Most people who get into sex work get into it initially for one reason and one reason only – they need money fast. Sometimes lingering under or just above the surface though, is an interest in or fascination with the sex industry and all it represents.
Many women have wondered what it would be like to fuck more than one man in one day, and get paid for it. Would anyone actually pay them for it? Could they even handle it, where would they do it, what would they wear, what would they do in the room and what would the men be like? What would they do with the money? I wondered these things too, almost from the moment I began exploring my own body and discovering for myself what there was to like about sex. While I may have looked like butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth with my big green eyes and ringlets in my hair, actually I was a very horny young woman and intended to leave no stone unturned, as it were.
So when I heard a rumour that someone from my small town, who was a few years older than I, was working as a sex worker, I set about finding out where she was and what she was doing. As it happened, our mothers were friends, so the next time her mother was in our lounge sipping tea out of our good china with my mother, I did the daughterly thing by helping bring some cakes in or something and while I was at it, casually enquired as to where her children were living nowadays.
It was easy to track down my soon-to-be new best friend, who also had a part-time job at a sex shop in upper Cuba Street in Wellington, where she arranged to meet me. It was the first time I’d ever been in to a sex shop and I have to say, my world was about to be expanded beyond anything I’d ever known.
In the evenings, my friend, Karen* worked on the wharves as a ship girl. She had been doing this for a while and knew the scene and its participants well. Besides sex workers who worked on the streets, ship girls were considered the lowest of the low when it came to prostitution. You’d think then that it would be fairly easy to enter into this kind of sex work – after all, if the standards were this low, surely anyone could do it.
There were certainly no great beauties working on the ships. Maturity was no barrier and they were often overweight, tattooed (by themselves, by the looks of things) and sometimes even missing teeth. (Apart from one pretty young girl, who I will call Wendy, who was sought after.) There was no dressing up and giving yourself an exotic working name. It was simply come as you are, you will find someone who will pay you for sex.
There were women who had been ship girls for many years. Their sisters, aunts, daughters, and sometimes even granddaughters did it all together and together they “owned” the area, and if they didn’t like you, you would be run out of the place pretty quickly. They even owned their clients (known as tanes, the Maori word for man, as most of these women were Maori).
Of course they had clients on all the different ships that came in, but some women also had half Japanese children to some of the sailors, who supported them from Japan, and brought extravagant gifts and loads of cash on the yearly visits (spending maybe a week at a time in New Zealand). Most of the girls had been shouted trips to Japan by their clients too, and often went out on shopping trips for the day with their clients, who would think nothing of spending thousands of dollars in a day replacing furniture or buying appliances for their women. And I have to say, these women weren’t stupid with money. When American dollars were on offer, they were happy to accept them for the same dollar amount and wait until the exchange rate was favourable before changing them into NZ$ and getting almost twice as much.
Fortunately I had Karen to back me up, but you could still expect to get beaten up at some point, if you unwittingly stole someone else’s tane. However, fresh out of boarding school and still speaking with a bit of a plum in my mouth, as well as clearly not being Maori – I had pale skin, freckles, and bright red hair, in which I still wore ribbons – life was not going to be easy for me as a ship girl, and I wisened up fast. One of my new friends, Cathy, had once been beaten up on the stairs of the Sunset Strip Nightclub (known as the Set) by three women who were waiting for her – two held her down while one laid into her.
To meet these clients, sailors on the fishing boats or huge cargo ships, you would first look in the Evening Post near the back for their shipping news section. There was a small section which listed the names of all the ships in port, and sometimes their dates for departure. The Japanese ships were normally easy to recognise as they would be something Maru. (Maru meaning ship, I believe). You’d then ring up the harbour board and ask for the phone number of a certain ship, and then you’d ring that ship and ask whoever answered the phone if you could come up. If you already knew someone on the ship, you would ask for them by name.
Karen did all this for us. She spoke broken Japanese really well in that she knew how to get her point across and also who to ask for, because she had been around for quite some time and already had a tane on most of the boats. She also knew mostly which tanes belonged to which girls and whether or not said girl was still on the scene or temporarily in jail or somewhere, which was lucky as some of the tanes occasionally would try to get themselves a new girl by pretending they weren’t spoken for already. If it wasn’t for Karen’s extensive knowledge, I could have been in big trouble, (and once nearly was, but that’s another blog post: the time I got taken away but managed to escape, which was the other frightening sex work incident that happened to me, besides the one that happened with a man who needed to be medicated).
How it worked was that your friend would ask their tane if his shipmate had a girl. “Kanojo aru?” Most of the ship girls spoke broken Japanese, of which I was quite envious. They could hold a conversation whereas I – an enthusiastic linguist who had been studying Japanese privately (because it was not a subject schools offered back then) for about 4 years and had a grasp on a wide vocabulary and formal sentence structures – could barely string a sentence together in under a minute. (I was known as the girl who could read and write Japanese characters – most now long forgotten – but not speak it, a rather useless point of difference.) Once your friend had asked that you be introduced by saying “shokai” you would then spend the evening drinking with the man, your friend and her tane eventually taking him to your house, where you would have sex for money, which you made sure you got before the action took place.
Money was known as “pina” among the girls and as I mentioned previously, sex was referred to as “hoodooing the voodoo”. The client would be your tane for the next few days until the ship left port and mostly they were very polite, clean and perfectly safe – after all, you knew where they worked. It was the other ship girls that you had to worry about. Besides these obvious dangers and the risk of a criminal conviction due to prostitution being illegal though, it was very easy work being a ship girl, so even if you didn’t like sex (as some sex workers apparently don’t) the clients were extremely undemanding, with one fuck before a full night’s sleep and maybe if the clients were feeling adventurous enough, an extra one in the morning before you rung a taxi to take them back to their boat. You could even hold down a day job if you chose to, (which I did for part of this time.)
The place that you’d go drinking, if it wasn’t at a private house or on the ship itself, was at the Sunset Strip in Cuba Street. Sometimes if you didn’t have a tane, you could go to the Set yourself, but usually you’d try and tee something up with some tanes before you got there. From there you’d drink, smoke cigarettes and see who else turned up. This is where you got to know who was who.
It was at the Set that I met the girl I will call Wendy for the first time. She was not much older than I but had been a ship girl since she first started running away from home barely into her adolescence. Until she turned 16, well-meaning social workers would come and find her and take her back home, but then she would run away again, as things were pretty bad at home. She had a half-Japanese son and the tanes loved her. You would never find one of Wendy’s tanes trying to switch to a new girl like the tanes of some of the older ladies (always without success for reasons I’ve touched on), Wendy’s were always loyal to her. She was pretty even though she looked much older than she was – she looked a bit like Kate Moss in the heroin chic fashion days, with the addition of home-made tattoos on her hands.
My new friend Cathy, like Karen, had been on the periphery of the scene for years and had previously been a makeup sales rep who, when she found she had been given a dud territory which included the harbour area, decided to go onto the ships and sell makeup to the ship girls and the sailors (presumably to give as gifts to their wives or sweethearts back home). Apparently doing this she won the sales rep prize for highest national sales for a few years in a row. Then she left and became more involved with the sex industry, having made plenty of contacts.
Cathy, an almost middle-aged married woman whose husband worked a night shift, then began hosting parties for Japanese seamen from her home. It was a harmless family affair: the sailors tipped her children with their pockets full of spare coins for waiting on them and Cathy would ring around the ship girls and invite them over so that there would be enough women for the sailors. (By the way, Cathy’s children were obviously oblivious to the prostitution aspect as it did not happen at their house and the tanes as well as we girls were all very sweet to them). Sometimes after being at the Set, or if the Set was dead because the sailors were scarce, we would go to Cathy’s, who would have everything under control.
We didn’t pay Cathy anything but there was no cost to her, as the men tended to bring their own booze (usually whiskey) and Japanese snack foods which I had never seen before, like dried shrimp, Pockys and potato chips that came stacked on top of each other in a cylinder – Cathy had cupboards full of Japanese snacks and other gifts. The seamen would really appreciate Cathy’s hospitality and I’m pretty sure she was handsomely reimbursed by the men for picking them up from their ship or the Sunset Strip and delivering them to her home to be entertained, and then calling taxis for them and their girls or dropping them off herself back to the wharf. They trusted her and didn’t need to worry that they could barely speak a word of English. (Incidentally, clever Cathy declared all her earnings as a hostess/entertainer and paid tax.)
I stopped going to the Sunset Strip and the harbour eventually when a new opportunity came my way, but also because things were changing. Through the grapevine, I heard that parlour girls were trying to dip their toes into our turf by hanging out at the Set (without understanding the ship girls’ culture) on their days off and many of the old school ship girls did not like the look of them as the girls from massage parlours were much prettier and dressed up a bit, so the place was starting to get violent due to the serious competition.
To be fair, the ship girls had relationships with their clients that extended beyond regular prostitution, as I mentioned, with children to the sailors, and households to maintain, so you can understand why they were a bit upset. However, I’m pretty sure the parlour girls would have come off worse in any physical confrontations with a ship girl, who could beat another girl up ruthlessly, and that would have been the last seen of her. Apart from a woman of strong character like Cathy who knew she had to not let getting beaten up scare her off, I am certain one hiding would have been enough to ensure most of the parlour girls would not return to that scene.
The clients were lovely, so well-behaved and grateful, and with the loveliest silky skin. To this day, I still have a soft-spot for Asian clients, although nowadays they would be unlikely to book me because I am too old. Of course this is a generalisation, but my bookings speak for themselves: Asian gentlemen rarely see me.
At the end of that summer, I moved to Sydney.
I caught up with Cathy a few years later on a visit home and she told me that the ships didn’t come to Wellington anymore, and a few of the girls flew down to Nelson where the fishing boats were then stationed. The Sunset Strip is long gone, the wharves in Wellington have been developed as entertainment venues, cafes and bars for the public, and as far as I know, there are no great numbers of ship girls left in New Zealand.
*Some details about Karen’s identity have been changed or omitted.