By Jacqueline Gwynne
The media glamorises prostitution and presents the illusion that it’s sexually liberating for women, and sex industry lobbyists claim that it’s just regular work. For a long time I accepted this without question.
I was a receptionist in a legal brothel in Melbourne, Australia, for two years and I’d say things like: these women choose to do this work; the men are nice guys; it’s a just a job; it’s no different from doing massage; and it’s a lot better than flipping burgers in a hot, greasy kitchen.
This was my survival instinct speaking and this is how women in the industry make it through the night. You tell yourself it’s OK and think of the money. It’s what you do to make the best of a bad situation, and to stop feeling too awful about yourself.
In fact there’s nothing normal or empowering about prostitution. But I wasn’t able to say that until I’d been out of the industry for two whole years.
At the time I was doing an art degree and was convinced that “sex work” was an exciting and legitimate career for women. So much so that I wanted to make a graphic novel about the industry. I commissioned stories from women on the inside and created illustrations for “The Honey Pot,” as I decided to call the book.
But my plans didn’t fall into place. I gave the graphic novel a red hot go but it just didn’t feel right. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make this life seem like it was an empowering choice for women and eventually the penny dropped. I began to see that it’s dark, seedy, and dangerous. Even sitting on the reception desk in an up-market legal brothel was awful. I hate to imagine what it must be like for women in the illegal brothels; those who are forced, underage, can’t speak English, and literally have no choice.
So let me explain what it’s really like in a legal brothel and you can decide for yourself whether it truly is a normal job.
1. Lack of experience is an advantage
A young woman can literally walk into a legal brothel in Melbourne and begin work immediately. There are no background checks, and no references, qualifications or training is required. All you need is ID that looks reasonably legitimate. The management didn’t care if it was fake and anyway, there was no means of checking.
The women were supposed to be at least 18 but it is easy to get fake ID off the internet. A few years after I stopped working in the brothel, it was busted for having a 14 year old girl doing a shift.
The younger and more vulnerable and less experience you have, the more money you make.
Any brothel receptionist will tell you that the most common question punters ask is how old is the youngest girl. And they always want the new girls. They like them as young as possible because they are easier to manipulate into doing things they don’t actually want to do.
Punters also want the women to look like girls and they’d complain that they were too old, even though the oldest was only about 25.
2. Porn playing in every room
There was hard-core porn playing in every room, including the reception area, and you couldn’t escape it.
Men would ask me what the women did. It was clear they wanted what they saw in pornography and I knew what that was because I was forced to watch it every shift. Porn never has condoms, there’ll be three men ejaculating on a woman’s face, verbal abuse, anal sex, choking, hair pulling, slapping – and this is ordinary mainstream porn. The proliferation of internet porn has placed demands on women to engage in sexual practices that hardly existed 20 years ago.
The punters wanted the women to look like the porn actresses – very young, like teenagers, blonde, with breast implants and no pubic hair. Because of this and the constant competition with younger and more attractive women, many of the women had numerous cosmetic procedures and surgery. This would eat into their income, leaving them even more financially disadvantaged.
3. Sexual harassment is part of the job
If you’re groped, sworn at, or sexually harassed in an office job, you can make a complaint and, if all else fails, you can take legal action. But this is what you get paid for in prostitution. You are paid for men to sexually access your body. And because they’ve paid, men expect to be able to do whatever they please.
Even as the receptionist, you’re treated like you’re up for sale. When you answer the phone you’re expected to be a phone sex operator. Men would play games to try and seduce me. That and being subjected to porn that I couldn’t escape would definitely qualify as workplace sexual harassment.
4. Racism is rife
I answered many calls from men asking for women of specific ethnicities – particularly Black and Asian women. When they came in, I would see that these men were always white. We rarely had Black men as punters and they would always want white women.
So the women’s race and ethnicity was a selling point, which really emphasises that the men considered them commodities and not full human beings.
The way some of the men spoke to the Asian women was disgusting. For example, one night two young guys came in. They only looked about 18. I introduced them to a Thai woman. She was really tiny. These guys looked so innocent and fresh faced until they opened their mouths. You wouldn’t believe the way they spoke to her. They acted like she couldn’t understand English even though I knew she could. One said he wanted to impale and destroy her on his dick. She was in a real state when she finished that booking.
But some of the Asian women couldn’t speak English and they were really popular with the punters. I think this was because not speaking English made them more vulnerable and therefore easier to manipulate and coerce.
5. No employment protection
One of the arguments for legalising prostitution is that it brings the women the advantages of being in regular employment. But in practice that doesn’t happen. It certainly didn’t in the brothel I worked in and I never heard of one where it did – not even in New Zealand, where my friend was in a brothel.
Instead the women were “sole traders” and they just got paid for the bookings they did. They didn’t get any pension contributions or maternity or sick leave or pay. And they couldn’t take out insurance for income protection like you can in a conventional job. They’d have to take time off for their period, or unwanted pregnancies or tears to their anus or vagina, or because they just needed a break from the abuse and trauma. What insurance company would cover a women for this? It is too much of a risk.
Prostitution is not as lucrative as you would imagine. I was surprised that there isn’t more money in it for the women. There were a few women who would see up to 10 punters a night but most saw two or three and it wasn’t uncommon for women to get no bookings at all. It was upsetting seeing them sitting there for 10 or 12 hours without getting a single one – and knowing they’d go home without a bean.
Under normal workplace rules, workers get scheduled breaks. But not in the brothel – because if you get a booking, you are obligated to take it. In theory the women can decline a booking or refuse to see a particular punter but that rarely happens in practice. They need to pay their rent, so they have to do the booking. Men would ask for an hour, and later extend it for another one. On a busy night a woman could have back to back bookings.
In the brothel, punters are treated like kings and nothing is spared in the way of their luxury. They had a spacious lounge area with leather couches and pool tables. The women’s facilities were at the opposite end of the scale. The 10 or more women working up to 12 hour shifts had to share one small cramped room, lacking in privacy. They didn’t even have space to sit down comfortably to relax between bookings.
The wellbeing of the women is not a priority for pimps, brothel owners or even the government, who all benefit from women’s sexual exploitation.
6. The women are in lockdown
After a woman walks in the brothel door at the beginning of her shift, she’s not allowed to leave until it ends. That’s the general rule in legal brothels in Victoria. This gives the lie to the sex trade lobby’s pretence that the women are running a small business like any other and can come and go as they please.
At first I didn’t understand why they were locked in. I was told it was to keep drugs out. But that didn’t make sense. There was a “no drug” policy, but the majority of the women took prescription drugs, street drugs or alcohol just to make it through the night and to endure the physical and mental pain of it. I could tell they were using substances just from their demeanour. They would bring drugs or alcohol in with them or their regular punters would bring them in. The policy was simply not enforced, and everyone knew that.
Eventually I understood the real reason for keeping the women in lockdown is not about drugs at all. It is about control and making them obedient, to break them down mentally. In every sense the sex trade involves the manipulation, control and oppression of the women. I saw this even in that upmarket legal brothel.
7. Hazards and health risks
Prostitution is the only job where unwanted pregnancy is an occupational hazard. Technically condoms were compulsory but every shift at least one punter would ask how much it was for doing it without. The women often told me about condoms splitting, of punters deliberately breaking them or taking them off when they did it “doggy style”.
During my time, one of the women’s stomach started to swell. We all thought she was pregnant but she insisted she wasn’t and that it was caused by irritable bowel syndrome. Eventually she left and then we found out she was six months pregnant.
In hospitals and clinics, workers who handle bodily fluids like blood, saliva, semen, urine or faeces wear protective clothing, gloves and goggles. In the brothel, although condoms were technically compulsory, neither I nor anyone else had any control over what happened behind the closed doors of the brothel rooms.
Every booking was meant to begin with the woman inspecting the man’s genitals under a spotlight, lifting his penis and checking his testicles for warts or lesions. Can you imagine how awkward and humiliating that is for both parties? And anyway there’s no guarantee it would reveal evidence of any sexually transmitted infections the man might have. To be honest, I’m not sure the women actually complied with this rule because in my two years, only one man was ever turned away because he failed the inspection.
Kissing was considered an extra service that men paid more for. But it meant women were exposed to men’s saliva in their mouth, and their vagina if he went down on them. They also have semen splashed on their face, hair and in their eyes during blow jobs. ‘Golden showers’ were a common extra.
Nothing can make these practices safe and they become even more dangerous when either party is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Sexually transmitted diseases are an occupational health risk in all brothels, including legal ones.
Tears of the anus and vagina are also common and women typically need to take a month or more off to recover. Such injuries are physically and emotionally traumatising and, because the women are not employees, they’re not paid while they take time off to recuperate.
Men who pay for sex expect to do whatever they want to a woman’s body. If they are paying for an hour, they expect to fuck for the entire hour. They expect to get their money’s worth. So women resort to pain killers or prescription or illicit drugs to numb themselves. And they use topical anaesthetic creams around their anus and vagina. But this means they don’t feel the damage while it is being done, making serious injuries even more likely.
Getting pounded violently in the vagina, anus and mouth from uncaring men all night takes a serious toll on your body. The women would often look much older than they actually were – which is a known sign of extreme and persistent stress.
8. No workplace inspections
Since leaving the brothel, I’ve worked in a regular job doing sales and marketing. WorkSafe, which enforces local occupational health and safety laws, inspects the premises every year.
There were never any such inspections in the brothel when I worked there. I would have been sure to have heard if there had been one. And if they had done even a basic check, they would have closed the place down. Just having porn playing in every room made it an unsafe work environment. Women were exposed to sexually transmitted infections, violence and abuse. These conditions do not exist in a normal job.
9. Violence is endemic
There was at least one incident of harassment, verbal abuse, violence or rough treatment towards the women on every single shift I ever worked in the brothel. I also experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse myself from the punters; even the phone calls were harassing. I know another receptionist who had a gun held to her head in a hold up.
There were panic alarms in every room but they were never used while I was there. It was just accepted that abuse was part of the job. If women had pressed the panic button, which they would have been justified in doing several times every night, what was I going to do? I was on my own and the brothel owner expected me to stay at the reception desk to answer phone calls and let punters in. There were no security guards, and to my knowledge, no brothels in Melbourne have them.
So it’s not surprising that women in prostitution have a much higher mortality rate than other women and are more likely to be murdered. While I was working in the brothel one of the women died. We never found out whether she was murdered by her boyfriend or she took an overdose. In 2017 Stacey Tierney lay dead for more than 12 hours in Dreams Gentlemen’s Club in Melbourne. How can a woman be dead in her workplace and no one notice?
10. Dissociation and addictions
I found the punters repulsive. They were entitled, rude, sexist, abusive, and violent, and many had appalling hygiene. They talked about women like they are slabs of meat, complaining about their “quality”. I found it unbearable sometimes just being near them. Can you imagine what it’s like to be naked and having such men grope and penetrate you? Many women report mentally escaping that reality by dissociating.
Dissociation is psychological detachment from your surroundings because they are too awful to bear. One woman described it to me as astral travelling. Others said they focussed on the money and what they’d buy with it.
Another way of dissociating is by using drugs or alcohol. Most of the women I knew in the brothel were addicted to drugs of one sort or another.
But whichever way they did it, dissociating like that takes a terrible toll on women.
11. Secrets and lies
Almost without exception, the women I worked with lied to their family and friends about what they did. One woman I became close to even invented a whole fake career. She built a website and had business cards printed with a pretend business name. Other women would say they were cleaning or night packing. Some said they were stripping, which is generally considered a better alternative. However, women I knew came from stripping to prostitution because they felt safer and more in control. Living a lie messes with your head. If it’s such a great job, why would they lie?
But at the same time, the women have to be excellent actresses, to pretend to enjoy the abuse and degradation they are paid to endure. To interest the men they would have to appear charming and happy. To get a booking, she would have to convince him that she liked him and was interested in him. And then she’d have to fake that she was enjoying the sex and even fake an orgasm.
Can you imagine what all this does to your mental health over time?
12. Social isolation
In the brothel where I worked, most of the women did the night shift. Working nights can not only have a negative impact on your mental and physical health, it isolates you from normality. I noticed that most of the women in the brothel associated mainly with other men and women from that world.
I worked two night shifts a week for about two years. I never really caught up on my sleep routine and it felt like being in a permanent state of jetlag. The average shift for the women in the brothel was from 7 pm to 6 am. Can you imagine doing that five or six nights a week for years?
Even though the women worked alongside up to about 10 other women, depending on the shift, they seldom talked to each other. They had to compete to get punters’ attention and this set up rivalry and resentment.
The combination of all these factors meant that many of the women were cut off from family and friends and became severely socially isolated.
13. Single mums
Quite a high proportion of the women in the brothel were single mothers. They said they chose it because of the flexibility of the hours. Most of them did the night shift and looked after their children during the day. But surely there should be better choices than this for women generally and mothers in particular? It makes me see how much we need equal pay and better opportunities for women, and more flexibility so that work can fit around the responsibilities of motherhood. No woman should have to resort to prostitution.
At least two of the women I knew in the brothel had their children taken away when the authorities found out they were in prostitution. Their ex-partners had reported them to the child protection agencies. This really shows the double standard and hypocrisy involved because I never heard of a punter losing his children.
14. You can’t put prostitution on your resume (CV)
Although my job title was brothel manager and it was a regular job with transferable skills, I never put it on my resume. Instead I said I did administration at a massage centre – but even that sounds a bit dodgy. There’s no way women can put “prostitute” down. So how can they get a job now you have to account for every week of your life? And the skills learnt in the brothel (dissociating, flattery, enduring) are hardly any use in a regular industry.
So for most of the women, the brothel was a dead end. It was distressing to watch. As the women got older, they got less and less bookings. For some, the only option was to become a brothel manager or receptionist. There really was no other way out for many of them.
15. No one does work experience in a brothel
In Australian high schools, students do work experience from year 10 through to year 12, when they are 16 to 18 years old. They do placements in a range of industries, trades, professions, hospitality and retail. I have never once heard of a student doing a placement in a strip club or brothel, and career counsellors never suggest it.
Let’s face it, no parent wants their child to end up in a brothel and no one wants the people they care about to do so either.
16. The sex industry is sexist to the core
Why is it that many people can see so clearly the problem with sexism in advertising and the film industry for example, but are blind to the sexism in prostitution? In my two years in the brothel, I didn’t see a single female punter. They were all male. Every single one of them.
And the people they bought were female. Every single one of them. There are male prostitutes of course, but it’s almost always men who buy them.
Prostitution is sexist to the core. Nothing can change that.
When we make the sex industry legal, we are legalising sexism and the sexual oppression of women. That’s why I campaign for the Nordic Model.
Jacqueline Gwynne has written articles for Collective Shout and Nordic Model Now! Her story is included in the book “Prostitution Narratives,” edited by Melinda Tankard-Reist and Caroline Norma, published by Spinifex Press. Jacqueline is a board member and secretary for Pink Cross Australia.