From isolation to visibility
For many years sex workers were a socially marginalised group with little political power or influence. Few people championed their rights. From the 1970s the women's liberation movement prompted greater attention to sex workers. Books were published about their experiences, and sex workers began talking to one another about their work and how things could be better.
Power to the prostitutes
In its mission statement, the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective describes itself as agitating ‘for human rights, health and well-being of all sex workers. … [The collective] is committed to working for the empowerment of sex workers, so that sex workers may have control over all aspects of their work and their lives.’1
Organising sex workers
The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) was set up in 1987 by a small group of current and former sex workers to improve the situation of those in the industry and work for their rights. They initially faced some opposition and resistance – just getting listed in the telephone directory was a battle.
During this time there was great concern about the spread of HIV/AIDS. The collective’s commitment to promoting safer sex practices within the sex industry helped it to secure government funding and support.
Services for sex workers
By the 21st century NZPC had offices and community centres in many parts of the country. It provided free information to sex workers and those considering sex work, particularly about safe sex and the use of condoms. It also operated free and anonymous sexual health clinics, distributed safer sex products and coordinated information about ‘ugly mugs’ – dangerous and abusive clients. The collective was also involved in several research projects into the different aspects of the sex industry.
The smell of Viagra
NZPC national coordinator Catherine Healy debated that ‘this house would decriminalise prostitution’ at the Oxford Union, England, in 2010. She was only the second New Zealander to take part in the prestigious debate. The first was then Prime Minister David Lange, who famously quipped that he could smell uranium on the opposing speaker’s breath as he debated the defensibility of nuclear weapons in 1985. Healy referred to Lange’s joke, commenting sardonically that opponents of decriminalisation thought that the sex industry was burgeoning, and that New Zealanders had all quit their day jobs and had Viagra on their breath. Her team won by 37 votes.
Public relations and lobbying
NZPC national coordinator Catherine Healy – who has held the position since the collective was set up – has earned the respect of many politicians and community members through her efforts to have sex workers' rights recognised and protected. The collective's major success has been the decriminalisation of prostitution. This was achieved with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.