Michelle Mara

Michelle Mara started in prostitution in New Zealand when the sex trade was illegal and she continued after it was fully decriminalised there in 2003.

In the 90s I worked at quite a few brothels. The police used to take our names off a register that the brothel kept.

The cops knew what was going on was illegal but they turned a blind eye as long as no other laws were being broken, like drug dealing or gang association.

Some of the places had a liquor license even. We were all ‘independent contractors.’ The men handed over money to the receptionist, mostly for ‘all inclusives,’ which was whispered to you by the receptionist as we passed by the office.

Michelle’s first brothel was in this building, the Albermarle Building in Wellington. The two windows on the ground floor were the ‘viewing lounge.’

Very rarely did men opt to make a separate transaction with the girl in the room. If they did it was more like a tip for ‘extras.’ I think this way they could make the illusion of consent start from ‘going upstairs’ as money was never mentioned.

Protection was never mentioned, nor bad behaviour either. It was always understood that we were on our own. Reception was meant to filter out the bad ones beforehand. I felt that the ‘illegality’ of it always kept the men a little on edge. The slight shame, the walk in the shadows, the offer of using the exit at the back to leave.

I had many encounters which no receptionist or security (which didn’t actually exist) could have prevented. Men who took off condoms repeatedly, men who wanted it twice, men who didn’t want to take showers, etc.

We were never trained or even advised and I know my ignorance of the situation made me a target. We could only politely say no, and supposedly we had the option to get out. I never ‘got out.’

Somehow ‘maintaining the illusion’ in the room was our responsibility. I’d seen the men who complained and they often did afterwards (of course). I felt so sorry for the girl who was ‘exposed’ and singled out for her failing. Never directly by management, but the shame and rawness of the situation was enough to make us all try to keep problems to a minimum and ‘in the room’ where the illusion was.

We sensed our weakness, especially unclothed. While they were unclothed, they were a little weak too. A little ashamed. While it was illegal they were being told by society that it was their shame too, even if they passed on that shame to us.

I drank. I didn’t take drugs but the girls who had been there longer did. It was well hidden. No one ever taught us boundaries, or what to do – except for one older woman who’d been there years. She showed me a few ‘tricks’ like putting on a condom with my mouth, hiding it unwrapped in the top of my ‘stay up’ stockings. She also talked about saying no, detachment, and how she lied about things.

They tell you training is given. It isn’t. Ever. Not even the ‘massage.’ The brothel took ten dollars for our ‘shift fee,’ but not if we didn’t get a booking that shift. Shifts were usually 10-12 hours. ‘Supplies’ we sorted ourselves. They sold them for more than the shops.

After decrim, nothing changed. The police had never bothered us anyway. If they were going to check, we always got a heads up. I saw a cop maybe twice.

But it also did change. I felt less safe. I didn’t know what it was at the time. But looking back it was a shift in the structure. More responsibility was on us. We were responsible for money related transactions now which messed with the illusion. It also meant a power struggle in the room. Before it was more ‘our’ domain. Walk in, walk out. Now that the money touched hands it felt like an anchor. They saw themselves buy our silence as well as our bodies. I’m sure of it.

I pretended just the same.

Card payments were becoming the norm by then, so handing over cash was an inconvenience – and they let us feel it.

They expected more. I worked at the most expensive place in Wellington by then – always by appointment. These men saw us as objects and we knew it. And they knew we knew.

There weren’t so many regulars anymore. It was so much like a ‘transaction’ that the illusion was hardly there. Robotic and in the open. No dim lights and pretend. No seedy bordello where they shared the shame.

Now we were shameful commodities that they legally bought. We both knew it.

Our only way to rebalance things was to ‘own’ the position we were in (be the prostitute) or own the shame and pretend harder to be submissive and more broken – that we ‘enjoyed’ it or ‘needed them’ for whatever reason. I chose the latter – because being honest would have made me vomit on men I found disgusting, and who felt entitled to discuss me like a bad meal to the madam upstairs. And they did. And she got off on it. I hope she rots in hell.

She openly discussed ‘issues’ about ‘appointments’ with other girls so we knew that we had no dignity with her if the men talked. We worked harder to keep the men happy. We were less protected. The madams were less ‘one of us’ as they were legal and we were openly nothing to her.

Before, the madams had a kind of weird protective solidarity – it meant nothing in terms of real protection but we knew they would keep their mouths shut – and the receptionists had been working girls themselves. They had some empathy. Now there was none for us from that side and the men acted justified and no longer ashamed even though I’m sure they were.

I bent and cajoled to never ‘upset’ them. I lied creatively to placate egos. I can’t imagine what happened to girls who couldn’t lie so well. Did they get hurt? Probably. At that time I didn’t think of it. I just survived each encounter and made the money I needed and got out.

After decrim there were fees for everything and no mercy. The sense of solidarity was gone between the girls because we worked ‘to appointment.’ We passed like ships in the cold hard daylight. No music, no illusion. Legal was hell.

The men had that one bit of moral superiority they needed in order to break us. We’d never had anywhere to turn beforehand. Now we still had nowhere – and the threat of less control of the room to handle.

Keeping the shame of illegality hanging over them was my biggest weapon. I could lift it with pretence and illusion and make him grateful with compliance. That myth, along with the tiny bit of protection it offered, was taken away.

Men are so willing to believe anything if it means they aren’t in the wrong. If women are legally bought and they are sanctioned to do whatever, how do we control their behaviour through their shame? Their minds?

They choose to be who they are and the mask no longer fits if they don’t choose it.

This is my feelings on the differences for me. I had to deal with pain, discomfort, humiliation regardless of the legality. As I had nowhere to go.

The ‘panic button’ was for if they pulled a knife or punched you. But it wasn’t used because he would see me reach for the button, which would be provocation – the same as telling him I’m going to reach for a gun. Provocation – with a likelihood of assault or being fined later or shamed for it being unnecessary. What was an emergency? I didn’t know.

I went to the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) once to get free condoms and they were closed. It was so dodgy looking, I never went back. I only knew one girl who went there and it was just for free condoms. We didn’t know what they did and they never offered me anything.

Since decriminalisation was introduced in 2003, the only illusion that’s left is the one women now tell themselves – that it’s real legitimate work. We know it’s not but that’s all that’s left to throw at the world. No woman in the sex trade will be able to say otherwise because you have to survive, and anyone who tries to say you are a victim is attacking the illusion. The vital illusion.

Like ‘battered woman syndrome.’ Protecting and legitimising the abuser – but now with the law saying so!

Reality has nothing to do with it.

It’s this shit that has ended in my illness. It’s why I can’t be there with other women, standing in front of politicians or other influential people who could change things for women stuck in the sex trade. But I’m healing, and supporting other survivors with a woman-centred mind-set now. I’ll be there soon enough.

I’ve been out of it ten years now. I was in it officially at age 20, then went back again at 33, after I’d had 4 kids.

I saved us from a husband who kept quitting his career and landing us all in financial disaster. My children were so young. I finally divorced him and then moved to another city and raised them alone.

I was gutsy I suppose, or just brain dead. No fear after you’ve seen death a couple times at a man’s hands. My first husband beat, tortured and raped me for a couple years, from when I was 18 to when I was 20. Killed my first unborn baby. You know the kind of man – psychological stuff, sleep deprivation, tried to suffocate me and terrorised me. I lived in a state of fight or flight and felt oddly invincible.

Once we went to see that Tina Turner biopic – you know, when Ike beats Tina and drags her across the floor? I must have looked at him because he said, “That’s not you.”

I had learned to keep him calm so I could do it to just about any man. That’s why our boundaries are so vulnerable. Trauma and abuse give you the skills to navigate and anticipate the threat of violence, but also mean doing, saying and thinking things which you would never normally do. I could convince and usually control a man’s behaviour to some degree, but that same trauma forced me to tell myself it was my choice, and that I was gaining something back – money, digging myself and my children out of debt and further away from being one pay check away from eviction.

I HAD to say it was work – to keep doing it. I put myself in danger, blocked out the scorn, the thinly veiled disgust and disappointment in these men who understood I was educated, white, and a mother.

They were confused but obviously chose not to ask directly ‘why’ I would ‘do this to myself’. Some of them saw me as ‘not worthy’ of the degradation (that they themselves subjected us women in the sex trade to).

They would sometimes see me as something other than a commodity, and that made them uncomfortable.

Obviously they didn’t think about this too much, but I still heard it in the surprise in their voices and the flashes of confusion in their looks and comments.

I could have been their daughter or sister-in law. Not like the women they could ‘other’ – they didn’t have this reaction to them. These are the sort of men who will try and ‘save’ you (with conditions of course) because they think you ‘aren’t like the others.’

But we were all the same, and NONE of us believed we were empowered or enjoying ourselves, and we laughed how they bought it when we said how we ‘just loved sex.’

What did they expect us to say? Seriously? The truth? That we found them physically repulsive and we hated the sight of them? That if they gave us the option we’d take half the money to not have to touch them, let alone fuck them.

This page first published 19 March 2020.

Michelle Mara