During the day city streets are filled with men and women carrying on their business – shopping, going to appointments, attending functions, and performing a multitude of other tasks. But after dusk women have generally had less freedom of movement than men. During the 19th century a woman walking unaccompanied at night could be considered a prostitute and catch the eye of police. Single men were spared such surveillance. Women on streets also had to contend with the banter and lewdness of larrikins.
A 2008 survey showed most Christchurch women thought city streets had become less safe than a decade earlier. Respondent Paula Weir, aged 35, said that 10 or 15 years before she would have gone with friends to the movies and cheerfully walked back to her car alone. Now the presence of ruffians in the central city made her feel unsafe and she no longer walked city streets alone.
Physical assault was another hazard. In 1893 the Dunedin suburb of St Clair experienced ‘no less than half-a-dozen brutal attacks’ on women, making it the city’s most dangerous quarter after dusk.1 While men were sometimes victims of nocturnal beatings, women also ran the risk of sexual assault. Accordingly, most women entering the city after dark were accompanied by husbands, brothers or boyfriends.
By the late 20th century cultural conventions restricting women’s night-time movements had largely vanished, and walking alone after dark was no longer a sign of ill repute. But attacks on women continued to occur. In the 1970s feminist groups began ‘reclaim the night’ marches, demanding streets be made safer for women. Municipalities responded by improving street lighting, and police upped their night-time patrols. A revival of inner-city living and burgeoning night-life also made city streets safer. This was not always the public perception. A 2008 survey showed 71% of Christchurch women felt less safe in the central city at night than in 2003, even though the rate of street crime had declined over that period. Men were less concerned about street crime than women.
Sex in the city
Cities have always provided countless ways for people to flirt and meet partners – catching someone’s eye on a tram, striking up a conversation with an attractive shop assistant, or wooing an office colleague.
The city aphrodisiac
For men and women, a night on the town – going to a cinema, theatre, bar or nightspot – includes the possibility of sex. People often wear clothes and makeup to appear more sexually alluring. Alcohol or other drugs are used as a social lubricant and to relax inhibitions. Bright city lights and a vibrant street life are further ingredients in what can be a seductive mix.
Cities were more sexually charged at night. A mid-20th-century example was Joe Brown’s Saturday night dance at the Dunedin town hall. The night began with fresh-faced, well-groomed men and women eyeing each other from opposite sides of the hall. Men would cross the floor and ask a woman to dance, and the couple then flaunted their moves on the dance floor. The atmosphere was ‘slightly predatory, but elegant’, with people returning every week ‘for the thrill of the chase and being caught’.2 The event was nicknamed ‘Joe Brown’s matrimonial bureau’ for the number of patrons who met their spouses there. Cabarets and nightclubs, such as Wellington’s Majestic Cabaret, were equally electric.
Cities have always provided sex for sale to men – street prostitutes and brothels soon followed the founding of towns. While most catered for heterosexuals, there was a male bordello aimed at homosexual men in Christchurch in the 1860s. Prostitution was decriminalised in 2003.
Although homosexual sex was illegal until 1986, cities have long provided gay men with sexual ‘beats’, where they could meet and have sex. These included Queens Gardens in Dunedin, parts of the town belt in Wellington’s Mt Victoria, Turkish steam baths (saunas), and some public toilets. Gay graffiti in Auckland’s Wellesley Street West toilets during the Second World War worried the city council so much that they tiled the walls, in the hope of stopping men from arranging to meet in the toilets.
In the early 2000s there remained myriad ways for city dwellers to meet sexual partners. While catching the eye of a stranger could still lead to romance, the stranger might be first glimpsed over the internet rather than on city streets.