‘Sex workers are as much entitled to protection from sexual harassment as those working in other occupations.” So said a recent ruling by New Zealand’s Human Rights Tribunal, which awarded a sex worker sizable damages for sexual harassment by a brothel owner.
A progressive decision that upholds sex workers’ rights in this manner is only conceivable in jurisdictions such as New Zealand, where sex work was decriminalized 10 years ago when the Prostitution Reform Act came into operation.
In Canada, we’ve been sold a false dilemma that presents only the possibility of a “Nordic” or “Swedish” regime or, alternatively, “Dutch” approach that regulates prostitution in our country. Since the Supreme Court struck down criminal laws prohibiting communication in public for the purpose of prostitution, living off the avails of prostitution and keeping a common bawdy house, the Nordic regime appears to be the approach the federal government is favouring. But Canadian sex workers, those who have the biggest stake in this discussion, know that New Zealand’s model for sex work merits much closer consideration.
The New Zealand Model
Prior to the Prostitution Reform Act, New Zealand’s prostitution laws were very similar to ours. Prostitution itself was not criminalized, but virtually all activities associated with it were, such as soliciting in public, living on the avails, operating a brothel and procuring. Adopted to safeguard sex workers’ human rights, the 2003 law changed everything. Sex workers in New Zealand are now covered by labour laws to promote their welfare and occupational health and safety, and refusal to work as a sex worker does not affect entitlements to unemployment insurance. Proponents of public health recognize that these laws enable frank displays of safer sex information in sex-work venues. Indeed, studies show high levels of condom use and a very low rate of HIV among New Zealand’s sex workers.
In the decade since its passage, the Prostitution Reform Act has not resulted in any growth of the sex industry or increase in number of sex workers, nor has the sky fallen.