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NZ: Ladies of the night (Taranaki)

Publish Date: 02 May 2011
Source: Taranaki Daily News
By: Felicity Ross

Kelly* likes walking her dog, watching Desperate Housewives and experimenting with exotic flavours in the kitchen.

The 24-year-old also works as a prostitute.

"I live a pretty average life - I just don't tell people what I do for a living," the New Plymouth woman says.

"I tell people I work from home, which I do, just not book keeping."

The first time Jayme* sold her body to a man she was 16.

She got $50.

"That's all he had. I remember thinking this isn't so bad. I threw up later when I realised what I had done, but the more I did it the less sick I felt afterwards," she says. Jayme, 34, doesn't look like what you'd expect an average prostitute to look like.

She is not the stereotypical 'street walker' that most of us are familiar with from TV - malnourished, wearing a short, tight skirt and a stomach-baring boob tube.

"I don't think anyone would pick me for a hooker, but that's what I am and what I always will be," she says, sucking down on a cigarette.

"I don't know how to be anyone else."

Getting ready for work after a call from a regular client, these days she takes what she can get.

"I can't afford to be picky about who I sleep with anymore," she says, easing the black stockings up her plump calves. "There is just not enough work out there."

Men who used to visit prostitutes now have more access to pornography on the internet and can "service themselves" instead of calling a working girl, Jayme says.

However, Kelly says she has more than enough work to keep her nights busy.

"I thought moving to New Plymouth from Auckland would see me take a drop in clients and income but it's steady work and I couldn't make any more money doing something else."

Kelly earns an average of $900 a week - an enticing income for a woman who likes to live the good life.

"I save a lot of money from what I do, which means I don't want for anything. I'm sure I will give it up eventually but it's fine for now."

But Kelly may be the exception rather than the rule.

Regional co-ordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective Carolyn August says a lot of prostitutes are struggling to make the kind of money they made in the past.

"Rates haven't really changed for 20-odd years which is sad, when you think of other industries who have all had rises. We have also had a recession, which affects the sex industry as well and that is still on-going."

Technology and the introduction of cyber space has also played a role in the changing face of the world's oldest profession. "The internet has also played a beneficial role for sex workers; many now use some sites as an advertising medium."

In the last few years the number of working girls in Taranaki and around the country has dropped significantly.

"It's hard for even us to know how many prostitutes are working at any one time because it is such a transient industry. Some girls might work all the time, while others may just work one day a month when she needs money."

New Plymouth currently has three brothels operating in the central city - Harlow's Bordello, BB's Massage Parlour and Hearts'n'Armour - and there are about 15 private operations working at any one time.

Brothel owners don't like the competition of the private sex workers and believe they should all be shut down. There are only about a dozen sex workers among the three brothels at any one time, Ms August says.

"It's not as big as people perceive it to be. They struggle for workers. The sex industry has changed now the internet has come into play because guys can now go on internet, see porn and chat to women."

But despite the visual joys the internet provides, there is still a definite want for real women. But it's not always easy for real women to provide the service. In 2005 the people of Stratford kicked up a stink when bar owner Denise Trengrove wanted to open a brothel on the town's main intersection.

They described prostitution as un-Christian, immoral, abhorrent and said it would give the town a bad name.

But the term brothel is not just the name for an obviously commercial sex business, it also includes a single operator working from home in a residential area.

The New Plymouth District Council has a bylaw which regulates where a brothel can be located. It states no more than four people can work from a residential area at any one time and each worker must be in control of their own earnings.

The word brothel tends to scare people when they think of them appearing in residential areas, when in fact there may only be one sex worker working from the address, Ms August says.

Jayme got into prostitution after being kicked out of home.

"I had nowhere to go, no money. I felt like it was my only option."

Smoothing her black skirt, spraying on some perfume and filling her handbag with her "job kit" - a routine she has perfected over the last two years - she is ready for work. Her kit contains condoms, lubricant, pepper spray, dental dam and massage oil.

"Sometimes I don't like looking in the mirror when I am in work attire. I never wanted to become a prostitute, until I had to."

The brunette works for herself, although she did try working out of a commercial brothel when she first started out.

"I didn't like not having control over my finances and clients. It's much better working for myself and I always make sure someone knows where I am in case something happens."

Ms August says girls working for themselves are becoming more the norm.

"The girls tell me they like that nobody is in charge of them. They are booking their own appointments and taking their own money."

And while most of us are familiar with the word pimp, most prostitutes in New Zealand don't have one.

"I have worked for the NZPC for five years and I have never come across it. I have come across partners that take phone calls, but I have not come across a pimp as such."

One woman who is familiar with the pimp concept is private sex worker Rebecca*.

Now 53, Rebecca was sold into prostitution by her abusive father.

"I was pimped out when I was a teenager. When I got away from the situation and all the drugs and everything I didn't do it for a while. I worked as a receptionist but I always had it in my mind I was going to do it again but for me."

Rebecca, originally from Queensland, was 15 when she turned her first trick.

"It wasn't the type of situation to ask questions. My father knew about it, even though at that point I had got away from my father and I got into an equally bad situation." She didn't have any choices and was too young to give consent or even know what was going on.

"It was horrible. I was just exploited and hurt. They did whatever they wanted to and there were certainly no condoms."

Rebecca worked mainly out of nightclubs and her pimp would organise her clients.

"I was concerned about diseases and pregnancy. I did catch things too and half the time I would go to the doctor, be given a lecture and be told what a bad person I was. I didn't know what was wrong with me. I would just get shots in the butt, take tablets and off I'd go."

Nowadays most sex workers are conscious of their sexual health needs, although some say they don't like to disclose the nature of their work to healthcare workers due to being stigmatised.

Rebecca was never given any of the money she made from prostitution and after two years she managed to escape.

"I was hiding from them. I imagined all sorts of things happening if they found me, but nobody ever came looking for me. Well not that I know of."

When she moved to New Zealand several years ago she found working conditions were better than in Australia.

"I still had to go in the police book, but I wasn't given any grief at all. When they made it legal it was so much better. I stopped feeling like a criminal."

Before the Prostitution Reform Act came in 2003, prostitution was illegal in New Zealand, and sex workers were required to go in a police register.

Rebecca took a break from sex work for about 10 years after escaping from her pimp. Doing odd office jobs, she got married and had two children.

But the lure of money and the freedom to choose her own working hours and days proved too much and Rebecca ventured back into sex work again.

"I felt like as an adult I had choices about who I would have to see," she says.

Rebecca, now single, has been married twice. She did not work as a prostitute during her first marriage, but told her second husband about the nature of her work.

"He was OK for a while and then he started to not be able to cope with the thought of it so I stopped for the rest of the time I was with him and tried to give the marriage a go."

She says although her children, now in their 30s, know what their mother does for a living, the only problem they have with the profession is her personal safety.

"At home I was always just Mum. I never brought work home with me. I never exposed them to it."

These days Rebecca advertises her services in the newspaper. On a good week she sees between 10 and 12 clients.

She has regular customers but says because people are a lot more strapped for cash since the recession hit, a lot are only booking half-hour sessions instead a full hour.

"I charge $100 for half an hour and $160 for an hour. The money is not so good in New Zealand, it hasn't risen with inflation."

Rebecca attributes that to brothel owners because they like to keep prices down.

"I think some people have this idea of a sex worker being this person who is like a hooker on the corner with a fag hanging out their mouth with fish nets on. And there are probably some people who are like that, but not all of us."

Ms August says research shows there has been little impact on the amount of people working in the sex industry since it was decriminalised.

Prior to decriminalisation sex work in New Zealand was not illegal, it was all the related activities that were against the law.

"It was an offence to offer sex for money but it wasn't an offence to pay or offer money for sex. This created a double standard often seeing sex workers convicted for soliciting while the client was seen as not having committed any offence at all," Ms August says.

Most sex workers say the reform has made their work a lot easier as they can speak openly about their work and safer sex practices.

The biggest misconceptions about sex workers is that they are "junkie whores", victims of abuse and that the work is harmful and damaging.

"Not all sex workers are drug users. There is more crime out there in our wider community than in the sex industry."

People only hear about what is printed in the media and form their views upon this tainted with their own beliefs, Ms August says.

"It would be untrue though to say that violence is not a factor for sex workers and clients are their main perpetrators. Crime comes in many forms including abusive text messages and theft of earnings, a client's refusal to pay for services, physical and sexual assault. One day people's views will change but until then we will keep working at removing the stigma that goes along with sex work."

* Names of the sex workers in this story have been changed to protect their identities.

Copyright © 2011 Fairfax New Zealand Limited 

Stop Demand makes the following comments - to raise awareness, educate and encourage readers towards critical analysis.

"It would be untrue though to say that violence is not a factor for sex workers and clients are their main perpetrators. Crime comes in many forms including abusive text messages and theft of earnings, a client's refusal to pay for services, physical and sexual assault. One day people's views will change ..." 
We hope not!  Violence and crime including abuse, theft, physical and sexual assault by "clients" should never be normalised as a regular part of anyone's 'work'.  To do so, would be a further retrograde step for gender equality in New Zealand.  That such violence, crime, abuse, theft, physical and sexual assault is perpetrated by the very "men" who pay to sexually access these women's bodies would, in any other setting, be vehemently denounced and condemned as domestic violence and abuse.  Adding a cash value does nothing to change this fact.