The tantalising taste of forbidden fruit

- what would Holly Golightly make of this?

Lily Yang’s Audrey Hepurn in Breakfast at Tiffanys
Credit: Paramount Pictures

A lady of the night. The lure of her is so tempting, so full of mystery, and a privileged few drift off to enjoy many and wonderful imagined fantasies, while the rest of us merely dream about them.

So why is it that when the lights come on, our stereotypes about sex workers are so degrading? These same women dare not write “sex worker” and, horror of horrors, “prostitute” on their CV or on an application for a rental apartment for fear of being judged, as they so often are, as drug-addicted whores with STD’s galore, likely homeless with a bikie-type pimp lording over them, taking their money and giving them a beating in return. There is absolutely nothing about this description that could entice a man to become a client, a woman to become a friend, or for society to accept. Furthermore, for those who harbour these stereotypes, legal brothels are surely breeding grounds for people like this, even luring innocent young women into their black widow’s embrace. With beliefs like these, it is no wonder why so many give sex workers and legal brothels a wide berth.

On one hand you have these extremely damaging stereotypes, but on the other we have customers who every night will hand over their hard-earned cash to spend time with ladies who supposedly fit the stereotype. Why would anyone in their right mind want to spend any time at all with a drug-addicted lady who has been forced into this work by a glowering, muscly pimp? Is there something these customers know that the general population don’t?

So many have called Australia a “nanny state” about almost everything. With that in mind, why would a state government allow legal brothels to operate, albeit with many rules, if it’s a breeding ground for drug addiction, domestic abuse and disease? Do they all know something the rest of you don’t? It’s clear some entire states in Australia entertain that stereotype too, as they don’t allow brothels to operate at all.

These stereotypes were created largely by folk who have no experience with sex workers, brothels, or the industry itself. Their imagination took the wheel on that, and as a result, the truth is very far removed. I am someone who should know, being one of the most high-profile Madams of one of Melbourne’s legal brothels, The Cherry Tree Garden (TCTG). Rather than negotiating with threatening pimps, I am negotiating the pecking order between my adorable doggies who both want to sit with their mummy at the same time. And instead of pulling needles from the arms of battered women, I am sharing make-up tips with these glamorous and sweet young women who belong to my family here at TCTG. The thing is, if one sat beside you at the hairdressers, you would see a well-dressed smart and well-mannered English foreign-language student, because, well, that’s exactly what she is. She isn’t planning to steal your husband, from inside or outside the brothel either. She just wants to support her studies and maybe even her family back home. She and her colleagues study accountancy, law, and nursing. They are very much in control of their own future — not a pimp in sight and no boyfriend/husband, or society, can say what she does with her life or body.

These “very normal” young women don’t backstab each other, or try to grab someone else’s client, or sell one another drugs. No, they are incredibly supportive of one another. In fact, it’s like a sisterhood more than anything else, where the guests are the added extra they enjoy entertaining. If someone needs a lift, a make-up brush, some advice on a family matter, or a cup of tea, this is when everyone else steps in to support them. If it’s a more personal matter or nobody else is around, I’m always there for their every need. In fact, many of the women have told me that the one thing they enjoy most about their career with us is the empowering support of the others.

Talking about empowering, many people are afraid that these women are not empowered, because they choose sex work. The fact that they sell their soul as well as their body is most often the argument used. Really? What about those people who sit for years in a job they hate — tolerating bullying, menial work and rude colleagues. How is this not selling your soul? If not sold, it is certainly lost.

The women who work here actually like their job because of the lifestyle it affords them, where they earn more money than most, and have more control over their time than almost anyone else in the workforce. They are providing a legal service that makes others happy, make great money, and puts them in control of the transaction. I am genuinely confused how this is “selling your soul.”

And then you get our clients. These are the men, and sometimes the couples, who come time and time again to be made happy by young women who know how to bring pleasure into their lives. It’s impossible to make a generic stereotype because they are all unique, but far from the sleazy guy who wants to force himself onto women and get away with it. We have gentle widows, respectful young men who want to practise being with a woman, so they know what to say and how to act when they attract “one for real”. What about the quadriplegic man who cries himself to sleep every night because he doesn’t know whether he can perform to a woman’s satisfaction after his accident? There are so many different guests who come here for some attention, a commodity that’s not afforded to them elsewhere.

The ladies deserve to meet clients they can respect and who will not make them afraid. Here at TCTG, we put great emphasis on practicing workplace health and safety in order to afford the women who work in a legal brothel the protection they deserve. This industry was made for the happiness and satisfaction of respectful men who need this service to fill a gap in their lives.

These decade-old stereotypes of sex work are making life difficult for many people: the sex workers, the brothel owners, the wonderful people who are our guests, even the Government who must placate noisy, single-issue minority groups who keep petitioning for change. Because of these wildly inaccurate stereotypes and the fact that people ignore the reality of the industry and avoid understanding its place in society, the disgusting crime of sex trafficking of children, for example, can flourish and is gaining momentum. Some perverse men assume since they are doing something that society doesn’t approve of anyway, having sex with children is not really a step too far and the opportunity is afforded to them from a community asleep at the wheel.

Just let go of legal sex work stereotypes; we are not harming anyone. Brothels are a valuable social institution. The darker side of the sex industry, which most of us abhor, is a direct result of communities looking with a blinkered, even blind, view at a very normal and natural, not to mention fun, industry. For those who believe it destroys family relationships, I would say that if you can’t trust your husband not to stray after he has seen a sex worker, then this indicates deep-rooted issues in your relationship rather than taking aim at a poisonous serpent lurking in the sex industry.

Visit Lily Yang for more social commentary, her published books and charity work.

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