Sex worker stands up to 'overbearing' boss

Emma Williams didn't think her complaint was a big deal. But it was.

Emma Williams didn't think her complaint was a big deal. But it was.

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).

Ad Feedback

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


No tatts

No anal

(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

Ad Feedback
special offers

Blistering pace

Waitākere Cricket Club's Ben Lister has been called up to Auckland's senior squad for this season.

Young west Auckland bowler Ben Lister called up to Auckland Aces.

Million dollar wind fall

The winning ticket in Wednesday night's $1 million draw was sold at Countdown Browns Bay on Auckland's North Shore.

Mid-week celebrations for a lucky Aucklander after Lotto win.

Children love the taniwha

Mahi Pai at Manukau Institute of Technology.

More than 1500 South Auckland youngsters were treated to the very popular Mahi Pai taniwha performance over Māori Language Week.

Wide Awake at Hawkins Theatre

Hawkins Theatre is staging the play Wide Awake.

An award winning children's play is hitting the stage in Papakura.


Eli gains loyal, helpful friend video

Six-year-old Eli Burkhalter with  his new assistance dog Taffy.

Taffy the golden labrador is a welcome companion for six-year-old Waikanae boy.

Kids sick on synthetics

Synthetic drugs, often mixed with dried leaves resembling cannabis, have claimed at least 20 lives in New Zealand this ...

Youngest was just 5 as three Porirua kids taken to hospital severely ill.

SH1 blockage cleared

NZTA advised of delays on around the Paremata roundabout and Mana on State Highway 1 after a three-car crash at Plimmerton.

Minor delays continue after a two-car crash near Plimmerton.

Capital train strike likely

Capital commuters are likely to face disruptions as rail workers prepare to strike.

Disruptions ahead for Wellington rail commuters as employment dispute boils over.


'Bound together by cancer' video

Christchurch father of two  Kevin "Chalky" Carr received the news that his pancreatic cancer was back  and his prognosis ...

This time last week, cancer patient Chalky Carr had never met Isla Lunn. Now he's raising $100,000 for the 7-year-old.

Service 'horrific' video

Michelle Bishop is upset at the service received by funeral home Poppy Funerals following the death of her daughter ...

Woman calls for funeral industry to be regulated after ongoing problems following her daughter's death.

Who won the final debate? video

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - SEPTEMBER 20:  Labour party leader Jacinda Ardern speaks during the TVNZ Vote 2017 2nd Leaders ...

Jacinda Ardern looked and sounded like a woman in a fight for her political life. And she is.

Bike theft at bottle-point

Two friends were robbed of their bikes at bottle-point near Papanui High School.

The two robbers fled on bikes stolen from men in Northcote, Christchurch.


Seven daring ducklings rescued 

The rescue operation saw the safe retrieval of seven ducklings from a Whitianga drain.

It took half an hour to rescue the seven ducklings from the depths of the drain.

Cocaine, cash found

The armed offenders squad helped execute a search warrant in Te Aroha.

Seven searches in Te Aroha were undertaken netting cocaine, cash and five arrests in a pre-dawn raid.

Historic pub killing set for trial

Chris Bush was shot and killed in October 1987.

Two men to stand trial next year over the murder of pub manager Chris Bush 30 years ago.

Kiwis want water levy

Farmers protested perceived attacks from politicians in Morrinsville on Monday, September 18. A new survey shows the ...

The majority of Kiwis want to see farmers pay for water use, a new survey shows.


Ngā Manu Kōrero begins

Dr Ruakere Hond addressed the manuhiri (visitors).

Students from 52 schools across Aotearoa have arrived in New Plymouth for a speech competition.

Principal search

Lynda Stuart, president of the NZEI, said there are ore principal vacancies than usual.

Four schools are looking for principals, and another four are looking for deputies and assistants.

The 'hero' in the beauty aisle

Shane White's training kicked into action as soon as he got to the man who collapsed in the beauty aisle.

Ian Foreman collapsed in a New Plymouth supermarket only for the produce manager to save his life.

Truck rolls, spills load of urea

A truck rolled on Opunake Rd, spilling urea, and blocking the area to traffic.

Truck and trailer unit rolls and spills load.


The final debate video

From left, Greens candidate Thomas Nash, NZ First MP Darroch Ball, National candidate Adrienne Pearce, Money Free Party ...

Palmerston North candidates battle over mental health and Manawatū Gorge at final debate.

MP flees farmers

Labour candidate for Palmerston North Iain Lees-Galloway left a farmer meeting about irrigation tax early.

Labour MP claims he was "physically pushed" and his van rammed.

Suspected armed robbery at BP

The BP service station in Main St, Palmerston North, has had another suspected aggravated robbery.

Two people are believed to have carried weapons into a BP and robbed it in Palmerston North.

Debate strikes useful balance

The Manawatu Standard candidates debate was broadcast live on Facebook.

OPINION: Election campaign meeting mixes information with humour and differences.


'What's a candidate?' video

Birchwood School students from left Jacob 8, Talei 9, Mia 8, talk to Stuff about their thoughts on the election and politics.

They can't legally vote until 2029, but they still have strong views on the election.

Earthquake jolts NZ

The quake was centred 30 kilometres northeast of Seddon.

Central New Zealand jolted by a short and sharp earthquake.

Power back on

A power outage on Wednesday afternoon has affected residents in Richmond, Brightwater, Wakefield and Mapua.

Power has been restored to 12,000 homes and businesses after a Transpower fault. 

Kea shooter sentenced

A man's been sentenced to 200 hours community work for killing a kea.

A man who shot at kea who were damaging his property has been sentenced to community work.


Dinner's in the bag

Sous chef Emily Hulburt, 5, helps out in the kitchen preparing a 'My Food Bag' recipe.

By her own admission, reporter Paula Hulburt is a whizz with a microwave. As the first delivery of My Food Bags arrive in Blenheim, she took one for a test drive.

Earthquake jolts NZ

The quake was centred 30 kilometres northeast of Seddon.

Central New Zealand jolted by a short and sharp earthquake.

Cafe confrontation

Prime Minister Bill English stopped in at BV Gourmet in Blenheim on the campaign trail on Tuesday. (File photo)

PM's coffee break gatecrashed as Labour candidate accuses National supporters of ripping down billboards.

Weather closes newly-fixed rail line

The Main North Line between Picton and Christchurch has been closed due to bad weather, just days after its post-quake ...

Just a single train managed to traverse the newly-repaired rail line from Christchurch to Picton before bad weather closed it again.

South Canterbury

Men's health focus of campaign

Jonty Penney from Timaru is participating in the Distinguished Gentleman's Ride to raise funds for men,s health.

Two Timaru men are taking the health message on the road.

Flow-on concerns

David Hurst, from A J Engineering in Washdyke, is concerned about the impact of the water levy.

S Canty businesses concerned about impact of Labour's water levy, spokesman says concerns unjustified.

New Mackenzie CEO

New Mackenzie council chief executive Suzette van

A current staff member will take on the top job at the Mackenzie District Council.

'He's a hero,' neighbour says

The remains of the Waipopo property on Wednesday afternoon.

Waipopo man who rescued wife from fire would have used 'every bit of strength'.


Search for missing man

Missing Dunedin man Stephen Lowe.

More than 30 ground searchers, three search dogs and an aerial search have failed to find any further sign of missing Dunedin man Stephen Lowe

Serial sea lion killer at large video

A sea lion found shot on a Catlins beach in Southland in April.

A serial killer may be targeting New Zealand sea lions, with a $5000 reward on offer in exchange for the culprit.

Fired while on sick leave

The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has ordered Oamaru-based P&W Painters (PWP) to compensate former employee Paul ...

Company that unfairly fired brush hand while on sick leave also had to compensate an ex-staffer who was called a "baby killer".

Kidnapping duo plead guilty

Nick Miles, 24, and Gary Michael Wilson, 46, have admitted kidnapping a man and dumping him on the outskirts of Dunedin.

Two men kidnapped and dumped another man on the outskirts on Dunedin.


Youth organisations make appeal

Sam Balloch was one of dozens of volunteers seeking signatures for a petition to keep Number 10 One Stop Shop and ...

Number 10 Youth One Stop Shop and the Invercargill Secondary Schools Network are gathering support for their petition to remain at their current location.

Pound in clear

An animal group and the Invercargill City Council are at odds about how a dog was treated. (File photo)

Ministry for Primary Industries clears the Invercargill City Council over captive bolt use.

Forestry gets favour: ES

Nicol Horrell, chairman of Environment Southland.

''Forestry operators will be able to operate at lower environmental standards than other resource users in Southland."

Quake off Southland coast

A magnitude 5.8 quake struck near Southland.

A 5.8 earthquake hit off the coast of Southland - but its shaking was unnoticeable, GeoNet says.

Ad Feedback