news broke of her Dame hood was a monosyllabic “whoop”.

Others whose achievements are being celebrated this week include food writer Annabel Langbein; Pacific Island leader Dame Winnie Laban; former politician Sir William English; playwright Briar Grace-Smith; fashion designer Margi Robertson; Flying Nun Records founder Roger Shepherd and film and television producers Larry Parr and Ainsley Gardiner.