The 2011 earthquake in Christchurch effected everyone in the city’s limits, but one group who are still peculiarly disadvantaged are sex workers. The issue is their access to public toilets. Much of the city’s basic infrastructure was destroyed in the powerful 6.3 magnitude quake. And despite the disaster occurring over four years ago—many public toilets have yet to be rebuilt. As a result, many street sex workers now venture to far-off petrol stations or relieve themselves in bushes and abandoned open spaces.
“Christchurch is porter-loo city at the moment,” Christchurch sex worker Anna Reed told VICE. “We’ve been asking city council to build new toilets for years. Even pre-earthquake we were talking about the need for more—not just for sex workers, but for the general public”.
Some Christchurch residents have taken to social media to argue that sex workers should pay for their own toilets. But according to Anna, this is just another form of discrimination. “Those of us who are level-headed know that any new toilets would be for everyone”.
Animosity from local residents may stem from the fact that some sex workers have begun operating closer to residential areas. For decades, Christchurch sex workers have traditionally operated around the southern part of Manchester Street – a city-central strip accommodating both commercial and residential buildings.
That area was badly impacted by the earthquake though, and the downturn in business has lead to many basic facilities have been demolished. With a lack of street lights and a minimal security presence, sex workers no longer feel safe there. That, combined with low car traffic, means the area is no longer much use for solicitation.
As a result, some sex workers have moved to areas north of Bealey Avenue.”The areas where they’ve moved to are busy streets, and they feel safer there,”says Catherine Healy, national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective and a former sex worker herself. “It is on the edge of residential though.”
To try and alleviate the problem, last year Christchurch’s city councilors Ali Jones and Pauline Cotter suggested a designated red-light district. The area would have security, needle dumps, and public toilets. However, the public turned down the idea, with resistance coming from nearby land developers and residential owners.
“There’s definitely a not-in-my-backyard attitude, especially because there are issues of defecation, needles, and condoms being left around” says councilor Ali Jones, who is working to find a compromise between sex workers and the public. “But we can’t just make prostitutes go somewhere else either.”
Since the introduction of the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003—which helped lower violence occurring under criminalised prostitution—it became illegal to force sex workers into one area. While a designated area may be thought of as a beneficial thing for sex workers, it apparently isn’t, according to Catherine Healy.
“Usually the council and community comes up with the idea, and they don’t consult with the sex workers,” she said. “They get pushed into it”. Catherine also described how these designated areas were usually positioned on the edge of town.
“People think sex workers need extra, someone to organise them when they get out of control—which is crap,” Catherine continued. “Sex workers just need to have the same pieces of good legislation that support them, same as everyone else”.
Ali Jones told VICE that while there is a conflict between the public and sex workers, it has highlighted the pressing lack of public toilets in Christchurch. “Now there is a discussion on this, which is great,” she said. “A lot of toilets are damaged or have been demolished, the inner city just doesn’t have them anymore.”