Sex worker stands up to 'overbearing' boss
Emma Williams (not her real name*) was at work - at a care home in Wellington - when the news item came on TV. A New Zealand prostitute had just won an important case in front of the Human Rights Tribunal, after accusing her brothel operator of sexually harassing her.
Against gauzy stock footage of bestockinged thighs and high heels, the TV reporter gave the details of the case, and Williams watched, transfixed. She couldn't really tell anyone, seeing how it would mess up the name suppression, but the sex worker who'd won that case - that was her.
The case had taken so long to grind its way through the system that she'd long since left the game and returned to the care work she'd trained for, but there she was, being talked about on national TV as the key player in a "landmark" decision.
"I was just standing there watching it, with a big grin on my face," says Williams.
In a way, the case was simple. Williams worked at a Wellington brothel. The boss said some things that made her feel uneasy. She made an official complaint, won the case and was awarded $25,000. She didn't think it was a big deal.
But it was. By international standards, New Zealand has been a bit unusual in its treatment of sex workers ever since 2003, when prostitution was decriminalised, but over the years there has been a succession of decisions - in front of civil and criminal courts and the Employment Relations Authority, in private mediations that never made the newspapers, and now in front of the Human Rights Tribunal - which have hammered home the legal and moral point: sex workers are entitled to the same legal protections as anyone else, and you're not allowed to treat them like dirt simply because they work in an industry which some consider disreputable or distasteful.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Williams' case, then, is how very humdrum it was. She wasn't assaulted or raped, ripped off or unfairly dismissed, trafficked or forced to do things she didn't want to. The tribunal decision records simply that she felt uncomfortable and scared and on edge, after her boss did things such as repeatedly ask intrusive questions about her sexual behaviour and preferences. When he refused to stop it she complained to the tribunal and he got in trouble, just like he might have if Williams' job had been to manage a clothes store or drive a school bus rather than have sex.
"It's pretty historic," says Catherine Healy, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) activist who supported Williams through her case. Around the world, says Healy, sex workers are "outraged" they don't have the same rights they have here.
In late September, Williams agreed to meet me at the Wellington offices of the NZPC - her only media interview since the tribunal published its findings in February.
We met in the lift, where we stumbled through the oddness of an introduction with someone who's going by a fake name (even in our text exchanges, Williams was anxious not to breach her own name suppression, so I didn't learn her real name till later).
She's a skinny woman in her 20s, smiley and chatty, with an infectious chuckle. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and had her brunette hair up in a bun. At Williams' request, Healy sat in on the interview, as did Healy's colleague Calum Bennachie.
When Williams arrived in Wellington a few years ago, she'd never been involved in sex work. Her upbringing had been "complicated", but she'd mainly been raised by her mum, and after leaving school she did a training course and started working as a carer.
She was in her 20s when she moved to the capital, looking for a "change of scenery". After a few uncomfortable days dossing with acquaintances, Williams realised she needed money for a place of her own. She found a newspaper advert seeking sex workers and picked up the phone.
Why sex work? Why not care work again, or waiting tables?
"It was just something different. I thought I'd give it a try. No one I knew was in the industry or anything."
She started at a "a wee brothel", but soon fell victim to an unlikely sex-work hazard - the brothel operator's lapdog.
"Every time you went to stand up and walk around in your heels, he'd bite your ankles. You'd end up with bite marks all over you, and she'd go, 'It's your fault, not the dog's' - but it was her fault for not controlling it."
There also wasn't much work so, after a bit, Williams moved to a bigger establishment, the Kensington in Willis St - also known as "The K".
"I ended up really enjoying working at the K. The other girls were really friendly. Most clients were really good. I did have a couple of guys who were trying to get me to do work outside of the K, but I wouldn't do private out-calls. I felt safer working through the brothel."
As far as Williams was concerned, sex work was legal, and the remaining stigma attached to it "didn't really bother me - it was just something I wanted to try out, so I did".
Compared to her care work, of course, the money was great.
"Most nights I'd make a grand, easy - that's a lot better than normal jobs."
But after a few happy months at the Kensington, things soured. Her problem? The brothel's then-manager, a large, overbearing man called Aaron Montgomery.
The Human Rights Tribunal hearing of March 2012 took three days, and the decision, when it was finally released this year, was 33 pages long. It contains some boring stuff about admissibility of evidence and precedents and so on, but much of it is a damning portrait of a man who - according to the tribunal - seemed to think "his sex, size and management role [gave him] a licence to do as he wishes and behave as he likes towards the sex workers" at the brothel.
In her evidence, Williams said Montgomery kept asking her if she was shaved, whether she was willing to have anal sex with clients, whether her "pubes matched her hair", whether she swallowed during oral sex. A co-worker testified that Montgomery would say similarly inappropriate things to all the women, something she presumed was some kind of "power thing".
What's intriguing here, of course, is that inside a brothel, information that would normally be considered extremely private becomes currency; it's a place where sexual services are on sale, after all.
So at the Kensington, like many brothels, there was a catalogue card system describing each worker. Williams' card, for example, noted her age, eye colour, hair colour and length, as well as her height, bra size and trouser size. Below that, the card continued:
ST8 & BI doubles
(Some of that's self-explanatory, but another former Kensington worker filled me in on the more confusing codes. Pass/open means "passionate/open-minded"; a straight-double is where two women attend to the client but leave each other alone; a bi-double is similar but with added faux lesbianism. Other common abbreviations you might see on a card include GFE for "girlfriend experience" - which means the sex is meant to be a bit more romantic and involves kissing - or PSE for "pornstar experience", which I'll leave to your imagination.)
Sexual objectification doesn't get much more blatant than this, but Williams never had a problem with the catalogue system - "If there were any phone calls that came in, they could describe us by the flip cards." Her objection was to Montgomery's unsettling insistence on going on about this stuff for no good reason.
The tribunal decision records that she told Montgomery this was none of his business, and that she knew the information was already available from reception where it could be read by Montgomery, so there was no need for him to ask.
She explains: "If the client asked for certain requests that weren't on the card, the receptionist would just come and ask quietly if we were OK with that or not. But Aaron would mainly ask me the questions that were already on the card."
The decision noted other important elements to Williams' complaint: she felt intimidated when Montgomery made a comment about "taking her out of her comfort zone"; he would boast to her about having sex with other workers; he yelled at her for visiting the nearby NZPC offices and for encouraging other workers to do likewise; he kept urging her to eat less and exercise more (this from a man who Williams describes as looking like he was "pregnant with triplets").
Williams, who has suffered depression in the past, felt herself slipping back into it.
"I was drinking more. Even my clients noticed my personality had changed. A lot of my clients I got really friendly with, and they got quite worried."
Eventually, less than a year after starting at the K, she quit, and lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission a week later.
"One thing I'd learnt through my carer training was we got the code of rights drummed into us. I don't think he realised I knew my rights."
She worked for a short time at another establishment, then quit sex work for good. She was getting serious with her partner, and he didn't like her doing it. She's still with him now.
When the tribunal finally heard the case, it believed her testimony over Montgomery's, and found that he had subjected her to sexual harassment by use of language that was unwelcome and offensive.
During the hearing, Montgomery came across, in the tribunal's words, as "condescending", "patronising", "over-confident" and "overbearing", and "a most unpersuasive witness".
Montgomery and the brothel owner were ordered to pay Williams $25,000. She says that so far she hasn't seen a cent. The Kensington is under new management. The Sunday Star-Times' attempts to find Montgomery for comment were unsuccessful.
Williams has a quiet determination about her, but she's not usually inclined to kick up a fuss. However, just around the time Montgomery turned on her, something had happened that gave her the impetus to push back.
As a child, Williams was sexually abused. While working at the K she learnt she would have to give evidence about the abuse at the trial (she has name suppression in this case too).
Giving evidence was harrowing, but also "a massive weight off my shoulders". After surviving the trial, "I knew I could get through anything". So when Montgomery started acting inappropriately towards her, she says she clicked immediately that something was wrong, "and I was like - 'Stuff you!'
"I never used to be like that, but I thought, 'I'm sick of guys walking over me. Bugger them. I'll show them what I'm really like.'
"He underestimated how strong I can be, because after the court case I realised how strong I was. I think I took him by surprise."
Although Williams' story appears to bolster the pop culture cliche of sex workers as the victims of sleazy, controlling pimps, Catherine Healy says that scenario is far from the norm, and the decriminalisation of sex work in 2003 has made it even less likely.
Things are changed across the board, says Healy. She remembers, 15 years ago, sitting with a sex worker who was reporting a rape. First the police officer ordered Healy not to speak, and then he said to the complainant: "Look, this is a family man. Do you want ruin his life?" That sort of thing wouldn't happen now.
Williams' is only the latest in a decade of cases marking the growing protection available to a group who used to operate outside the law: a man being convicted for covertly removing his condom while having sex with a prostitute; sex workers who have successfully sued employers for unfair dismissal and customers for unpaid bills; a policeman jailed for using threats to get sex from a prostitute. And now this: a brothel operator fined for sexual harassment of a sex worker.
Williams is delighted that her situation fits into a wider picture. She's chuffed that she's a poster girl for the NZPC (literally - there's a huge poster on its wall made up of cuttings about the case, as reported around the world).
"But as far as I was concerned, I was just showing him I was a lot smarter than he thought I was, and that females can stand up to him."
It seems to Williams that Montgomery saw females as "way down there - he can do whatever he wants to them, he could control them however he wanted.
"I wanted to be that female who showed him that females aren't always like that."
Giving evidence against Montgomery was painless compared to being in court for the case against her abuser.
"After that trial, once the courtroom door closed behind me it was like all the weight was trapped in the courtroom, and I walked out without it.
"Since then, life's been good. I'm happy with my partner. I'm happy with my work. Just normal now. I have nothing dark holding me back."
- Sunday Star Times