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Catherine Healy – from New Zealand Brothel Prostitute to Honours List

by Beth Divine 24 Aug 2018

This week, sixty-two-year old Catherine Healy was named on the Queen’s Birthday Honours’ List, along with a fair number of other deserving people. However, for Catherine Healy, the award must be something of an affirmation, a sign that all her years of hard work, often in the face of public opprobrium.

Catherine started work as a teacher in the 80s, but found her income didn’t go quite as far as it should, so she took a second job as a receptionist at a massage parlour – one of those referred to with a wink and nod and that had a purely male clientele, unlike massage parlours today that tend to focus on the tension in your upper back and neck… She quickly transitioned from there into the actual sex work, presumably with a corresponding boost to her income.

Her early years in the sex industry were marred by the discovery that as sex workers, she and her contemporaries had very little in the way of protection – and, in fact, when she persuaded a fellow prostitute to report a rape, she and her friend were threatened with arrest: ‘You’re the one who has broken the law,’ the policeman said, ‘I could arrest you.’ Sadly, this attitude was widespread and sex workers had no rights under law, and no recourse to justice – and this angered Catherine enough that she took a stand. She was, in fact, arrested while working in a brothel at one point, so this year’s award must have an extra-special shine for Healy.

The New Zealand Prostitute’s Collective began with nine people packed into Healy’s small apartment, but quickly gained traction, seeing laws change to offer, first, advice on safe sexual practice and, ultimately, overseeing the decriminalisation of prostitution in New Zealand which immediately brought all sex workers within the safety net of legislation and lawful protection: in short, if a sex worker is raped today, she should be treated with the same care and concern, having the same rights and anonymities as any victim of sexual assault.

Healy is being recognised as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in recognition of her sex worker advocacy for her work, which, studies show, have already made immense changes in the sex-work industry. Workers have greater powers of negotiation, have an understanding of their rights and responsibilities, and are more protected from attack than in countries where sex work is still criminalised.