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“Illicit drive-through sex”, “Migrant Prostitutes”, and “Highly Educated Escorts”: Productions of ‘acceptable’ sex work in New Zealand news media 2010 – 2016

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posted on 2021-11-23, 11:23 authored by Easterbrook-Smith, Gwyn

In 2003 New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act, decriminalising sex work and associated activities. This thesis examines news media representations of sex work and workers from 2010 to 2016 to determine how these texts construct sex work in a post-decriminalisation environment. The key questions this thesis considers are: which sex workers are presented by journalists as acceptable, and what conditions are attached to that acceptability? Using media studies frameworks to analyse the texts, this thesis demonstrates that in a decrimininalised environment the media plays a regulatory role, with the power to dictate what modes of sex work are acceptable largely shifting away from the courts. In the absence of a debate about the il/legality of sex work, a different kind of binaristic construction emerges, frequently related to public visibility or invisibility.  This thesis uses discourse analysis techniques to examine texts relating to three key media events: the repeated attempts legally restrict where street sex workers could work in South Auckland, texts about migrant sex workers around the time of the Rugby World Cup, and texts about independent or agency-based sex workers. My methodology involved examining the texts to establish who was situated as an expert through discourse representation, what words were used to describe sex workers and their jobs, and then discerning what narratives recurred in the texts about each event.  My analysis indicates that in a decriminalised environment news media representations of sex work afford acceptability to those who are less affected by structural oppressions: predominantly young, white, cisgendered, middle or upper-class women who see few clients and work indoors. However, for workers who fall outside these bounds news reports continue to reproduce existing sex work stigma. I highlight how racism and transmisogyny frequently play into news representations of sex work, even under a framework of decriminalisation, in ways that serve to avoid acknowledging the work of (some) sex workers as legitimate labour, and how transmisogyny is used in attempts to exert and justify bodily control over sex workers. By considering how these representations function to undermine the legitimacy of the work, this thesis demonstrates the ways news media functions as a site at which stigma about sex work is produced, reinforced, or validated for a non-sex working audience.  Additionally, this thesis argues that the ways acceptable sex work is produced are predicated on agency and independent workers’ performance of choice and enjoyment, requiring the actual labour involved in sex work to be obscured or minimised. This obfuscation of the “work” of sex work makes it more difficult to advocate for improved employment rights and conditions, which is heightened due to the advertorial function of some news media texts. Furthermore, the ways in which sex workers’ narratives are constructed is also indicative of which workers are or are not acceptable: only certain workers are permitted to speak for themselves, and frequently only when their accounts are supported by other, non-sex working, voices.  This thesis therefore concludes that while news media represents some limited forms of sex work as acceptable, the ways in which this is discursively achieved restrict the ability of workers to self-advocate. Furthermore, even workers represented as acceptable are in a precarious position, with this acceptability being mediated by their ability or willingness to adhere to specific, heteronormatively mediated, identity categories, and to inhabit a specific enthusiasm in their voiced feelings about their work.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Media Studies

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of English, Film, Theatre and Media Studies


Brady, Anita; Smith, Jo; Harrington, Carol