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Principal Investigators

  • Gillian Abel
  • Lisa Fitzgerald
  • Cheryl Brunton

Supported by the Health Research Council


The health of sex workers is an important public health issue. However, most epidemiological studies have tended to concentrate on HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) despite mounting evidence that in the western world, HIV/AIDS prevalence is low among sex workers, with infections occurring almost exclusively among sex workers who are also injecting drug users (Potterat, Brewer et al. 2004). This, as well as research done by the applicants (Plumridge and Abel 2001), demonstrates that sex workers are not a homogenous group, and understandings and experiences of sexual and personal safety differ across the industry. The focus on HIV/AIDS and STIs lacks contextual specificities and obscures other dimensions of the everyday lives of sex workers. Other health issues such as occupational health and safety and sex worker perceptions of their health needs and their ability to access health services also need to be addressed. Decriminalisation of sex work is viewed as a harm minimisation strategy, yet there is little research to support this as currently, there are only two countries who have legislated to decriminalise sex work: the Netherlands and New Zealand, as well as two states in Australia.

The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 (PRA) was passed in New Zealand in June 2003 with the purpose of decriminalising prostitution and providing a framework to improve the health and safety of sex workers in their workplace and to promote safer sex practices. A Review Committee, which has been established under the Ministry of Justice, will report on the implications of the PRA in three to five years. A comprehensive review would require an assessment of whether or not the intentions of the PRA have been met in terms of fulfilling the health and safety objectives.

This study aims to explore the health and safety practices of sex workers following the enactment of the PRA and to assess whether these practices have changed from those in use before the PRA. The study will explore sex workers' understanding of the PRA and official information, the implications of the PRA, and other contextual questions which need to be addressed following the implementation of the PRA. A key output will be the production of an evidence-based report, which can inform the review process.

The study will take a multi-methods approach over three phases. The first phase will provide a contextual background to the study. Documents such as the PRA and local authority bylaws will be examined and interviews and focus group discussions will be carried out with key informants, who will include New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) staff, volunteers and outreach workers, Occupational Safety and Health staff, Medical Officers of Health and district council regulatory officers. These interviews will inform the content of a survey to be carried out in phase two. Questionnaires will be administered to sex workers in the Christchurch, Wellington, Nelson and Hawkes Bay areas. A survey was previously carried out amongst Christchurch sex workers in 1999 by members of the research team. This will allow comparisons to be drawn between pre- and post-PRA health and safety practices. Phase three will involve in-depth interviews with 40 sex workers in the survey regions, which will provide context for the issues explored in the survey.

The data will provide valuable information for the review process and, written up and presented in international forums, could provide helpful insights for other countries who are in the process of developing similar legislation.

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