Date of Award

Fall 10-1-2021

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Adams, Julia


New Zealand became the first country in the world to fully decriminalize sex work at the national level when it passed the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) by a single vote in 2003. In this dissertation, I suggest that a close vote is a prism that illuminates the relationship between law and social change, both theoretically and methodologically. In a series of three articles, I explore the social and political consequences of New Zealand’s narrowly-passed sex work law, concentrating specifically on media representations of sex work, national repeal initiatives, and local bylaw-making processes. In the first empirical chapter, I focus on how decriminalization influences media representations of sex work. Because regulatory regimes governing sex work reflect and shape normative beliefs about the acceptability of sex workers, full decriminalization is essential to the eventual elimination of sex work stigma. Furthermore, under decriminalization, media portrayals of sex work play an important role in shaping public opinion. In this chapter, I leverage the closeness of the decriminalization vote to investigate whether and how media representations are responsive to a change of law in the short term. I compare portrayals of sex workers in New Zealand’s three largest newspapers in the six months before and six months after the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act. I find that decriminalization is associated with a decrease in labelling and certain forms of stereotyping, but no change in separation. Furthermore, while the passage of the national decriminalization law prohibited overt discrimination, it also indirectly enabled discrimination at the local level through restrictive zoning. In the second empirical chapter, I explore backlash to the Prostitution Reform Act, which culminated in an unsuccessful attempt to repeal it through a citizens’ referendum in 2004. The closeness of the vote on the decriminalization law not only influenced opposition efforts to repeal it, but also shaped perceptions of the legitimacy of other laws passed around the same time, especially the Supreme Court Act (2003) and Civil Unions Act (2004). Ultimately, the relatively narrow passage of these laws spurred two opposition parties to include provisions for the expansion of direct democracy in their platforms for the 2005 general election. I analyze the backlash to the Prostitution Reform Act and Supreme Court Act in order to illustrate how closeness informed opposition messaging. I argue that the narrow vote margin enabled backlash by creating a liminal space in which opponents could challenge the legitimacy of the vote. Specifically, opposition discourse focused on portraying the passage of the Prostitution Reform and Supreme Court Acts as undemocratic. In the third empirical chapter, I focus on local responses to the national sex work law. Following the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act, municipalities varied widely in their responses to decriminalization. Thirteen cities drafted new bylaws to control the location of brothels; New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, chose to use an existing bylaw rather than draft a new one. Bylaws in Auckland and Christchurch faced legal challenges and were eventually struck down by the High Court of New Zealand on the grounds that they were incompatible with the PRA. In this chapter, I explore this variation in municipal ordinances. I focus primarily on the bylaw in Christchurch, which was not only one of the most restrictive, but also faced a protracted legal battle. I use an innovative shadow case research design to suggest that the bylaw was largely a product of the interaction between local conditions and national laws, including those unrelated to sex work. By comparing Christchurch with Wellington, which did not draft or amend a bylaw after decriminalization, I found that the outcome in Christchurch reflects the interaction of three major factors: the relative prevalence of street-based sex work, the obligations placed on the city council by the Local Government Act of 2002, and The Pressures created by upcoming local elections and council restructuring. In the conclusion, I highlight the ways in which this dissertation develops our conceptual understanding of how and why closeness matters in legislative or electoral contests. I suggest that responses to the Prostitution Reform Act illustrate the complex and often unanticipated interactions between law and politics, at multiple levels and occasionally across branches of government. I extend my analysis of close votes and democracy frames to the case of the 2020 US Presidential election, a case which further illustrates the ways in which closeness is constructed, and how, in the liminal space following a vote perceived as close, political actors deploy democracy frames to challenge the legitimacy of the outcome.