Overview of sex work and the law
“Legalisation” versus “decriminalisation” of sex work
In the sex work industry, the word “legalisation” is used to mean an approach where sex workers are required to follow a complicated set of laws and regulations specially for sex work.
By contrast, “decriminalisation”, which is what we have in New Zealand, is a better approach where laws making sex work a crime have been removed, and no special regulations have been put in place.
Sex workers around the world generally advocate for decriminalisation. “Legalisation” can be thought of as only part-way to decriminalisation, because if you don’t follow all the special rules and regulations, you’ll be breaking the criminal law and can be charged.
Is sex work against the law?
Sex work is not against the law in New Zealand. There are some restrictions to who can do sex work – for example, you need to be over 18, and you can’t be on a temporary visa.
Who is a “sex worker”?
Under the law, a sex worker is someone who exchanges physical sex for payment. The payment doesn’t need to be money – it could be something else that’s valuable, like a gift or a favour.
The payment may go directly to you, or it may go to your boss or someone else, with you getting a cut.
Phone sex and stripping don’t count as sex work under New Zealand law, but if you do those things and also exchange physical sex for payment, your work will fit the definition of sex work when you’re doing the physical sex parts of the job.
Sugar dating that includes physical sex counts as sex work.
Does a sex worker have the right to refuse sex?
Every person has the right to refuse consent to sex, at any time.
You can take back your consent at any time, even if you’re already having sex with someone. You can refuse or take back consent even if a client has already paid.
If the client has already paid and you then refuse to have sex, they might have the legal right to ask for their money back – but they can’t force you to have sex because they’ve paid.
What are my rights if a client is rougher than we agreed?
You can put any kinds of limits you want on your consent, like agreeing to a specific kind of sex but not to other kinds. If a client does something else that you haven’t agreed to, that’s sexual assault and the client can be arrested and prosecuted.
The law says that anyone involved in sex work – both the sex worker and the client – must follow safer sex practices, like using condoms and dental dams.
Operators also have a responsibility to make sure their workers and clients are practising safer sex.
Anyone doing sex work without practising safer sex can be prosecuted and fined. It has most often been clients who have been prosecuted so far under this law.
New Zealand’s health and safety laws also require operators to make sure everyone in the workplace is safe.
New Zealand’s health and safety laws also require operators to make sure everyone in the workplace is safe (see: “Your wellbeing at work”).