Story: Sex work

Page 1. 19th-century sex work

All images & media in this story

Prostitution and sex work

In 19th-century New Zealand the word 'prostitution' referred to the sale of sexual services. By the 21st century many people preferred to use the term ‘sex work’ to describe being paid to give other people sexual pleasure.

Pre-colonial New Zealand

Prostitution is often referred to as 'the oldest profession', but it is not found in all human societies. There is no evidence of prostitution among Māori before European seafarers and traders came to New Zealand.

Sailors arriving in New Zealand coastal waters in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were starved of female company and interested in buying sexual services. They were quickly followed by whalers, sealers and other traders, who sometimes exchanged goods such as muskets with Māori men in return for sexual access to Māori women.

Early sexual exchanges

Some sailors formed temporary relationships with Māori 'wives' and provided them with dresses and other goods. There are also reports of women being forced by men of their tribe into having multiple sexual partners, and claims that child prostitution occurred.

The Bay of Islands port of Kororāreka (now Russell) had a reputation for drunkenness and prostitution. In 1840 over 700 vessels visited the port, each with a crew of about 30 men who went onshore for recreation and provisioning.

Colonisation and migration

After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, colonial settlements grew in size and bars and brothels flourished within them. Men outnumbered women in most settler communities, with 131 males to every 100 females in 1858. Growing numbers of European women responded to a strong demand by men for sexual services. Māori women were less likely to be involved in this work.

The issue of female immigration became a source of widespread concern and debate in the 1860s. Fears were expressed that women immigrants were choosing to do sex work in brothels and on the streets, rather than taking up low-paid employment in domestic service.

The goldfields

The demand for prostitution services rose dramatically when gold was discovered in New Zealand. Small 'rushes' occurred during the 1850s in Coromandel and Nelson, but the most frenzied was in Otago after gold was discovered in 1861. As thousands of fortune-seekers headed for the goldfields, they were accompanied by those who provided the services they wanted – food, alcohol and women.

Back-room business

In the later 19th century many city brothels were concealed in back rooms behind shop-fronts – including, in Christchurch, a vegetable shop, an oyster saloon and a lolly shop. The City Buffet in Dunedin purported to be a coffee shop, but a police visit one night found ‘Blanche, a French whore, dancing the cancan’.1 Another visit to the establishment found 25 men dancing with five prostitutes, accompanied by musicians.

Brothels and street work

Brothels offering sex for money multiplied. In 1869 there were 28 known brothels in Christchurch and 26 ‘houses of ill-fame’ in Dunedin. Te Aro became the centre of Wellington’s red-light district, while Auckland’s Upper Queen Street had a similar reputation. Brothels flourished behind bars and shop-fronts. Street workers were seen as a public nuisance and an affront to 'respectable' women.

Contagious Diseases Act 1869

Many people saw prostitution as a social evil, and lobbied for legislation to control women doing this work. Under the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, any girl or woman ‘deemed to be a prostitute’ had to submit to compulsory medical examination. If she had a venereal disease, she could be legally detained. While this legislation was not uniformly enforced, it was increasingly criticised by women's groups for its focus on sex workers rather than their clients.

A ‘rowdy’ woman

Mary Ann Greaves did not operate quietly behind closed doors. An immigrant from Leicestershire, she worked as a prostitute. She was a rowdy, disruptive presence on Christchurch streets for over 25 years and was frequently arrested for vagrancy, drunkenness, larceny and (after 1884) soliciting. In 1876 Greaves was charged under the Contagious Diseases Act for not attending a medical examination, and sent to the Contagious Diseases Reformatory. She served several other prison sentences before embracing a quieter life in Sydenham. Greaves was still listed on a register of brothels in 1893, when she was in her late 50s.

Laws and the regulation of sex work

It was not initially illegal to be a prostitute, but the police found many ways of bringing prostitutes before the courts for vagrancy or drunk-and-disorderly offences under the Vagrant Act 1866. In 1884 the Police Offences Act replaced the Vagrant Act and made it an offence for ‘common prostitutes’ to solicit for business in public.

By the late 19th century prostitution was tolerated as long as it was not visible. Those who brazenly advertised their wares on street corners were likely to be arrested. Sex workers operating quietly behind closed doors attracted little attention, as did their clients.

  1. Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Diggers, hatters & whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p. 390. Back
How to cite this page:

Jan Jordan, 'Sex work - 19th-century sex work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

Story by Jan Jordan, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 31 May 2018