Catherine Healy: Giving sex workers a voice

Working Girls
Jan Jordan,
Penguin, Auckland, 1991, $29.95

In 1987 when the Prostitutes Collective was established largely in response to the AIDS pandemic, it was necessary to turn to overseas experience for guidance. It was all very interesting reading about sex workers in Australia, Europe, Asia and America, but where was the New Zealand experience?

Jan Jordan, author of Working Girls and a trustee for the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective believes, like the Collective, that in order to keep HIV/ AIDS out of the sex industry, the industry itself would have to be brought out of hiding, and not driven further underground. In a society which stigmatizes prostitutes, the voices of these women tend to remain unheard and the myths surrounding them continue to go unchallenged.

Jordan has given New Zealand sex workers a voice in Working Girls. She interviewed seventeen women for this book, assigning a chapter to each. Acting simply as the ‘vehicle’, she allows them to tell their own stories. Through the experiences of these women we learn much about the structure of the sex industry – from massage parlours to escort agencies, street work and the ship scene. We are quickly given to understand that no particular ‘type’ of woman enters sex work. They may be educated or not, young, old, married or single, lesbian or heterosexual. Racial, social or religious distinctions are no barriers to this industry, indeed the only common denominator is economic need.

The 17 women who contributed their individual stories have laid their lives open to public scrutiny. They should be commended for their courage and the candid way in which they discuss their work and how it affects them. Their stories have detailed the challenges faced by sex workers in both their public and private lives. While not representative of the sex industry as a whole, these women’s stories provide particular insights into the stigma associated with sex work and plant the seed for further exploration of the issues.

It would be naive to expect that after reading this book the boundaries of prejudice that impinge on the lives of the estimated 8000 sex workers in this country will be radically altered. Unfortunately the change that would require such a shift in attitudes will only result from legislative reform and a concerted response from the wider community. Jordan, in writing Working Girls has at the very least provided a point of reference to begin discussion.


Catherine Healy is a founding member and currently National Coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. 


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Posted in Gender, Health, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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