Feature: inside Tauranga's sex industry

By Carly Gibbs


It's been eight years since prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand. CARLY GIBBS goes inside Tauranga's sex industry

She starts her day as if preparing for a big night out, changing into a bust-enhancing corset, and painting her lips scarlet.

When the transformation occurs, a stranger's reflection is what she sees. Sheer stockings are rolled up, six-inch heels slipped on, and an undersized dress becomes sultry.

In "the room", she is a different person.

In "the room", she is anything you want.

She's a tough woman

"You know when you're in 'the room' if you can do it, or you can't," says 23-year-old Jade, her crossed legs encased in caramel-coloured boots. She is rolling a cigarette in the lounge of her Ohauiti home.

"You've just got to block everything out and think about the money," she says.

Jade has been a prostitute for nearly two years and chooses to work from home.

My visit to her house is timed 15 minutes after her last client left.

"It was fine," she says, with a slight shrug. "He came in, wanted just the normal service, which is quick rub, straight sex, showered and gone. He wasn't much of a talker, but you get that."

At 23, Jade advertises herself as 19. The younger you are, the more business you get.

She's attractive, with long, straight brunette hair, a petite frame, and dainty features enhanced by makeup.

Her home is tidy and modern, with a splash of her personality depicted in the black feather angel wings on the lounge wall. A collection of painted skulls sits around the television.

She's a tough woman. You have to be in this business, she reckons.

The mother of two moved to the Bay from Inglewood, thinking it would be a more lucrative market, but instead has found the opposite.

"There's a lot more variety of girls and some will charge quite cheap. It's quite hard for a nice, classy, working girl to get top dollar."

She says she makes more from home than working in a brothel (she had a three-week stint at one) and her time is more flexible.

Working from home, you don't have a "pimp".

She works day and night but "cuts it off" about midnight.

"On a Monday night, someone that's up at 2.30am is up to no good, you know?"

Has she had any close calls?

"Oh yeah. So many stories. I always have someone here just in case. I had a guy behind me and he pulled the sheet up around my neck and tried to ... Well, I don't know if he would have gone through with it. You need to be pretty tough. You keep your deodorant and perfume by the bed so you could maybe spray them in the eyes."

Her partner often acts as security when Jade's clients visit.

Not all bookings are for sex

Are most respectful?

"45-plus, yeah. Young, nuh-uh," she says, shaking her head.

"I have a real problem with young people.

"They're rough, wanna be dirty with it, won't take no for an answer, use up more time, want to text and waste your credit, want a girlfriend.

"I don't like to turn people away but you get all sorts. In a parlour, you could probably be more picky because there's other girls there, although you'd probably get a bullet from the boss if you turned down a client."

Jade says she will turn away clients, or recommend someone else, if they appear gang affiliated or "quite obese".

She says she's had it all happen, with some clients who are very "hands-on ... pull your hair, bite you".

Why does she put up with it?

"For the money. Nice cars, motorbikes ... Things aren't cheap.

"I did have to have a break because doing it for a long period of time, you're not very nice to be around."

Half an hour with Jade is $100. Unlike parlours, she won't do hour bookings.

"Pretty much who needs an hour unless you're on drugs or there's something wrong with you?

"That's another thing I don't like about the parlour - guys can just book you for hours and hours."

Not all Jade's bookings are for sex: "Some like to just have a perve because they feel like they're cheating."

Some days she has three clients, other days 10.

She was introduced to prostitution through a working girl she met in town one night.

"She invited me in one day and I started doing doubles," she says. The rest is history.

Jade plans on selling herself for sex until she has enough money to build a house. She has a dedicated room in her house for sex and she keeps it plain.

There are no mirrors, or a stereo for striptease.

Has prostitution changed her in any way?

"Yes. I'm negative, cold, sometimes heartless towards my partner, treat him like a client, just detached. After 18 months of working and we got what we wanted, I got very depressed. I just got very cold."

Will she ever stop?

"Yes - but there's a saying 'once a hooker, always a hooker'."

Five registered brothels in Tauranga

Since the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, prostitution is a legal activity.

Eight years on, business is booming for sex workers in Tauranga.

The majority of working girls make more than $1000 a week. Some make that in a shift.

There are five registered brothels in Tauranga, compared with four in 2003.

You are allowed to offer commercial sex services from your house, provided you are the only person operating there.

Brothels must only open in areas permitted under council bylaw and a certificate of compliance and an operator certificate, is needed.

Tauranga brothels are monitored by way of complaints about non-compliance but the council says few complaints have been received.

Surge in foreign sex workers

In a recent poll, two-thirds of Kiwis said prostitution laws should be amended to keep brothels out of residential areas. The poll and its results angered the National Prostitutes Collective, which says recriminalising the profession would be unrealistic and unsafe.

Immigration New Zealand is monitoring brothels and says it will charge them with "aiding and abetting" illegal prostitutes to remain in the country if they rent out beds to them. The agency is anticipating a surge in foreign sex workers entering the country to meet an expected increase in demand during the Rugby World Cup.

Tauranga's Larry Baldock, leader of the Kiwi Party and city councillor, believes brothel keeping, pimping and street soliciting should never have been decriminalised.

He says Prime Minister John Key voted against it, and Baldock agrees.

"Is this the message we want to be sending to society?" he says.

Baldock says if the profession wasn't so highly paid, fewer women would probably do it.

"Prostitution is at the expense of Kiwi families. If you ask prostitutes, a lot of their clients are married, and a lot of their money is coming from the family purse. If they were doing it for $15 an hour it would be a different story."

Breadwinners in the oldest profession

It's 1.30pm and Teah, in black stilettos with silver buckles, is adjusting torn stockings in front of a mirror.

When she finally has them right, she smooths the silver miniskirt she's wearing and like clockwork, moves on to her hair. Over and over she twists and twines it so it falls in coils around her youthful face.

Satisfied, she takes a seat on a nearby couch, and underneath an open window, crosses her legs.

At 19, Teah has been in the sex industry two months. In that time, she's slept with dozens of strangers and made several thousand dollars.

But she's hardly a veteran compared with the other two girls in this room. All three are Maori.

Felicity, in a tight black dress, and Keelah, in a skirt the size of a pocket, were 18 when they entered the profession. Today they're 27.

Keelah started off as a dancer. Highlighted hair in a ponytail, and gold hoops in her ears, her legs are wrapped underneath her. She isn't embarrassed by what she does.

"Not since it [has] become legal because it's like any other job. It's just like how the young ones would go out, get drunk, and randomly hook up with people.

"It's just the same thing except we're not drunk, we're in a safe environment and we're getting paid to do it. There's nothing wrong with it. People enjoy it at home."

Living a separate life

Do they ever get attached to any of their clients? "Ew, no way," says Teah.

"It's just like working in a supermarket where you serve the same customer over and over again," reckons Keelah. "You don't get attached to them, they're just the customer."

"It's like living a separate life really. For most girls they don't want people to know what they do," says Felicity.

Keelah and Teah both have partners and say getting close with them is completely different.

"The intimacy is there," Keelah explains.

"My first job was freaky but sex is sex," says Teah. "The guy was nice. The number one rule in the room is you're the boss. Most of them know that and don't really try much." Kissing is not permitted unless the girl agrees.

It is the money that attracts most prostitutes, not a love for sex. Keelah has bought two houses and three cars with the money she has made from prostitution and says: "Don't judge until you've tried it. It's better than being on the street."

It is illegal for prostitutes in Tauranga to solicit sex on the street.

Providing a safe haven

In the waiting room of Calender Girls, a Chinese-printed lamp casts a red glow. This is the lounge where the men sit and wait for the girls to come out and do their "intros". They say their name and their age and a few basic lines. Girls are encouraged to be "extra nice to clients" so they don't go elsewhere.

Down a dim corridor are small bedrooms. Inside, televisions are playing pornography. There are toilets across the hall and all men must shower before engaging in sexual activity.

The business is owned by Venetia Magahy and Jon Wainwright, a couple of 28 years.

Is it a sleazy industry? No, says Wainwright.

"The girls, they're their own boss. We provide a safe haven for them. The girls get paid at the end of each shift regardless of whether it's credit cards, or whatever. As long as there's a certain amount of loyalty, we'll break our backs for them. We positively think [prostitution] is one of the hardest jobs in the world to do."

Once again though, it's the money that lures them. At Calendar Girls it's $80 for 20 minutes, $120 for 30 minutes, $150 for 45 minutes and $160 for an hour.

"Where else can a girl earn $100 an hour? And they should pay tax on that, but in my experience, not many girls do. They haven't brought that in as law yet," Magahy says.

The business is busier in summer and the turn-over of girls is high. Many prostitutes are transient and it's illegal to make them sign contracts.

"It's pretty obvious if a girl is not cutting the mustard," Wainwright says. "She'll go and intro and she won't get any work."

If a girl doesn't get any work she'll leave on her own, he says.

Sexual health check-ups

You have to be 18 to be a prostitute, or use their services. Condoms are a requirement and they are advised to take other precautions when necessary. Sexual health check-ups are recommended for prostitutes every three months.

All ladies entering the industry are given a handbook from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective called Stepping Forward. The book gives both sexual tips and information for staying healthy and safe. The girls are advised to watch out for "sex worker burnout syndrome" and that they can say no to a client or to a sexual request.

"They see the people coming up the stairs [on the security camera]. It could be your brother, uncle, granddad," says Wainwright.

When the girls go on outcalls, Wainwright goes with them.

"I make sure there's not a rugby team hiding in the closet. Check out the guy out to make sure he's a normal sort of bloke, not off his face or whatever, and I collect the money so the girl doesn't have any argument over the money.

"I wait in the car outside. Other places send them out willy nilly and they could be sending them off to an axe murderer."

He says the majority of clients are respectful: "There are rules and they're to do nothing unless the girl gives permission. I'll always back the girls. I don't care if it's King Kong himself in there."

Jobs outside of prostitution

There's a dress-up room at Club 503. On hangers are school-girl uniforms, nurse uniforms, and everything in between.

Hayley, Aimee and Holly, have chosen corsets and stockings and will wear masquerade masks to hide their identities.

Aimee and Holly have jobs outside of prostitution.

How old are they? "In real life or up here?" asks dark-haired Aimee. Dressed in a red corset and short black skirt, her lip piercing moves when she talks.

In real life, Aimee and Holly are 21. Hayley is 19. Sometimes they tell their clients different.

"I've always been sort of fascinated by this industry," says Holly, who last week earned $1300. She is wearing an animal print corset that's tight around her bust.

"During the day you get a lot of businessmen and repeat clients. When you're in a relationship, it's emotional. Up here, it's something different."

The girls says contrary to the stereotype, not all hookers use drugs to get themselves through the job. "That's not true at all," Aimee says. "I don't actually know where the hell that came from. We're just normal people."

Hayley came to Club 503 a fortnight ago. A prostitute for a year, she followed her two sisters into the industry. With blonde hair and dressed in a baby-pink corset, pink ruffled knickers, suspenders and stockings, she is a single mum to an 8-month-old girl.

"I want to study, I want to be a teacher."

Prostitution, she says, will help pay for her tertiary study.

Tauranga is conservative

In the lounge at Club 503 on Cameron Rd, the fire is crackling, the TV is going, and candles flicker. There's a pool table and three couches.

Down a red corridor are the bedrooms. There's a beach-themed room, and a VIP room with a four-poster bed and a spa. Roses sit on towels. Cushions with ruffles are propped on the bed. The stereo is on and there's a white robe hanging by the shower.

Club owner Judy Cunningham is dressed in all black, offset by gold jewellery.

She says Tauranga is conservative and brothel owners specifically don't push their business in the public's face.

"I think it will backfire on you. For argument's sake, we could have girls down there with sandwich boards but I think that could actually do more damage than good. You've got to progressively move but not rewrite the book, either."

To sustain the business, Club 503 needs between 120 to 140 clients a week. Their starting price is $80 which goes up to $200 for the VIP room and hour-long service. Cunnigham won't say what the girls get paid. There is the base rate and then the girls can get tipped by their clients. A fortnight ago, they had a husband and wife visit the brothel and they each booked a girl. They have had two men book one girl.

How many clients are married? "I don't know because you don't ask. You'll see a few wedding rings but you don't say 'oh, you're married'."

The girls are required to get their own STD checks and bring their medical certificate back to work. Apart from being clean, the other criteria for a call girl is an outgoing personality, have no "hang-ups" about sex, and, says Cunningham, they've got to be pretty.

"I turned three away last week 'cause I just didn't like the look of them. They've got to be sort of classy, just striking, just not any old Joe Bloggs."

The oldest profession in the world

Cunningham says the idea is for girls to build up a repeat clientele so they have effectively created their own businesses. They have only ever had one bad experience and that was four years ago, when a man hit a girl across the face.

"[From home] there's always that overtone of stand-over tactics and other sort of criminal activity and they sort of exchange certain things," she says, referring to drugs and stolen goods.

Is this not also a seedy, shady place to be though?

"We don't walk around in trench coats. It's a bit like being a farmer, the only time when you make money is when you sell the business. It sustains a comfortable lifestyle and it's definitely not seedy.

"It's every walk of life that visits an establishment like this. It's the oldest profession in the world and it'll still be going after everything else is not."

LIPS painted blood-red, Rose takes a seat and proudly shows off a yellowed photograph.

"That was me, that was what I used to look like," she chimes. Now in her 40s, Rose was late entering the industry.

"I was about 36. I was selling health products and I came across these girls in a backyard. They were in their bikinis and they were having a drink and they said, 'Oh, come on in and have a drink with us'. I looked in the fridge and woah, there were oysters, food. I was going, 'Wow, that's amazing, how can you afford to live like this?'."

Turns out the girls were prostitutes.

"It went from there. I thought 'I'll give it a try'. I was two years separated and I'd been two years' celibate. I'd had a bad deal from my husband and then he went with another lady."

What does she think people's attitudes to the sex industry are?

"We've still got a very high ratio of people who can take religion too far ... We're not all bad people. There's a lot of girls that have had some form of abuse, which is the sad part about it. It's a cause and effect, because why wouldn't they pick anything else? I chanced upon it."

Open seven days

Angels come in varying forms.

Tauranga's upmarket massage parlour Corporate Angels is the largest brothel in Tauranga and is owned by Allan Coombes, a former sex worker himself. He's been in the industry 20 years. and can't tolerate the sleazy side of life.

"We maintain a high standard," Coombes says from his couch in the dimly lit front lounge. His dog Bonnie jumps up beside him and places a paw on his knee.

"We have a controlled atmosphere at Corporate Angels. Not everything goes."

The 54-year-old came to Tauranga in 1999 and after managing David Elman Shoes and then Mainly Silver jewellery shop, he entered the sex industry and set up Corporate Angels in 2001. At one point in time, he has owned all the brothels in Tauranga.

Coombes has 25 ladies on the books, and six males. Tourists and overseas visitors make up a lot of his business. He gets about 160 customers a week and it's open seven days. Customers pay between $100 (30 minutes) to $160 (one hour). Some clients visit more than once a week.

Coombes says a relaxation of the law has made it easier for private people to set up from home: "Which is very contradictory because there's no controlling for them like there is for the brothels."

Coombes says in Tauranga you don't have to produce photo ID before advertising for sex workers in the adult entertainment columns.

You also don't have to register with the police, or even contact the police, if you wish to be a sex worker in New Zealand. Under the old laws, massage parlours were required to keep a register of names, with identifying details, which were to be given to the police for inspection "upon request". In some areas, people working privately had to register with the police before they could advertise in their local newspaper.

This is no longer the case.

Coombes says he disagrees with this as it will see illegal immigrants eventually get out of hand in Tauranga.

"I don't employ Asian ladies for that reason. It's a $10,000 fine for us but they can go and work willy nilly out of [a] motel so it's quite double standards."

On the upside, Coombes says clients feel more comfortable visiting sex workers knowing the profession is legal. Demand hasn't changed.

"When something is illegal or untouched fruit, it's more intriguing, and they still would come."

Do people ever turn up just for a curious look inside?

"I think people are too shy, or they assume a lot, and assuming is quite bad. We've had virgins and males who are 86 and lonely, so we're offering quite a service to the community. I don't think men handle loneliness as well as females."

Does he require a certain look from his employees?

"Some [clients] are looking for a busty female, some men don't like bust, some like very slim, some like very young, some like more mature. Some men couldn't think of anything worse than going through with a young female that looks like their daughter. A lot of it is about company, it's not what people think, that it's purely about sex."

the only difference

One day, Venus is going to write a book.

The 48-year-old, whose youngest client is 18 and oldest 95, says she's only noticed a "tiny" difference since prostitution was legalised.

Wearing black heels and a silver diamante cross, she sits with pink fingernails resting on her trousers.

A call girl for 12 years, she says the only difference in legalising the profession is men feel more comfortable.

"The word illegal and legal makes a big difference."

Venus answered an advert in the paper and says becoming a prostitute was "my calling".

She plans to keep doing it until she turns 50 and at that point, will write a book about her experiences.

"When I first started I had young kids and I was bringing them up in poverty but [afterwards] we went to the supermarket and I said 'have whatever you want' and my son said 'even icecream?' That to me was the main thing, being able to provide for my family.

"Most ladies do it to provide, that is the main motivation. There's more that have to do it, than choose to."

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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