Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter of Coco's Cantina. Photo: José Barbosa

K Road feminism: Three hustlers fighting for their community with grit and grace

In the fourth part of the new podcast series Venus Envy, Damaris Coulter, Annah Pickering, and Nunu Davey, discuss fighting for your community when no one else will. 

For three women who have been at the front lines of feminism for a decades, the #MeToo movement has little relevance, and Kate Sheppard’s meaning is limited to the $10 bill. These are the women who have had to fight, quite literally, for acceptance and survival. For women who have been excluded and rejected by society, they’ve had to take on the fight themselves, on their own.

In the this episode of the Venus Envy podcast, made in association with Are We There Yet?, the women’s suffrage and equality exhibition at Auckland Museum, Noelle McCarthy spoke to Damaris Coulter K-Rd restaurateur; Annah Pickering, New Zealand Prostitutes Collective’s regional manager; and Nunu Davey, a care worker, former sex worker and trans woman, about the community, K Road, and the fight to change the way women are perceived. Long before #MeToo was trending on Twitter these women were getting shit done.

“The #MeToo movement, it comes from a good place, of course it does. Anyone who is being abused or oppressed or shut up, you want them to have a voice, that’s what you’re hoping the #MeToo will allow, but actually, the people in the trenches, they are the feminists, who are not being served by that,” says Coulter, who has become a vocal spokesperson for the K Road community.

For decades sex workers had to fight men, the police, the media and the public to be acknowledged not just as equal and legal, but even as people. Sex work was the true front line of feminism, where women were attacked, arrested, bullied, and vilified.  

“That’s why we had a lot of women working on the streets because a lot of the time, particularly for trans women, it’s a place where they could identify with their own peers, the sisterhood, camaraderie. My hands on experience in the industry that’s what it was like for us before the law changed. The police would come around and they would entrap you,” says Davey.

They had to fight for the health, the safety and for the existence of sex workers to be finally deemed legal.

“I know for our collective and sex workers that we’ve been dealing with for thirty years, it’s always been about equity. Whether it’s #MeToo or the #BlackLivesMatter, we’re fucking doing it all day, every day. It’s not something new. Going back to the 125 years, women and suffrage, we just get on with it,” says Pickering of the fight for recognition and safety of sex work, and the women in the industry.

The Venus Envy podcast: Download (right click to save), have a listen below, subscribe through iTunes (RSS feed) or read on for a transcription of the conversation with Damaris Coulter, Annah Pickering, and Nunu Davey.

L-R, Nunu Davey, Damaris Coulter, Annah Pickering, and Noelle McCarthy (Image: supplied)

Noelle McCarthy: We’ve heard the word ‘community’ used when talking workers, about sex workers. How much of a community was it for you?

Nunu Davey: It was my community, as in us working girls. We only had ourselves, apart from getting condoms from Anu and them. But we stood there and fought with the public, with the clients, with each other. We had our own kind of like whānau community thing as well.

Is K Road Special in terms of the relationship between all the different people who use it and go there?

Damaris Coulter: K Road is really special. It’s a place where people come and gather and it’s got a rich history. I always talk about K Road as a blueprint model of what works in a community, of something old, something new, something eccentric, something for anything and anyone, and that’s really important to ensure that the diverse community that are living and visiting and working in that space still exist.

Because you were out South weren’t you?

ND: Yup, I’m a south-side girl. From time to time we used to come to K Road, sometimes it was a bit of a battle between the south girls and the town girls. The town girls would try and stand us over and kick us out. I never listened, I just did my thing.

DC: Yeah, the South Auckland movement started in the late 90s because when we had the power cuts in and around Auckland in 1997 the South Auckland workers started to establish and start the working scene. Papatoetoe, Manurewa, they were the new generation.

Is being trans an advantage or does it make things harder do you think? In terms of street work, is there a certain set of challenges that come with it?

ND: Oh yeah definitely, there were heaps of challenges but I just held my head high and walked my walk. It was challenging, definitely, but I did everything in my power to keep myself positive and ignore them and, in saying that, I had found a place of home as well. So I was okay with kinda whatever came with the street. So much comes with working out on the street and the lifestyle I lived and I did for years, I did it for 20 years up there. It was just like home, it was.

Annah Pickering: In my opinion I got very overwhelmed because I think about the fight as sex workers and as sex worker activists for our community and our time in Aotearoa, particularly with when prostitution became decriminalised. Monday the 25th of June is our 15 year anniversary and that was huge for us, then I think about the struggles we’ve have politically with Counties Manukau because we had two attempts post the bill, where the former councils there had wanted to bring a bill called the Manukau City Council regulation of prostitution as specified by places bill. At the time it got chucked out, in 2009, and we never lay down, we kept going because people tend to think we’re some creatures, that we’re not part of society.

I just know that with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, even though we’ll have a few spokespeople, we’ve got a whole bunch of sex workers, past, present and future who are standing next to us, who we have contact with daily, who tell us stuff, what’s happening on their jobs, in their lives, and when you’re speaking for our community publicly and politically, it’s so essential because we are here and we’re not going anywhere.

I’ll come back cause there’s a lot I want to unpick about what you’re saying Annah along those lines of legislation and culture and legislation framework. Firstly, Damaris, you’re not from Auckland originally, you came from up north.

DC: Yeah, Kaitaia born and bred.

I’m wondering how much of an influence that has on the way you do business. Because you don’t do business the way everybody does business.

DC: No, I mean I’m of the land, you know. I’m Māori. My dad is New Zealand Pākehā who whakapapa to Scottish, English, Irish, anything that came over when the OG colonisers came over, you know. My mum is the Royal Tribes; Ngāti Kahu, Tai Tokerau, and so I think that I’m lucky that I am a blend of wonderful people and genetics. I have been in the trenches you know, and I’m lucky that on a cellular level, that what is genetically part of me is doing things.

What intuitively feels right to me, is that I came from a very working class side on my pākehā side where you did raffles for the people who had a sore leg next door to you and you dropped off things to people who were less privileged than you. I don’t know why it is, why we do things a bit differently, but we just have this kind of thing where we do. It’s just the way it is, and I come from a place where we do business. Obviously you have to make money to stay in business, it’s a fucking no brainer, right? Otherwise you can’t pay the bills, pay the rent, pay the tax, pay the employees, everything, but it doesn’t have to be at the cost of people.

I think that a lot of traditional businesses are profit, whereas ours is where profit and people can hold hands. And that’s our business and I suppose that’s why it seems like a fucking unicorn to most people, cause most people are like “I need to sell X amount, and I need to make this amount of margins, to keep my life going because I’ve got a house in Remas that is 700 bucks a week mortgage, and I like to go to Italy twice a year and my kids go to Kings.” They are held by the balls to do a certain amount. I don’t have to do that because what I need on the planet is a lot more simple. If my family are happy, if my community is well supported, if I’ve got time, I’m kinda fucking winning.

Damaris (left) and Renee Coulter of Coco’s Cantina. (Photo: José Barbosa)

Nunu, where did you grow up?

ND: I was born in Tauranga, that’s where I’m from, and I came back and forth to Tauranga and to Auckland. I also grew up in a little town called Little Waihi, Otawhiwhi Marae, I’m from there as well. Back and forth from Tauranga to Auckland, Tauranga to Auckland, Tauranga to Auckland.

When did you make the move to Auckland, when did you decide to stay here?

ND: When I was 12. I went to Tamaki Intermediate, then on to Tamaki College sorry, which was really hard. Being born different, because I was born a male and I transitioned when I was 17. I always got picked on at school and it was hideous.

Was it bullying?

ND: Yup, I was bullied at school. It scared me and I left school, I couldn’t go back because I was terrified because I got hidings at school, got chased. We used to go out to parties at young age and I would always be the one that got jumped and picked on, cause I was so feminine as well and it was obvious. I was like a dainty little boy, that couldn’t stick up for herself. I couldn’t, I had no voice and it wasn’t till I transitioned when I was 17 that I found my voice and I stood up.

Did it get easier then?

ND: Definitely, but I also became a bully, too, when I think about it.

Is it hard being different?

ND: Not now, but it was then. It was definitely hard being born in a male’s body and feeling like a woman, or then a girl. It’s not hard now.

No?

ND: Nah, I’ve definitely grown from then, to now.

In terms of the work, in terms of doing sex work, what are your memories like? Do you have good memories, do you have bad memories?

ND: I have a lot of good memories, yeah. Fuck I was always wasted. Always wasted, always choppy, I did a lot of bad stuff too. But there were a lot of good memories, a lot of bad ones too, and I feel like my past, especially around sex working and what came with it, I’ve been to jail and I did heaps of bad shit that I’m not proud of and today I’m recovering and I’m three years, five months clean. I thought prostitution, well we called it ‘working girl,’ career girl, ‘looking for a career’, is what we used to say in our day. “Oh yeah I’m a career girl, looking for a career, got us a career?”.

We just made up some real random shit a lot of the time on the street, and we kinda had to do that to keep ourselves entertained cos there were some lonely cold nights. We worked in hail, snow, storm, and the lightning. It was crazy, and the girls used to get attacked, and I’ve been attacked a couple of times out there, but I still stood my ground and I think that goes from my childhood and being bullied. When I transitioned I think that was enough, I picked up my tits and my balls. When I transitioned I said “no motherfucker’s gonna pick on me anymore, or my sisters. And that’s how it was, and it was all good. It made me who I am today.

You talked about decriminalisation, Annah, 2003, was it? How much of a difference do you think it’s made in practice, what are the biggest differences made to the lives of people who are working?

AP:  Oh it’s huge. Before the law changed we had the massage parlour act and you could sell a nude massage, but you couldn’t ask money for sex. Prostitution was always legal, it was just the acts surrounding it like soliciting, living off the earnings, procuring. Under the former massage parlour act we had to register with the New Zealand Police. Everyone who worked in a massage parlour had to show our forms of ID which is either a passport, driver’s license, birth certificate, marriage certificate. They would photocopy that, take a serial number, and would put your working name, your other known names, the brothels that you worked at, massage parlours that you had worked at, and if you had drug convictions or soliciting convictions you couldn’t work in a massage parlour because those were criminal offences.

That’s why we had a lot of women working on the streets because a lot of the time, particularly for trans women, it’s a place where they could identify with their own peers, the sisterhood, camaraderie. My hands on experience in the industry that’s what it was like for us before the law changed. The police would come around and they would entrap you.

What was is like getting arrested?

ND: It was horrible sometimes. Some of the police officers were assholes. I remember this one cop. He used to follow the girls and take pictures. He honestly used to follow us all home. In saying that, there were a lot of good cops too who looked out for us as well, but there were those creepy mother fuckers.

AP: Going back to what you were saying, there’s been huge benefits of decriminalisation. I mean the massage parlor act was repealed, soliciting was no longer a conviction, and we could live off our earnings without being criminalised.

Or potentially go through the courts to get them, if you had a situation if someone didn’t pay or tried to skip out on it.

AP: I remember you couldn’t even apply to go to university if you had a soliciting or drug conviction. Your children got removed from your care if you criminalised as a prostitute. So the huge impacts of decriminalisation have been really positive, and our networks are stronger and the working relationship with New Zealand is so much better now than before. Before, they would historically go to the massage parlours, do what we called the ‘vice squad’ back in the day, go in pretending they were clients, then entrap you and use condoms and lube as evidence against you. You’re really stressed, because whether you’re working on the streets or a massage parlour back in the day, every client who came to pay for sex, we were looking at them as though they were the undercover police.

That’s very interesting what you’re saying because it suggests that legislation has the power to guide and shape culture as well. That the culture will change if the law changes. Often you think of it the other way around. Often it’s a push culture, which leads to a law change. I’m thinking about Kate Sheppard and getting votes for women. That wouldn’t have been granted unless the politicians at the time knew that there was a political appetite for that. So it sounds as though the change in the law is intimately related to that change in culture, is almost leading it.

AP: Before my time becoming involved with New Zealand Prostitutes Collective, our cofounder and national coordinator, Dame Catherine Healy, people like her and other trans women and male sex workers, and female, cis-female women who started the movement back then, the reason why the government at the time had given us money was because AIDS had hit New Zealand.

In the 80s they needed people to go and run health promotion messages to the communities, the people who use drugs, sex workers, and men who have sex with men and trans women, and so NZCP approached the Department of Health and said we’re peers, give us a contract, we could talk about negotiating a contract and we can run a project to work with our community.

I remember from listening to Dame Catherine’s conversations, she said that they only came in with $50,000! To run a national project. It was really difficult, we still had to go and work in the brothels and work on the streets, and still run NCPC.

And still do the drop offs of the condoms and the lube packs, were you worried about your health, when you were working on the street Nunu?

ND: No, I was too out of it, I was too out of it to care. All I worried about was what I looked like. Made sure I had all my bling and all that fancy shit. I wasn’t worried about my health, at all.

And did the bling make a difference to that?

DC: The bling always makes a difference

ND: Sometimes, not all the time though. I think drugs had become my way, and then all those pretty things didn’t really matter anymore. It was all about drugs, for a very long time.

Is that a big story across the board, do you think Annah?

AP: There’s always this generalisation that it’s a Hollywood thing, they’ve got prostitutes and drugs and sex workers and drugs, and when we’ve done academic research through the Christchurch School of Medicine and Otago University on our community it’s only really about 25% of our community that use drugs. The higher drug use would be street based sex work.

We talked about this Nunu and you said to me that there were some girls that were straight. They didn’t use drugs.

ND: Yeah, that was just these last couple of years that I knew of. These were my own sisters, that I grew up with and went away from the streets and because there’s a lot of working girls and prostitution now, online and all that sorta stuff. They had already done the drug scene and come away from it. They learnt how to do without it, so it is possible now to be a working girl and not have to do drugs.

A lot of the times I did drugs was because I wouldn’t wanna have to face, that guy and that guy, and I didn’t wanna have to feel that I was sucking his thing or having sex with him. It was kinda like a form of blocking for me, as well as pushing away whatever else was going on in my life, it helped me cope with the street life.

Has stigma evolved, do you think Annah?

AP: Yeah the language is still there. Particularly with the media, but even with mainstream public and how they perceive the industry. You can pick up the media or go on social media or whatever, and there’ll be something saying ‘PROSTITUTE!’ or when we’ve had murders in this country, the media are all interested about the occupation, let alone the victim, and their family.

I remember some of our spokespeople for the organisation, we’ve got to go and stand up there publicly on national TV, face the public, and also we’re acknowledging that we’re not only supporting the victim’s whānau through losing their loved one or their partner or their children, but that the public seem to make it about the occupation, than someone’s whānau member. That really disturbs me, about human behaviour.

Paradise Club, Wellington. (Photo by Guillaume COLLET/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

We’re talking about hundreds, if not thousands of years of a narrative around a female sexuality though, aren’t we? A commodification of a female sexuality and a sort of a ‘taboo’ around it, which is fun to play with.

AP: It’s about colonisation, religion and how Christianity and all the other stuff that goes along with it views sex and sacred sex. From my understanding, Nunu, other sex workers, they’re saving lives in the community, we are saving marriages, we are saving men who come to see sex workers, who have a lot of dysfunctional sexual experiences. They can’t even talk about or express something as simple as a blowjob or a handjob, a sexual expression that they want to express.

Do you mean they can’t ask for it?

AP: In an intimate relationship with a woman. Whether it’s their wife or partner or a friend with benefits, and a lot of the New Zealand men who are our clients who have come to see sex workers, it’s not just about sex. Sometimes they just sit there talking, crying.

Would they talk and cry to you, Nunu?

ND: Yup, I’ve had heaps.

AP: We have to sit there and listen to them about what’s happening in their lives, because as far as their sex education goes, it’s really awful at school. We are educating men, who come and pay for sex, about safe sex. They’re not getting that at school and when they come to see sex workers there’s like this liberation around sexual expression.

DC: We are doing a public service! They should be thanking everyone, really.

Just to pick up on that point, the MeToo movement, and this moment in gender relation, there’s a lot of momentum. There’s a lot of momentum from women for change. Women are speaking up and they’re being the believed, and there is a solidarity. How does that affect all the different industries you guys are in? You’re in hospitality, you are an advocate, an organiser in sex work, you’re in the care industry now, you know, you look after people Nunu. All of those are female dominated industries, traditionally. There’s a lot of emotional labour involved in all of them, I mean you just explained, Annah, the emotional labour involved in sex work. Do you think this MeToo movement will change people’s awareness of that?

AP: I mean my opinion of the MeToo is that it’s only for one part of the feminist movement. It doesn’t involve trans women, and in my experience it’s not even involving sex workers.

But shouldn’t it? I mean aren’t trans women…

AP: And women of colour!

DC: Yeah, I was gonna say it serves a certain group.

That’s so ironic isn’t it? Because trans women and women of colour are traditionally the women who have been most vulnerable to the abuse.

DC: It’s such a complex conversation, because the MeToo movement is clearly one that’s completely overdue. I don’t know if you consider yourself a feminist, I don’t consider myself a feminist, I consider myself an equalist.

AP: We are the fucking feminist, we are the fucking feminist, sex workers are fucking feminist.

DC: Yeah, that’s exactly it isn’t it. It’s kind of like, the people in the trenches are the feminists. The people that are actually, getting shit done from the ground up, for everyone, for the marginalized minorities, are the feminists. The MeToo movement, it comes from a good place, of course it does. Anyone who is being abused or oppressed or shut up, you want them to have a voice, that’s what you’re hoping the MeToo will allow, but actually, the people in the trenches, are the feminists, who are already not being served by that.

Did the Christine Bartlett case give you hope, Annah? Did you in seeing that sort of pay equity being negotiated by someone who was representing a group that people had said for a long time “that’s just how it is, you guys get paid, you’re getting the minimum wage, be happy”, did that make you feel okay, like things can change?

AP: I know for our collective and sex workers that we’ve been dealing with for thirty years, it’s always been about equity. From the time that we started and until even when I leave this studio we still do it, we just get on with it. Whether it’s MeToo or Black Lives Matter, we’re fucking doing it all day, every day. It’s not something new. Going back to the 125 years, women and suffrage, we just get on with it.

DC: It’s very hard to go, ‘I can’t talk about that yet’, when trans still don’t have the same type of acceptance around our public as a heterosexual woman. There’s all this other work, it’s really difficult for people like NuNu, and me and my world to actually like, you’re one hundred percent right. Nothing’s ‘new’ for us, we’re just doing exactly what we’re doing every day, right? It’s just a hustle, you’re always doing it.

But all three of you are hustlers for better work, sorry I’m stealing your line Damaris, it’s a good one. But you are, and you’re all working with existing frameworks. This is what I find so interesting, that there’s a combination of grit and grace required isn’t there? To now gate that and to keep going. You’re off to Switzerland soon Annah, to work within that broader framework I suppose.

AP: That’s what’s really special about Aotearoa, New Zealand, is that we’re world leading in a lot of social law reforms. Homosexuality was legalized in 1986, same sex marriage, prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, and it just keeps going. We were the first place that women could vote in the world, are we there yet? Some things we are, and some things we’re not, but there’s still pay and equality for women of colour, representation of women of colour on boards.

Is that where the difference gets made, do you think? Do you think the difference gets made at that level?

AP: I mean, I don’t have the answer to that,

It doesn’t have to be the right answer, just in your experience

AP: You go to these meetings and it’s always the same places that are there, and I know for many women and for many sisters in the community, a lot of women have got work, got their kids to deal with and cook ya husband’s meal, life goes on, pick up the laundry, pick up the animals from the vet.

Happy homeworker, keep going.

AP: Yeah, keep going. When you see a lot of the representation in some of these spaces, I feel that, and when I go to a lot of high level meetings I’m always consciously looking at who’s represented on the table and I’m thinking why is that? I always ask, why isn’t there a Māori or why isn’t there a Pasifika here? Why isn’t there an Asian here? And no one really has the answers for that because it seems to be dominated.

What do people tell you if you ask that?

AP: Well they don’t actually think about it, but I do, because I’ve gotta live in my skin. I mean it is a privilege to do the work we all do, we all do in our jobs, in our roles in the community, as people in our family. Like you mentioned our organization is going to Geneva, to the United Nations and there’s women from all around the world that will be attending to make submissions and talk about what each of us are doing in our own organizations, in the countries that we’ve worked with, that we’re facing, that are still not being met with today.

Finally Nunu, are you hopeful? Are you hopeful about the future, a hundred and twenty five years after Kate Sheppard changed the conversation, got women the vote, on a different trajectory?

ND: Well, I don’t know what ‘MeToo’ is, I’m not sure what it is, what is ‘MeToo’?

DC: I was going to say I don’t know who Kate Sheppard is.

ND: I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful for me.

You’re gonna be a mum…

ND: I’m gonna be a mum.

DC: Oh my god that’s amazing!

ND: Especially from the life I lived. I’m very hopeful that life’s just gonna get better for me and I just gotta keep doing the mahi I believe in and hopefully my trans sisters and women that are struggling out there just believe in themselves and know that there’s a better way.

Are you hopeful, Damaris?

DC: Yeah, I am. I mean when I’m in a room full of amazing women like you, I feel hopeful. I feel like we’ve got an opportunity, we’re in a really interesting time in history, where we can make proper change, and we can use the shit of the past, and with enough knowledge of having some foresight, that we can make some really good decisions. Safe, and well, and clean decisions that aren’t corrupted by money and profit, and massive conflicts of interest at the cost of our people and our environment, and each other. I feel like that’s gonna come from, thankfully, activists like us. It’s gonna come from us. When Annah goes to a board meeting and when she goes to the UN to represent Sex Workers Australasia, it means that she feels strong and supported and brave and not like we are a thorn in someone’s side and I think we’re at that stage.

I think we’re no longer those dirty activists, we are at the table because we’re the right people to be at the table, and we should be heard. I feel like we are coming from a place of love, intuition, knowledge, and it’s not that this is right or wrong, but we’re coming from a place of integrity, rather than a place of motive. Yeah, I think that I am hopeful. I just hope that people who are in these privileged positions of power work as hard as we’re working for their world.


This content is brought to you by the Auckland Museum. On now, Are We There Yet? Women and Equality in Aotearoa celebrates the 125th anniversary of women’s suffrage in Aotearoa – but asks how far has New Zealand really come since women gained the vote? On display at the Auckland War Memorial Museum until Wednesday 31 October.

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