Story: Sex work

Page 5. Sex workers and clients

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Who does sex work?

Women are more likely than men to be paid for sex, but a small number of men also sell sex (mainly to other men, but sometimes to women). Some transgender people have also worked in the sex industry.

A survey of sex workers published in 2007 indicated that 72% were aged 22–45. Only 1.3% of survey participants were under 18. Street workers were younger than those in other sectors of the industry, and over half reported starting work before the age of 18.

All kinds of women work in the sex industry. Sex workers are of different ages, and have different sexual orientations, economic and educational backgrounds, and ethnicities. Some are immigrants, including women from Asian countries who have become increasingly involved in the sex industry since the early 1990s. Those without citizenship or permanent residency are most at risk of exploitation by employers in the industry.

Male sex workers mostly have male clients. They mainly work privately, as escorts, or on the streets. Transgender workers and Māori and Pasifika men and women are also more likely to work on the streets.

How many sex workers?

It is difficult to get information about the number of sex workers because it is stigmatised work and many people move into and out of the industry. In 2005 the total number of sex workers was estimated at just under 6,000. Research in 2007 indicated that there were nearly 2,500 sex workers working in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Nelson and Hawke’s Bay, 10% of whom were street workers. The number of clients would be many times this figure.

Where do they work?

In the 2010s most sex workers offered their services in brothels or massage parlours, either large premises offering a range of different services, or smaller brothels run by a group of workers. Some workers specialised in services such as bondage and discipline. Sex workers in larger businesses can support one another and are physically safer than street workers. However, they may have to work set shifts for an employer, and are only paid when they provide sexual services to clients.

Sex revolution

One sex worker explained her take on the sex industry: ‘Men are quite silly when it comes to sex. A woman can win out every time ... That's why I see women who charge for sex as being quite strong and quite revolutionary. ... If every woman charged every man, including her husband, for every fuck, then the whole ownership of the world's resources would start shifting to female control.’ 1

Who are the clients?

Clients are mainly men. They often want to buy sexual services outside ‘normal’ working hours – late at night and on weekends. However, some men make regular appointments with sex workers during the day, while others buy sexual services when they are away from home on business trips. Interviews with sex workers suggest that clients are of all ages, and are involved in a wide range of occupations.

Why sex work?

People become sex workers for many different reasons, but mainly to meet their household expenses. Despite popular stereotypes, only a minority work to pay for drugs or alcohol; some work to finance university study or support their children. Some people do sex work part-time or over weekends to save money for a holiday, a house or a particular luxury item. Financial returns from sex work are better than those from many jobs that women do.

Paying for luxuries

One worker in an Auckland brothel commented on the benefits of sex work: ‘For me I think it's a great weekend job to buy my house faster, and afford the little luxuries that I've come to enjoy.’2

Trap or choice?

Very few people in New Zealand are forced into sex work. A 2007 New Zealand study found only 3.9% of sex workers reported being made to work. Coercion was most likely if they began working before age 18. The Prostitution Reform Act 2003 has made it easier for sex workers to refuse to ‘do’ a particular client or provide particular services.

Sex workers are sometimes seen as victims who hate their work. But while some find the work difficult, and many workers keep it a secret, others focus on its advantages, such as flexible hours, the company of other sex workers, and being able to work from home (in the case of private workers).

What are the risks?

Sex workers often experience stigma and discrimination, which may include loss of access to their children, and difficulties in obtaining housing or finding other employment. Their self-esteem may be affected as a consequence. While working, some may encounter violence or hostility from members of the public or men posing as clients, and occasionally from actual clients. Those working on the streets may be particularly at risk. In Christchurch there were four murders of sex workers between 2005 and 2016. Anna Reed from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective commented positively on the increased presence of police on the streets after the 2016 murder of a street worker. Improved relationships between the police and sex workers meant that street workers could assist the police in their attempts to make an arrest.

  1. Quoted in Jan Jordan, Working girls: women in the New Zealand sex industry talk to Jan Jordan. Auckland: Penguin, 1991, pp. 238–239. Back
  2. Quoted in Gillian Abel, Lisa Fitzgerald and Cheryl Brunton, The impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the health and safety practices of sex workers: report to the Prostitution Law Review Committee. Christchurch: University of Otago, Dept of Public Health and General Practice, 2007, p. 95. Back
How to cite this page:

Jan Jordan, 'Sex work - Sex workers and clients', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2024)

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