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March 31, 2014 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Marion’s Maidens

It is easy to characterise Cuba as the hipster’s paradise: from the quirkiness of the Bucket Fountain and the smooth sounds of Slow Boat Records to the plethora of famous cafés; each one as much a Wellington institution as the earthquake-prone buildings they sit in.

However, running parallel to Cuba is its wayward cousin Marion, occupying the 180-metre stretch between Ghuznee and Vivian Streets. If you have ever ventured around this side of town in the early hours, drunkenly hobbling along Marion St to get home after a raging stint at Hope Bros, then you would have come in contact with a very different place: trans* hookers lining the streets, a row of silhouettes pacing back and forth in the 3 am streetlights. You were probably a little bit uncomfortable. You probably didn’t waste any time there, and quickly headed off away from the shadowy ladies of the night.

There are hints of Marion’s chequered history in the “Trompe l’oeil” mural on the corner of Ghuznee and Marion; the depiction of a scantily clad lady is a constant reminder that Vivian, Cuba and Marion used to form much of Wellington’s red-light district. These days it is home to a tight-knit community of experienced sex workers that have seen it all, and yet keep coming back.

Despite the legalisation of prostitution, it is still pushed to the edge of society and considered a vice, even if we don’t refer to it as the ‘Social Evil’ any more. Society is even worse when it comes to trans* people, who are often stigmatised and mistreated.

When we’re confronted with the trans* prostitutes that work on Marion St, many of us regard them as outsiders because we don’t understand their motivations, fears and concerns, and are unable to relate.

However, listening to their stories helps us to understand the reality of working on the streets.

The truth may surprise you.

———————————————————-

In the early hours of Monday morning, Stacey is standing alone outside the post office.

“It’s dead quiet. You can see the tumbleweed rolling by!” She laughs as she beckons me to come over and join her.

I ask if business is usually this slow at this time of the week. She frowns, and turns up her lip.

“Not normally…” she pauses, “you know, Wellington has changed a lot.”

I nod. It turns out Stacey is in the position to make an observation like that, as she has worked on the street since the early ‘90s, well before prostitution was legalised in 2003.

“I was a delegate with the NZPC [the Prostitute’s Collective] while we were campaigning for reform. It’s a different world now than how it was back then.”

Before 2003, it was illegal to solicit in public or to make a living off sex work. The police routinely raided brothels, streets and the private residences of sex workers, and pressured the media to restrict their advertising of sexual services.

The campaign to legalise prostitution brought together a number of different movements, with the NZPC drawing support from the National Council of Women, the YWCA and the AIDS Foundation, among other groups. Maurice Williamson championed reform under the Bolger Government, but the law wasn’t changed until Labour MP Tim Barnett introduced a private member’s Bill under the Fifth Labour Government. The Prostitution Reform Act was narrowly passed on 25 June 2003 with 60 votes for, 59 votes against and a single abstention.

She goes on to describe how the multi-storey parking building that overshadows Duke Carvell’s used to be one big dark car park.

“We had a lot of fun there,” she laughs. “It was easier then. Not as safe, but easier.”

I was surprised that she had been doing this for so long. When I asked why she still did it, she looked surprised.

“Why not? The pay is great, and I’m in control of when I want to work.”

Stacey and all of the other women I spoke met most of their clients online, and met in hotel rooms. Surprisingly though, they came to work on Marion St a few evenings each week because it paid just as well.

“$60 for a BJ, it’s easy money!”

Then there’s the client who walked past, handed over $1000 and told her “Well come on then,” and beckoned her to come with him to a hotel room. After half an hour of trying to get going, he admitted defeat and told her to keep the money.

“We get a few of those,” Stacey explains.

“But a lot of the time they just want somebody to talk to. There are those guys that just want to go on and on about their problems, I’ve just got to smile and say ‘Oh yeah?’ It’s tedious!”

These sorts of clients may be tedious, but I imagine the jobs could be a lot worse. Stacey confirms my suspicions by explaining why she doesn’t work out of a licensed establishment.

“I prefer the street to a parlour [because] I can choose my clients. If I was working in a house, you never know who’s going to come through that door, and you can’t say no once they’re there.”

While prostitutes have the legal right to refuse clients, even after they have been paid, that is seldom the reality when they’re working in a parlour.

I ask if they ever get any trouble on the street.

“Not at all, why would there be? We keep to ourselves when we need to.”

I raise my eyebrows slightly at her response, and Stacey looks down at her bulging purse. She’s prepared for whatever the night might bring, and I have no doubt that this seasoned veteran knows how to look after herself.

———————————————————-

During my other forays onto Marion St on other nights, I talked to several different street workers and realised that they were not what I was expecting. While there are some who fit the stereotype of turning to sex work to avoid destitution, the majority are empowered and in control of their work, and enjoy the flexibility that it gives them, not to mention the money,

So after my two weeks of research, chatting with and learning from these quirky characters, what stuck in my mind? Was it the amusing client anecdotes, or the stories of the bad old days? Was it the spirit of camaraderie between them all, or their freedom to work as much or as little as they pleased? In fact, it was none of these things. No, what stuck with me was the fact that these characters we shirk from in the evenings have their own hopes and dreams. They have lovers, friends, and families that they hold dear. Some of them are fellow students (Stacey is working on her Master’s in Fine Arts), others walk past you during the day as you’re drinking your coffee at Midnight Espresso and you don’t notice anything peculiar. Why would you?

But here is my question to you, the reader: what will you do next time you are stumbling home from Courtenay Place or hunting for that late-night fix at Pizza King, and you come across the ladies of Marion St? Will you awkwardly look away and ignore them, shuffling by quickly? Or will you look them in the eye, with a nod of acknowledgement or a smile as you walk past, maybe even having a brief conversation?

I leave the choice to you.

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  1. Marama says:

    “Or will you look them in the eye, with a nod of acknowledgement or a smile as you walk past, maybe even having a brief conversation?”

    This will never happen till people like yourself stop treating sex workers like they do a job different from any other. Would you ever write an article like this about someone who worked as a cleaner or at McDonalds or as a physiotherapist?

    A more interesting article would be about attitudes towards sex workers rather than an article about them (ugh).

    Also in Aotearoa sex work has been decriminalised not legalised.

    What do you mean by trans* ? Do you just mean trans?

  2. Anne R says:

    Wow, it took you only two weeks of research to come up with the fact that sex workers are people? What a revelation. There is, of course, an entire body of research on sex work and workers by Melissa Gira Grant, Laura Agustin, Audacia Ray, writers for on Tits and Sass or Feminist Ire, and other countless critical theorists and activists who have been involved in sex work and/or advocacy. And if one wants NZ-based sex worker stories, Jan Jordan already collected some in her book Working Girls. But why read the literature when you can instead use suspect methodology to talk to these ‘quirky characters’ while they’re waiting for actual clients?

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