By Jacqueline Gwynne
It is often said that legalising prostitution would make it safe and reduce the stigma for the women involved. If this were true, we would see the benefits in the state of Victoria, in Australia, where the sex trade has been completely legal for the last 33 years – since 1984.
I draw on my experience as a receptionist in a high-end legal brothel in central Melbourne (in the state of Victoria) to show that stigma for the women is still alive and legalisation has not improved conditions or social acceptance for women in prostitution. I worked in that brothel for two years from 2008, while I was studying. I also worked briefly in another legal brothel in an industrial area on the outskirts of Melbourne.
I worked the night shift (6 pm to 6 am), two or three nights a week. Every single shift there was an incident of harassment, verbal abuse, violence or rough treatment towards the women. I also experienced sexual harassment and verbal abuse from the punters; even the phone calls were harassing.
There were panic alarms in every room but they were never used while I was there. It was just accepted that sexual harassment and abuse were part of the job. There was hard-core porn playing in every room, including the reception area, and you could not escape it. In any normal job this would be considered sexual harassment. But prostitution is not a normal job.
If women had pressed the panic button, which they could have done many 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 the entire time to answer the door and phone calls. There were no security guards, and to my knowledge, no brothels in Melbourne have them. If a drunk or drug-affected man became abusive, how could I step in and help? Everyone just accepts that this sort of behaviour from men is normal and acceptable in this industry.
The women are still ostracised and marginalised, and most of them live a double life where they keep their life within the sex trade secret – to the extent that many cut themselves off from family and friends outside of the industry. Some don’t tell their partners and pretend they are working as a night cleaner or packing shelves, or they invent an elaborate identity as an entrepreneur, complete with fake business cards and a website. The stigma exists because prostitution is degrading and no regulation can change that.
There is also shame for men who buy women for sex. Many Melbourne brothels have a back entrance where punters can slip in undetected. Other brothels are located in remote or industrial areas where punters can sneak in without being recognised. There was no back entrance at the brothel I worked in but that didn’t stop men asking if they could use it. They are embarrassed and ashamed because they know what they are doing is wrong. The peak time for the brothels was after midnight. This is also because johns want to enter without being seen.
The language used in the industry refers to women as “service providers” and they are regarded as sole business operators. But sole traders in ordinary small businesses are in control and are free to come and go as they please; to go and get a meal when they choose, for example.
In the brothels I was in, the women were expected to do a pre-agreed shift from start to finish. Once they arrived they were not allowed to leave the building for any reason. They were in lock down and this is adhered to everywhere in Victoria, and from what others have told me, is the norm in most countries.
I didn’t understand the logic of this at first. I was told it was to keep drugs out of the venue. 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. It was obvious by their demeanour that they were using substances. They would bring drugs or alcohol in with them or their regular punters would bring them in. There was no way I could enforce this policy. What was I supposed to do – search bags, do strip searches? So, the reason for keeping the women in lock down is not about drugs at all. It is about control and keeping them obedient, to break them down mentally. In every sense the sex trade involves the manipulation, control and oppression of the women.
If this is how the women are treated in the high-end legal brothel where I worked, you can imagine how much worse the conditions must be in the illegal brothels around the city.
In this work environment you lose your sense of time. The building is bathed in unnatural, eerie red lighting and all the windows are covered. There is no connection to the outside world. If this was a normal business, there would be no need to cover the windows. They are covered because of the awful abuse and exploitation happening to women on the inside.
Although I only worked in two venues, I learnt about what goes on in other brothels because women move around a lot. Some even worked at several different brothels at the same time, including illegal ones. One reason they move around is to hide from men who stalk and harass them.
Within the legal brothels there is corruption, and illegal activities go on including drug deals and trafficking. This is accepted as a normal part of this world. Many of the women come from dysfunction, mental illness and poverty – so it can seem normal to them. No one questions it.
Legal businesses in Melbourne are operated and controlled by bikies or crime gangs. During the last 12 months there has been a spate of shootings and fire bombings by bikies in a few of the legal, popular venues around the city. There was a suspected murder in Dreams Gentlemen’s Club where a stripper lay dead for 13 hours before it was reported. At these venues, although there are often no security guards, there is 24 hour CCTV surveillance in every room inside and outside of the building, so they know who is coming and going from every direction. How is it possible for a woman to lie dead in such circumstances and no one to notice?
During the 90s a legal topless bar at Kew’s Clifton Hotel was raided by police because women trafficked from Asia were being held captive as sex slaves upstairs. These are all examples of corruption within legal businesses. The legal and illegal brothels and strip clubs are all interconnected. Some may think that stripping is just harmless entertainment but strip clubs usually have brothels inside or connected to them.
Stripping is becoming more and more extreme, with the influence of internet pornography. For example, women insert objects, including vegetables, into their orifices as part of their act. The way to make money as a stripper is by private lap dances involving whatever the punter requests, often penetration and sexual contact. Many women move between stripping and prostitution just to make ends meet. Often they feel safer in prostitution because in stripping they are dealing with crowds of rowdy, drunk men. They feel they are more in control and it is less degrading doing prostitution.
When the sex trade is made legal, demand is created and normalised. The public come to accept it and don’t know the difference between legal and illegal brothels. It is an industry that operates outside of normal hours so the public don’t see what is really going on.
According to recent statistics, there has been a 500% increase in illegal brothels since 1984 and every year that percentage rises. For every legal brothel there are five illegal ones that the authorities know of. And there are many that are never counted, like the illegal pop up brothels that stay for only a short time. Why is this industry alone granted immunity from regulation?
The impact of legalisation has led to punters demanding more for their money. These demands now include practices that did not exist 20 years ago – practices learnt from Internet pornography. As the receptionist I would introduce the general services provided, including sex, oral and an erotic massage. Everything else was considered an extra they would pay more for. Men would ask me what the women did. It was clear they wanted what they saw in pornography and I knew what they wanted because I was watching hard-core porn every shift. Porn never has condoms, there will be three men ejaculating on a woman’s face, verbal abuse, anal sex, choking, hair pulling, slapping – and this was just ordinary mainstream porn. They wanted the women to look like the women on screen, very young, like teenagers, blonde, breast implants with no pubic hair.
I moved from Sydney to Melbourne in 2002 and saw the dodgy looking “massage parlours” with flashing LED signs, covered windows, very long operating hours where you would never see clients enter or exit the front door.
The public may know what is going on but are in denial or don’t know what to do. Surely the police, councils and local government know what is going on? Why is nothing being done? Is it because they benefit and profit from the sexual exploitation of women?
For the past four years I have been working in a straight job doing sales and marketing. I speak to WorkSafe (who enforce local occupational health and safety laws) on the phone and they visit for a thorough inspection every year. You always know when they are coming but in the brothel I was not aware of any such inspections. I’m sure I would have known about it if there had been one. If WorkSafe did even a basic check, they would close the place down in less than five minutes. The fact that porn is playing in every room is one reason that this job is not a safe work environment. Women are exposed to sexually transmitted infections on a regular basis. These conditions do not exist in any other profession. Receiving a man’s ejaculation on your face, tearing of the vagina and anus is not only painful and degrading, but unsafe and risky for the woman’s long term health and increases her vulnerability to infectious disease.
In one of Melbourne’s “award winning” brothels, punters are treated like kings and nothing is spared in the way of luxury. The women’s facilities are at the opposite end of the scale. The men have a spacious lounge area with leather couches and pool tables. The 10 or more women working up to 12 hour shifts have to share one small cramped room, lacking in privacy. They do not even have space to sit down comfortably to relax between bookings.
The wellbeing of the women is not the priority for pimps, brothel owners, or even the government, who all benefit from their sexual exploitation. Men’s sexual entitlement is considered more important than the safety and health of vulnerable, impoverished women.
At a basic level, prostitution is sexist, in that it requires a class of women to be available for men to sexually exploit. The industry is dangerous, misogynistic and exploitative for a multitude of reasons. Legalisation does not work and never will. Since the legalisation of prostitution in Victoria in 1984 the legal sex industry is out of control, dangerous and unregulated.
Why do we still justify men’s right to sexually exploit women? We’d never defend the right of white people to have black servants. The whole concept is archaic and the logical solution is to end men’s demand for buying women and girls for sex.
The one legal model that is working is the Nordic Model which has been operating in Sweden since 1999 and more recently in France. The Nordic Model acts to end the demand for the sex trade. It criminalises sex traffickers, pimps, brothel owners and men buying sex. Women are provided with training, rehabilitation and services for drug treatment, counselling, housing and financial support so they can return to a life of safety and normalcy.
Buying sex is not a human right. Men are not entitled to sexually exploit women and nothing will ever justify this.
Read more of Jacqueline’s experience in “Prostitution Narratives” edited by Melinda Tankard Reist and Caroline Norma available from Spinifex Press.
- Working as a receptionist in a legal brothel proved to me that prostitution is anything but a normal job
- Project Respect – A support and referral service for women trafficked for sexual exploitation and women in the sex industry