Part Three

Neoliberal technologies and the chameleons who adopted them

by Henry Grey*

“…every technology is fundamentally a bridge to the next technology.” – Alexander Manu


The longevity of the sex industry is driven largely by its workers, with changes across time reflecting staunch determination to improve their working conditions. In spite of contemporary macroeconomics, the industry itself will always exist – the workers simply diversify and adapt to new mediums. In this regard, sex work is highly sustainable as a marketable commodity, providing a consistent revenue stream for economically disadvantaged identities that both reflects and defies the gravity of boom-and-bust capitalism. This is not to say that variations in pay do not exist across time (and other identifiable factors), merely that sex work is a commercial venture that will always be available to its labour force.

Similar to other sectors of society, technology is a central component to this evolution, and played an intimate role in the lives of Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland’s sex workers during the late twentieth century. Technological developments can be traced in three distinct waves, each linked to vanguard neoliberal reforms and the economic conditions they created. In all cases, their impact can still be seen today, each an important stepping stone toward commercial sex in its contemporary form. My research describes the relationship between this stigmatised community and technology as workers adapted chameleon-like to maximise its potential for their own benefit. This is part two of how neoliberalism helped shape sex work.

The decline of the port scene

From the arrival of the British in Aotearoa New Zealand, there has been a strong sex work economy linked directly to the ports. This was one of the country’s first significant industries, credited in part for the pre-Treaty era label ‘the hell-hole of the Pacific’. While it lost significance over time, this scene survived into the early 1980s, with many workers – of all gender identities – taking advantage of transient business from sailors and seamen. This type of sex worker was known as a ‘ship moll’, often boarding a vessel for days at a time, with the business being fairly lucrative.

From the mid-1980s this changed dramatically. International trade was revolutionised by the advent of the shipping container, which sped up dockside operations and made shipping more efficient. It led to increasingly faster turnaround times and far smaller crews.  Known as “containerisation,” this process drove a significant decrease in port business for sex workers. Additionally, neoliberal union-busting and the subsequent decline of organised labour resulted in tightened wharf regulations that continuously ratcheted up through the 1990s. To some extent, the traditional port clientele was replaced by commercial fishermen and cruise ships, but these were not sufficient substitutes for the broad range of boats that used to dock at the wharf. Instead, waterside business moved slightly inland to the burgeoning Fort Street. By the early 2000s, ship workers comprised only one percent of all sex workers in Aotearoa New Zealand – none of which operated in Tāmaki Makaurau.

The ship trade’s demise had a particularly strong impact on male sex workers. The waterfront had been a traditional public space frequented by gay men, particularly around the Ferry Building. It was therefore not uncommon for male sex workers to hang around and attract trade in the area. While some cisgender female ship molls remained into the late 90s (albeit concentrated in port cities such as Tauranga), the “waterfront boys” ceased to exist. Instead, some relocated to the street scene around Karangahape Road, but most were funnelled into a relatively new branch of the industry: escort agencies.

Ads for male escort agencies from a 1990 issue of OUT! Magazine, a significant increase in number. OUT no. 94, December 1990: 17, 25, 70, 80


Escorts and State Owned Enterprises

Escort agencies originally emerged as a way to circumvent the Massage Parlours Act 1978. Unlike parlours, agencies technically had no licensing requirements under the law. This benefited workers because a conviction for soliciting no longer exiled them to street work. According to Dame Catherine Healy, agencies were a popular business model because the parlour legislation was so restrictive; naturally, this caused antagonistic competition between parlour owners and fledgling agencies. One dramatic episode from 1992 in Hamilton resulted in agencies being banned from residential areas, and gave rise to a nationwide petition – led by a parlour owner – to require licensing for escort agencies. Operators across the country even reported sabotaging tactics from competitors. 

Agencies flourished from the late 1980s, aided by telecommunications reforms from successive governments. After the State Owned Enterprises Act 1986 was passed, the New Zealand Post Office was split into three entities. One of these was Telecom, who swiftly launched Aotearoa’s first mobile phone network in 1987. Telecommunications themselves were deregulated from 1989, with Telecom becoming fully privatised the following year for $4.2 billion, and services becoming cheaper and more widely accessible over the following decade. A notable exception to this was the Telecommunications Amendment Act 1988, which destroyed the burgeoning sex hotline industry. Overall, however, the evolving phone service aided escort agencies.

Because these agencies operated outside the purview of the Massage Parlours Act, the police struggled to monitor their activity and contain their growth. Auckland’s vice squad had been abolished in the late 1980s due to a lack of resources, so law enforcement turned to other methods. While it had no legal authority or statutory basis, the police began requiring escorts to register in order to advertise in newspapers. The aim here was to put agencies and private workers on equal footing with the parlours (who were also required to keep a list of their registered workers). In reality, this asserted de facto control over the agencies, and was constitutionally questionable – acting as part of the executive branch of government, the police bypassed Parliament. 

At this point, the mobile phone became available in Aotearoa New Zealand. At their introduction in 1987, they were expensive and had a battery life of 20 minutes, requiring a private vehicle for use. As a result of deregulation and increased accessibility, by 1991, a company car and a mobile phone were the “usual trimmings” of middle-class employment. From this, one can conclude that mobile phones became cheaper relatively quickly. Agencies took notice – many were already operating by mobile phone at the beginning of the 1990s, with one worker recalling placing calls from rural areas while out on a job. Some businesses also made use of pagers or ‘bleepers’ for communication with clients and management. This trend continued through the decade as the technology improved, with cell phones and caller ID services becoming fairly common among escorts. Agencies became the flashy ‘modern’ iteration of sex businesses – the Pink Palace (massage parlour) was even converted to “provide a service that suited the 1990s”.

“Your First Client”, Siren no. 17, New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, July 2000: 23.

The adoption of portable communications technology by escort agencies served several purposes. To begin with, mobile phones made it easier to operate without a brick-and-mortar establishment. While some agencies hosted clients by renting out spaces (or in an owner-occupied model), some ran a home base that sent workers for ‘out-calls’ only. This reduced the overhead cost of running the business, with advertising the only significant expense in some cases. Even without mobile phones, a deregulated and more competitive telecommunications sector made running a business remotely via a landline significantly cheaper. This also provided a level of discretion that went hand-in-hand with escorts’ somewhat privileged position within the sex industry. The ability to hire a service without physically visiting a parlour or brothel was usually more expensive but maintained almost total anonymity for the client, especially if they had a mobile themselves. 

Profit aside, the central gain from this phone technology was increased safety; escorts were now able to communicate remotely with their employer. This made escorting attractive to workers, and drove the agency boom from the late 1980s through to the new millennium. However, because agencies began to financially exploit their workers in a similar manner to parlour owners, this did not last. The boom slowed by the late 90s, as more workers across all branches of the industry began to go independent and work privately. The decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 hastened this process, but the rise of the ‘work from home’ model was enabled, once again, by new technology: the internet.

The independent era

The late 1990s saw the beginning of a slow burn that drove the sex industry slowly out of managed businesses and into self-employed settings via the internet. The now standard practice of shift fees, fines and bonds that dug further into workers’ pay each year encouraged individuals into independent and co-operative work. As a result, workers could now advertise, book clients, and administrate for themselves online. This rising force of individual workers enjoying their income in its totality threatened established businesses and eventually created the industry in its current form.

Those who did make this transition in the late 1990s were typically more established workers with a certain level of privilege – attractive, white, financially secure cisgender men and women. Although, some chose to work independently for niche work such as domination, or because they faced discrimination within the industry (including workers who identified as queer and transgender). Significant resources and access to private spaces were required to work independently, which was prohibitive for most workers in the industry. Rent, cost of living, and advertising fees were high. Research from Jody Hansen in the late 1990s found that newspapers and telephone companies would charge over double the usual rate for advertising and services related to sex work. This was an issue throughout the decade, with police expressing concern over exploitative practices among newspapers as early as 1989. As a result, many workers found independence unrealistic before the internet. Additionally, the legal definition of ‘brothel’ included any space used by a single person for commercial sex, acting as a disincentive for leaving an established business.

“Net Value: Advertising on the Internet”, Siren no. 17, New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, July 2000: 18.

Internet accessibility steadily increased over time, but the medium does not appear to have become dominant in the sex industry until the post-decriminalisation era. Online opportunities offered workers a cheaper and more efficient method of advertising and organising clients over email. Advertising online was particularly useful because it gave workers a platform to circumvent the police registration requirements set up for escorts in newspapers. Those who could afford a computer made use of this privately, but others were advised to seek out internet cafes. An issue of Pride and Unity among Male Prostitutes’ (P.U.M.P) from 2000 lists a plethora of websites and avenues for workers to attract clients online. Use of the internet among sex workers was already growing, signalling a consistent shift away from the strict financial controls of the agencies and parlours.

This change was not without conflict. Many agency and parlour owners sought to eradicate the trend toward independent work because they viewed it as a threat to their profit margins. They explicitly opposed the Prostitution Reform Bill, arguing before the Select Committee to maintain their financial control. These efforts were unsuccessful, with decriminalisation only exacerbating the shift – “BOOBs” (Big Owner Operated Brothels) gave way to “SOOBs” (Small Owner Operated Brothels). By 2010, agency and parlour owners were decrying decriminalisation because workers no longer needed the protection established businesses provided. Some online escort agencies persisted, but the diversification of the industry that began in the 1990s has continued through to the present day, reflecting broader societal engagement and reliance on the internet. Only a handful of businesses survived the decriminalisation shift, and with commercial brothels beginning to die out amid the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely the industry will continue trending toward independent work executed online. In this sense, sex work has fundamentally changed over the past twenty years.

Taking a step back, the drive to escape an exploitative employer is broadly relatable, but the particularities of the sex industry demand further examination. My next article describes how the industry commercialised, and why these workers were vulnerable to neoliberal changes.