How the business of sex work has changed

by Caren Wilton / 01 November, 2018
Monica's ad in the NZ Herald just after the law was passed.

Monica's ran this ad in the New Zealand Herald just days after the law change in 2003. Photo / Getty Images

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It's been 15 years since the Prostitution Reform Act was passed, decriminalising the "oldest profession" and making New Zealand among the most liberal countries in the world in how it treats those working in the industry. But it didn't come easy. A new book, 'My Body, My Business: New Zealand Sex Workers in an Era of Change' focuses on what the reform meant for sex workers and the role the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective played in pushing for an overhaul of the law. The following is an extract from an interview with Dame Catherine Healy, founding member of the Collective, describing how she felt watching the Act pass into law at Parliament.

'They just couldn’t comprehend that they could talk freely'

The act – it was an evening, it was winter, June the 25th. 2003. We had people from the collective who’d come from around the country, and supporters as well, and we went into parliament. It was absolutely jam-packed. We’d been involved in media throughout the day, and had been stopped on the steps of parliament and so on, going up. So it had that momentum, that wonderful sort of build-up. I was terrified, of course. A lot depended on it. I had my partner come as well – it was a momentous night. He came with my step-grandson, and he wasn’t allowed to sit with me because he didn’t have a tie on – I didn’t realise that was the rule.

All these impassioned debates went down, and different politicians spoke from the heart. Georgina Beyer spoke very strongly about having been a sex worker and how when she was raped, she had to sort it out herself although she wanted to go to the police, and that there should have been no barriers to her being able to do that. So that was a very powerful speech. Winnie Laban spoke about her constituents being religious. She had changed her point of view, because she recognised different things that sex workers needed – human rights and so on.

So, yeah, it was really electric. And then they had this cry, you know, ‘Unlock the doors, unlock the doors!’ The politicians had to file out, whichever way they were voting. It was really funny looking down and thinking, god, which way, which door are they going to go through, is it the ayes or the noes? And some played around and joked and talked and laughed. We were sitting there thinking, hurry up, decide.

The moment when it was called, we just leapt up and cheered, and it was fantastic. It was just fantastic, it was a fantastic rush. It was so close. One abstention. Fifty-nine against, 60 for. Right down to the wire.

Dame Catherine Healy. Photo / supplied

I had no preparation in my brain for a loss at all. It had to go through. I had not prepared myself for a loss at all. I just hadn’t allowed that kind of thinking.

So we went off and the media was all lined up in this big room. It was pretty busy, and I couldn’t have a celebratory drink either, I had to stay sober and drive home. Then I had to get up at six in the morning. They came out to my home and interviewed me. And of course the sex workers and everyone had a wonderful time, and I had to pull away from that because I knew I had this round of interviews and couldn’t celebrate to the full. But we went over to Bar Bodega – very nice, very lovely. And you had that kind of nice feeling, horns were tooting, stuff like that. I mean, it was a momentous thing for us. Fantastic.

And the next day I did that interview, and came in to work at our community base, and people poured through, just kept coming through, and flowers and balloons and sex workers. The woman on our 1989 poster came in, I hadn’t seen her for ages, with a helium balloon. So it was just so lovely, and a reporter was sitting there from the Dom [Dominion] Post. People were buzzing.

It was weird, too, because after that we had to change our language. You know, the whole complaint tone. It was a weird vacuum. I was very curious for the sex workers working through that change. They really couldn’t believe that they could relax and say anything they liked. There was a brothel – and even just being able to say you’re a brothel was different – on Victoria Street, CJ’s. They rang, and they just couldn’t comprehend that they could talk freely, because they’d lived through police arrests and so on.

We had a sex worker who was up on a soliciting charge and had to go back to court. So here she was on one side of that law with a soliciting charge, and had to go back to court after the law was repealed and have it acknowledged by the judge that there was now no longer any case. So that was thrown out.

The minute the law changed, then other changes happened too. I’d imagined there would be a settling-in period, and things would relax. That didn’t happen at all. We had to continue to defend the law, to talk about its attributes, to explain errors. We went into a very intense time with city councils. The lobbying groups moved their attention away from the MPs and started to lobby the city councils and say, now you’re charged with the zoning of brothels. What are you going to do? And so city councils started to draft bylaws, and we had to lobby again, on a different kind of level, with councils. Some councils came through with terrible bylaws that really recriminalised everyone again, effectively.

My BODY, my business. Otago University Press, $45.

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