Prostitution is often referred to as ‘the oldest profession’, and dates back to biblical times. Sailors arriving in New Zealand in the late 18th and early 19th centuries were starved of female company after long voyages on all-male ships. Once on land, they were keen to buy sexual services. At this period in New Zealand history sailors were quickly followed by whalers, sealers and other traders, who sometimes exchanged goods, especially muskets, with Māori males in return for sexual contact with Māori women. Some sailors formed temporary relationships with Māori ‘wives’ and provided them with dresses and other goods. It was also not uncommon for women and children to be forced by men of their tribe into having multiple sexual partners. The Bay of Islands port of Russell had a reputation for drunkenness and prostitution. In 1840 it was a busy port with over 700 vessels visiting the town, each with a crew of 30 to 40 horny men who went ashore for recreation and provisioning.


Through the1840s, colonial settlements grew in size and bars and brothels flourished. Men outnumbered women in most settler communities. In 1858 there were 131 males to every 100 females. Growing numbers of European women responded to a strong demand by men for sexual services. Māori women were less likely to be involved as European women were more favoured. By the 1860s, fears were expressed that women immigrants were choosing to do sex work in brothels and on the streets, rather than taking up low-paid employment in domestic service.


The demand for sex services rose dramatically when gold was discovered in New Zealand. Small ‘rushes’ occurred during the 1850s in Coromandel and Nelson, but the biggest by far was in Otago after gold was discovered in 1861. As thousands of fortune-seekers headed for the goldfields, they were accompanied by those who provided food, alcohol and women. Many brothels were concealed in back rooms behind shop-fronts. In Christchurch brothels were disguised as a vegetable shop, an oyster saloon and a lolly shop. The City Buffet in Dunedin appeared to be a coffee shop until police found ‘Blanche, a French whore, dancing the cancan’ as well as 25 men dancing with five prostitutes, accompanied by musicians. When Chinese miners arrived in Otago, an enterprising Chinese businessman decided there would be a need for prostitutes to service these men. As a result, a small number of Chinese girls were shipped to Central Otago but it was soon discovered that this was a big mistake. The women were unable to walk, let alone stand up, on the uneven street surfaces. They could only negotiate smooth surfaces with their tiny bound feet. They ended up in Dunedin’s MacLaggan Street. Located in the centre of the ‘devil’s half acre’ it became the town’s infamous red-light district in the last decade of the 19th century.

In 1869 there were 28 known ‘houses of ill-fame’ in Christchurch and 26 in Dunedin. Te Aro became the centre of Wellington’s red-light district, while Upper Queen Street in Auckland had a selection of brothels. Under the Contagious Diseases Act 1869, any girl or woman ‘deemed to be a prostitute’ had to submit to compulsory medical examination. If she had a venereal disease, she could be legally detained. Women’s groups complained about this because the action focused on sex workers rather than their clients.


After the Vagrant Act was passed in 1866, police often arrested prostitutes for vagrancy or drunk-and disorderly behaviour. In 1884 the Police Offences Act made it an offence for ‘common prostitutes’ to solicit for business in public. However, by the late 19th century prostitution was tolerated as long as it was not visible. Those who brazenly advertised their wares on street corners were likely to be arrested. Sex workers operating quietly behind closed doors attracted little attention. This wasn’t the case with English woman Mary Greaves who worked the streets of Christchurch well into her late 50s. She was a rowdy, disruptive presence and was frequently arrested for vagrancy, drunkenness, larceny and soliciting. In 1876 Mary was charged under the Contagious Diseases Act for not attending a medical examination, and sent to the Contagious Diseases Reformatory. She served several other prison sentences before settling down in Sydenham and disappearing from the headlines.


Flora McKenzie was another noted prostitute who became well known to the public. She came from a wealthy family and initially trained to be a nurse but providing ‘services’ to men was more to her liking. During the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Flora ran a sex business in Auckland and once controversially said: ‘Isn’t every woman a prostitute?’ The Auckland ‘madam’ described her business as ‘sex therapy’. Despite being charged six times for keeping a brothel in Ponsonby, her clients included politicians and businessmen and many teachers, nurses and office staff worked for her on a part-time basis. She became an Auckland icon in her lifetime and was much admired by a large cross section of the Auckland population.

Flora McKenzie (NZhistory)

Throughout the 20th century street workers hovered around designated locations in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Clients would pick the girls (and boys) up in their cars and head to the brothel where the worker operated from. Some provided sexual services from their own homes. These one-woman brothels advertised in magazines and newspapers and they became increasingly popular with workers because they offered independence, privacy and flexibility.


In the 1960s and 70s sexuality became a popular topic of conversation and many brothels advertised as ‘massage parlours’. Clients paid for a massage and then negotiated with the women for sexual services. Concern about possible links between massage parlours and organised crime led to the Massage Parlours Act 1978. Parlours had to now be licensed, and classed as ‘public places’. This enabled existing laws against soliciting on the street to be extended to parlours. Around this time, some brothels started to provide outcall services to homes or hotel rooms. This was a popular and discreet way to hook up with a prostitute. It was also a way for sailors on ships visiting the main New Zealand ports to hire an onboard girl or boy for a sex session.


Not all men hire prostitutes for sex. I have spoken to mature sex workers who have regular clients who just need a shoulder to cry on: someone who will listen to their problems and who will give some advice. These men usually have problems with their marriage or work pressures and just need time to express their anxieties to a woman who understands many of life’s problems. For this reason, prostitutes are an important part of a healthy society and are destined to be a profession that will continue as long as men walk this earth.

Ceidrik Heward