Speaking frankly, Margaret Sparrow

My Body, My Business: New Zealand Sex Workers In An Era Of Change
Caren Wilton (Madeleine Slavick photographer)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781988531328

As I write this review, I hear a news item that Dame Catherine Healy DNZM and Julie Bates AO, a leading Australian sex worker, are presenting a submission on the decriminalisation of prostitution to Members of the South Australian parliament. It demonstrates how far New Zealand has progressed on this issue. Sixteen years ago, in 2003, when the law changed, this scenario would never have been envisaged. In June 2018, both women received Queen’s Birthday Awards from their respective governments. In Healy’s case, she was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. Bates became an Officer of the Order of Australia. Both awards were richly deserved for many years dedicated to improving the health and safety of sex workers.

In this book, Healy tells her story to Caren Wilton, who spent eight years interviewing, transcribing, writing and editing the life stories of 19 New Zealand sex workers, 11 of whom consented to publication. The book does not delve into the exploitation and trafficking of sex workers from overseas, nor does it include those who work only briefly in the sex industry. The focus is on the New Zealand experience for a range of sex workers from the 1960s onwards.

At the age of 30, Healy was disillusioned after teaching for nine years. Almost by chance, she became a receptionist at a massage parlour, but soon realised that she could earn much more as a sex worker. Her sense of social justice led to her becoming involved in the rights of sex workers, who at that time were continually being harassed by police. She also became involved in protecting sex workers from a mysterious new life-threatening sexually transmitted illness that appeared for the first time in New Zealand in 1984. We now know this as HIV/AIDS, and its appearance contributed to the formation of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF) in 1985 and the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) in 1987.

Healy was instrumental in the formation of the NZPC and is well recognised for her long-standing advocacy for sex workers, culminating, after many years of campaigning, in the passing of the Prostitution Reform Act. Her public health work, because that is what it is, is recognised both nationally and internationally. Considering all her achievements, the story she tells is remarkably unassuming.

Another unpretentious story is that of Anna Reed, who enjoyed sex, became a sex worker at the age of 34 and retired at the age of 58. From 1988, Reed was the Christchurch regional coordinator for the NZPC and in that role was able to support and guide many other women. On her retirement she received three awards: The Public Health Association’s public health champion award, shared with Healy; a life membership award from the NZAF; and the New Zealand Police District Commander’s commendation for her invaluable work with the police. 

Healy and Reed have high public profiles, but most of the other stories are of ordinary people known only by their first names. They come from a variety of backgrounds, ethnicities and sexual orientation. Four are transgender, one is a gay male and one a lesbian. Some lack qualifications, but others have a tertiary education. Some got on well with their families; others didn’t. Some are single; some live in long-term partnerships; some are parents; some were adopted.

The author describes her methods for taking the oral histories and fortunately provides a glossary to explain some of the colloquial terms used: “I wanted to make visible the invisible, to bring the hidden into the light, at least a little bit, and to record a time and some places and ways of being that had existed but now were mostly gone.” This she has achieved through careful editing of the source material. The stories are frank, but not sleazy. 

The book is dedicated to transwoman Dana de Milo (1946-2018), a Pākehā queen who stole clothes from washing lines for her outfits. She had a colourful career including street work, some ship work, and waitressing for Carmen in Wellington. She died of liver cancer. 

Poppy was adopted and at the age of 14 was subjected to horrific aversion therapy in an attempt to change her gender identity. She transitioned to a transwoman and was a friend of Dana.

Shareda is a transwoman who worked on the streets of Auckland and Wellington and became a community liaison person for the NZPC. 

Stevie is a non-binary takatāpui transsexual who, after exploring different options, became a transman, all the while raising a son. Coming from a poor background, having plenty of food in the pantry was an important goal.

Allan’s birth mother and adoptive mother were both Māori. He was gay and worked in Auckland. He had a varied career, from street work as a man or in drag, to male stripper, to “female” stripper with his penis taped up the back. He settled into a long-term gay relationship and fathered four children. After many years operating a massage clinic, he became a male escort and is involved with NZPC.

Jeanie is a rebellious lesbian who used men for the money. She now works as a city ambassador, walking the streets on the lookout for those who need help.

Mistress Margaret became a dominatrix at 47, when her husband had a serious accident, leaving her with an 11-year-old son to support.

Kelly worked in a variety of establishments in Queensland, Auckland and Rotorua, but preferred working privately. After the breakup of her marriage, she needed to work to support her son. She later became a health worker.

Misty pays tribute to the help she received from Anna. After taking years to recover from an aneurysm she returned to sex work and also works for the NZPC. Her house was seriously damaged by the Christchurch earthquakes, as were premises of the NZPC. The emotional damage was even greater.

In the introduction, the author provides the reader with a brief history of sex work in New Zealand, helping to put the varied stories in context. Life for sex workers before 2003 was precarious. This was the era of hypocrisy and double standards. If a man offered a woman money for sex he was acting within the law. If the same woman asked the same man to give her money for the same sex act, she was breaking the law, guilty of soliciting. Simply put, to offer money for sex was legal; to offer sex for money was illegal. 

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the police operated “vice squads” responsible for policing the sex industry. Licensed massage parlours were allowed to legally offer only massage, and undercover police officers would try to obtain evidence by entrapment. Incredibly, the possession of condoms was sometimes used in court cases to provide evidence of illegal activity, not evidence of responsibility for safer sex. As well as massage parlours, there were escort agencies with different rules, and the streets, where workers were more at risk of violence. 

In some other countries, prostitution was legalised with state controls, but New Zealand became the first country to decriminalise prostitution. The Prostitution Reform Bill, sponsored by Labour MP Tim Barnett, passed with the slimmest of margins, by one vote and one abstention. This came only after many years of controversy, debate and campaigning. Sex workers were condemned and ridiculed by those taking the moral high ground and from some feminists who saw prostitution as violence against women and a denial of human rights, the ultimate in exploitation and oppression. 

The controversy did not end with the passage of the Act, when local bodies introduced new bylaws on the location of brothels. On the positive side, the new legislation promoted personal protection and safer sex practices for those who had attained the age of 18 years. However, as the stories tell, the stigma surrounding prostitution has not gone away.

Wilton has provided us with a valuable record of personal stories from an era of change, the phrase used in the subtitle. The text is well annotated, and generous acknowledgement is given to other writers on the topic. Each chapter is prefaced with a striking and tasteful photograph, mostly from New Zealand venues. This book is highly recommended for anyone interested in the diversity of personal relationships.

Dame Margaret Sparrow is a retired sexual health physician.

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