NZ prostitutes better off

Reseacher surveys Wellington sex workers

MATT STEWART
Last updated 05:00 10/05/2012
Staci Ryan
CHRIS SKELTON/Fairfax NZ
SERIOUS BUSINESS: Scottish researcher Staci Ryan is in Wellington doing a PhD comparative study of sex workers in New Zealand and Scotland.

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New Zealand prostitutes working within the law fare better than their legally hamstrung Scottish counterparts, a study comparing sex workers in New Zealand and Scotland has found.

University of Glasgow School of Social and Political Sciences PhD student Staci Ryan is in the capital for four months carrying out research with up to 15 private, street and parlour-based female sex workers in the Wellington area.

Ms Ryan, 24, is focusing on sex workers in Wellington and Edinburgh, with secondary research from Auckland and Glasgow, to find out if almost a decade of decriminalisation has benefited New Zealand's sex workers – and it appears it had, she said.

"Scotland really needs to engage with other models of sex work ... although they're two completely different countries we are similar in so many ways and I think that the New Zealand model of decriminalisation is one that should be taken seriously by the Scottish government."

Debate over sex laws is raging in Scotland, which is looking at legislation in Sweden, where the client is criminalised. However, evidence suggests the Swedish model pushes sex work underground, often exposing prostitutes to violence and exploitation.

Ms Ryan's thesis asks whether the New Zealand's Prostitution Reform Act – which created some of the most liberal prostitution laws in the world and has continued to attract global attention since it was passed in 2003 – has changed sex workers' perceptions and access to justice.

When she returns home she will compare the research to Scottish law, under which commercial sex is partly criminalised. She said the Scottish system was "paradoxical" because prostitution itself was not illegal, but "almost every conceivable way of organising the transaction carries a criminal penalty".

Legal sanctions hit vulnerable, highly visible street workers the hardest, she said.

Her research so far had found legalisation had given New Zealand sex workers health and safety rights as well as a sense of legitimacy and respectability in their work. Operating within the law also made negotiation with clients easier, allowing prostitutes to refuse jobs without repercussion from their managers.

Rapport between police and sex workers in New Zealand was also more positive than in Scotland, where relations between prostitutes and police were often strained.

The study's findings will be released next year.

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