Sunday, March 17, 2013

Ask A Brothel Receptionist - Part 1

You probably won't be surprised to hear I've gotten into quite a few heated arguments with people over my acceptance of the sex industry and the people who work in it. It's an issue that can set people off very very quickly, and I've seen people go from zero to Hitler with appalling speed as soon as sex work is mentioned. But I've learned that head on arguments take more out of me than they chip away at the opposition's position. Some people are great at confrontational arguing, and I definitely think there is a place for it, and an enormous need for it. I see sex workers who dare to be vocal in the media attacked every day, with everything from revolting taunts about them being "a hole", to totally baseless statistics "proving" that all sex workers are coerced. Personally, I can't take these people on directly. I have nothing but admiration for the people who do, but I simply find it too draining and upsetting. One heated argument with one asshole can ruin my day, while making precisely no difference to their opinion whatsoever. So these days I leave the arguing to the people who are good at it, and my way of contributing to the growing sex workers rights movement is offering information, things I've learned and observed about the industry, in the hopes of chipping away at the ignorance in wider society.
I never had any particular problem with sex workers, even before I got involved in the industry. But I do admit that I went into it with some preconceived ideas, which in time turned out to be completely wrong.  It was getting to know the people in the industry that was the biggest force in opening my eyes - it's much harder to categorise sex workers as some homogenous, oppressed mass when you really get to know some. While there are more and more sex workers being vocal in the media (especially through outlets like Twitter) about their experiences, there is still a large proportion of wider society who might be curious to know more about sex workers, but are too challenged by speaking to an actual real life sex worker. I found working in an admin position made me an interesting "in between" point between the sex industry and this segment of curious but trepadatious onlookers. This "in between" status unfortunately led some people to say awful things about sex workers to me, like insinuating they were all worthless junkies, or desperate women with no other discernible skills who had to resort to sex work. When I looked horrified, people seemed surprised when I pointed out that I actually didn't care for them speaking like that about my CO-WORKERS. But sometimes people were simply curious, but not sure how to proceed with getting answers to their questions. I would always encourage them to speak to actual sex workers if they had questions about the industry, because I can only speak for my own experience, and I feel like data from the other side of the desk is actually a lot more valuable in the end. But because I was in the industry but not "one of them" as some people charmingly put it, people seemed more comfortable asking me questions. While I got SUPER tired of my job dominating every conversation I had with anyone, I also realised that I had a responsibility to use this "in between" status to create as much positive change as I could. With this in mind, I thought I would share my answers to some of the questions I got asked over and over and over again when I was doing reception in the sex industry. Since once I started writing, I apparently couldn’t stop, this will be a two part series. Today we have the first three questions I got asked most frequently, in rough order of popularity, with another three tomorrow. I'm also hoping you guys can come up with some new questions, which I can answer in a proposed Part 3, so put your thinking caps on!

1. Wow, working at a brothel sounds sexy. Is it sexy?

The short answer, is no. The long answer is nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo well maybe a teeny bit sometimes. I can't speak for the sex workers, but admin at a brothel is only sexier than normal admin on tiny, rare occasions. The vast majority of my time was spent answering the same questions over and over, putting laundry in the washing machine, taking washing out of the machine, and juggling three phones while trying to keep track of ten workers at once. Even the teeny, fleeting moments that were sexy were actually more awkward than sexy as such. I would be lying if I said I didn't enjoy flirting with the clients, knowing that I was totally off limits for them. That was pretty fun, and nicely straight forward. I jiggled, they looked appreciatively, everyone came away feeling nice. However, when a client I found attractive walked in, it quickly became quite awkward and not sexy at all. See, the flipside of the clients never being allowed to touch me is that I was also not allowed to touch THEM. Dating clients is a) a stupid idea and b) totally taboo for both sex workers and support staff - PARTICULARLY support staff, because if we saw clients for free we were essentially stealing from our co-workers. So if a client I thought was a bit hot came in, and it did happen, it was much more of a high school crush, sigh from afar situation than anything anyone would write into Playboy about. I remember one guy who had a Muse tattoo who used to come into the last place I worked - he was sweet, and friendly, and never haggled, and always picked the bigger girls so he might have been into someone my size, and he had big brown puppy dog eyes and he was also totally out of my reach. It wasn't sexy - it was actually a tiny bit depressing after a while.

LoveSick by Yukiba on DeviantArt
I mostly got asked about the supposed sexiness of my work by men wanting to know about my interactions with the other girls though. Once I told them I was queer and worked in the sex industry, these two pieces apparently magically fit together to create a wonderland in their heads full of pillow fights in ridiculous lingerie and practicing making out on each other. I'm sorry guys, gals, everyone else, but it was NEVER like that. Not ever. In five years I did not have a single pillow fight with another girl, nor did I witness any pillow fights between any other girls.  Maybe they happened and I just didn't see them - but I somehow doubt that. I never practiced making out with my co-workers, nor did I ever see them practicing on each other. The closest I ever came to any kind of sexy practice time was showing a girl how to use a suede flogger more effectively, and that wasn't actually very sexy because I was trying to teach her BDSM 101 in ten minutes so she could bluff her way through a booking. I did appreciate the very nice looking girls wandering around in lingerie every now and then - but it came back to the whole no dating in the workplace rule again, and was just as awkward as eying off the clients.

Not an accurate depiction of a brothel.
I'm sorry, I'm sure this is disappointing news to some of you. I know pretty much every guy I told this looked like I'd killed his childhood pet in front of him. I get that the fantasy is all part of the experience of seeing a sex worker - you imagine she's really into you, and that money is just a thing that happens co-incidentally. Some people imagine a brothel is a house full of workers heaving and panting and desperately waiting for some lucky client to come in and satisfy them. But in reality, it's work. It's just work. Just as working in a video game store does not actually involve sitting around playing Halo all day, sex work is not what some people imagine it to be. It’s not always an endless array of sexy, fun, light-hearted encounters, but it’s not always an endless oppressive regime of misery either. It’s not always anything – like any other work, sex work is sometimes good and sometimes bad. I think it's really important to make that clear to as many people as possible, because then we might start getting rid of some of the wrongheaded perceptions about sex work – if people could get rid of this ridiculous fantasy version of sex work they have in their heads, they might be able to pay attention to the very real concerns of sex workers, and give their voices the respect they deserve. If people understood more clearly that sex workers are just people too, just doing a job, I hope that it might encourage them to treat sex workers with a lot more respect and decency. One example of the wrongheaded ridiculousness that can spring from this kind of fantasy view of the sex industry is the idea that a woman can be bought and sold. It hinges on the fantasy notion that sex work is somehow totally different to every other kind of work. If someone told you that working as a receptionist meant you were selling yourself, you'd laugh at them. But sex workers are told that by selling their time and skills, they are selling themselves on a daily basis. They're not. It's exactly the same as me charging my company for my ability to make flights work at the last second - I have skills they require, they pay me money for those skills. My soul remains intact, and so do those of sex workers, because it is, in the end, just work. So there is it – sex industry reception is not actually that sexy, and I think the world would be a better place if people were more interested in finding out what the sex industry is actually really like for the people who work in it. I wish there has been more lingerie clad pillow fights, I really do, but 90% of the time, my part in the sex industry was simply dealing with an endless pile of towels.   

2. But brothels are illegal, right?

This one very much depends on where you are. In New South Wales, where I worked, all forms of sex work are legal apart from street work. Legally, provided you have the appropriate licensing and council approval, you can run a brothel, you can work from your house, you can work for an agency - you just can't work from the street because that's viewed as soliciting. I never cared for this caveat, because it's quite classist and exclusionary when you get right down to it. There are some people who prefer working on the streets, and some who don't have the option of working from an apartment or a brothel available to them, and I think it's complete bullshit they're not offered the same protections as indoor workers. But, it could be much worse. As for the rest of the country, I honestly don't know all the details of legality in other states, apart from a few tidbits. I know in Queensland it's illegal to offer services without a condom, and I know in Victoria you are supposed to have a license to work in the sex industry, a registration system of sorts. But in New South Wales, it's all relatively straightforward from a legal point of view. If you stay off the streets, everything else is technically fine.


Because sex work is largely legalised here, there is much less of the industry controlled by organised crime than places where it is all totally illegal. I wouldn’t be so naive as to say it doesn’t still happen – but it’s a much less valuable investment when a business has to have a paper trail. Legality requires paperwork, and paperwork requires your business practices meet at least an absolute minimum standard of legitimacy. I’m sure the accountants for the places I worked were still up to some dodgy stuff in terms of taxation, and I did always get paid in cash. But I worked for non sex industry small businesses with similar practices – some of them were much dodgier than that even. Legalisation means the owners of brothels technically have to adhere to certain standards in terms of how they treat their employees too. 

Of course, legal protection is one thing, and the way that protection is (or isn't) enforced is another thing. Just because owners of brothels are legally required to give their workers certain rights, doesn’t mean they always do. And just because it was legal for my co-workers to be doing what they were doing didn't mean they were free to do so without persecution. I remember one worker who had to get all the receptionists to field calls from her ex-husband, because he was trying to "prove" she was working for us in order to take custody of her children. If I ran into co-workers in the street or at a club, there was always a little game of trying to figure out on the fly a cover story for how we knew each other. I would usually let them take the lead, and then just go with whatever they introduced me as, or keep walking if they made it clear they didn't want to acknowledge me outside of work. Some of the sex workers I met were out to everyone in their social circle, but the majority weren't, simply because the social stigma was too great. I hope that by emphasising to everyone that asked me that sex work is indeed legal in this state, I managed to do a tiny little bit to normalise the industry. It's ridiculous that a section of the economy that is actually legal is still so stigmatised - I actually can't think of any other equivalent industries, where the workers have legal rights but are unable to exercise them so frequently because of societal perception. It’s unfortunate that while there are many parts of Australia where sex work is legally protected, it’s actually only in the ACT that they are specifically legally protected from discrimination. Legalisation is only half the battle in terms of allowing sex workers to go about their lives and careers without interference, but I’m glad that for all our backwards thinking on other subjects, at least NSW has gotten the process this far. It’s not everything, by a long shot – but it’s something

3. I bet the girls are all junkies/diseased/stupid/desperate 

Oh man, this question used to drive me NUTS. This was the question that would get me from zero to frothing at the mouth in under ten seconds because it's just so, SO not true, and even if it was, SO WHAT!? Yes, I did meet sex workers who used all sorts of different drugs. Yes, I met injecting drug users, some of whom were addicts. And you know when it bothered me? When they couldn't do their job, or they put other people in danger. That's it. Other than that, I couldn't give a shit what they chose to spend their money on. It was none of my damn business, unless their drug usage got in the way of their work.  An interesting statistic to consider before we dismiss all sex workers as “junkies” is that according to the US Department of Health, 77% of ALL illegal drug users either hold full or part time jobs. Since this is a statistic from the US where sex work is largely illegal, I think it's pretty safe to say the jobs they are including here are all mainstream jobs. This would suggest to me that there are an awful lot of drug users out there in the mainstream workforce - but it's sex workers that get painted as all being junkies? Interesting. And by interesting, I mean utterly infuriating. 

Not an accurate depiction of drug use
As for sex workers all being diseased, local sex worker rights organisation Scarlet Alliance has done some excellent work in gathering relevant statistics in this area. According to their sexual health briefing paper, “Sex workers have consistently low rates of HIV (less than 1%), low rates of sexually transmissible infections, and very high rates of prophylactic use, including condoms."  A recent study conducted by Melbourne University that measured rates of STI infections in a wide range of participants, concluded that "of 2896 female sex workers tested for STIs over three years, only 3 per cent were positive." THREE PER CENT. The most recent set of statistics I could find relating to the sexual health of the general population put the percentage of women who've been infected with an STI is currently around 16.9%. That's a pretty fucking big difference right there. I can also tell you from experience that the sex workers I have known have taught me WAY more about safer sexual practices than anyone else. I have never come across a group of people so well versed in the details of safer sex, EVER. I tried to be patient when people asked me questions and the sex industry, I really did, but once they started with the "diseased junkie" crap I would have to walk away. It's SO completely untrue, and it makes me SO angry.

And on that cheerful note, I'm going to leave it there. Join me tomorrow for part two!

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