Monday, August 18, 2008
Brothel tour lifts veil on fascinating world
Aug. 15, 2008
Apart from the impromptu lap dance I got last week from the middle-aged owner of one of Auckland’s sex clubs, the biggest surprise from my recent tour of New Zealand’s brothels was how unsurprising it all was.
Sure, the dress code’s a little racier and the product decidedly intimate. But much of the adult sex industry runs like any other business, distinguished as “different” for the most part only because we disapprove of what’s being sold.
I’m now home from travels in Auckland and Wellington with a film crew documenting the efforts of myself and former sex worker Lauren Casey to build a better brothel here in Victoria. It was a dream trip for a curious journalist, and I’m indebted to the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective and documentary director April Parry for organizing such extraordinary access.
I’m not so naive as to think that the brothels we visited are representative of the entire industry in New Zealand. Let’s face it, only the decent ones are going to welcome a film crew into their midst.
Nor will I tell you I was comfortable with everything I saw. I saw no evidence of coercion or exploitation, but the mom in me was nonetheless triggered by the sight of the younger ones.
I’ve learned through my own experiences that there are many mistakes still to be made when you’re in your early 20s, which tended to be the age of most of the workers. I wondered more than anything if they’d considered the immense stigmatization they risked by taking a job in the industry - which lingers on in New Zealand and around the world regardless of legal status.
Mixed emotions aside, the trip was an unprecedented opportunity for me. The chance to talk with the powerful advocates who changed New Zealand’s law also challenged my thinking. I came to see that there’s no “easy” way to move ahead on this issue - that it requires a full-frontal assault on the law.
Some of the brothels we saw were nothing more than houses tucked away in the suburbs, their tidy yards and pretty flower gardens providing no hint of the nature of the work going on inside. New Zealand’s laws allow any home-based business with fewer than four employees to operate in a residential area, and many sex workers who’d previously worked in brothels switched to working at home when the country legalized the adult industry five years ago.
Others - Auckland’s out-there White House, for instance, or Wellington’s neon-lit Il Bordello - wear their identities boldly. They were doing that long before the laws changed, mind you; the thing about the sex industry around the world is that it thrives in plain sight regardless of a country’s law, because there have always been people looking to buy sex and others looking to sell it.
There were some mid-size brothels that fell in between those two extremes - styled after small, simple hotels, some with spa tubs in the corner. We toured one place that switched to specializing in fantasy, converting most of its rooms into little stages for role play. One room was done up like a hospital emergency room; another looked like a classroom, but could also stand in for “the boss’s office.”
Those who grew up on Gunsmoke should give up any lingering image of saloon-style madams in fancy silk dresses. The only manager who came even close to the look was a vinyl-sheathed dominatrix working out of her home in Wellington.
I loved meeting her, because at 47, she was someone who was clearly happy in her work and certain about why she was doing it. She’d managed restaurants and then brothels, but last fall launched a home-based “dungeon” at the front of her heritage home. She fit the part beautifully in her head-to-toe black vinyl, but if not for the outfit, she’d have looked like any other 47-year-old with a management job.
The standard objection to the sex trade is that it exploits women. But how is it exploitation when an adult makes a free choice? I was really struck by a comment from Catherine Healey, the former sex worker who has been pushing this issue in New Zealand since the late 1980s. She acknowledged there’s definitely the potential for bad things to happen to in the industry, but criminalizing it just makes all of that worse.
If I could think of one good reason for treating a certain category of worker as less worthy than another, maybe I’d understand why the industry is still criminal in Canada. But I can’t.