Catherine Alice Healy

Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the rights of sex workers

Thirty years ago Dame Catherine Healy was working in a smoky, illegal brothel opposite a church in central Wellington.

She had given up her $400-a-week teaching job for $2000-a-week sex work, partly to cover the costs of her holidays abroad.

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It was the period of women's liberation and the brothel on Boulcott St was a thrilling place filled with "strident, stroppy, creative" women, Healy said.

But she was also working in a uncertain, deeply stigmatised industry where the threat of arrest was ever-present.

"Many people assume sex workers just want to be rescued," she told the Herald.

"But most of us just wanted labour rights like everyone else. When I started as a sex worker there was nothing. There was just dodgy advice whispered in a hallway."

It led her to co-found the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective in 1986, which promoted safer sex practices, advocated for sex workers and later spearheaded decriminalisation in this country.

Healy, who has remained the collective's co-ordinator ever since, has now been made a dame in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

"I burst into tears," she said of the moment she was told of the honour.

"It was completely unexpected. It doesn't happen to me, this stuff. A grand dame."

It was more than an individual honour, she said. It showed how far New Zealand's social attitudes had come.

"I just feel like it's recognition for us all. It's like: 'You guys matter. You can come into the fold'."

She has faced resistance and discrimination at every turn. After its formation, the collective couldn't even get a listing in the telephone directory.

The threat of HIV and Aids "loomed terribly large" for sex workers at the time, Healy said.

Because of its work on safe sexual practices, the NZPC secured funding from the Ministry of Health to provide condoms to workers. But police sometimes seized upon the possession of the state-funded condoms as evidence of illegal activity by sex workers and massage parlours.

The Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 transformed sex workers' conditions and security. Healy watched from Parliament's public gallery as it scraped through by a single vote – a "magnificent, incredible moment".

In 2010, she became just the second New Zealander after former Prime Minister David Lange to speak at the Oxford Union. She mimicked Lange's famous line by saying opponents of decriminalisation thought all New Zealanders had Viagra on their breath.

The collective's battles today are not as fraught as the 1980s, and are mainly focused on the stigma sex workers face. A woman told her this week she had been declined an Eftpos machine by a bank because they don't give them to sex workers.

"We're still fighting," she said. "But we have the language now, we know what rights look like. We don't have to feel our way through."