Catherine Healy is the Prostitutes Collective coordinator.
Wellingtonian: You've been in the news recently with Oxford Union debate. Were you conscious of the David Lange connection when you were over there?
Healy: Very much so. I was thinking: "David Lange stood right here." I felt very daunted and humbled to be debating at Oxford, to be in such an old establishment and in such a new debate [about decriminalising prostitution]. It was a unique experience and a good thing to have done.
Wellingtonian: And I understand you even made a remark with Lange connotations.
Healy: When he did his debate, his famous line was: "I can smell the uranium on your breath." During my debate, I remarked that our opponents imagined we had all quit our day jobs in New Zealand and were either sex workers, or clients with Viagra on our breath."
Wellingtonian: Who won the debate and did it matter?
Healy: We won and it was important we did. We argued for decriminalising prostitution, and won 127-90.
Wellingtonian: How long have you been involved with the Prostitutes Collective?
Healy: We founded it in 1987, and opened our headquarters in Cuba St the following year. We moved here [to Willis St] in 1994. We were almost like an underground society in 1987, because everything was illegal back then.
Wellingtonian: What sparked your involvement?
Healy: I was a primary school teacher, but became a receptionist at a massage parlour, trying to earn extra money to travel. It was eye-opening, and I could soon see the need for a prostitutes collective. I remember thinking: "Where is their NZEI [New Zealand Educational Institute]? HIV was on the horizon, the stockmarket crashed. It was not a good time. A group of us got together and thought we had better organise ourselves.
Wellingtonian: Were you a political person?
Healy: I was interested in political things, but I had not been politically active.
Wellingtonian: Is the collective a trade union?
Healy: Not specifically, though we advocate for sex workers, and provide health care and advice, so we do fulfil a lot of those functions.
Wellingtonian What is the collective's role?
Healy: We contract to the Ministry of Health. There is a strong focus on education on health issues for sex workers. We provide clinics for them, and are concerned about their rights.
Wellingtonian: What has been the collective's biggest achievement?
Healy: Without doubt, the law change in 2003 that decriminalised prostitution. It was a 16-year battle to achieve that.
Wellingtonian: Has that law change made much difference?
Healy: Enormous. There have been extensive studies done by the Christchurch School of Medicine, by Victoria University and by the Ministry of Justice and they reveal that sex workers feel they have more rights, and that they feel safer. There is no evidence that since decriminalisation the number of sex workers has shot up. There has definitely been more emphasis on health – the law change has raised awareness.
Wellingtonian: There are perceptions that prostitutes generally hate their jobs and that many have serious drugs problems. Is that so?
Healy: Those perceptions are not supported by research. They probably smoke more cigarettes and drink more coffee. But there's very little drugs use. We have some indication of that from a needle exchange programme we've run. Our inquiries tell us that sex workers generally enjoy their jobs. Aspects like flexibility of hours and camaraderie with workmates are important. It's not just the contact with clients.
Wellingtonian: How many sex workers are there in Wellington?
Healy: About 350 to 380.
Wellingtonian: Since the law change, what have some councils' attitudes been to prostitutes?
Healy: It varies. Some, such as Hamilton, Rodney and Upper Hutt, are very restrictive, to the point where it's doubtful that their attitude would be supported by law. They have made things tricky for sex workers, with, for example, bylaws against household brothels. Wellington City Council has been very sensible and progressive. They have a commonsense attitude.
Wellingtonian: Is the collective a target for scorn and abuse?
Healy: I'm not really aware [of that]. We have had very little mud-slinging, no abusive phone calls. When we started we thought we might get our kneecaps blown off, but that has not been the case.
Wellingtonian: Would you be happy if your daughter did a university degree and then announced she was going to be a prostitute?
Healy: I'd feel much happier now that it is decriminalised and safer, and that her name wouldn't end up on a police data base [of sex workers], which severely limited other work options for sex workers who wanted to quit.
Wellingtonian: What's the appeal of Wellington to you?
Healy: I live in Eastbourne, in the house I was brought up in, so I haven't gone far. But we always write our address as Wellington. I always think you can't beat Wellington on a bad day. I love watching the southerly roll up. You wouldn't get the landscape anywhere else, and the intimacy of the city is unbeatable.
- The Wellingtonian