Meet the Women Selling Sex in New Zealand
From the most luxurious brothels in town to the freezing, violent streets.
It’s currently 5 degrees, inching down toward zero.
Phoenix tugs at the hem of her skirt. She wears towering suede boots to the knee, horn-rimmed glasses, a black bodycon dress: thin cotton stretched to almost-transparency. Her makeup is immaculate, her lips stained purple, her hair falls in thick, blonde waves formed of shining polyester.
Through five layers: merino, wool, knitted jumper, denim, leather, I feel the cold seep in, and shake my feet to keep circulation. The long expanse of exposed leg between Phoenix's dress and boot-tops is not yet goose-bumped.
“The morphine!” she says. “It warms your body from your head to your toes!” She throws back her head and laughs. Then saunters, hips swinging, down the footpath, one eye watching for pebbles on the concrete that could tip a platform heel.
It’s Wednesday night on Manchester Street, the stretch of road that tracks through Christchurch’s CBD, across the sedate Avon River and out into suburbia.
Sue Merrett, a gravel-voiced outreach worker, mans a white van that gives out bread, hot drinks and condoms. She says there are about 65 women who work the streets in Christchurch, and anywhere between five and 20 women out on Manchester St on any given night. Tonight there are about seven. It’s freezing, and business is slow.
Occasionally, a passing car-load of men screams obscenities at the women. That’s not so bad, Phoenix says. Sometimes they hurl glass bottles. A while back, there was a period when guys would come with paintball guns and shoot at the women as they tried to work.
She lights a cigarette. I ask her what does she like about the job. Are there things she loves?
“There’s nothing good about it!” She cackles. “What’s to love about it, girl?”
I ask her what’s hard.
“Oh, there’s nothing hard about it.” she chuckles again. “It’s easy, anyone can do it, your grandmother can do it, love! And they do. I can see ladies as old as 70, they get in there. Everyone’s broke and struggling, you gotta do what you gotta do.”
What’s bad, then?
“The rough guys that think you’re just that piece of fucking shit. They get rough with ya.”
Once, a client took her down the road, paid $20 and expected sex, she says.
“I was like, ‘No, sorry ‘bout it.’ And walking back he’s come up and sideswiped me in the face with a rock!”
She sighs, lowers her voice.
“And just for the fact that, the girls that you know, there’s ones that target them. It’s horrible. No one should ever die from it.”
A few metres down this stretch of road, Phoenix points to the corner where sex worker Mallory Manning was taken. The road crosses over the slow-drifting Avon River, where Manning’s body was dumped, after she was tortured and then murdered with appalling violence by a group of Mongrel Mob members. Two years before Manning, the body of another sex worker [name suppressed] was left in that same river, after she was raped and killed by Peter Steven Waihape. It’s the same street that Suzie Sutherland was taken from in 2005. Her body was found, strangled, in an empty lot. And this is the same street that Renee Duckmanton was taken from in 2016. Her murderer left her body burning by the side of a road.
Phoenix has been in the sex industry since she was around 15, and first discovering her identity as a woman. She’s been working ever since - her only other job has been in the shearing sheds down South. Currently, she’s dependent on morphine, and relies on this work to get the cash for a next hit.
The base street rates are $40 for a hand-job, $60 for a blow-job, $100 for sex. But some girls will end up desperate and accept less, especially when business is slow. Phoenix will be out here all night if she needs to be.
“Oh honey, when you’re old school you just gotta do it,” she says. “When I first started down here, I’d come here for about half an hour and I’d say, ‘I wanna go home’. And my friends would turn around and say, ‘Fuck up bitch you don’t know nothing, you handle it.” She laughs.
In 2003, after more than a decade’s campaigning, sex work was decriminalised in New Zealand. Up until then, the nation’s laws meant soliciting, brothel-keeping, living on the earnings of prostitution, or procuring sex from a prostitute were criminal offences. But sex work had gone on, operating beneath the legal exterior of massage parlours, homes—and on the streets.
The law was passed by a majority of one. It marked victory in a two-decade battle for the Prostitute’s Collective (NZPC) that had been set up in 1987 to fight for sex worker rights. Today, New Zealand’s model remains one of the most radical reforms of sex work law in the world: decriminalising both the buying and selling of sex, and legislating only that workers must be 18 years old, could not be coerced into sex work and could not have sex without a condom.
Opposition MPs predicted a tidal wave of new, young, vulnerable sex workers. But it never came. Large-scale investigations by the Prostitution Law Review Committee in 2005 and 2008, and Otago University’s School of Medicine in 2007, all found the law change had had no discernable impact on the number of women entering sex work.
For those 4000-6000 men and women who do make up the industry, the aim was for legitimacy, destigmatisation, and safety: NZPC argued that as long as the buying or selling of sex was illegal, the trade would be pushed underground, with workers vulnerable and exploited women left without legal recourse.
In many ways, it worked. In its 2008 report, the committee set up to assess the law reform’s impact concluded that in every major area, the law-change had improved sex workers’ ability to seek assistance, work safely, report crime, and enforce safe labour conditions. In a landmark legal case in 2014, a sex worker won $25,000 compensation in a sexual harassment case against her employer. The case was considered a world first, demonstrating that women in the sex industry were now granted the same employment protections as other sectors - and could wield them successfully against exploitative managers.
But 15 years on from decriminalisation, the industry is still one of extremes. Service rates vary from more than $500 an hour, down to $40. Stigma remains, at every level of employment. For equal rights, safety and and recognition, many sex workers say there’s still a long way to go.
On a narrow street in central Wellington, you’re met by an unmarked, frosted door. Unlocked, it opens to a black-painted corridor and then another locked door. The hallway is undecorated, save the single red dot of light from a security camera.
Inside, the foyer is high-ceilinged, thickly carpeted. Go It Alone, by Beck, plays quietly through a large vintage speaker. The furniture is mostly antique, wood, mid-century. On a sideboard sits an eftpos machine.
Madam Mary’s hair is dark and slightly curled. She wears red-rimmed glasses and all black: long sleeves and a pair of loose, understated linen trousers.
“My name is Mary Brennan. Or Madam Mary, or Mistress Maria,” she says. “I work in the sex industry—have done for 22 years. It's my passion. I will be involved in the sex industry for the rest of my life.”
Prices at Funhouse start at around $450 an hour, with a number of workers at $500. It’s not uncommon for clients to book in several hours for a “girlfriend experience”—including drinks and chat, kissing, oral sex and ‘multiple shots’—or to stay overnight, in which case the charge ramps up. Brennan believes they have the highest rates in Wellington. The brothel takes 50 percent of the initial charge-out rate, and workers take 100 percent of any extras bought on the job. So, for example, if a client’s paying a set rate for a massage, then wants to upgrade to oral sex, the worker will take all of the price difference. Some brothels in Wellington only take a 40 percent cut, Brennan says—but her argument is Funhouse provides everything: costumes, photo-shoots, advertising, rooms, bedding, hair irons, condoms and lube. Elsewhere, workers tend to have to provide that themselves.
The staffroom is filled with the paraphernalia of the job: a pair of black-feathered, person-sized wings; a crochet bikini. On the counter are hair straighteners and makeup, babywipes, a tiara, a pair of handcuffs. On the clothing racks hang, among other things, a spike-studded bra, a turquoise Wellington Girls’ College summer uniform, white boots in patent leather. Endless stilettos, endless lace, endless sequins.
Rae is a young sex worker who’s worked both the phones and as an escort at Funhouse. She wears an oversized hoodie, jeans and flat black boots, and has used sex work to fund her university degree. “Hands down the best job I’ve ever had,” she says.
“For a long time I was working here and in a retail store—and I'd be working here in this job society has all these negative opinions about... [but] here is the place I get treated with respect.” It was in retail that she encountered exploitation, she says: bosses taking advantage, being made to work unpaid overtime, being paid terribly.
“Everybody has these assumptions that you’re here because you’re broken or damaged or because you've been forced to or because you have a drug habit... And no one can fathom the idea that I'm here because I like having sex, I'm good at it, I like meeting people, and I like making money and being respected.”
The industry sits at an odd intersection. Funhouse is taboo-breaking, female-owned and operated, sex-positive. But other elements of its business are more old-fashioned in their values.
“Certain physical attributes make it not viable for women in the higher end—ie, bigger ladies we don't take on any more. They will get work, but they don't get enough work to make it viable for them or for us,” Brennan says. She only takes around 5 percent of the women who apply.
“The main criteria are obviously physical attributes. Intelligence, education, smarts. You don't necessarily have to be educated but you need to be smart. Also, have warmth and a genuine desire for sex work. All those things are taken into account.” The workforce, therefore, are primarily young, white, slim, good looking, highly-educated women.
“We’re a bubble,” she says.
“The ladies who do get to work at Funhouse, they understand how privileged they are…. They're slim, they’re white, they're educated, they're cis female. Instant privilege. You stick Funhouse on top of that, and being able to work at Funhouse? You’re the most privileged sex worker in New Zealand—and that means pretty much the world.”
Under the orange street-lamps of Manchester Street, Julia is pacing.
Tonight, she wears a spaghetti-strap black singlet, leather jacket, skinny black jeans and mid-heel boots. Her hair is long and straight and blonde, makeup simple. Her face is as warm and open and sweet as fresh-iced birthday cake, and she looks far, far younger than her 41 years.
It’s cold out, and she keeps walking: past the corner carpark, and the outreach van. Past a large interior design store with the words “If you’re always trying to be normal, you’ll never know how amazing you can be” printed in the window.
She started sex work when she was 12 years old, she says. Her older sister was a junkie. She’d take Julia down to Lyttelton port, where the big fishing boats used to dock, and she would hop on board, going door to door. The sailors were “big ugly ship-moles,” so some of the prettier and older girls wouldn’t really go on.
She mimics tapping at the door with her fingernails.
“You’d go round door to door on the cabins, say, 'Hellooo, anyone want a chicky chicky?' Walk around the cabins on the boat and just sort of knock on each cabin door. Sort of take what you can, a packet of cigarettes and a bottle of alcohol and get off the boat.”
She pauses for a second. She looks at 12-year-olds now and can’t really imagine it, she says. “But that’s where I got my steps in.”
She remembers after one of her first childhood jobs being raped on the ships, going to Americanos Cafe on Hereford Street, and looking at her sister and her partner. “They were on the nod next to a fire and I just paid for their taste [heroin]. I had a packet of Camel cigarettes and a hot chocolate and about $30 in my pocket and I just thought wow, I’m gonna make it now.”
Julia worked through most of her teenage years, but then left the sex industry.
Then, after years largely out of sex work, she found herself back here around a year and a half ago. Her relationship and job and house had fallen apart. She was sleeping at a friend’s house at the base of his bed. His patience was running out.
“He didn’t want me there and I was hungry and I hadn’t worked in years and Manchester Street was just around the corner from where I was staying. I would see the girls and was like, fuck, I can do it,” she says. “I started walking down the street with my broken jandals, I thought I can do it. And I walked down, and I couldn’t do it. The second night I walked down, and I couldn’t do it. And the third night I was really hungry and I thought right, I’ll do it, and I walked down here and I ended up going home with some money in my pocket and a pie and a drink, and now I’m here.”
Street-based sex work sits at the marginalised extreme of the sex industry. International research puts the proportion of street-based sex workers who have experienced physical or sexual violence as high as 100 percent.
Local research consistently shows that sex workers on the street are more likely to be exposed to violence and rape. They are more likely to be ripped off by clients. They are more likely to experience drug addiction or substance abuse.
A disproportionate number of those working the streets are under the legal age. Data gathered by NZ police indicates that while street-based workers make up only 8-11 percent of total sex workers, they account for 60 percent of those working underage. They find it harder to turn down clients: 41 percent of street-based workers responded that they’d had to accept a client they didn’t want to in the last year.
According to the large-scale University of Otago Medical School Study in 2007, over the last year, 30 percent of street workers said they’d had a client refuse to pay. Forty percent had been threatened with violence. Twenty-four percent had had money stolen by a client. Ten percent had been held somewhere against their will. Five percent had been raped by a client.
They were experiencing all those incidents at rates more than double the industry average.
A smaller-scale study of Christchurch’s street-based workers conducted this year by University of Otago and NZPC found the women were treated as a “disposable population”, and exposed to extreme, gratuitous violence. Interviews describe incidents including a 19-year-old worker who was “gang raped and then dumped away from Manchester Street”.
But the women experienced assault not just at the hands of clients, but also the general population - in fact, the most common incidents of violence were from cars driving past, flinging missiles and abuse. “I got bottled in the face one time I was out there…someone yelled out something and this bottle just shattered on my cheek bone,” said one participant.
“It’s usually other people in cars screaming and yelling out abuse and sometimes I’ve had bottles thrown at me and I’ve had eggs thrown at me,” said another.
The study also gathered the perspectives of local residents about sex workers, and found the workers’ perception of animosity and stigma was by no means imagined.
“I don’t want to go near them,” one resident responded.
“It’s a filthy profession.”
“They’re not very attractive.”
“Some of them I find quite sort of disgusting.”
The next morning, Julia calls. She’d like to talk again, she says.
We meet at Phoenix’s suburban home—a converted garage that she’s made her bedroom, wardrobe and living room. There’s a plush pink velvet headboard with sparkling tinsel draped above it, mink blankets draped on the bed and chairs. On the far wall, she has pinned prize ribbons from her sheep shearing days.
It’s her sanctuary, Phoenix says, perched on the edge of the bed. She likes to invite Julia and the girls round too sometimes, considers herself a kind of mother hen of Manchester Street. I ask her what she does for fun, when she’s not working all the time.
“Who said I’m not working all the time? You don’t understaaand girlfriend,” she draws out her vowels in exasperation. “When you have a drug habit, you’re dependant, you’ve got no free time for yourself! If you don’t got $100 the next morning, you’re fucking on your deathbed.”
“It is really hard, you know, you have to walk around with your fake smile and your what-not everyday. Some days I think, how the fuck have I done this for this long, you know? And you see these young ones that kill themselves and it’s like, oh fuck. You still have to have a shower and get ready for work.”
What’s next for her? Well, getting off drugs, she supposes. Getting a subscription for methadone or another opiate replacement would be a start. She’d like to do something to help others—maybe social work, or helping victims of domestic violence. And then the dream is to go back to the shearing sheds, back to the only other job she’s had, back when she was 15 years old. She loved it there. They were some of the best days of her life.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “You get paid for sweeping the floors.”
Julia pads over the shag carpet in her flip-flops. She’s holding Sammy, a shining black wet-eyed pug she calls the love of her life.
She talks at frenetic pace, gesturing, moving restlessly, eyes darting around the room.
She wanted to get in touch because she hadn’t been totally straight last night, she says. She still does have a drug problem, and things are difficult. She wants to tell the full story.
When she first came to Christchurch, she’d come out of a dysfunctional relationship with her partner—whom she’d also co-owned a trucking business with.
Julia spent six months working on an onion farm, sleeping in her car, bagging up 20kg bags of onions for $16 an hour. When the season ended, she used her holiday payout to put down the bond on a flat. With rent bills looming, she opted for the only other job she’d done. Still dressed in her work overalls, she went down to The Press and put an escort ad in in the paper.
Research indicates economics are the biggest driver for most sex workers enter the industry: 92 percent said they entered the industry for financial reasons—and among those who were considering leaving the industry, the majority cited economic reasons as a primary barrier to doing so.
Julia made her living as an in-home sex worker for around a year before things started to fray at the edges. One of her clients had offered her meth, and she’d started using again. After more than a year of work, she simply reached her limit, she says. “I was sitting on the porch and I don't know what got into me—you know writer's block? It was hookers block, I don't know what the fuck got into me but [I just thought], not one more man can touch my body.”
A client was at the gate and she remembers telling him: “I’ve got hooker’s block”. He stayed to talk awhile, and ended up giving her the money anyway.
“From that night onwards—so this was four and a half, five years ago—I made a pledge to myself: not one more man would touch my body. Not one more man would touch my body,” she says. Her eyes are brimming with tears.
She switched instead to one of the few other industries where she’d had experience: drug dealing. For two and a half years, she stopped work in the sex industry, and supported herself selling meth instead.
Then it all turned to shit, she says. Her house was raided by police, and she lost everything. Evicted from her home and hanging out for drugs, she ended up staying at a friend’s place. That’s when she made her walk down to Manchester Street again.
“I see society and the way they look and I think, I just want to look like them. I still struggle with that now. What will I become? I’m 41. What will I become? There's no way I want to get lost here but I am a bit lost.”
She pauses for a second. Her breathing is ragged.
“I don't know what else you want me to say. but I really want you to know that. I worry about what I'm going to become and who I’m going to become and what I could’ve become and as age creeps in, I’m not too sure. I worry every time I'm out there. Do you know what I mean? Now I suck cock for 60 bucks. Look at Julia now.”
She weeps, words tumbling over each other. She worries about what her family thinks. She worries about people who see her on the street.
“Look at Julia now. The insanity of it. Look at me now, I'm 41 and I've gone through heaps since I was 12. Look at me now. I’m pretty good for what I've gone through and you're still not proud of me? I’ve fought, I feel like I've fought three wars and three purple hearts and they still look down on me? They still leave me here, like look at Julia now? Do I deserve much more?”
Behind a high green fence in Merivale, one of Christchurch’s poshest suburbs, lives Victoria. Her grey hair is neatly cropped, and touched with lilac.
The house is 100 years old, dark-wood panelled, stained glass. A fur coat and tweed jacket hang in the hall, a porcelain swan on the hallway table.
Moving through the house Victoria is accompanied at all times by Harriet, a slightly deaf, 13-year old, grey-chinned boxer dog .
There are two bedrooms: one for work and one for sleeping. In the work bedroom, an antique glass cabinet is filled with laundered towels. There’s a cut-glass bowl with wrapped breath mints. On the walls is a Victorian family photo: mother with tightly-pulled centre parting, and three sturdy children in starched cotton.
Victoria sits on the bed, Harriet huffing at her feet. “I was brought up in a strict family: four girls, no brother,” she says. “I was very naive about sex and so on.”
She lived a fairly quiet and uneventful life, she says, working as a nurse. But the curiosity about sex work was always there: when she was 40, she went to visit a parlour, and bought herself a massage as a birthday gift. It wasn’t until her fifties that she started working. She did her ‘apprenticeship’ in a parlour, and now works for herself, quietly, from home.
Around 7-8 months after she started working from a rented unit, odd things started happening.
She had a tub at the door, with a flower planted. One day she came home to find it knocked over. Assuming it was the cat, she fixed it up. But it happened again. Then her wooden tub, also planted with flowers, was up-ended and kicked to pieces, over her stoop. Her car was keyed, deep scratches gouged in the paint-work. Then a client’s car was keyed. A few weeks later, she got a phone call—council had been notified that she’d been working there, and it turned out that she was violating a section of the bylaw that prevented brothels [which can include a single woman working from home] operating in a conjoined townhouse.
She moved out, to a home in the same suburb where she could legally work.
But the harassment continued. In her new home, Victoria awoke to find Graffiti scrawled in enormous letters across her front fence: NO BROTHERL [sic] HERE.
She painted it over, but the vandal returned: OUTCALLS ONLY xx
Then: “MERIVALE KNOCK SHOP, [name] WILL FUCK YOU FOR $100. APPLY WITHIN.” The graffiti used her real name, not Victoria, the moniker she’s adopted for sex work.
It continued. Her fence was graffitied five times in total. Letters were sent to her neighbours, outing her as a sex worker.
She left the property—and the fence was graffitied again, with her new address. Since she’s moved here, her new fence has been targeted again: SCHOOLS IN HOOKERS OUT—THAT’S [name] AND CO. and then STAY AWAY FROM OUR SCKOOL [sic]. Walk out to the street, and you can see the layers of paint, where she’s covered it again and again.
“It’s just intimidation,” Victoria says. “It’s just trying to say I know you’ve moved, I know where you’ve gone.”
Eventually, she put a note on her front fence,
“To whoever you are, please leave me alone, I am not breaking any laws, you are. Or come and have the decency to talk to me.”
The harassment stopped—for now.
“I don’t think it was my note that made any difference,” she says. “I think it was the fact that there was nothing else they could do.”
Stigma is the next frontier of the battle for sex workers, says Annah Pickering, regional coordinator of the NZPC Tamaki Makaurau branch.
The branch gives out condoms and counsel, medical care and advocacy. On the walls of their offices around the country campaign mottos hang: Sex Work is Work. Nothing about us without us. NZPC is largely run by sex workers for sex workers—and Pickering bristles at the kind of paternalistic ‘help’ that some people want to offer.
“You know, ‘helping’ sex-workers is a dangerous word,” she says. “We’re about support, empowerment, we are strong. We’re powerful people: women, trans women, trans men, male sex workers. People who believe that we need help, I respect what they’re saying, but that's not the majority opinion for a lot of sex workers that we know—that stand alongside us and behind us.”
The perception of all sex workers as victims isn’t accurate, and is ultimately both damaging and patronising, she says. What works is equal rights, legislative change, a legal workplace which means access to the same services and institutions as everyone else.
And even for the most marginalised members of New Zealand’s industry, that appears to be true. While street-based sex workers told Ōtago Medical School researchers some violence was simply a risk of the job, three quarters of them said they were more likely to report it to the police now that it was legal.
Sixty-five percent of sex workers surveyed both before and after the law change responded that it was easier now to refuse a client. Ninety percent said they now had increased legal and health and safety rights. There are still pockets of the industry where that doesn’t apply: migrants on work visas, for example, cannot legally work in the sex industry.
“I hope in the future, 20 years time or even less than that, that stigma and discrimination won't exist with the sex industry,” she says. “Just accepting that we’re all ordinary people. You know, just getting on with our daily lives, going to work. We’ve got children, families, some of us go to church, some of us don’t... We go to rugby clubs to take our kids there, we are people, we are part of the community, we are not apart from the community.”
“This is just one aspect of our lives.”
Watch INSIDE SEX WORK IN NEW ZEALAND. You can also see LETHAL LADIES, the first episode in the Zealandia Women's Suffrage Series that we made to mark 125 years of women getting the vote in New Zealand. And catch the rest of our Zealandia episodes here.
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