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Wednesday, 16 April 2014 05:33 pm

Welly underbelly: world’s ‘best’ brothels not what they seem

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Emma Booth as Kim Hollingsworth in TV3's Underbelly: The Golden Mile / Supplied

A pair of middle-aged English women visited NZ recently to see how our version of the world’s oldest profession compares with their own. They rated it. TASHA BLACK takes her own look at our “underbelly“:

THE first time, the door wouldn’t shut properly.

And *Fleur didn’t know what to do with her hands. She offered the man some wine, sat down in an over-sized chair and to bide some time, started to babble. “You won’t believe what we talked about. Of all things – autism.”

She was not aware of time. He was: “Well, ahh, so should we get down to it then?” “Oh yes, of course!” Not quite knowing what to do, she embraced him.

That was Fleur’s first experience as a hooker. It was the fastest two hundred bucks she had ever made.

She sips on her chamomile tea and smiles at the memory. The man prematurely ejaculated and Fleur spent most of her time cuddling and consoling him. Now 23, she has come a long way since those clumsy days and has over a year’s work under her belt (literally) at Bon Ton, a high class brothel in Wellington.

Bon Ton works hard to distance itself from the sleazy stereotypes associated with prostitution. The brothel’s catchphrase, “not for everyone” is certainly true. At $400 an hour, the girls don’t come cheap (pun intended).

underbelly2Bon Ton was declared the world’s best brothel by two middle-aged English women (left) from the UK Women’s Institute.

They travelled the world with a TV crew to find brothels that provided safe working environments. As one of the few countries in the world where prostitution is decriminalised, they believe New Zealand is a world leader in sex workers’ safety.

But by visiting Bon Ton and other high class New Zealand brothels, they bypassed the less savoury side of prostitution in New Zealand.

It’s not all silk robes, glasses of wine and intelligent conversation. Working conditions within the industry vary dramatically. While Bon Ton girls are on call, in most New Zealand brothels, shift work – sometimes 12 hours or longer – is the norm.

Fleur has also worked two shifts at the Kensington Inn, a Wellington brothel located next to the Papua New Guinea embassy, across the road from a French bakery and a takeaway curry shop.

She says Kensington Inn has a meat market atmosphere and the long shifts left her exhausted and hungry. Her shifts started at 7pm and came to an end at a time most of us are eating cornflakes and reading the morning paper.

Who comes in at 7.30am, you ask? Indian taxi drivers, apparently.

Fleur says it is an unsustainable lifestyle. “I enjoy my job. In some ways, it’s the best job I ever had. In other ways there have been times when I have thought I can’t do this any more.

“It’s definitely not something I would see as a career. In saying that, I will struggle when the time comes for me to give it up. A lot of people find it really hard to go from earning such easy money to being a slave to the wage.”

But easy money comes with risks.

For eight years Shelley (40) serviced the men of Whanganui. She would go out to farmers’ houses in the Whanganui hills and often be out of cellphone reception. “If he got a bit rough it could get a bit scary,” she says. “I am a pretty strong woman – you have to be to work in the business.”

All working girls worry about their safety, she says matter-of-factly.

Shelley was working at the brothel Club 28 in 2002 when her friend Diana Leafa (23) disappeared after work one night. Her handbag was found on her doorstep, but it took three weeks before her decomposed body was found in the sand dunes at a Whanganui beach.

Healy

CATHERINE HEALY Stuff image

FOR more than 20 years sex workers have had the support of the Prostitutes’ Collective, which advocates and supports sex workers.

The Prostitutes’ Collective can be hard to find. There’s no neon sign outside.  Open the unassuming door, go up the stairs and take a right turn. There’s a glass bowl filled with condoms. Yep, this is the place.

The fuchsia pink walls are a bit overwhelming, but you warm to them. In the back room, the microwave sits tightly packed amongst boxes stacked to the ceiling, all filled with lube sachets. Dolls line the window sill, representing working girls travelling the world.

Prostitutes’ Collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healy spins round on her office chair, stands up and introduces herself. She says the media often contact her looking for a “normal” prostitute. They’re looking for a white middle class girl, but there is no stereotypical prostitute.

Healy says officials from around the world come to New Zealand to investigate the workings of a decriminalised country. She recently returned from debating the merits of the legalisation of prostitution at Oxford Union in England.

In 2003, the Prostitution Reform Act was battled out in parliament and overnight things were different. All the girls in this article agree the reform improved rights for sex workers.

A worker can refuse to see any client and if a man tries to have unsafe sex a girl can simply say “no condom, no service”, and the law will back her up. But Shelley says there is always a fight over condoms and she had “100 different tricks” to get men to use protection.

And what if they were asked to do something they didn’t want to? “We learnt to say ‘it costs extra’,” says Shelly. How much? “We would make up an astronomical amount.”

Some clients try to weasel their way out of paying. “There would be farmers that would try and swap you half a side of beef for half an hour. I’ve been offered a car stereo, a TV, all sorts of weird things instead of cash,” says Shelley.

Fleur thinks legalisation was the opportunity to create something like Bon Ton and push for a new wave of sex work. “Sex work doesn’t have to be disgusting, it doesn’t have to be sleazy, it doesn’t have to be about plastic sheets. We can make this safe and enjoyable for everyone.”

University student Michelle, agrees. She use to work at Splash Club “where guys would stumble in off Courtenay Place”. Now she works at the Fun House and sees only about two or three clients a week on call.

SO, who are the customers of this supposedly cleaned-up retail trade, this sanitised, modern brand of a commerce that predates all others?

Michelle says her clients at the Fun House are older and more respectful. “I tend to attract lots of socially awkward IT geeks, which is quite perfect for me.”

Some clients are disabled, others are lonely and some have sexual fetishes their partners can’t fulfill.

Fleur’s clients have included United Nations workers, government officials and the son of a world leader. Many are married or in long term relationships. “A lot of people cheat on their partners. It can make one a bit cynical.”

Prostitutes are a listening ear. They talk to her about their wives and children.

Sarah, who has worked in Wellington for a year, says sex is a small part of the exchange. “A lot of clients come for intimacy or to boost their ego, because they have low self esteem or they just want someone to talk to. Sometimes clients would come and talk to me for hours.”

Fleur: “One thing about going to a prostitute is that they [prostitutes] are not going to judge you. Well, maybe they do secretly, but guys feel like they aren’t being judged, and it’s true that most sex workers have kinda seen it all. Not a lot fazes them.”

In saying that, while both girls admitted some clients just want a wham bam service, a lot of clients go away feeling like they have had a genuine connection.

Fleur: “It’s kind of a funny thing, because yes, they have, but no, they haven’t. They have had a genuine connection with someone who doesn’t exist. People’s ability for self deception never ceases to amaze me. You get those guys who think they’re hot shit and that you are really into them.

“And it’s like how can you be so stupid? You have your own company and you charge $500 an hour for your advice and yet you’re like a gibbering idiot being led around by your cock. The smartest guy can be a slave to his penis.”

TWO young women walk into the Prostitutes’ Collective.One is new to sex work and Catherine Healy excuses herself to guide the girls into another room, where they can talk to someone in the industry about the reality of life as a working girl.

The Prostitutes’ Collective gives out new starter packs with condoms, tips on how to deal with tough clients and a copy of their magazine.

New girls are always popular with clients. “Sometimes, a new girl would come in and work and take all the business, when you had arranged a babysitter, got tea ready and booked the taxi,” says Shelley.

Fleur: “It’s kind of like a new flavour at the ice-cream store, you know, everyone wants to try it.” She says it’s a paradox. “Guys want a virgin and a whore at the same time.”

Sarah says sex work is about supply and demand. Shelley agrees: “To me it was like cleaning public toilets – you know, I was doing a public service.”

A heavy cloud sits over the sex industry. It is halfway underground and halfway out in the open. None of the women interviewed felt ashamed of their work, but none was willing to use a real name, and most tell only a handful of people about their work.

Fleur says her parents wouldn’t understand. “I think it’s better they didn’t know. I mean, no one really wants to think about their daughter having sex, let alone having sex for money.”

Shelley says her kids didn’t know at the beginning, but the eldest one worked it out and the middle child used to say in front of everyone his mother was a whore.

Michelle: “You go to work and you put on your ridiculous high heels and your ridiculous dresses and heaps of makeup and then you go home. It’s like you’re a different person at work than you are the rest of the time.”

Separating your work life from home is not always that simple and the secrecy can be stressful. “I lie every day in some form or another to the people around me. I have this big secret and that causes emotional stress. Compartmentalising your life takes effort,” says Fleur. She is unable to have a normal relationship with a guy. Even dating is difficult.

Shelley had relationships while working, but says they “inevitably didn’t work out”. And Sarah, who started seeing someone while on a break from sex work, is having doubts about whether she will return to the industry.

Fleur enjoys her work, but admits there have been times when she thought she could not do it any more. “At the end of the day, it always feels a bit emotionally empty. I’m usually thinking about what I am going to have for dinner and maybe getting a bit bored.

“Sometimes, I will be on a high. Like, I did two or three jobs in a day, I’m in the zone, my appointments went really well, easy money. I just made, like, $570. I am fucking so hot, whoooo.

“And then I get home to my empty room and I lie on my bed and I feel a bit tired, and I just want someone to cuddle me.”

* Real names not used.

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  1. Good writing, Tasha, nicely paced.

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