Rotten eggs, massage parlours and community: an eye-opening look into New Zealand sex work


Sex work is referred to as the world's oldest profession, yet it remains a curiously hidden world.

A new book nearly a decade in the making aims to tear down some of the mystery surrounding the subject, and reveal the industry's biggest secret: that sex workers are normal people.

Author Caren Wilton interviewed 19 former and current sex workers, and compiled 11 of their stories in My Body, My Business: NZ Sex Workers in an Era of Change.

A celebrated oral historian, talking to people is how she makes sense of the world - particularly "people with extraordinary lives".

The process was "fantastic", but lengthy: she conducted her first interview in 2009, unsure what she'd end up doing with the material. At first she thought of giving the stories to the archives so they could be preserved in history.

"I realised I loved the stories from this fascinating mix of people," she told Newshub.

"I wanted to create something out of it, not leave the audio in archives."

She spoke with people from a variety of backgrounds, from a non-binary Māori anarchist who entered the industry when their son started school, to an English widow who became a dominatrix at 47.

"I learned people have very different reasons for going into sex work," she says. "There's no one single story, not everyone fits into the stereotype - not everyone in the industry was sexually abused, for example."

One of the benefits of oral history is that she was able to delve into her interviewees' backgrounds in detail - one interview stretched out over a whopping 18 hours, albeit with breaks.

The book is an illuminating look into a world many will never see. One of its most eye-opening chapters comes courtesy of Shareda, a Māori trans woman who saw sex workers in Myers Park when she was 14 and wanted to be like them because she thought they were beautiful.

"Sex work provided trans people with community," Ms Wilton says.

It's not all love and positivity. She heard plenty of horrific stories of sex workers being abused in the street, or having bottles and rotten eggs thrown at them.

Anna, who worked in the sex industry throughout the 1970s and '80s, describes a horrific moment when a client tied her to a motel bed and turned the lights off. She only managed to escape by telling him her driver would be there soon.

Others were raped off the job, with men assuming - rightly in most cases - that they could get away with it because of the victim's line of work. One woman was assaulted by her doctor.

Misty, a Christchurch sex worker who worked in Auckland, was roughed up by clients after they took P.

"She spoke about it casually, like it was how she expected to be treated," says Ms Wilton.

But things have improved for sex workers in this country, thanks in large part to the work of "canny political operative" Catherine Healy, whose own story is included in My Body, My Business.

"I was delighted to include her because she hadn't spoken much about her own experience before founding the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective."

The book details how before the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003, sex workers had to pose as "masseuses" in parlours - and were always on the lookout for cops posing, in turn, as clients.

There's still a way to go yet before sex workers are treated with the respect they deserve. Ms Wilton mentions the often-touted Nordic model of regulation - which criminalises only the customer - as inherently flawed.

"It opens workers up to more danger, as clients become nervous about being caught with sex workers."

She's also got no time for feminism that excludes sex workers, which is a small but vocal faction of the movement often aligned with trans-exclusionary feminism.

"It doesn't seem like a good kind of feminism. It's not worthy of the name."

With My Body, My Business, Ms Wilton hopes to shed light on the industry and reduce the stigma.

"I wanted to humanise and normalise sex work. Sex workers are normal people in our communities. I'm telling these full-life stories with sex work at the centre. These people are parents and creatives, they have other identities, not just sex workers."

My Body, My Business: NZ Sex Workers in an Era of Change is published by Otago University Press and is available now.