YOU MIGHT SAY DEBAUCHERY IS DEAD, BUT THEN WHY ARE THE BROTHELS ALIVE AND WELL?
WORDS || Phillip Witheridge
When I sit down to write about brothels in Sydney, two images spring to mind. The first is a motel, defined by chaotic derelict apartments, drawn curtains, a hive for junkies, criminals, and prostitutes, where they hide from the world in a colourless and filthy heart of darkness. The second is more glamourous: a marble-white foyer, easily mistaken for a Colgate advertisement, leads to a fluorescent nightmare, decorated by satyr-like businessmen sitting eagerly erect on vintage red velvet lounges, click clacking stilettos echoing as the ladies line-up in lingerie, and the polite, “here you go, sirs” delivered by the Madam while she pops another Moët.
Well thanks a lot, Hollywood. These clichés plague me while I contemplate investigating the state of Sydney’s brothel industry. I’m awfully aware of how our perceptions of brothels are warped by confusion and the assumption that these things don’t really happen in our pretty little neighbourhoods.
I start with a simple Google search of brothels in NSW (followed by a furtive deletion of my browsing history) and feel the veil of ignorance yanked from my eyes. Sydney’s sex industry is alive and well. And since New South Wales has the most liberal legislation on prostitution in Australia (being the only state to legalise prostitution) I’m swiftly intrigued. This is all news to me.
So I decide to ring a brothel in the North Shore recently under fire for coercing women into sexual servitude. In 2013, the Madam was sentenced to a minimum of three years in gaol after grooming financially struggling women to come live in Australia, with the promise of university education and honest work, only to send them straight to work in her brothel.
They were expected to work seventeen-hour days and complete a myriad of sexual fantasies and fetishes, against their will, in order to send money home to their families with debt up to their necks.
The brothel’s phone number, might I add, is plainly available on the internet. As the number dials, a brick of anxiety cements itself firmly in the pit of my stomach. This is the very same brothel, I think. The whole encounter feels sinister, until a woman with a peppy voice answers. I tell her I’m trying to organise a party for a mate, then request rates and information. She’s silent on the other end. Have I said the wrong thing? Do I need to say more?
“For sex?’” she asks.
“Yes,” I confirm, “I’d like the rates and information for sex”. She rattles off names – Amy from Hong Kong . . . Jess from China . . . and a Thai girl, Rose, who is accompanied with the lady on the phone’s reassurance: “She’s especially good”.
I remember that a different establishment in the North Shore was in trouble because they implemented a two-tier pricing system, in which the services of foreign girls were offered at nearly half the price of white women. No matter how debauch a profession, it’s morally corrosive and wrong to base business models on discrimination. So, curious, I ask about the rates.
“$160 an hour,” she says, “It’s half-price because it’s winter”. She tells me it’s the same price for all the girls. I probe for more information about the rooms and the girls, but she says I have to come in and see for myself. How lucrative. No thanks, I think, and hang up.
I turn my attention to Hornsby Shire. Earlier this year, Hornsby Council paid a private investigator to go undercover to confirm whether a massage parlour, a mere fifty metres from Hornsby Girls High School, was operating as a brothel. The detective was paid by council to sleep with a prostitute. But the Council’s court case ultimately failed, as the evidence they provided of sex being exchanged for cash fell short of the legal definition of ‘brothel’, which requires more than one prostitute to provide services on the premises. Gloriously, the conclusion of the court was: show us more sex, and we will shut it down.
So I talk to a spokesperson from Hornsby Shire Council about why it’s so imperative to shut down brothels. “Illegal brothels need to be closed to maintain the integrity of the planning system, in the same way it’s important to close down other unauthorised land uses incompatible with the zoning objective.’” Although a fantastic exercise in political rhetoric, the spokesperson’s response was too emotionless and obscure to really answer my question. I ask what dangers these brothels pose for the community. “Council has not undertaken research on this issue” the spokesperson replies. I wasn’t sure how to respond; anger, or confusion? It seems there’s no human element in the treatment of shutting down illegal brothels, no passion for the exposure of nearby children, or perhaps the suffering workers themselves.
The spokesperson went on to admit many brothels work in close proximity to schools under the guise of massage parlours. Some businesses have reported a loss in trade because of the brothels operating nearby or in the same complex. I ask the Council about the recently failed court case. “The biggest challenge is obtaining evidence to the required legal standard that an unlawful activity is occurring.” Council’s new protocol is to use three investigators when going undercover. Show us more sex? Challenge accepted, Your Honour.
Whatever your moral stance on brothels, it’s important to recognise their existence, and that many are illegal. It’s because of its sexually vague culture that local journalist John Birmingham once called Sydney a ‘Leviathan’, a sea-beast donning mascara, a slithering snake showing a bit of leg. She has a come-hither gaze and murky heart. It seems common for university students to juggle a long list of trending social issues in their minds, each competing for supremacy and attention, each demanding action, protest, and deep contemplation.
I’ve learned a lot investigating Sydney’s brothel scene. But more importantly, I’ve been given a new juggling ball. I’ve seen the bleak portrait – the iceberg’s tip – and hope it will become brighter in time. It’s an issue defined by curious contradictions, something we should all juggle in our minds.