There has been a lot of discussion in the Sydney media recently about sex workers and brothels as a result of the hearings into a proposed radical expansion of an existing brothel, Stiletto’s, in the NSW Land and Environment Court. On one hand, you had owner Eddie Hayson saying that, ‘‘The development is in the public interest as the regulated supply of sexual services to the community meets a basic human need.”
On the other side of the argument you had commentators like Paul Sheehan of the Sydney Morning Herald saying things like: “The links between prostitution and drug addiction are palpable and endemic. So are links between prostitution and young women from Asia being threatened and exploited. The sex trade may have existed since societies were formed and filled a need as ancient as society itself, but it is a seedy business, run by seedy people.”
I think it’s interesting that even amongst feminist commentary, there are also two sides to this debate. On one side there is the argument that the sex industry perpetuates the role of women as sex objects, and that it reinforces the subjugated role of women in our society. Some commentators, such as Julie Bindel argue: “It is the oldest oppression, not the oldest profession as often claimed by those who believe prostitution is too hard to eradicate. In what other “job” are drug addiction, homelessness, rape and murder seen as occupational hazards? Few of the many women who have escaped the sex industry describe it as a profession – more paid abuse.”
The other feminist argument is that women should be allowed to decide what they do with their bodies, and selling their sexual services for money is part of that choice. Rather than women being submissive to the desires of men, instead women are empowering themselves by earning a living from their sexuality. Sarah Landau argues: “It is true that women have less power in our society than men do, but if we continue to view men and women as powerful/abusers and powerless/victims, respectively, how will this power imbalance ever equalize? The way to change is through reconceptualising women as powerful and this requires a reconceptualization of prostitution as well. It is not until women are viewed as sexual, instead of asexual, actors instead of reactors, and active instead of passive that prostitution will make sense. It is so hard to fathom women as wanting to be sex workers because we do not see women in this way. Instead, we hold traditional views of femininity and masculinity which only add to the subordination of women. ”
I actually think all these views are correct, and I should know…because I used to seek the services of sex workers. (I should point out that I was single at the time, and have not visited a brothel since I began a relationship with my partner R 19 years ago.)
When I was in my early twenties I would regularly visit brothels or use the services of escorts. I was first encouraged to visit sex workers by a female friend of mine. She knew I was going through a dry period, and one of her friends was a sex worker. My friend thought it was sensible for a guy like me, who was shy and crap at picking-up women, to visit sex workers in-between being in a relationship.
My first visit to a brothel was scary. You may think it’s easy to walk into a brothel and ask for sex, but for me it was one of the most intimidating things I have ever had to face. Having worked up enough courage to ring the front doorbell (and realising why many men need dutch-courage to do this), and all the time hoping no one I knew would happen to walk past and see me, I was led inside by the resident Madam.
Then I was confronted by a new level of intimidation – the line-up. Not all brothels are the same, but the one I chose that day used the line-up as the method of introducing clients to the sex workers. All the available girls, dressed in their sexy outfits and stilettos, lined up in front of me, and I was expected to choose who I wanted to have sex with. I think I panicked and simply chose the first one who came out, but by luck or chance, she proved to be a good choice. She took me to one of the rooms, and seeing how nervous I was, she offered me some words of encouragement and helped me relax. Until the “inspection”.
The inspection involves you dropping your dacks in front of the sex worker, who with the aid of a lamp, inspects your genitals for signs of STDs. If you have never done this, you have no idea how humiliating this can feel…it certainly isn’t sexy. But, on the other hand, it was good to know that they took precautions to try and stop the spread of STDs. Seeing I was OK, she took my money and left me to have a shower. The sex came next.
I took two things away from the first experience of using a sex worker. Firstly, I was really impressed with how professional she was. She knew how to relax me, she knew how to arouse me, and she knew how to make the experience pleasurable, not only in a sexual way, but also emotionally. Secondly, I was surprised how good I felt for days afterwards. It wasn’t just the sexual relief, it was also the boost to my self-esteem that made me feel good. I hadn’t been expecting that. I had always assumed that visiting a prostitute would be degrading for both the client and the sex worker, but I found the opposite to be true.
However, one thing I discovered early on was that not all brothels were equal. Subsequent visits to other brothels exposed me to the seedier side of the business. I even walked out of a few establishments once I realised that the girls working there were not happy, or were clearly drug-affected. You could tell. The dead eyes, the disinterested demeanours. Just the vibe itself in some places felt wrong. Everything that critics of the sex industry claim about the victimisation of sex workers is true. I’ve seen it first hand.
One the other hand, I’ve also seen what other people say about sex workers. I was lucky enough to find a couple of establishments where both the sex workers and the clients were treated with respect. Believe me, you can tell the difference. Once I found these establishments, I never went anywhere else. The girls were friendly and engaged. Sure, they still brought their “game-face” to the proceedings – while you were with them, they pretended you were the only man in the world – but I’m a curious fellow, and when I would openly and honestly ask them about their profession, the “game-face” would be put away and they spoke to me as a person, not a client.
I learnt a lot about the industry from the three or four sex workers I saw on a regular basis. I learnt that they felt lucky to be working in an establishment that respected them and didn’t use or abuse them. They also told me horror stories of some of the other places they had worked at. They also explained that, when given a safe environment to work in, that sex work can be both profitable and empowering. None of them felt like victims. One girl was working her way through Uni. Another would work for 6 months a year, and then use the proceeds to travel through south-east Asia for the next 6 months. There was another who was a housewife with a husband (who knew) and kids (who didn’t). To her this was just a day job just like any other job. It helped her pay her bills. And there was an older worker I saw who said that she kept doing it simply because she enjoyed it. I believed her.
Do I believe that Eddie Hayson should be allowed to extend Stiletto’s? My gut feeling is no. I’ve never been there (nor do I plan to) but the brothels I enjoyed visiting 20 years ago were small establishments with only 4 or 5 girls working per shift. I can’t believe a massive brothel like the one planned by Mr Hayson can supply the safe and nurturing environment that the smaller quality establishments do. It does worry me that the two brothels I used to like to visit no longer exist, but some of the seedy brothels I walked out of still exist. Perhaps other boutique brothels that offer good working conditions have replaced the ones I knew about 20 years ago. I hope so. Or maybe self-empowered sex workers now work from home and use the Internet to find clients. Again, I don’t know. I’m not part of the scene any more and haven’t been for twenty years.
I also worry about all the illegal brothels operating in Sydney, especially the ones that exploit immigrants. Plus, I still find it awful that some men think it’s OK to use street walkers. Not only because of health issues, but because they are exploiting women who clearly need help to overcome drug addiction and poverty. Using them for sex is not helping.
I think we should be educating young men about the sex industry. Instead of treating people who pay for sex as desperate losers, let’s be honest with our young men. There is a chance that your son, or younger male relative, may at some point in their lives seek the services of a sex worker. Let’s educate our young men to respect women who choose to become sex workers. Let’s encourage our men to be discerning and choose to only spend their money in establishments that treat their workers and clients with respect. And let’s teach them how to recognise these establishments.
If we keep ignoring this subject, men will continue to visit and support establishments that do not treat their workers or clients with respect. If we can’t openly talk about the role of sex workers in our society without resorting to ridicule and prejudice, women will continue to be used and abused. We need to both acknowledge the validity of sex work as a career choice, but also condemn the people who take advantage of women who enter the sex industry, not through choice, but circumstance.
Where do you stand on prostitution? Should young men be educated about how to treat sex workers?
John James has written 203 posts.
JJ is a blogger who is bored with traditional opinion blogging. He is a co-founder and editor at KiKi & Tea. He also represents the grumpy middle-aged man demographic on KiKi & Tea. He is a writer by trade and a frustrated rock star / crime fighter by night, and blogs about music at newmusicrevue.com.
Follow on twitter: @JohnJamesOZ