The Prostitution Reform Act decriminalised sex work and is the chief point of reference for New Zealand’s sex industry.

The Act was passed in 2003. It replaced laws criminalising sex workers and third parties:

The purpose of this Act is to decriminalise prostitution (while not endorsing or morally sanctioning prostitution or its use) and to create a framework that

  • A. Safeguards the human rights of sex workers and protects them from exploitation:
  • B. Promotes the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers:
  • C. Is conducive to public health:
  • D. Prohibits the use in prostitution of persons under 18 years of age:
  • E. Implements certain other related reforms.

The Prostitution Reform Act – At a glance

Sex workers in New Zealand can determine their work conditions

This means they can work for themselves, or with friends, from home or an apartment. Sex workers can also be street-based, or work in brothels which are operated by someone else.

Sex workers can meet their clients in a variety of settings, such as a brothel, private dwelling, or outdoors

There are Occupational Safety and Health guidelines which have been developed by OSH in consultation with NZPC, sex workers and brothel operators.

Sex workers have the absolute right to decline clients without providing a reason

In accordance with law, nobody – including brothel operators, receptionists, minders or clients – can force a sex worker to have sex with a client, even if the client has paid.

Brothels are allowed in many places, in accordance with local bylaws

A brothel is any premises habitually used for sex work. Some councils have not allowed brothels to operate in some areas, however they cannot ban brothels outright.  Some councils have made bylaws that affect the signage and location of brothels. Councils make rules about home based-occupation, which sometimes outlaw home-based sex work.

Brothels must display signs promoting safer sex practices

The Ministry of Health has published posters which spell out the requirements for safer sex practices. These are available from NZPC and are free.

All parties must take reasonable steps to practice safe sex

Everyone – including brothel operators, clients and sex workers – must take all reasonable steps to ensure safe sex is practised. It’s important to use condoms and/or dams for vaginal, oral and anal sex.

Operators’ certificates are required

An operator is a person who has any form of control over a sex worker and their work. This usually means someone who hires and fires, or who sets fees and other conditions. They must obtain a certificate from Auckland District Court, who issues them in strict confidence – Police cannot inspect their records. Up to four sex workers can work together, as equals, without requiring an operators’ certificate.

Immigration laws affect sex workers and operators

If you need a work visa to be employed in New Zealand, you cannot come to this country to be a sex worker or brothel operator. If you hold a temporary visa, or if your permanent residency carries a special condition, you can be deported if you get caught working.

NZPC supports all sex workers, whatever their immigration status

It is unlawful to assist anyone under the age of 18 in providing sexual services

If you are under the age of 18, you are not breaking the law if you are in sex work. However, it is illegal for anyone to pay anyone under the age of 18 for sex. Brothel operators, clients and even older sex workers older than 18 can be fined or imprisoned for facilitating people under the age of 18 into sex work.

Sex workers can access WINZ

If you are a sex worker who wishes to find other work, you can receive a benefit without any extra stand down being imposed for quitting your job. The state is not allowed to tell you to continue working as a sex worker, nor can it stop you.

Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee

In 2008, the The Prostitution Law Review Committee concluded that decriminalisation has improved the occupational health and safety of sex workers:

The Prostitution Reform Act has had a marked effect in safeguarding the rights of sex workers to refuse particular clients and practices, chiefly by empowering sex workers by removing the illegality of their work.

The Prostitution Law Review Committee’s report can be read on the Ministry of Justice website.

Challenges to the New Zealand Model

Opposition to decriminalisation comes from fundamentalist groups and some feminists. Sex workers and our allies in civil society must often restate the case to uphold our rights. In 2013, the faith-based organisation, Freedom from Sexual Exploitation, submitted a petition to parliament, lobbying for New Zealand to adopt “the Swedish Model” which criminalizes the clients of sex workers. The Justice Committee rejected their petition, commenting:

We appreciate the petitioner’s concerns about street prostitution. However, we are aware that the eradication of street-based prostitution has not proved to be achievable in any jurisdiction, and simply banning it may have negative consequences for the health and safety of sex workers. We support the Prostitution Law Review Committee’s conclusion that local approaches are likely to be most effective in dealing with street prostitution