Why Wellington Needs a Safehouse for Women Leaving Prostitution

This article was co-written with Dr. Pala Molisa.


In 2003, New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized prostitution. In doing so, a new set of public policies was created that extended to sex workers the provision of social services, access to healthcare, and recognition of employment rights that historically had been denied under earlier legal regimes. These provisions have been progressive in helping to promote the welfare and occupational health and safety of women in prostitution.

However, prostitution continues to be an industry into which many are pushed because of the coercive circumstances of homelessness, economic necessity, and childhood sexual abuse. Many remain trapped because New Zealand lacks a supportive social service structure that is adequate in helping women in prostitution exit the industry. Without this support, many women do not see a way out; without this support, exiting is often simply not an option.


“I suffered abuse most of my life,” says Rosalie Batchelor, founder of Rosalie’s Haven. She spent many years in the sex industry, and the battle to exit was long and gruelling: the Haven is Rosalie’s initiative to help other women to exit in a way that is safe, sustained and supported. It is currently a fledgling organisation (established in 2013), that Rosalie dreams of using to establish a safehouse. She understands that many women enter the industry and become stuck in similar ways she did; she’s experienced the yo-yoing in and out of the industry that is all too commonplace; and she knows that getting out for good means having a base. A safe, secure, supportive place to recover, plan, and rebuild.

Wellington, indeed, needs such a place.

Like Rosalie, many women in prostitution (around 1,920 in New Zealand) have sparse experience of safe homes: economic strife, and often abuse, have driven them to the industry. “I was an unwanted child, so neglected that at the age of 4 I couldn’t say one word,” says Rosalie. “Our mother wasn’t very well and left the family when I was 2. We stayed with my aunt until I was 4, when my father took my brother to King Country. He wasn’t interested in me because I was a girl. I was put into a Children’s Home until I was 15.”

Many children suffered sexual, physical and mental abuse from the Home’s superintendent, and Rosalie was among them. Complaints were always dismissed in favour of his denial. Rosalie left the Home at 15 only to face sexual abuse by her father, before running away and entering prostitution. There she remained until the law caught up with her and placed her in foster care, which was disastrous. She was then given the choice of returning to her father, or going to Marycrest in Otaki. “I certainly wasn’t going home and falling pregnant to my father, so I went to Marycrest.”

The place was a haven for Rosalie, who still keeps in touch with the Catholic Sisters there. “However I went back to working as a sex worker, it was the thing I really knew. I got friendly with some lovely Christians and started going back to church, but because I did some bad things and couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow I got kicked out of the church and everyone there was told to have nothing to do with me. I swore I would never go into another church. I got into more trouble with the law.” Rosalie’s journey out of prostitution was a hard, almost lifelong battle.

Many women in prostitution arrive and become imprisoned in ways like Rosalie did: the problem is societal. The sex industry is also not a safe one. Globally, 90% of those in prostitution disclose being subject to high levels of sexual harassment, and 70% to sexual abuse. New Zealand already has extremely high levels of violence against women, and studies show how women in prostitution experience the highest rates of abuse.

The 2008 review of the PRA also noted that although decriminalisation has helped women in prostitution report experiences of abuse, adverse incidents including violence is still routine. Tolerating this is nobody’s wish. Yet deepening levels of inequality, poverty and homelessness alongside social service cutbacks are hitting women hard; and the sex industry’s profit motive for growth gives it pulling power. So through no fault of their own, many women are lured into working in an industry where they suffer routine abuse and harassment.

These women need a place to go, a facility supporting them to start afresh. Somewhere their commitment to leaving the industry means something, and they have help to access services they need to build a new life, and follow through for good. Wellington needs such a facility for women seeking to leave prostitution, and collectively we have a responsibility to provide the means for them to build a better life. That is what Rosalie seeks to provide with a Haven.

There are currently few designated services available, no designated safehouses, and many women finding it difficult or impossible to permanently exit the industry. In 2006, Christchurch School of Medicine (in a study cited here) estimated there were 2,400 sex workers employed in New Zealand. This includes 377 in Wellington (with the Hutt Valley and Porirua). The figures are grossly conservative, being drawn only from newspaper-based business and advertising surveys carried out in the Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Hawke’s Bay regions as well as Christchurch. All the other regions are excluded, as are unregistered brothel workers, other private workers who use the Internet, underage workers, and foreign sex workers on Visitor or Holiday visas. Plus, the number is likely to have increased.

The most common stated reason for entering the industry is financial, and surveys suggest 72% of those in the industry are stuck there due to circumstance.* That means at least 270 sex workers in Wellington, and given that +80% of people in prostitution are women, around 210 women in Wellington could benefit from a facility supporting them to exit.** But a Wellington facility would cater to women nationwide, not just regionally, since women in prostitution must often leave town to start anew. This increases demand for a facility to around 1380 women. If we also consider those who may wish to leave, but who aren’t considering the option because of the current lack of support, alongside constraints like income dependency and long-term immersion – the number only rises.

There are many reasons women in prostitution might need out: the world over, it is typical in the industry for pimps to employ practices such as routine abuse, threats, close monitoring and manipulation. Since decriminalisation, there have been laws protecting women, but the industry is not well regulated (see here and here). All brothels, for instance, are legally required to register – but not all do. Police do not have a specific duty to actively look for trafficked women, and brothels to an extent are under voluntary regulation. For instance, it is left to brothel owners to report abusive clients. Since this can attract negative press, many choose not to, leaving women forced to tolerate abuse.

Control and manipulation by pimps often includes frequently being moved place to place. Often, women have precarious accommodation arrangements: clients’ preferences for novelty often mean that regular changes of streets, rooms, towns and cities are the norm for many. Three quarters will have experienced homelessness at some point in their lives; constant moving also keeps these women disoriented and bereft of support networks.

Women in prostitution are known to suffer housing discrimination, too. According to BRANZ, 44% of New Zealand’s rental housing is in poor condition, and if women apply for private rentals, poverty alongside housing shortages and discrimination would mean slim pickings among ‘paper walls’. Women seeking to exit the sex trade need a safehouse through which they also receive the time and support necessary to find suitable permanent housing.

Some women couch-surf; some may find themselves in hospital beds. Couch-surfing is an inherently unstable, unreliable, and insecure way of attempting to start one’s life anew, and hospitals aren’t fit for the purpose either. It’s easy to see why – even though leaving abusive circumstances never gets easier, and abuse tends to worsen over timemany women return to prostitution repeatedly, making several attempts to leave. A designated house will provide women with the stability, support and constancy necessary to create and commit to a safety and exit plan.

Financial considerations are the major, but not the only barrier women face in exiting the immersive environment of the sex industry. Women in prostitution can often be disengaged from the usual social service infrastructure; and facing coercion, low self esteem, feelings of social exclusion, fear of discrimination and loss of support networks are far from uncommon. Indeed, gaining social support within sex work and missing the collegiality and camaraderie can be a barrier to exiting. However dark the industry is for many women, familiarity itself has a powerful hold.

Interventions have to be robust and capable of supporting women through tough and unpredictable changes of mind. According to the Ministry of Justice, the best interventions employ a holistic approach, adequate resourcing and strong, ongoing, one-on-one relationships to facilitate access to a ‘coherent package of support’ (including safety, financial, welfare, employment, training, health and addiction, childcare and legal support). The ‘restructuring of everyday life,’ says the Ministry, ‘will be the key concern for those who want to help sex workers exit.’

This is why Rosalie Batchelor is emphatic about the need for a safehouse – as a refuge, a base for the provision of a support package, and a way to decisively remove the barrier of ongoing exposure to an industry is notoriously difficult to exit. For the women who stay, it will prevent the process of exiting from being disjointed, unsafe, isolated and ultimately ineffective. Were there more safehouses supporting women to independence, perhaps yo-yoing would likely be less of an issue.

There is currently a scarcity of housing options for this group of women. Women’s Refuge caters specifically to those 33-39% of New Zealand women who experience domestic violence.

Wellington Women’s Boarding House accommodates sixteen women at a time, and is usually full; Wellington Homeless Women’s Trust houses an additional five. These residences cater to a broad problem of women’s homelessness: at least half of the 34,000+ New Zealanders who suffer severe housing deprivation are women, and more vulnerable than their male counterparts.

Among them, prostituted women are in a vulnerable position indeed, and if there is a shortage of places for the homeless to go, there is certainly a severe shortage of opportunities for the hundreds of women seeking to exit the sex industry. These women require an accommodation facility with support to build a new life, including safety planning, help with transport, and facilitation of access to permanent housing alongside health, welfare, financial, educational, employment and legal assistance. With your support, that is what Rosalie’s Haven seeks to provide.

This article’s authors, Renee Gerlich and lecturer Dr. Pala Molisa, are currently supporting Rosalie Batchelor to set up her organisation and safehouse. The Haven is looking for financial donations to secure a house as well as volunteers, particularly social workers. Please share this piece, and see our website for details on donating and volunteering.

* In Roguski’s study (cited): 10% (migrant: 10%; NZ: 10%) say they “Don’t know how to leave”; 8.5% (m: 10; NZ: 7) “can’t get help to leave”; 24% (m: 29; NZ: 19) “don’t know what else to do”; and 29.5 % (m: 39%; NZ: 20%) “have no other income”. That’s 72% of sex workers who are stuck in the industry due to circumstance. This figure is in line with estimations from other jurisdictions where the percentage range is around 85%-95%. This figure also finds support in Saphira and Herbert’s (2004) study too, of 47 women: two-thirds indicated that they had tried to leave, and a quarter had done so.

** “+80% of sex workers are women,” source: Catherine Healey, New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, pers. comm. 2015

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