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New Zealand former sex worker becomes a dame in Queen's birthday honours

Category: Gender in the world 

When New Zealand police arrested Catherine Healy after raiding the Wellington brothel she worked in during the 1980s, it was impossible to imagine that one day she would be recognised by the Queen for her services to the industry.

“It could have never happened in our minds,” Healy told the Guardian. “It couldn’t have happened in my mind even a couple of weeks ago.”

For years she and her fellow sex workers fought stigma while campaigning for greater rights and recognition.

On Monday, Healy was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the rights of sex workers.

“I was very daunted and found it very hard to believe,” she said. “You look around and there are many people I admire and you kind of figure out where you fit in society. I did not ever think this was a possibility.”

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.”

While she said New Zealand is a more progressive country than many it has still been a challenge to overcome the connotations associated with the industry. Healy hopes that the moves to legitimise sex work will one day be seen in the pantheon of other socially innovative movements in the country, such as being the first nation to give women the vote in 1893 and making the country nuclear free in 1984.

“Here we like to have had open and honest conversations with people from different ideological views.”

Former prime minister Bill English was also honoured on the Queen’s Birthday list, receiving a knighthood for his services to the state over a 27-year political career.


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