Long-time Sex Worker Becomes ‘Dame Companion’ in Queen’s Birthday Honours

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Catherine Healy, who helped decriminalise prostitution, honoured with an Order of Merit for services to the rights of sex workers

She was instrumental in bringing about a new law in 2003, which gave full employment rights to sex workers.

“I was startled when this was offered,” she told the BBC. “I’m in shock.”

“I think even a few weeks ago I wouldn’t have thought this was possible. It’s indicative of a shift in people’s attitudes and it’s lovely to feel supported.”

She says she was shocked at the lack of protections in place, especially after coming from the unionised profession of teaching.

“We were spoken about as young sex workers in a disrespectful way,” she said. “We needed to find our voice and we needed to be understood.”

In 1986, Healy helped found the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, an organisation that supports sex workers’ rights.

“Back then, I remember reading stories that spoke about us, but journalists never spoke to us. It was just so disrespectful.”

Now the landscape has changed. She helped develop a bill alongside politicians that would decriminalise the work and safeguard sex workers’ rights. Healy was in the public gallery in 2003, when the bill passed in parliament by a single vote.

“It’s different to think about it today where we are sitting around table as equals with the police and plotting how to make sex work safer and allowing workers to report sexual violence.”

Initially, it was HIV prevention that was a motivating reason behind forming the collective.

“As well as the feeling that we belong in society and we didn’t feel abnormal,” Healy said. “We didn’t want to be treated the way we were being treated.”

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