Full Decriminalization in New Zealand

he author of the piece below is Sabrinna Valisce. She was in prostitution and other areas of the Sex Trade in New Zealand under its old system of Prohibition and later under Full Decriminalization. She volunteered with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective for over two decades and actively campaigned for Full Decriminalization, completely trusting the theory that decriminalization would provide prostituted people with rights, dignity and greater options. Prostitution was fully decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003; a legislative shift which decriminalised all aspects of prostitution, including pimping and brothel keeping.

After seeing marked declines in the very areas she’d campaigned to improve, Sabrinna hoped to fix these flaws while maintaining the decriminalized system, until she finally had to admit that Full Decriminalization was a failed model. She saw the successful outcomes from countries that had taken on the Abolitionist (Nordic) Model, and now campaigns to expose the truth about Full Decriminalisation, with the hope of seeing governments worldwide adopt The Abolitionist Model as their own.

Prior to 2003 New Zealand was under partial prohibition. Brothel keeping was illegal as was solicitation, offering sex for money. The demand remained legal, so a man could offer money for sex. This meant that women in prostitution played a word game with punters to avoid breaking solicitation laws such as, ‘My last friend offered me $100 which was so kind. I accepted gratefully.’ Most men would try to offer much less and thus, the word game continued in coded language that declined the disrespectful financial offer without overtly entering negotiation. These conversations were fraught with difficulty for women in the sex trade and didn’t always protect from arrest. The mere act of having condoms in ones purse could land charges of soliciting. At this time brothels were called massage parlours, sauna’s and gentleman’s clubs. Men paid the front desk for a massage and time in the room with a ‘lady’ of their choice with full payment going to the brothel. Girls had to make their own money. A ‘straight’ meant the man only wanted a massage without extras. This meant the girl worked for free giving a one hour nude massage. Should the massage parlour be raided, her punter would be asked to dress and leave while she would be dragged naked out of the room, no dignity afforded. Prohibition was horrible in New Zealand and the women in it were vulnerable at every level.

In 2003 the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) was passed. It had never been done before and rested upon speculation. Very well-intentioned people tried to imagine how each section of the legislation may look in reality. Many things went wrong. The promise of greater autonomy and agency existed in ideology alone.

Massage parlours and sauna’s were renamed brothels and gentleman’s clubs under the new legislation. Massage parlours had charged a shift fee, of $5 to $10, payable at the start of every shift. The new brothels began to charge like a wounded bull. Shift fees increased across the board to $20 and new fees and fines were introduced that increased over the following fifteen years. Suddenly brothels were charging girls to use the towels, for advertising, for a driver to take them to an ‘outcall’, appearance infraction fees, fines for being late to shift or late into or out of a room and for leaving a room ‘messy’. New Zealand has two terms to describe jobs inside and outside of brothels. When the punter comes to the brothel it is called an incall. Went he orders up a woman to his home, workplace, hotel or motel it is called an outcall. Incall’s got the towel fee and outcalls got the drivers fee. Every ‘job’ costs the women in brothels.

‘All inclusive’ is the NZ term for what Germany calls Flat Rate. All Inclusives were rolled out across every NZ brothel. Women had no choice but to accept these conditions because no other options existed within the so-called ‘safe indoor zone’. Business owners, henceforth to be called ‘bizpimps’, controlled prices and terminology. Prostituted women were not consulted. Where once it was possible for a woman to only offer hand-relief and/or oral with a condom, under All Inclusives women were forced to offer full sex. What constituted ‘All Inclusive’ was also up for debate. Receptionists described it as ‘the basics’, punters expected it to be whatever they wanted no matter how invasive and for the girls it meant an argument, managing expectations and trying to find ways to make ‘No’ sound sexy. A disgruntled punter who expected his every wish to be fulfilled could punish ‘his girl’ by refusing to leave the room when his time was up, costing her $1 per/minute in late fees. Girls would sometimes help each other by dragging the man out of the room because in these ‘safe’ indoor spaces no security exists. He could also mess up the room causing her another fine for leaving it messy. Punters used the system of bizpimp fines to try and force girls to be compliant with unreasonable demands. Full decriminalization emboldened them to demand more for less money while over empowering the bizpimps. The vulnerability of the women working in these places worsened. Financial abuse that had once centred around free nude massages now came in the form of fulfilling All-Inclusive’s, having 50% taken by the bizpimp plus shift fee, towel fee, advertising and being vulnerable to further fines. It was not uncommon for the first ‘job’ of the night to be completely taken in ‘expenses’.

It is standard practice for brothels to offer outcalls. Men ring and order a woman like they order in Chinese food. They order by age, newness, height, weight, hair colour and what she’s prepared to do. The receptionist takes the booking and arranges the payment over the phone. The girl is never consulted. The price is never within her control. She is not given the address of where she will be sent. The driver is given that information. She cannot negotiate with the driver how much she will pay him. It is decided by the bizpimp and executed by the receptionist. The driver drops her off on the side of the road and speeds off to the next pick-up or drop-off. She never knows if this ‘job’ will be safe. I was sent to a 24 hr Corner Store where the job took place in the storage room. Another job was to a Bank on the floor of a corner where security cameras didn’t reach. Another job was to a party of over 30 people where I was to see one punter in the crowd. I was sent alone. The minimum timeframe of an outcall is one hour if close by and two hours if far away. The driver would return when the job was finished to pick the girl up. If she wasn’t waiting outside, alone on the street he would contact the receptionist who would ring the landline. When mobile phones became common this changed and most places now expect the girl to use her private mobile for ‘work’. On occasion when a girl was traumatised, I heard drivers complaining that security isn’t their job and they’re not paid enough to risk violence by entering unknown premises. Well, who is? According to the bizpimps, it is the prostituted woman’s responsibility to ‘stay safe’.

Even incalls do not offer the safety imagined by the proponents of full decriminalization. New Zealand brothels don’t hire security guards. If girls were offered full security, could they even afford it? It would, after all be their cost. Many NZ brothels have music at night club levels. Some are far smaller and music is playing more softly. Long corridors of rooms, all with locked doors means that women are offered no protection and yelling for help depends on someone hearing it. How is this any safer than escorting, outcalls or even the streets? ‘Jobs can be as quick as 20 minutes or as long as an ‘all-nighter’. Even 20 minutes is enough time for a woman to raped, physically threatened, and harmed. When this happens it is not uncommon for the receptionist to ask what she did to anger the ‘client’. Sometimes everyone will sit around and talk about what an arsehole he is and console her before the next ‘job’. Sometimes she’ll be outright told to, ‘pull your shit together and get back out on the floor’. The ‘floor’ refers to the ‘Client Lounge’.

No matter the violence experienced and problems reported to reception, the police will not be rung. It’s bad for business. I have also never seen a punter be thrown out, refused service by the brothel or banned from returning. I’ve seen them pass out drunk, throw things, hit the girls, refuse to leave the room, yell at girls, yell at the receptionist, piss on the floor, piss on the girls in the lounge room, swear, name-call and berate. I have never once seen this behaviour result in consequences. Proponents of full decriminalization say the police become the allies of women in prostitution because women can now report, crime however this is a ridiculous assertion. Women who are not in prostitution rarely report sexual crimes committed against them. Women in prostitution do so even less. When punting is legal the police cannot automatically arrest the punter as they could do under the Nordic Model. They must have cause for arrest, requiring statements and witnesses to a crime, of which punting does not count. For the private escort this is unlikely. For the street worker this is too risky. For the brothel worker this is blocked by the brothel system itself. In the fifteen years since the PRA police reports have not increased. This comes as no surprise to those of us who currently or previously worked in New Zealand’s sex trade.

It is important to understand what a pimp is in NZ. By law this crime ceases to exist. Brothel owners, escort agency owners, agents, sex trade advertising platforms and other third party profiteers are all legal entrepreneurial businessmen. When a story comes out of a gang prostituting women, provided they are paying taxes this is fully legal.

Proponents of full decriminalization like to pretend that women get to experience greater autonomy and agency but nothing could be further from the truth. With brothels deciding income they set the prices for the whole trade. Private and street workers must now compete. Bizpimps also decide shift start and finish times, how many shifts per/week, and how many women will be in competition each night. Shifts can be up to 17 hours long, though are usually 10-12. Street and private workers must offer longer and more inconvenient hours to make an income.

Brothels set dress standards so a woman doesn’t even have agency over how she will present. Some have mandatory skimpy evening dresses or lingerie as their dress code. All expect huge high heels often referred to as stripper heels or ankle breakers. Many have strict codes on makeup, hair, fingernails, toenails, and expectations of full waxing or lasering. Strict dress codes allow for more appearance infractions fines. I once got fined for having curly hair. I got more work when I did my hair that way. Every other night I wasn’t fined. It is not uncommon for receptionists to dish out fines on quiet nights to boost profits. One or two girls may advertise a ‘70’s bush’ but then they risk being sent on a job to be shaved. This means letting a punter at one’s genitals with a razor. Despite the obvious danger in such a job, it is commonly requested and no brothel refuses for safety reasons. All of these primping and preening expenses are high priority to avoid being fined. All other women in prostitution must take on these burdens in New Zealand’s highly competitive flesh market or lower their prices to compete.

Girls are a dime a dozen, so she now must have an angle. What does she do that the others don’t? What’s her ‘specialty’? Women will be asked a long list of questions about what sex acts they will perform. Most will begin by offering hand, oral and vaginal sex but when their status as new wears off they’ll be asked if they ‘want’ to try other things. With less money coming in the likelihood of agreeing to more and varied sex acts increases. This is how boundaries are pushed and broken. Private and street workers are not spared boundary breaking. Punters will ask for what they want and a ‘no’ will result in no work. It’s a buyers’ market and Full Decriminalization ensured it always would be.

Part of this so-called autonomy is meant to come via legal entitlements. Overseas proponents claim New Zealand women are receiving superannuation, sick pay, holiday pay, medical, dental, pension and a union. Absolutely none of this is true. Prostituted people operate as Independent Contractor. Brothels contradict the legal definition of this. Independent contractors are meant to set their own prices, work for multiple companies and individuals, set their own days and hours, choose their own work attire within occupational health and safety guidelines, decide what services they do and don’t offer, invest or risk their own money as they choose, decide their own advertising, choose their own working conditions and charge goods and services tax (GST). None of this is happening. The only part of the Independent Contractor description abided by is the responsibility of tax falling on the woman. As her own employer she must pay her own Superannuation (Kiwisaver). If she’s sick or takes a holiday she loses income. All medical and dental bills are her responsibility. In short she receives none of the freedoms of being an independent contractor but retains all of the responsibilities and costs. The closest thing to a union is an organisation called the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective that does not have membership and will not take sides in disputes between a girl and her bizpimp. In other words, there is no union. The bizpimps make all the demands of an employer yet have none of the responsibilities.

Proponents of Full Decriminalization refer to increased government profits from taxation, yet this too, is a myth. Legislation makes no difference to taxation because income is self-declared, as is job title. Most women will use the title ‘Private Entertainer’. Even under the previously existing prohibition this could be used to pay tax. To fully participate in society women must have a paper trail of taxable income. Without such one cannot rent an apartment, have bills in one’s name or hire-purchase items such as a car. For women with children who are experiencing family court a paper trail is essential to keep one’s children. Women pay tax irrespective of the legal framework regarding prostitution.

It is a myth that the physical acts are safe due to mandatory use of barriers such as condoms and dental dams. One of the most common questions from punters is, ‘Will you do it without a condom?’ That is illegal and there has never been a single arrest for this request. Men offer more money for unprotected sex. It is common to see herpes or warts on a punter and to refuse full sex only to have the punter complain to reception and demand their money back. Punters don’t care about the health of prostituted people and no one is policing this. I have done doubles and groups and have seen unsafe sex acts. This began after the PRA due to competition and financial desperation. Women are doing full sex without a condom, oral sex with swallowing and allowing punters to do cunnilingus without dental dams. Unlike other Countries where women are being forced to do twenty and thirty punters a night, in NZ the girls are competing at extreme levels to get any work at all. They will accept $380 for an all-nighter out of fear of being in the red from fees and fines. To contextualise NZ$350 is one week’s rent in a shared home. Shifts can have 25 girls packed into a lounge with only ten rooms available. When punters ask, ‘Are you here for the sex or the money?’ everyone will automatically answer ‘the sex’ in as naughty a way as possible because they are desperate for the money. New Zealand boasts there has never been a case of HIV infection via the sex trade. Women use family planning for testing never mentioning prostitution if they are worried about the results. If anyone has contracted HIV there is no way they’d be telling anyone. The result would be having one’s name smeared up and down the country in every publication on and offline as ‘that dirty whore’. The best that can be said is no one has outed themselves as HIV+ as a direct result of being in prostitution.

Large brothels must be registered, including who owns and who manages them. Small Owner Operated Brothels (SOOBs) have no registration required. There is no register for individuals working in prostitution. SOOBs consist of up to 4 individuals working for themselves on shared premises. These are never added into the New Zealand statistics for number of brothels because no one knows how many exist. When New Zealand reports no increase in the sex trade what it really means is the number of large brothels has not increased. The number working within these brothels are not accounted for and the number in SOOBs, working privately or engaged in street prostitution cannot be known. Personally, I am not a proponent for registering individuals in prostitution. Most women do not want to be registered as being in prostitution, so a registration system has the effect of forcing women into the illegal sector and leaves them vulnerable to being publicly outed, decreasing their chances of entering mainstream employment. Registration is a catch 22.

SOOBs, private and street workers are meant to have greater autonomy than brothel workers while simultaneously NZ’s media attempts to pose brothels as the ‘safe’ option. No matter where a woman finds herself she is dealing with emboldened punters pushing for more sex acts at a lower cost and competing with pimps who are lowering rates and standards.

Women in the sex trade may have trouble accessing unemployment benefits during times of decreased trade. With the media’s portrayal of the prostituted woman living a champagne lifestyle, few desk jockeys believe she is financially struggling if she is honest about her situation. Women in this difficult position may have to lie to government officials. If she says she has part time work as a Private Entertainer then she will need to describe what this private entertainment entails so it can be put on her job sheet. For women with skills in singing, burlesque or circus acts this is very easy but for women without such skills they must forego the safety net of unemployment benefits or risk being caught making illegally earned money while receiving the dole. Full decriminalization has done nothing to help women in poverty.

The PRA began with the intention of providing rights and access to resources. It has been a dismal failure. The one and only thing it ever got right was ceasing to criminalize people in prostitution. The Nordic Model does this and far more. It criminalizes third party profiteers and punters and recognizes the multiple factors of vulnerability prostituted people face and offers client led services. Full decriminalization has failed the people in prostitution by framing it as a job like any other. No services exist to help identify barriers to mainstream employment and work toward overcoming them. There are no services to help a person exit retail, accounting or hospitality so ‘a job like any other’ fails to recognize the unique experience of sexual exploitation, reframing it as normal and acceptable. The public perception of prostitution in NZ very quickly shifted. In a mere 15 years men have gone from sneaking in the back door of a massage parlour to having stag parties in brothels, advertising their brothel event on facebook and even paying to rent a woman for their sons eighteenth birthdays. The propaganda within NZ means the average Kiwi is under the impression they have the safest and fairest sex trade in the world, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary. Even those in it only know that it’s better than being a criminal. They don’t realise that they could be experiencing full independence and free services to help with the problems they currently face, alone and unaided.

There is only one official voice in New Zealand’s sex trade and it is the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC). Paid and voluntary staff must have worked in the sex trade at some point in their lives but there is no requirement for it to have been recent or during the change from prohibition to full decriminalization, or any minimum length of time, nor a wide variety of situations within the trade. They are part of the Red Umbrella network which includes the interests of third party profiteers. They are given the first and final word on all things prostitution related in media and at a governmental advisory level.

Currently NZPC is trying to get Section 19 of the PRA 2003 removed which will effectively fully decriminalize international sex trafficking into New Zealand. While they are right that the current legislation has serious problems that do require fixing, their ‘solution’ is to favour third party exploitative profiteers at the expense of vulnerable women. Currently when internationals are discovered they are charged under this section of the PRA in violation of Immigration New Zealand (INZ) as ‘Illegal Sex Workers’. They are then deported. Section 19 doesn’t recognize sex trafficking nor offer safety for trafficking victims. The solution I would suggest is safe, secure housing away from traffickers, translation services and English speaking lessons where required, a full unemployment benefit plus money for set up costs, clothing, medical expenses and the ability to contact family, trauma informed services, training into mainstream employment and the option to return home or apply for NZ citizenship. I believe we should always come from a genuine space of caring wherever a situation of exploitation has occurred.

Having to fight against the full decriminalization of trafficking should serve as a grave warning for other countries. At the mere stroke of a pen we may see the first country in the world to legitimise, encourage and support sex slavery. Section 19:


19 Application of Immigration Act 2009

(1) No visa may be granted under the Immigration Act 2009 to a person on the basis that the person—
(a) has provided, or intends to provide, commercial sexual services; or
(b) has acted, or intends to act, as an operator of a business of prostitution; or
(c) has invested, or intends to invest, in a business of prostitution.

(2) It is a condition of every temporary entry class visa granted under the Immigration Act 2009 that the holder of the visa may not, while in New Zealand,—
(a) provide commercial sexual services; or
(b) act as an operator of a New Zealand business of prostitution; or
(c) invest in a New Zealand business of prostitution.

(3) It is sufficient reason for the Minister of Immigration or an immigration officer to determine that a temporary entry class visa holder is liable for deportation under section 157 of the Immigration Act 2009 if the Minister or the officer believes, on reasonable grounds, that the holder is engaged in any of the things listed in subsection (2)(a) to (c) of this section.

(4) Any conditions of a resident visa are deemed not to have been met and the resident is liable for deportation under section 159 of the Immigration Act 2009 if the Minister of Immigration or an immigration officer determines that the holder of a resident visa acts as an operator of, or invests in, a New Zealand business of prostitution.

(5) This section applies to all visas and permits held and all requirements and conditions imposed under the Immigration Act 1987 or the Immigration Act 2009, whether granted or imposed before or after the commencement of this section.

Section 19: substituted, at 2 am on 29 November 2010, by section 406(1) of the Immigration Act 2009 (2009 No 51).

The PRA gave punters and bizpimps ultimate power over prostituted women. Punters wants must be catered to or they’ll take their custom elsewhere while leaving trashy reviews. Bizpimps created human zoos of locked doors, long hours, painful shoes and near nudity on free display for any man with a wallet. They legally push boundaries and steal income while overfilling shifts and overworking girls, churning through them because there’s an endless supply. They do this with full legitimacy and call themselves entrepreneurs. The female bizpimps do all the interviews for media to cover the effect of increased male power over women. The overwhelming majority of punters and bizpimps are male while the overwhelming majority of the prostituted are female. It’s time to imagine a world without the exploitation of women in prostitution, with women having the same bodily integrity men currently enjoy.



Recent Updates