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Sex Work

Book Review
My Body, my business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change
by Caren Wilton with photographs by Madeleine Slavick (Otago University Press, $45)
Reviewed by Wendy Montrose

my-body-my-business-cover“What I want to do with my body is my business……….and if I want to sell it to you for such and such, who are you to poke your nose into my bedroom?”

I have to admit, this book appealed to me for the promise of a glimpse into the murky world of the sex industry. Who isn’t just a tiny bit curious? I wasn’t disappointed either, but for entirely different reasons.

Caren Wilton spent almost a decade collecting the stories of 11 former and current New Zealand sex workers who, through their frank and honest recollections, open the door to what many of us consider is a closed world, the world of massage parlours, brothels and street workers. There is no holding back. From recollections of childhood sexual encounters to a disturbing description of aversion therapy, the stories are told in a matter of fact way in the interviewee’s own voices.

My Body, my business opens with an overview of the New Zealand sex industry including changes following decriminalisation in 2003. Many of the subjects of the book worked in the industry both before and after this momentous event and their stories reflect common experiences of the times. They tell of abuse, insult and assault, being spat upon, entrapped by police and tricked out of their hard earned money, discrimination in employment and accommodation, all often by the very sectors of society who made use of their services.

 ‘People would stand and stare and talk about you like you were a mental patient.’

‘I got abused, all the normal crap and that – ‘You’re a slut!’ ‘I’m not a slut, I’m a business woman.’

But they also talk about the community and camaraderie amongst sex workers who often take the place of estranged families, sitting around chatting like any group of women during downtime in a brothel or taking refuge from the streets in all night coffee bars, supporting and encouraging each other, watching each other’s backs.

‘If we needed to work at night for whatever reason, one of us would have the kids at our place for the night. We had our own little babysitting community. That was a priority of the women there, making sure their kids were safe. The majority of them were mothers.’

Neither self pitying nor boastful, the subjects come across as incredibly ordinary albeit with an extraordinary job. And that is the point. Sex work is their job, it’s not who they are or what they are. It’s what they do for a living and like any of us, they have another life. They are human, just like you and me and if you met any one of them in the supermarket, you wouldn’t know how they made their living.

‘You’re an actress in many ways. You’re there for a purpose, you’re going through a routine.’

‘Underwear that I would buy for work was for work – I wouldn’t wear that underwear if I was going out. I always kept things quite separate – it just made me be able to come back to being who I am. I was no longer the actress, the sex worker ….’

I was surprised to learn that sex work could be a choice, that it’s not always a case of having no other option. The oldest profession has for some been a conscious career choice.

‘I liked having sex with different people and you’d get paid for it. How wonderful. What a great way to make a living.’

My Body, my business is as entertaining as it is informative. The stories are easy to read whether about a suburban dominatrix, a transgender street girl or the Dame who led the fight for decriminalisation and the right to safety and legal protection for sex workers.

This is the best thing I read in 2018. My preconceptions have been shattered by the stories, expertly drawn out by Wilton and told without judgement. The subjects are likeable, funny and at times tragic but never hopeless or deserving of pity.  Go on! Let your eyes and your hearts be opened. Mine were.