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‘I Can Lead the Life That I Want to Lead’: Social Harm, Human Needs and the Decriminalisation of Sex Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand

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journal contribution
posted on 24.06.2021, 02:33 by Lynzi ArmstrongLynzi Armstrong
Background: Sex work is commonly understood to be a risky occupation. Sex work law debates coalesce around the issue of harm, with differing perspectives regarding what constitutes harm, how harm is produced and what needs to change to mitigate it. While sex work is often portrayed as inherently harmful, sex workers and researchers have challenged this assumption, calling attention to the relationship between harm and policies in place. Criminalisation, in its many and varied forms, is thought to exacerbate harms that can occur in sex work, while decriminalisation is understood as creating conditions conducive to minimising harm. However, the decriminalisation of sex work remains rare, and more research which examines how decriminalisation works in relation to harms is critical. This paper uses the concept of social harm to unpack the implications of sex work policies and examine the experiences of sex workers in New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalised. Methods: Semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with 46 sex workers in New Zealand in 2018 and 2020 across two studies focused on examining experiences and perceptions of stigma and discrimination in this context. The interviews were thematically analysed using NVivo data analysis software. Results: The experiences of participants demonstrate how involvement in sex work had improved their lives in multiple ways. Participants described the importance of sex work in improving their quality of life by ensuring that they could better meet their everyday needs, the autonomy this afforded them and how decriminalisation helped to enable this. The validating impact of decriminalisation in acknowledging sex workers as people with rights is also evident in participant’s experiences. Conclusions: Social harm is a framework that can help illuminate socio-economic harms which influence pathways into sex work for some people and the compounding harms of criminalising regimes. The benefits of engaging in sex work are often overlooked in policy debates. Although sex work is not easy work, engaging in sex work can have positive impacts on the lives of people who pursue it. Full decriminalisation of sex work is the only responsible option for societies seeking to reduce harm.


Preferred citation

Armstrong, L. (2021). ‘I Can Lead the Life That I Want to Lead’: Social Harm, Human Needs and the Decriminalisation of Sex Work in Aotearoa/New Zealand. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 1-11.

Journal title

Sexuality Research and Social Policy




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