2003 – Decriminalisation of Sex Work in New Zealand

thumbnail of NZPC website page on decriminalisation
The New Zealand Model

Implemented by a New Zealand Act of Parliament on 25 June, 2003, the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 resulted in the introduction of a legislative model decriminalising sex work. New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work. The Act, which was voted upon by the National Parliament, was passed on its 3rd Parliamentary reading. Of 120 politicians empowered to vote upon the Act, 60 voted for in support of it, 59 against it, and 1 abstained; hence, the Act was narrowly passed.

The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 was the result of a 1997 Women’s Forum, held in Wellington, out of which a working group undertook to draft a Parliamentary Bill with a specific focus on the decriminalisation of the sex industry. Participants included the New Zealand Prostitute’s Collective (NZPC), the New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women, the National Council of Women, the YMCA, and the AIDS Foundation. Individuals including academics, legal volunteers and several MPs, including the Associate Minister of Health, also participated.

Prior to the introduction of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, venue-based sex work was regulated by the Massage Parlours Act 1978, which tolerated brothels operating under the guise of ‘massage centers’. However, as the Massage Parlours Act identified massage centres as ‘public spaces’, laws against ‘soliciting’ in public were applied to sex workers operating from within massage centres. Subsequently, police often conducted raids on massage centres and sex workers were commonly entrapped by police engaging in undercover work, with the names of sex workers filed in a police register. In addition to criminalising sex workers operating from massage centre venues, the Massage Parlours Act 1978 similarly criminalised the owners and operators of massage centres for ‘living off the earnings of prostitution’. Additionally, managing a massage centre and/ or advertising for sexual services was illegal under the Massages Parlours Act.

With the implementation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003, a regulatory framework for the sex industry effectively decriminalised brothels, escort services and private services. In decriminalising sex work, the Act largely removed sex work from criminal legal frameworks and recognised sex work as a legitimate occupation, subject to industrial regulations. However, under the Act it is illegal for migrant sex workers, including those on temporary visas or those migrating to New Zealand with the intention of engaging in sex work to work in the industry. Venue-based or escorting sex workers have the right to engage in a workplace contract system and to have contested contracts referred to the Disputes Tribunal. Similarly, employment disputes can be referred to the Labour Inspectorate and Mediation Service for resolution.

( See also: NZPC’s  webpage explaining the The New Zealand Model, and 31min video. )