“Stop calling her a sex worker!” Decriminalisation, stigma and discourses of respectability

L. Armstrong

Victoria University of Wellington, Lynzi.armstrong@vuw.ac.nz

Throughout history, the sale and purchase of sex has been subject to myths and stereotypes, and the stigma attached to sex work has endured into the contemporary context. Stigma is considered to be linked to the widespread criminalisation of sex workers, with those who sell sex constructed as posing a risk to moral order, safety, and public health. The stigma attached to sex work has wide-ranging negative impacts for sex workers, and is thought to enhance their vulnerability to being targeted with violence through a ‘discourse of disposability’ (Lowman, 2000). In 2003, New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work. Research conducted in the years following decriminalisation has highlighted a number of positive impacts for sex worker safety, health and human rights (Abel, 2007, Armstrong 2014). The decriminalisation of sex work arguably represented a symbolic shift in how sex work is conceptualised in New Zealand. However, despite the positive change that has occurred, the stigma attached to sex work has not dissipated.

Drawing on the findings of research undertaken in the decriminalised context and recent media commentary, this paper explores the complexity of stigma and discourses of respectability which continue to influence how sex work is framed. This paper discusses the complex nature of stigma attached to sex work in the decriminalised context, the discourses underpinning it, and considers what further change is required to reduce stigma and enhance the safety and wellbeing of sex workers.


Lynzi Armstrong is a Lecturer in Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington. Her research interests include sex work, prostitution law reform, sexual violence, gender and crime, and anti-doping policy. Her PhD research explored how street-based sex workers managed risks of violence in their work post-decriminalization. Her ongoing research continues to explore this area, considering the broader implications of decriminalization and the continued challenges that sex workers face.


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