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Delivering decriminalisation of sex work. for the Desiree Alliance Conference, “Working sex: Power, Practice and Politics” Las Vegas Tim Barnett July 2010. Covering. The New Zealand story and results Relevance to the situation in the USA

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delivering decriminalisation of sex work

Delivering decriminalisation of sex work

for the Desiree Alliance Conference,

“Working sex: Power, Practice and Politics”

Las Vegas

Tim Barnett

July 2010

  • The New Zealand story and results
  • Relevance to the situation in the USA
  • 10 “must do’s” for a decriminalisation campaign to succeed
  • What next?
new zealand
New Zealand
  • Population 2/3 of the average state in the USA
  • 66% white (mainly UK origins),

17% Maori (indigenous population),

8% Asian, 5% Pacific Island

  • Women prominent in politics
  • Voting system means lots of parties in Parliament, and coalition government
  • No states – centralised government system
  • Much of the law originated in the UK
  • Sex industry comparable to many worldwide

...creating a situation in which consensual sexual contact in private between adults (aged 18 and over) is legal.

(and if the sex worker is under 18, it is the client who is breaking the law).

Great parallels with the old laws on people with disabilities and access to sexual relationships, on cross-racial marriage and current laws on same-sex relationships

and what then happened
....and what then happened.

Review Committee

  • Built into the law
  • Wide range of members including sex workers and brothel owners.
  • Reported in 2008, five years after the new law came in
  • Backed up by significant research
  • Key findings:


police-sex worker relationships

need for education

use of legal routes

NZ Immigration Service reported no cases of trafficking

time, time.......

See NZ Ministry of Justice website


....and the reality on the ground

  • Promotion of rights slow to happen
  • Gradually increasing and successful use of new laws by sex workers and clients (e.g. removal of condom during sex)
  • More complaints to police by sex workers
  • Clean slate law
  • Sex industry relationship with government transformed from police only to a wide range of agencies.
the new zealand usa comparison
The New Zealand-USA comparison


  • The key moral forces opposing sex work
  • Hypocrisy in government, media and public attitudes to sex work
  • Motivations for entering sex work
  • Concerns about police corruption
  • High prison populations; punitive public psyche
  • Gender and race dynamics around sex work
the comparison with the usa
The comparison with the USA


  • Political systems and voting systems
  • The scale of everything
  • USA stronger client voice
  • The deeply punitive approach to sex work, especially in Southern USA
  • Trafficking debate and lobby
  • The constitution

Making the links and learning the lessons – the ten key, transferable things which made the campaign for sex work decriminalisation succeed in New Zealand

1 sex worker led
1. Sex worker-led......


Resource, information, skills needs


Organisational arrangements

Focus on local, state and federal?

2 and involving many others
2. ...and involving many others
  • Key women’s organisations
  • Human rights groups
  • LGBT movement
  • Public health
  • Political and religious progressives progressives
  • Clients

(opposed by :

some feminists


many religious groups

anti-trafficking movement

some former sex workers


3 media alert
3. Media-alert
  • Young, women and/or African American journalists particularly good targets
  • Relationship-building crucial
  • Experiential approach always best
  • Sex workers need to tell their own stories
  • Pictorial images vital
  • Website to deal with Frequently Asked Questions
  • Key matters – e.g. trafficking, numbers – require strong and clear communication
4 equipped with high impact arguments and research
4. Equipped with high-impact arguments and research
  • Range of arguments to be moulded for the situation, including: justice

womens’ equality

police corruption

police discretion

police/court resources

public health, especially HIV


harmful law

unenforceable law

exposes trafficking

  • Vital to address opposing religious arguments
  • Evidence-based points particularly important
  • Handling opposition arguments crucial, especially religious, anti-trafficking, feminist, “Swedish model”
5 with political champions
5. With political champions

From more than one political party

With a real understanding of the issue

Protected from being accused of an “ulterior motive”

With a reason to be championing the law

Backed up by a database of the politicians who have the votes

6 strategic
6. Strategic

Focus on the spectrums of:


law-policy-programme, and campaigning-advocacy-lobbying

Stage-by-stage may be the only way

An initial inquiry could help; or a referendum

In some states legal challenges will be vital (right to privacy is crucial)

7 well timed and always ready to grab the moment
7. Well-timed, and always ready to grab the moment

Need to plan for the election cycle/s

Sex work decriminalisation is budget-neutral or even budget-positive – crucial point

An event (sorry to say, quite possibly a tragedy) may open up the moment for action. Need to be ready for that.

8 focussed on the target
8. Focussed on the target
  • The political target is straightforward - winning a majority of votes of the elected politicians (or the public if you take the referendum approach).
  • Don’t bring in other issues unless they are directly relevant and wont deter people who are otherwise supportive.
  • Run an ethical campaign – especially funding, and without a hint of blackmail.
  • Use the arguments which work for those you are targetting
9 with a bottom line
9. With a bottom line......
  • Compromises almost inevitable
  • Sex workers (and lawyers who understand sex work) are the best to judge the real effect of proposed laws
  • Political champions need to understand this – it is they rather then sex workers who are likely to be in the crucial political discussions
  • Beware of an apparently positive step along the way which has unforeseen consequences.
the ten listed together
The ten listed together....
  • Sex worker-led...and involving many others
  • Media-alert
  • Equipped with high-impact arguments and research
  • With political champions
  • Strategic
  • Well-timed, and always ready to grab the moment
  • Focussed on the target
  • With a bottom line...and ready for the long haul
which are in summary
Which are, in summary.....

The people

The justification, and

The plan

a usa sex worker advocacy movement needs
A USA sex worker advocacy movement needs -

Sex worker leadership and advocacy-focussed agencies

  • Skills training
  • Knowledge-building
  • Capacity building

Building the case

  • Locally relevant lobby products
  • Story telling – immensely powerful
  • Media nurturing

Creating the catalyst

  • Legal support and legal challenge
  • Law, policy, practice, programme reforms and initiatives
  • The case is strong
  • The cause is good
  • History is on our side
  • There really are lives at stake

and it can be done!