New Zealand Research Shows Decriminalisation Benefits Sex Workers

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Last week the British Journal of Criminology published an article by Lynzi Armstrong entitled “From Law Enforcement to Protection? Interactions Between Sex Workers and Police in a Decriminalized Street-Based Sex Industry”.

The research shows that since New Zealand decriminalised sex work in 2003:

  • Street-based sex workers feel more respected by the police, and there is less stigma and discrimination;
  • Police power over street-based sex workers was reduced, because the police can no longer threaten them with arrest;
  • Street-based sex workers are more likely to report violence to the police.

Lynzi Armstrong concludes her article by stating, “the findings of this paper indicate how decriminalizing sex work can benefit relationships between police and street-based sex workers. The New Zealand model of decriminalization, it can be argued, helps to address the power imbalance between police and sex workers in two specific ways. First, it reduces the power police have over sex workers by removing the threat of arrest. And second, it empowers sex workers through the provision of rights.” (p. 14)

Armstrong was interviewed by NSWP last week. She spoke about the importance of using qualitative research methods to prioritise the voices of sex workers in academia. “Using qualitative methods was really important for me,” she says. “The reason I did qualitative research was because, for me, it was a priority to understand how sex workers were experiencing decriminalisation in their own words.” A total of 34 in-depth interviews were conducted with 28 street-based sex workers. Other stakeholders were also interviewed, including four police officers. Excerpts from these interviews are used throughout her article.

This research was conducted with the support of the New Zealand Prostitute's Collective (NZPC), an NSWP member in the Asia Pacific region. According to Catherine Healy from NZPC, research like this is very important. “Lynzi’s research demonstrates that the impact of decriminalisation has been good for street-based sex workers,” she said. “Often, street based sex workers are the ‘forgotten ones’ – they are left out of policy discussions – and people speak on their behalf. This research validates their experiences in an important way,” she continued.

This research is globally significant because it shows how decriminalisation can benefit the sex workers who are often understood to be the most vulnerable. “Sometimes, street-based sex work is used to justify criminalisation because street-based sex workers supposedly ‘don’t know what’s best for them’. My research shows how decriminalisation can provide a context in which they have more power over their work, and more power in their interactions with the police,” concluded Lynzi Armstrong.