Part Two

People, Places, and the Powers that be

by Henry Grey*

“…working in the 90s is about adjusting to competitive economic times…” – Siren, September 1995


Commercial sex in the neoliberal era is best understood through the people who entered the scene, the spaces they inhabited, and the outside forces that influenced their livelihoods. These newbies experienced a highly profit-driven industry that was very different to that of their predecessors. It also looked different, with the traditional red light areas either declining or leaving the city centre. In many ways, this process helped shape the city we see today, as gleaming high-rises now tower over a highly gentrified Britomart, without a sex business in sight.

This article discusses the industry through its notable newcomers, established networks, and the never-ending conflict with Auckland Council. The sex industry highlights issues that Tāmaki Makaurau was facing more broadly, including racism, xenophobia, and inequality. Naturally, these issues pre-date the 1980s, but political changes around economic restructuring drew fresh societal emphasis. As the shadow of neoliberalism grew taller, sex workers endured significant changes to their profession. This is part one of how neoliberalism contributed to the evolution of sex work.


The ‘King of the G-String’

The history of post-war commercial sex in Tāmaki Makaurau can be roughly traced through the life of Rainton Hastie. In his business pursuits, we can see the rise and fall of various trends across the industry. Hastie opened the Pink Pussycat (a strip club) in 1963, pioneering Karangahape Road’s (K’ Road) red light presence. These strip clubs slowly gave way to the saunas and parlours of the 1970s, a change reflected in the Massage Parlours Act 1978. This Act regulated parlours, requiring owners to be licensed but allowing commercial sex to continue as long as the workers were not actively offering sex for money. Hastie rode this wave with Velvet Touch – a parlour that would add to his already considerable wealth. At this point, the industry was dominated by “two or three big-wigs”, a duopoly/triopoly that awarded owners like Hastie with slick sportscars and homes on Paratai Drive. Riding high, and in a typically flamboyant flourish, he labelled himself the ‘King of the G-String’.

This all changed with intensified commercial activity in the late 1980s. Competition ramped up in an explosion of businesses that diluted profits and diminished Hastie’s influence over the industry. At the same time, the recession had pulled the tide out on commercial sex, causing Hastie to let some of his operations go. Much like the wider industry, he staged a comeback in the early 1990s, pivoting by opening Asian-themed businesses in the new but booming Fort Street sex economy. In doing so, he triggered an influx of Asian workers, carving out a market for Thai women that others rapidly emulated. Hastie pleaded guilty to four charges of brothel keeping in 1993, but his exit did not slow the industrial trajectory. Sex work continued to diversify, spreading profits thinner across a broader range of smaller businesses. This rapid proliferation meant that when Hastie died in 1995, there was no heir-apparent to take his place. The closest were the father-son team of Ron and Roy King, who remained profitable with exclusive clubs like the Penthouse until decriminalisation in 2003 and the slow decline of sex businesses.

The colourful entrepreneurship of Hastie and his contemporaries provided an imperfect economic backbone for many, particularly after the 1987 stock market crash. These newcomers to the scene were diverse, entering commercial sex for their own individual reasons. Despite this, on a larger scale, the majority can be grouped into three categories: young mothers, students, and Asians.

Shannon Lindsay, “More prostitutes, less work”, Auckland City Harbour, April 26 2000.


According to archival accounts from the New Zealand Sex Workers’ Collective (NZPC), young women entered the sex industry in larger numbers throughout the 1990s, motivated primarily by financial precarity. Poverty – and the fear of poverty – played a significant role in their turn to sex work. In the words of NZPC co-founder Dame Catherine Healy, “…what does choice mean when you’ve got bills to pay?” A rising cost of living in Tāmaki Makaurau, especially with the neoliberal effects of the housing market made affording essentials an uncomfortable squeeze. Mainstream employment opportunities were also thin on the ground, particularly for women. Compounding this were widespread cuts to social welfare under the Fourth National Government. Colloquially known as ‘Ruthanasia’ (after finance minister Ruth Richardson), this left many women with few options, particularly those with children to support. The meagre benefits that survived the cuts were insufficient – for example, the Domestic Purposes Benefit did not cover weekly expenses for a mother of two in 1993. The privatisation of childcare was also a challenge, further raising costs. As a result, many single mothers entered the industry to keep themselves and their families out of poverty. The work paid far better than an office job, and the hours were more flexible, which suited motherhood. While the increased pay was attractive, the nature of sex work made transitioning out of the industry difficult. Sex work prevented women from obtaining transferrable skills, and made explaining large gaps in a resume rather tricky.  For many, the reality of leaving was a difficult path back to “straight” work (employment outside commercial sex) that tended to leave them in a similarly precarious financial situation to where they started. In such economic conditions, sex work was an essential source of income, but could be limiting in the long term because it did not change the economic reality for many women in the 1990s. As a result, transient employment in sex work was for many a band-aid over a burst pipe.

Another demographic that turned to sex work at this time was university students, which can be directly attributed to the introduction of tuition fees. While students have always participated in commercial sex, and numbers at the time were exaggerated, the NZPC noticed a “significant increase” after the state rolled back free tertiary education. Both male and female students followed this trend, with the highest numbers being reported in Tāmaki Makaurau. Similar to young mothers, state support was insufficient – student allowance rates were not enough to cover the rising cost of living. As the 1990s progressed, student workers also turned to sex work to pay off their loans, especially in the face of high unemployment. Some even abandoned their studies, finding sex work to be more financially promising than the price of education for precarious career prospects.

Rainton Hastie (second from right) contributed to the Asian presence in the sex industry.

The visible diversification of Tāmaki Makaurau that began in the 1990s was reflected in commercial sex as Asian women entered the industry. ‘White New Zealand’ – an unofficial policy regime that curated ethnically homogenous migration – had stood since 1920. In 1987, this was repealed with reforms that encouraged migration based on merit rather than nationality. Almost immediately, Asian women became regular on the sex scene, with many working illegally while on ‘holiday’. These women were predominantly from Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore (and later on, China), as a result of reciprocal visa-free arrangements. Soon after, Rainton Hastie helped develop a system of indentured servitude. Managers would finance a worker’s travel to Aotearoa, and make the difference back through their labour in a club or parlour. It is unclear to what degree this harmed the women – reports tend to be exaggerated, and the NZPC only encountered a couple of concerning episodes. Regardless, it was popular, and by 1992, Tāmaki Makaurau had hundreds of Thai workers. This was taken seriously by the police and immigration, who raided businesses and deported any illegal workers they found. The controversy became a national issue, and in 1990 the Government reinstated visas for Thai visitors, citing fears of HIV among Bangkok’s sex workers.

The debate on Asian sex workers in the 1990s reflected Aotearoa at the turn of the twentieth century. ‘White New Zealand’ was a targeted campaign to keep Asian immigrants out, and was partly driven by working-class labourers. Before 1920, trade unions voiced concern about Asian labour, fearing they would undercut prices and force wages down. This is a familiar dynamic, as foreigners often cop the blame for economic difficulty in Aotearoa (another example is the Dawn Raids). In the 1990s, non-Asian sex workers reported Asians to be one of the factors that reduced their pay, and accused them of undermining safe sex practices by offering condomless services. However, this scapegoating is unfounded. Asian workers utilised different pricing structures but ultimately charged a similar sum to their Kiwi contemporaries. Another point in common was the variety of individual motivations among Asian workers for travelling to engage in commercial sex. Many ventured to Aotearoa to make better money for their families back home, and many also stayed and married Kiwi men. Their arrival in the sex industry coincided with economic hardship but did not cause it. Simply put, Asian workers were just one type of newcomer to hit the scene.



The sex industry in Tāmaki Makaurau has been associated in the popular imagination with K’ Road since the 1960s. At this time, the construction of the Newton motorway evicted thousands from the area, lowering rents and decimating the shopping scene. This opened the door for sex businesses, although they never dominated the street. In this sense, K’ Road’s infamy has always been somewhat of an urban myth. Hastie heavily influenced the street’s public relations, and for roughly two decades the area served as a de facto red-light district. By the late 1980s, it had begun to decline along with the strip scene. A wave of redevelopment hit the city, and although some occurred on K’ Road, its red-light reputation deterred investment and business interests. Instead, creeping gentrification from neighbouring Ponsonby began to sanitise the street, bringing café culture that escalated quickly. Wealthier residents began to move back to the area, and rents rose along with them. This resulted in an interesting, blended dynamic. Commercial sex was being squeezed out, with some new residents complaining about the industry’s lingering presence. And yet, as early as 1988, sex workers in bathrobes could be observed among Ponsonby residents, casually taking their coffee at the Hubcap Café (next to the Pink Pussycat). The K’ Road Business Association toed the line between promoting commercial growth and preserving the character of the street, which included the sex industry. K’ Road’s affinity with sexuality also survived, with various queer clubs and bars flourishing in the 1990s after the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Despite gentrification and redevelopment, K’ Road maintained its cultural flair, albeit with looser ties to commercial sex.

The Las Vegas Girl, surviving to this day as a cultural landmark on K’ Road.

The decline of K’ Road’s sex scene can also be attributed to the rise of its chief competitor, Fort Street. Partially due to the collapse of portside sex work, Fort Street ascended in the 1980s, boasting roughly 30 sex establishments by 1991. Wealthy owners like Hastie led this development, pulling dollars away from K’ Road to the younger downtown economy. A significant chunk of this was Asian-themed, drawing on Hastie’s business model of bringing sex tourism to Kiwi’s backyards. Clients ranged from foreign businessmen to passengers from cruise ships. This resulted in commercial sex being highly visible around Fort Street, which repeatedly drew the ire of Auckland Council. Their efforts to “clean up” the area were more about optics than actual impact – Fort Street and K’ Road were only about 30% of the sex industry in Tāmaki Makaurau. At this time, commercial sex was migrating away from the city centre, following Aucklanders out into the suburbs.

Fort Street in 1998. Report to Works and Services Committee from John Dockray Williams. May 18 1998.

So, when Auckland Mayor Les Mills trumpeted his intention to push the sex industry out of the city in 1996, the reality was that this had already happened. The bulk of industrial growth in the 1990s was driven by suburban agencies and independent workers, operating quietly in residential areas. A police investigation in 1999 – “Operation Rubdown” – found greater suburbanisation and fragmentation of commercial sex, in many ways mirroring the residential trends of the city itself. While sex work had always occurred “from Orewa to Pukekohe”, this decentralisation was relatively new. By 2000, South Auckland had risen as another centre for the industry, and was dominated by transgender, Māori, and Pacific women. This drift toward the suburbs can be attributed to several factors, including the rising popularity of independent work, police intervention, redevelopment, and gentrification. Among these, the policies implemented by Auckland Council had the most impact in pushing the industry out of the central city.

Status of Fort St properties, 1995. “Auckland City Downtown Property Ownership & Sale Status”, Auckland City Council, 1995.

The never-ending story

Auckland Council repeatedly attempted to eradicate sex businesses in the 1990s and 2000s. They tried various approaches, from “cracking down” via police raids to using the Resource Management Act to block consent processes for sex shops. In 1997, they even considered requiring new businesses to obtain Council permission to open, which would have been a de facto ban on the industry. Like most of these attempts, it was unsuccessful, and legal advice obtained by the Council confirmed there was little legal basis for their actions. 

Yet, there was one strategy that proved effective, albeit slow. After devolutionary reforms passed in 1989, local governments became more independent from parliament. In Tāmaki Makaurau, the Council had gained ownership over the land (but not the buildings) by the waterfront, which included the Fort Street block. Because the businesses there were under perpetuity leases, the Council could not evict them. Instead, a strategy was adopted to get around this by freeholding the land and selling off “non-strategic” assets downtown. This privatisation injected precarity into the Fort Street sex economy, and the area slowly gentrified. In 1996, the process attracted fresh urgency after the sex industry experienced three murders in one month, inspiring Les Mills to fast-track redevelopment. The language used in these reports is rather revealing – the aim was very clearly to redevelop and “clean up” the downtown area. However, the process was a slow burn that lasted until the mid-2000s. By 1998, when the last of these freeholding negotiations occurred, some sex businesses still remained in operation on Fort Street.

This redevelopment and the ensuing gentrification ultimately proved to be the end of the downtown sex economy. Auckland Council actively encouraged this and continued to pass bylaws to restrict the sex industry after decriminalisation (the ‘Brothel Bylaw’ was struck out in the High Court in 2006). This was common across the country as regional councils tried to re-criminalise commercial sex. Since the 1990s, several have speculated on the purposes of this locally in Tāmaki Makaurau. Some argue it was for the America’s Cup in 2000, others the Asia Pacific Economic Conference in 1999, or the building of Britomart. The reality is likely a combination of these reasons, because international events tend to coincide with campaigns to “tidy up” the streets for visitors. Although there were examples of violent crime against sex workers, the “tidying up” response was disproportionate and aimed at making the industry invisible, rather than safer. The anti-sex work stance was also a convenient political football, as different mayors used it to garner support (although currently, this is no longer an issue).

In such a turbulent era for commercial sex, the industry itself adapted to new circumstances to survive. These changes did not spring out of nowhere; they reflected outside forces as well as the workers themselves. My next article explains how workers leveraged new technology to obtain better conditions for themselves.