Story: Sex work

Page 2. 20th-century sex work

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Soldiers and sex workers

Public anxieties about sex work intensified during the First World War as reports circulated about soldiers’ use of prostitutes. Health campaigner Ettie Rout became famous for her efforts to combat the incidence of venereal disease among Kiwi soldiers abroad. During the Second World War concerns were expressed about the risks to New Zealand women from contact with American servicemen based in New Zealand.

What’s in a name?

Flora MacKenzie, who ran a sex business in Auckland for over 30 years, did not like the words ‘brothel’ or ‘prostitution’. She once said: ‘Isn’t every woman a prostitute? Married men pay their wives, don’t they?’1 MacKenzie described her business as ‘sex therapy’. Her clients included politicians and businessmen. Many teachers, nurses and office staff worked for her on a part-time basis.

Brothels and massage parlours

In the 1950s sex work received little attention, apart from publicity about the occasional 'celebrity' madam such as Flora MacKenzie, who was charged six times with keeping a brothel in Ponsonby, Auckland. This changed in the 1960s and 1970s as sexuality became increasingly the focus of public debate. By the late 1970s, following trends overseas, and with the Massage Parlours Act 1978 coming into force, many sex businesses defined themselves as 'massage parlours'. Clients paid the receptionist for a massage and then negotiated with women workers for ‘extras’ – usually sexual services.

Some parlours required sex workers to pay parlour owners for the use of towels and laundry services, and fined workers if they missed a shift. Sometimes they had to pay a ‘shift fee’ to work the shift.

Policing parlours

Concern about possible links between massage parlours and organised crime led to the Massage Parlours Act 1978. Under the act parlours had to be licensed, and were defined as 'public places'. This enabled existing laws against soliciting (offering sexual services in public places) to be extended to parlours. Licences were refused to operators who had prostitution or drug convictions or were of ‘unsound character’. Workers in massage parlours had to be over 18 and without prostitution or drug convictions. Parlour operators had to keep registers of all workers, whose names were made available to the police.

Private sex workers

Some sex workers provided sexual services from their own homes. These one-woman brothels became increasingly popular with workers because they offered independence and flexibility. Private workers usually advertised in newspapers and magazines, although from the mid-1990s in some areas these publications required workers to provide proof of police registration before accepting advertisements.

Street workers

Throughout the 20th century street workers were a small but visible group of sex workers. Working in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, they waited for clients in particular locations. Clients would approach sex workers on foot, or pick them up in their cars. Street workers enjoyed high degrees of independence, and most worked for themselves. The risk of violence has sometimes meant reliance on paid 'minders'. However, legislation against procuring a prostitute for someone else has meant that pimping has been relatively rare in New Zealand.

Escort and outcall services

In the 1970s some brothels, agencies and individuals started to provide escort or outcall services, visiting clients’ homes or hotel rooms. Some used drivers to provide added security when escorts visited clients. Most escorts were women, but some were men providing sexual services to men.

Telephone and internet

In the 1980s the availability of 0800 toll-free phone numbers, 0900 paid numbers and credit cards facilitated a new form of sex work – erotic telephone talk. Private and business lines have been used. More recently, telecommunication services that facilitate payments by clients have become common. Sometimes women have been contracted by others to provide telephone sex services.

In the 21st century the internet was increasingly used to advertise a range of services from independent sex workers.

Ship work

Sex workers have always provided sexual services to sailors visiting New Zealand ports, usually on board ship. Women working on the ships also picked up clients in streets and nightclubs.

Working together

One Christchurch detective explained the police’s approach to the sex industry before sex work was decriminalised. ‘[T]he current law is that prostitution is illegal … the way in which we deal with it is we do not actively enforce the law. We react to complaints … We try and work with the industry and workers because there are a number of benefits … we solve problems as well for them, so it works both ways.’ 2

Policing sex work

From the 1970s to the 1990s the police operated 'vice squads' in an effort to manage public concerns about both parlour- and street-based sex work in the larger cities. Social stigma meant that many transgender people could not get legitimate employment, and some became street sex workers, mainly in Auckland and Wellington. On the streets, the vice squad targeted all sex workers, female, male and transgender.

After the Massage Parlours Act was passed in 1978, undercover police officers visited parlours on a regular basis and charged women with soliciting if they offered them sexual services. Active police monitoring was extended from massage parlours and street-based sex work to private workers and escort agencies throughout New Zealand, and continued until the law changed in 2003.

  1. Quoted in Jan Jordan, ‘Flora McKenzie.’ In The book of New Zealand women: ko kui ma te kaupapa, edited by Charlotte Macdonald, Merimeri Penfold and Bridget Williams. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1991, p. 387. Back
  2. Quoted in María Pérez-y-Pérez, Discipline, autonomy and ambiguity: organisations, markets and work in the sex industry in Christchurch, New Zealand. PhD thesis in Sociology, University of Canterbury, 2003, p. 67. Back
How to cite this page:

Jan Jordan, 'Sex work - 20th-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