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Sex work

by Jan Jordan

While prostitution as such has never been illegal in New Zealand, soliciting in a public place, brothel-keeping and living on the earnings of prostitution were all against the law, and sex work was strongly stigmatised. In 1987 sex workers established the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective to lobby for their rights, and in 2003 New Zealand became the first country in the world to completely decriminalise sex work.

19th-century sex work

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.

    • Stevan Eldred-Grigg, Diggers, hatters & whores: the story of the New Zealand gold rushes. Auckland: Random House, 2008, p. 390. Back

20th-century sex work

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.

    • 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
    • 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

New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective

From isolation to visibility

For many years sex workers were a socially marginalised group with little political power or influence. Few people championed their rights. From the 1970s the women's liberation movement saw greater attention given to sex workers. Books were published about their experiences, and sex workers began talking to one another about their work and how conditions could be better.

Power to the prostitutes

In its mission statement, the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective describes itself as agitating ‘for the rights, health, and well-being of all sex workers. … [The collective] is committed to working for the empowerment of sex workers, so that sex workers can have control over all aspects of their work and their lives.’1

Organising sex workers

The New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) was set up in 1987 by a small group of current and former sex workers to improve the situation of those in the industry and work for their rights. They initially faced some opposition and resistance – just getting listed in the telephone directory was a battle.

At this time there was great concern about the spread of HIV/AIDS. The collective’s commitment to promoting safer sex practices within the sex industry helped it to secure government funding and support.

Services for sex workers

By the 21st century NZPC had offices and community centres in many parts of the country. It provided free information to sex workers and those considering sex work, particularly about safe sex and the use of condoms. It also operated free and anonymous sexual health clinics, distributed safer sex products and coordinated information about ‘ugly mugs’ – dangerous and abusive clients. The collective was also involved in several research projects into the different aspects of the sex industry.

The smell of Viagra

NZPC national coordinator Catherine Healy argued successfully in favour of decriminalising prostitution at the Oxford Union, England, in 2010. She was only the second New Zealander to take part in the prestigious debate. In 1985, Prime Minister David Lange had famously quipped that he could smell uranium on an opposing speaker’s breath as he argued in favour of nuclear weapons. Healy commented sardonically that opponents of decriminalisation thought that the sex industry was burgeoning, and that New Zealanders had all quit their day jobs and had Viagra on their breath.

Public relations and lobbying

NZPC national coordinator Catherine Healy – who has held the position since the collective was set up – has earned the respect of many politicians and community members through her efforts to have sex workers' rights recognised and protected. The collective's major success has been the decriminalisation of prostitution. This was achieved with the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003.


Legislation and decriminalisation

New Zealand legislation before 2003

Before the Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, sex work in itself was not illegal, but most of the activities involved in sex work were criminal offences.

  • The Police Offences Act 1884 made it an offence for ‘common prostitutes’ to solicit for business in public.
  • The Crimes Act 1961 made it illegal to keep a brothel, live off the earnings of the prostitution of another person, or procure sexual services for someone else.
  • The Massage Parlours Act 1978 regulated parlours, owners, managers and sex workers.
  • Section 26 of the Summary Offences Act 1981 made it illegal to offer sex for money in a public place (soliciting) – including massage parlours.

Health risks and the law

While the Ministry of Health funded the provision of condoms to sex workers through the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC), possession of these government-funded condoms was sometimes used by police as evidence of illegal activity by sex businesses and sex workers. This was inconsistent with advocacy of safe-sex strategies, as HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases generated mounting concern in the 1980s and 1990s.

No redress for rape

Because sex work was illegal, sex workers were often wary of reporting rape or other violence to the police. MP Georgina Beyer, a former sex worker, commented: ‘[The Prostitution Reform Bill] provides people like me at that time with some form of redress for the brutalisation that may happen when a client pulls a knife ... it would have been nice to … have been able to approach the authorities – the police in this case – and say “I was raped, and yes, I’m a prostitute, but no, it was not right that I should have been raped.”’1

Moves towards law reform

The double standard that protected men who paid for sex, but put sex workers at risk of arrest and exploitation, led to a growing campaign for prostitution law reform. Pressure for change in the law was spearheaded by NZPC.

A law-reform working group was formed in 1997, comprising NZPC members, academics, and representatives from the AIDS Foundation and various women's groups (including the YWCA, National Council of Women and New Zealand Federation of Business and Professional Women). Law reform was supported by the National government of the time.

When Labour formed a coalition government in 1999, Christchurch Central MP Tim Barnett introduced a private member’s bill to decriminalise sex work and provide legal protection for sex workers.

Prostitution Reform Act 2003

On 25 June 2003 the Prostitution Reform Act was passed by one vote. It was a tumultuous night in Parliament, filled with onlookers from both sides.

Previous laws relating to soliciting, brothel-keeping and living off the earnings of prostitution were repealed, as was the Massage Parlours Act 1978.

The key aims of the act were to safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation, and to promote the welfare and occupational health and safety of sex workers. It was an offence to coerce another person to provide sexual services, or to pay for sexual services from a person aged under 18. It also became illegal for a client to have sex with a worker without using a condom.

Sex workers gained in several ways through the new law. They became able to challenge working conditions in the employment tribunal and seek redress through the Disputes Tribunal for money owed to them by clients or brothel operators. Workers had many choices over where they could work, including in managed brothels (large or small), cooperatively with others, or by themselves. Street-based sex work was also permitted and was not limited to particular zones, while brothel operators required operators’ certificates.

Effects of legislative change

A committee was set up to evaluate the first three to five years of the act's operation. In 2008 the committee reported that the number of people working in the sex industry had not increased. In some areas there were fewer workers. More sex workers were operating privately from their homes, and fewer were in managed premises. The committee considered that most people working in the sex industry were better off than they had been before the passing of Prostitution Reform Act. They recommended a further review in 2018, by when the impacts of this legislation would be clearer. The committee also found that, despite change in the law, many people still had negative attitudes towards sex work; sex workers were still uneasy about their relationship with the authorities.

After the Prostitution Reform Act was passed, a few local councils attempted to implement controls on the operation of the sex industry. Some have introduced bylaws relating to signage, the location of premises used for commercial sex work and the siting of brothels in multi-unit residential complexes. These restrictions are not usually applied to small owner-operated brothels. 

In Christchurch after the 2010–2011 earthquakes there was ongoing controversy about street workers. Established inner-city locations, such as Manchester Street, were no longer suitable because of earthquake damage. As a result, street workers started to meet clients in residential St Albans, just north of the inner city. Some residents complained about sex workers operating at night in their neighbourhood.

Opposition to the law

Opponents of the legislation claimed it would normalise prostitution as a career choice for vulnerable young women and increase young people's involvement in prostitution-related activities. Some conservative Christian groups organised a petition for a citizens-initiated referendum to repeal the Prostitution Reform Act, but this did not obtain enough signatures.

    • New Zealand Parliamentary Debates, 25 June 2003, vol. 609, p. 6,585. Back

Sex workers and clients

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.

    • Quoted in Jan Jordan, Working girls: women in the New Zealand sex industry talk to Jan Jordan. Auckland: Penguin, 1991, pp. 238–239. Back
    • 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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Jan Jordan, 'Sex work', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

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