What you see in celluloid is a far cry from the reality when it comes to sex workers. Erin O’Dwyer goes beyond the red light to explode the myths.THE BROTHEL owner sits cross-legged on the floor, wearing Buddhist prayer beads and quoting Shakespeare. "The perception is that we’re unintelligent, that we’re desperate, and that we’re second-rate people who don’t have much integrity," says Catherine, who opened The Site in Sydney’s western suburbs four years ago."But," she continues, "it’s like Shakespeare said – nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."
Catherine is one of Sydney’s most successful brothel owners, but she could hardly be less like the flame-haired, feather-flouncing madam one might imagine. A straight-talking businesswoman in her early 50s, Catherine’s average weekly schedule could see her negotiating local council zoning laws, jetting off to an international conference, or finding time to teach her four-year-old daughter how to read.On her books are about 100 working girls who are also a far cry from the teenage heroin junkies who, if Hollywood is to be believed, spruik sex on street corners in knee-highs and mini skirts. Among them are students working to pay off HECS debts, and mothers working to put their children through school.
To most people, says Catherine, brothels still remain seedy dens of immorality. But for the women on the game, prostitution represents a serious career choice. "A lot of feminists are anti-prostitution because they think it’s oppressive to women, but I think it can actually empower women," the one-time working girl says. "A lot of them have kids and responsibilities, and they’re here to earn money because it’s the best way they know how. Our hope is that they evolve and go on to bigger and better things."In recent years parlour prostitutes have begun inviting the general public behind the red light – metaphorically, if not literally. As well as kiss-and-tell books here and overseas, surveys of women working in the world’s oldest profession have revealed the real face of the average Australian prostitute.
Melbourne researchers who visited inner-city brothels discovered the average age of working girls was 29. More than 40 per cent had children and, of those, half were married or in de facto relationships. What’s more, one in 10 was a university student, and as many again were studying at college.Most of the 253 women who responded to the La Trobe University survey said they had been raised in traditional families. Two out of three said they were brought up either Catholic or Protestant, while one out of five said they still held those beliefs.Asked why they entered the industry, most women said it was for financial reasons. They either contacted the brothel themselves, or were introduced by a friend. But they did not necessarily find the goldmine they might have expected. One third of sex workers earned up to $500 each week, about 20 per cent earned $800-$1000 and another 20 per cent earned more than $1000.
The AIDS Council of NSW’s policy adviser on sex work, Maria McMahon, believes the Melbourne survey, and more recent research completed at brothels in Sydney’s western suburbs, will help break down the myths. She says that because prostitutes are still ridiculed and reviled, the majority of women lie about their work. Indeed the Melbourne survey found almost 80 per cent always lied to their parents, to the children and to their friends. More than 60 per cent always lied to their partners about what they did for a living.
"The majority of women won’t tell anyone about their occupation and that creates its own stresses," McMahon says."But sex work is a reasonable occupation for women who enjoy the work and enjoy the service component of it. It’s about a lot more than penetrative sex. It’s about people feeling that someone is paying attention to them and having the chance to talk about things."There has always been a ludicrous myth that sex workers need to be nymphomaniacs to be successful but that doesn’t go with the role at all. The focus is on the clients’ needs, not their own. Yes, an interest in sex is a handy thing but enthusiasm can very nicely be faked."
Back at The Site, scantily-clad prostitutes lounge around in the smoky semi-darkness of the front bar. It is daytime and down time for the girls, and they share horror stories about their web of lies. One girl reveals how devastated she was when her ex-husband told her father what she did. Another recalls how an ex-boyfriend booked her at the brothel one night.
For the brothel’s receptionist, a mother of six, discussing her day job is just too dangerous. The brothel’s assistant manager is happy to speak but asks that we not use her name. "My adult son is pretty out there, but he would be devastated if he knew," she says.
Those who do speak do so on the condition of anonymity. One is a young mum who works as a prostitute for financial security. Another is a New Zealand-born call woman called Raven, who is 37 but looks a decade younger. Raven uses a stage name and wears a wig so that she can do the mundane things such as shopping in privacy. She says she enjoys her work and has vowed never to return to the public service. "It was too low-income, the people were too narrow-minded and you don’t have a variety of wardrobe," she says with only a hint of a grin.Beside her is Hayley, a career student just months away from finishing her PhD. She says she is a scientist and a quick internet check confirms her story. Most of her fellow students do not know she works as a prostitute, but she says her personality does not change."I’m exactly the same in the room and out in the world," Hayley says. "I could never pretend to be someone that I’m not."
In NSW about 6000 female sex workers are employed in brothels, escort agencies or at home. In Sydney there are 600 brothels, and across the state there are up to 800. Street walkers account for less than 1 per cent of the industry. Maria McMahon points out that because the sex industry is so well regulated, occupational health and safety standards ensure that workers are regularly tested, have access to condoms and generally have a low rate of drug use."Sex workers are the experts on safe sex," McMahon says. "They might smoke a bit more, but they are not significant users of drugs or alcohol in comparison to other women from the same social background. And they’ve got no greater risk of STIs than any other women provided they are using condoms."
Ironically, those at the coalface say that it is their clients who are less than model citizens when it comes to being tested. Former working girl Jo Holden, now manager of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), says prostitutes diligently check their clients and refuse to take their money if they show tell-tale signs. "Time and time again clients want to know how often sex workers have been tested, but never, if ever, are they regularly tested."Holden says this is indicative of the disrespect often shown to many workers, and it is this disrespect that SWOP aims to confront. Holden has a nursing degree and post-grad qualifications in business."I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a sex worker," she says. "Just because you’re a sex worker doesn’t mean you think about sex 24 hours a day. It’s just a job that you do like anyone else."
Sex work and the cerebral
About the women
Average age of a parlour prostitute is 29. Ages vary from 18 to 51.About half are Australian-born, and one quarter are Thai-born. Of the remainder, many are NZ- or UK-born.Almost half have never married, one in three is divorced or widowed, and one in five is married or in a de facto relationship.Two in three went to high school, and one in four went on to tertiary studies.One in four had used heroin in the month before they were surveyed. A quarter had used amphetamines, one third had used cannabis and almost eight out of 10 were smokers.Almost 75 per cent had never been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease. None reported being HIV positive. Most were tested three monthly.
In the brothels
Most prostitutes have worked for about four years. The average length of service is 10 months. The longest period of employment is eight years.Prostitutes see an average of 26 clients each week. Bookings range from one to 100 clients each week. Most women see between 10 and 30 clients.Virtually all women (99 per cent) reported always using condoms for intercourse, and almost all (87 per cent) for oral sex.
Source: South Western Sydney Area Health Service Parlour Survey
The scientist with a night job
HAYLEY is not her real name, just as prostitution is not her true profession. The 27-year-old country girl came to Sydney 10 years ago to study science, and is months away from finishing her PhD in a university research centre.As a struggling student she began working in massage, but better pay and conditions enticed her into prostitution. It has paid her way, and delivered financial security for life.She works four shifts at a suburban brothel each week, earning $2000 to $4000 and seeing up to 30 clients. She has a share portfolio and investment properties. She loves her lifestyle, but hides it from family, closest friends and sometimes partners."I’m from an old-school country family . . . the kids and the dogs and the parents. My father would have a heart attack if he knew. I want to tell them but it would break their hearts. No parent wants to think of their daughter working as a prostitute. They would wonder: where did we go wrong?People think of prostitutes as street hookers in Kings Cross or along St Kilda Road, high on drugs and working for their next hit. It’s how prostitutes are portrayed in movies. But the world I live in is so different. It’s actually a lot of fun. Many think we need saving from life but I don’t want to be saved, I don’t need to be saved. I don’t have to do this. I choose to. That’s the difference.
Some friends know, some don’t. I used to babysit a friend’s son. Then I told her where my money came from and I wasn’t able to babysit him anymore. Those kinds of reactions hurt most. The job does not change who I am as a person, just my pay packet.There are down sides. Some clients speak to us like we’re silly, like we’re pieces of meat. I just laugh inside. The joke’s on them, because at the end of the day they are paying me. The majority of the clientele are great, though. They appreciate the service we provide and treat us with respect.
At parties if people ask me what I do I say I’m a scientist. I don’t have to lie in that respect. The two worlds do not belong together. Science is so straight laced and intense. This is fun. This is an outlet.Living a lie is difficult. It’s easier to be single when you work as a prostitute. The lies become more twisted [if you’re in a relationship], having to account for your whereabouts and money. To me it’s not cheating because little emotion is involved.At the end of the day it’s a job. I’m selling my labour and paying taxes, like any other Australian worker."
http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/sex-and-the-city/2005/09/11/1126377190900.html?oneclick=true Published by the Sun Herald, 11/09/05, journalist Erin O’Dwyer