“Doing it with the Lights on”: The Decriminalisation of New Zealand Sex Work

By Maria-Victoria Pérez-y-Pérez.

Published by The Social Sciences Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

On 27 June 2003 the New Zealand Parliament passed a unique piece of legislation, the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), effectively decriminalising prostitution. The momentum for the Act came from the desire to minimise harm and risk for sex workers through the promotion of human rights, and the welfare and occupational health and safety of workers in the sex industry. The passage of the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 required a redefinition of prostitution regulation, that would fit within a work/employment and rights framework. When prostitution was illegal, the dominant social control agency was the police. However, when prostitution was decriminalised, issues of occupational health and safety were left to central and local government departments, alongside community, health groups and the prostitutes’ collective. This reconfiguration of regulatory responsibility brought together a number of diverse groups. Drawing upon two empirical studies undertaken in Christchurch, between 1997 and 2004, this paper will explore this shift to decriminalisation, and highlight the tensions associated with implementing the principles of the Act within this new regulatory framework. In particular, the ‘manoeuvrings’ of local authorities that sought to both reclaim public spaces and secure the legal ambiguity and vulnerability of sex workers, and the organised resistance by the sex work industry in response. The transition to decriminalisation of prostitution in New Zealand illustrates that the inclusion of a work approach to law reform can result in a new set of problems with regard to managing working conditions and the control of workplaces.

Keywords: Sex Work, Decriminalisation, Prostitution Reform Act

International Journal of Interdisciplinary Social Sciences, Volume 4, Issue 8, pp.139-152. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.261MB).

Dr. Maria-Victoria Pérez-y-Pérez

Lecturer, School of Social Work and Human Services, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

Dr María Pérez-y-Pérez is a lecturer in the School of Social Work and Human Services and Director of the Human Services Programme at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She is a member of the Te Awatea (Violence Research Centre) team. Maria teaches Sociology in the School of Social Work and Human Services and her research interests are reflected in her teaching: undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Qualitative Research and Evaluation Methods, the Policies and Politics of Sex/Sexuality, Welfare Policy: human services and systems, Sociology of Gender and Human Services, and Violence in Society. María continues to pursue her research around the social organisation of female sex work, and recently received a New Horizons for Women Trust Award to help fund her project “The Health and Safety of Female Adult Sex Workers Following the Prostitution Reform Act 2003: Human Service Response”.


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