Walking into a brothel is a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience. For all the ‘world’s oldest profession’, ‘bucks night piss up,’ ‘there’s one next to Uni!’ rhetoric, brothels maintain a foreign mystique.
Once inside, it’s an unusually American experience. Instantly, a new economy is in play. I notice the attentive friendliness of women working for tips, and feel pressured to play a certain role and to reciprocate familiarity. For a place that advertises fantasy it’s a very grounded operation, like a theme park.
I’m ushered into a small room to be greeted by a woman and asked if I’m here to see anyone especially. The environment makes me feel instantly welcomed and respected, even if I’m acting like an over-caffeinated Michael Cera.
What sparked my journey into this warm nook in a cold corner of Collingwood is a comment Federal Minister for Employment Eric Abetz recently made to Farrago.
“I believe young people, if they are able-bodied, should take on whatever work is available to them,” Abetz stated. “Just because you’ve got an Arts degree or a Law degree under your belt doesn’t mean you can’t drive a taxi or a tractor until such time as you’re able to put your degree to full use. If anything, it’s character building, it’s rewarding, it allows you to experience another side of life you would have otherwise denied yourself, thinking that welfare might have been the better option.”
I asked Abetz whether his appeal to the resourcefulness of Australia’s youth extended to this most lucrative and ancient of trades?
He paused. “It is legal but I would hope that less and less people get involved in the sex industry,” he replied. “It’s demeaning to the workers, demeaning to the customers and I think it has nothing to merit itself. It is a very degrading occupation to be selling one’s body. The psychological scarring is very sad. All of the workers are scarred for a long time, if not for life.”
Hearing these words, Sarah—a receptionist in one of the aforementioned brothels—wrinkles her nose. “That’s a heavy thing to say. I don’t feel psychologically scarred,” she laughs. “Do I look psychologically scarred to you?” she says with a genuine smile. “Most girls here are headstrong. Working here you have to be clever, and careful. We might have some women who do get scarred, it’s hard work… it’s taxing, but that’s the same as any workplace.”
Sex worker of 17 years and radio presenter Christian Vega sighs exasperatedly at Abetz’s comment. “I think it’s unfair and totally misguided to think that always happens in the sex industry. Psychological scarring doesn’t happen because of a particular occupation. It happens for a whole range of reasons.”
Sex worker Anthony, however, concedes there is some substance to Abetz’s claims.
“Although this [psychological scarring] is a very general term, I’m sad to say I think this is often true,” he says. But Anthony also acknowledges that there is a vast diversity of people and views within the industry. “I wouldn’t say [that applies for] the majority because I really am not an expert, but definitely a good part of this industry is scarred in some way. I really hate to say that because I want to show this industry in a good light”.
The Brothel Keeping and Prostitution Services in Australia market research report produced last month portrays the Australian sex industry in a good light. The IBISWorld report shows a steady year-on-year growth in terms of income generated by legal brothels since decriminalisation in 1984. Legendarily resistant to economic downturns, the sex industry has been thrown into the headlines recently by Greens MP Adam Bandt’s comments that the federal budget’s ‘earn or learn’ approach to welfare restrictions will push young people and students toward sex work to make ends meet.
“I’ve already heard many stories of people who are putting themselves through university through things like sex work because that is the only way that they can afford to do that,” he told News Corp’s Jennifer Rajca.
“You really just have to join the dots. If the cost of university rises and the cost of study rises and then you take away young people’s income altogether, what do you expect them to do?”
Brothel receptionist Krystal Blackie expects an increase in the number of young people moving into sex work should the budget’s measures be passed. “It’s an easy industry to get in, especially if you’re after quick cash. However, if you are getting into this industry out of desperation and work in the wrong environment, it will take advantage of you.”
Though loving the work herself, sex worker Jackie Parker warns that those just looking to make money are often the hardest hit by the realities of the job. “If the wrong people go into sex work out of desperation, it can destroy them. Not everyone can handle it emotionally, just like a lot of people can’t handle the emotions that come with being an ambo or a cop.”
Studies in the United Kingdom and Australia show a rise in the number of students funding school through sex work. Following increases to student fees in the England, the English Collective of Prostitutes reported twice as many calls from students in 2011 as compared to 2010. Another UK study from 2010, published in Sex Education, found that 16.5 per cent of undergraduate students would consider working in the sex industry. Closer to home, The Sunday Age reported in 2008 that up to 40 per cent of female sex workers in Melbourne brothels were tertiary students.
Many fear the government’s proposals will establish an economic underclass, an environment in which sex work flourishes. Christian Vega suggests that sex work has traditionally been the domain of the socially ostracised; women, migrants, queer and other minorities. Allowing them income and some autonomy and a chance at social participation.
Abetz’s fellow parliamentarians claim economic pressures such as interest on international loans are forcing them to take measures like restricting the access to welfare to students and graduates, and introducing income management for those receiving it. These proposals have been criticised from many quarters for unfairly targeting and demonising students.
“It’s a position of privilege to be able to get a job pretty quickly,” says Vega. “Even to take part in education is a privileged position. Now that we’re starting to undermine that privilege people are starting to realise that they did take that time [at university] for granted and they have to look at taking other options that have been considered the norm by more maligned groups in the population.”
When I ask these sex workers about the worst thing about their job, I’m surprised by the uniformity of their responses. They all take exception in the presumption that sex workers are drug users, and the media’s stigmatising take on sex workers as powerless victims. Unsurprisingly, most workers choose not to tell friends and family what they do.
“When I was an admin and unhappy, people thought that was better than being a sex worker and having a happy life,” Jackie Parker tells me. “I was undercover for many years. I didn’t tell anyone really.
“But then when I came out to my family, I came out to my friends. I am proud when I tell people I’m a sex worker. I only kept it hidden because I was scared of people’s reactions. I was scared I’d lose my family. I was conflicted. On one hand society told me that sex work was wrong and only druggo skanks do it. On the other hand, I was drug free and took pride in my work and felt I was making a difference in the world.”
Creating a secure environment in which to work was a cornerstone of the ‘harm reduction’ approach taken when the industry was decriminalised in 1984. Licensed brothels offer a more secure environment than working alone. They require workers to undergo regular health checks, and those who work there talk of developing close friendships with other workers.
Krystal Blackie points to the strict legislation governing sex work in Victoria and the provision of condoms, lubricants, adequate lighting to allow health checks as examples of a professionalisation many find surprising.
“These women are no more troubled than anyone else,” says Blackie. “They have the same day-to-day stress, and go through the same motions we do. They do the school drop offs, they coach sports on weekends, or they study at uni. They are hairdressers, nurses, aged care workers, and a lot more. In fact you all would have met someone and not even known they worked in the sex industry.”
For young people considering a short-term stint in the sex industry, all workers warn against going into it lightly. Contacting a representative association such as Scarlet Alliance, RhED or support association like the St Kilda Gatehouse is a smart first step.
Blackie says few workers dabble with the sex industry, and the more accurate picture is of a business-savvy woman working to get repeat clients. “Being in the business of entertainment they know it isn’t long term, so they have day jobs, they study, they invest and they have a long term goals and plans for themselves for when they leave,” she says.
Unusually for someone considered pro-business, Abetz has doubts. “Sure they go into it voluntarily—in inverted commas—in some cases, but… the psychological scarring and the consequences and the demeaning nature of the work, I must… I would discourage anybody from entering into that sector.”
“I see how many backpackers we have in Australia—and they’re more than welcome and we love them—but one wonders if backpackers can do all these jobs why can’t our fellow Australians? Are they the greatest jobs in the world? Of course not, but we all start somewhere.”
“I first went into sex work because I’m quite socially anxious and tended to have meltdowns in large social situations,” says April, 21. “I never considered sex work because I needed the money, and would never want to work like that. It was more about getting ahead in life. I was, and still am, willing to do things others wouldn’t do to get ahead financially. I think it’s more likely the financially disadvantaged would be tempted to go into things like webcam shows [than sex work]. It requires very minimal set up and it’s a lot less personal.”
“I offer anything as long as I’m comfortable and as long as they’re pleasant and hygienic,” Anthony, who chooses not to work in a brothel, says. “[It pays] $350 an hour and around $1,500+ for overnight.”
“Some really unexpected things can arise through this work. I have one client who pays me to go out to dinner with him then shave his head and sometimes do laundry. Clients can get attached and that’s when you need to state your boundaries. I’ve only had one client I said no to before meeting and he was an autistic 18 year-old who wanted extreme, extreme BDSM sex.”
“Part of everybody’s professional career is change,” Vega explains, echoing the openness and lack of judgement characteristic to many sex workers. “People might try something out for a while, they might decide it’s not for them, that happens in any profession and it definitely happens in sex work. There are also people who don’t want to leave. They come across sex work and try it for a while and decide that it’s ideal for them and their circumstance. People have this idea that being trapped in an occupation is a terrible thing, that if you feel like you don’t have many options, that’s a human rights issue. What they’re not looking at is it’s actually the same for everyone, and that extends to the criticism that is lobbed at the sex industry.
“Things like sexism and gender-based power imbalances, it’s easy to talk about these things in the context of the sex industry, something that’s not very well socially accepted or represented. What people are missing is the fact that everyday sexism happens in every occupation and that women are treated badly in workplaces everywhere.”
Back in the brothel, my nervousness eases as Sarah explains how it just took a little research to blow her misconceptions away. “Get educated. Read up about it. Talk to people,” she advises. The more I learn, the more complex and diverse the industry becomes and the harder it is to do justice to the sheer range of what this industry encapsulates.
Leaving, via the obligatory ‘discreet’ side entrance, I’m struck by the openness and honesty shown by the workers I interview, and how this contrasts with the narrow options Abetz had available to my questions; expressing anything other than perturbed admonishment would be scandalous, un-Australian. Far from being the case in other countries, this pressure on leaders suggests we still have a long way to go before sex workers are seen as being more than their job. Curious students will have to ask themselves, is the stigma worth the thrill or the income? Abetz hopes not, but for those who decide to try, it’s a well-trodden path, and a lot of those who have taken it are happy to talk.