Story: Sex work

Page 4. Legislation and decriminalisation

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New Zealand legislation before 2003

Before the Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, sex work in itself was not illegal, but most of the activities involved in sex work were criminal offences.

  • The Police Offences Act 1884 made it an offence for ‘common prostitutes’ to solicit for business in public.
  • The Crimes Act 1961 made it illegal to keep a brothel, live off the earnings of the prostitution of another person, or procure sexual services for someone else.
  • The Massage Parlours Act 1978 regulated parlours, owners, managers and sex workers.
  • Section 26 of the Summary Offences Act 1981 made it illegal to offer sex for money in a public place (soliciting) – including massage parlours.

Health risks and the law

While the Ministry of Health funded the provision of condoms to sex workers through the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), possession of these government-funded condoms was sometimes used by police as evidence of illegal activity by sex businesses and sex workers. This was inconsistent with advocacy of safe-sex strategies, as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases generated mounting concern in the 1980s and 1990s.

No redress for rape

Because sex work was illegal, sex workers were often wary of reporting rape or other violence to the police. MP Georgina Beyer, a former sex worker, commented: ‘[The Prostitution Reform Bill] provides people like me at that time with some form of redress for the brutalisation that may happen when a client pulls a knife ... it would have been nice to … have been able to approach the authorities – the police in this case – and say “I was raped, and yes, I’m a prostitute, but no, it was not right that I should have been raped.”’1

Moves towards law reform

The double standard that protected men who paid for sex, but put sex workers at risk of arrest and exploitation, led to a growing campaign for prostitution law reform. Pressure for change in the law was spearheaded by NZPC.

A law-reform working group was formed in 1997, comprising NZPC members, academics, and representatives from the AIDS Foundation and various women's groups (including the YWCA, National Council of Women and New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women). Law reform was supported by the National government of the time.

When Labour formed a coalition government in 1999, Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalise sex work and provide legal protection for sex workers.

Prostitution Reform Act 2003

On 25 June 2003 the Prostitution Reform Act was passed by one vote. It was a tumultuous night in Parliament, filled with onlookers from both sides.

Previous laws relating to soliciting, brothel-keeping and living off the earnings of prostitution were repealed, as was the Massage Parlours Act 1978.

The key aims of the act were to safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation, and to promote the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers. It was an offence to coerce another person to provide sexual services, or to pay for sexual services from a person aged under 18. It also became illegal for a client to have sex with a worker without using a condom.

Sex workers gained in several ways through the new law. They became able to challenge working conditions in the employment tribunal and seek redress through the Disputes Tribunal for money owed to them by clients or brothel operators. Workers had many choices over where they could work, including in managed brothels (large or small), cooperatively with others, or by themselves. Street-based sex work was also permitted and was not limited to particular zones, while brothel operators required operators’ certificates.

Effects of legislative change

A committee was set up to evaluate the first three to five years of the act's operation. In 2008 the committee reported that the number of people working in the sex industry had not increased. In some areas there were fewer workers. More sex workers were operating privately from their homes, and fewer were in managed premises. The committee considered that most people working in the sex industry were better off than they had been before the passing of Prostitution Reform Act. They recommended a further review in 2018, by when the impacts of this legislation would be clearer. The committee also found that, despite change in the law, many people still had negative attitudes towards sex work; sex workers were still uneasy about their relationship with the authorities.

After the Prostitution Reform Act was passed, a few local councils attempted to implement controls on the operation of the sex industry. Some have introduced bylaws relating to signage, the location of premises used for commercial sex work and the siting of brothels in multi-unit residential complexes. These restrictions are not usually applied to small owner-operated brothels. 

In Christchurch after the 2010–2011 earthquakes there was ongoing controversy about street workers. Established inner-city locations, such as Manchester Street, were no longer suitable because of earthquake damage. As a result, street workers started to meet clients in residential St Albans, just north of the inner city. Some residents complained about sex workers operating at night in their neighbourhood.

Opposition to the law

Opponents of the legislation claimed it would normalise prostitution as a career choice for vulnerable young women and increase young people's involvement in prostitution-related activities. Some conservative Christian groups organised a petition for a citizens-initiated referendum to repeal the Prostitution Reform Act, but this did not obtain enough signatures.

  1. New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 25 June 2003, vol. 609, p. 6,585. Back
How to cite this page:

Jan Jordan, 'Sex work - Legislation and decriminalisation', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Jan Jordan, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 31 May 2018