As a society, we seem to have some pretty strong opinions on sex. Whether it’s the sex you’re having, the sex your friends are having, or the sex some celebrity may or may not be having, we’re pretty involved in what goes on between the sheets. But, as a society, we also tend to turn a blind eye to the world of sex that exists outside of what we’re comfortable with. Beneath our privileged covering of sex and our emotional attachment to it, we seem to be unaware of the lives of sex workers.
While many choose to categorise sex workers as “abused drug-addicts” or “sluts” (word to the wise: stop saying that), there is a new class of sex worker that breaks all of the traditional stereotypes. The new-age sex worker is smart. She is sophisticated. She knows what she is doing, why, and what she wants to achieve. She is a student, a mother, a housewife. She is a woman, and she should be respected.
The reality of sex work is that women are flocking to higher-end brothels in favour of the back-alley establishments that we expect. Modern prostitutes are choosing to work in high-class establishments that promote a safe and secure work environment. While these women are selling their bodies, they are doing so in an environment that promotes personal wellbeing above all else. And they’re loving it! The question then is what makes this so appealing? Why are intelligent, level-headed women to eager to sample the “forbidden fruit” of the sex trade?
For some, the answer is simple. So simple in fact, that it is the first question asked when applying to many brothels. The question: Do you like sex? Nearly all of the women who choose to become escorts do so because they enjoy sex, and are not ashamed to admit it. There is no shame in embracing your own sexuality, and in the world of sex workers, this is respected. In fact, it is celebrated. Women are searching for safe and supportive environments in which they can explore their sexuality. Smart, attractive and ambitious women are using sex to earn money—and there is nothing wrong with it!
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One escort I spoke to at The Bedroom put it bluntly: “I love sex. And I got sick of being used by guys who were just after a one night stand. If I’m gonna have sex once, I might as well get something out of it.”
It’s quite simple really. The reality of most sex workers is that they CHOOSE to do it. With the cost of living increasing, and student debts growing, the number of women studying or in careers choosing to earn money from sex work is growing. The trend amongst workers at Bon Ton and The Bedroom, two elite Wellington agencies, was simple: it was more beneficial to them to work as an escort, and get paid well to do something they enjoy, than work for nine hours in a restaurant for half the money. “Sure, I may not have made millions,” says Lily* from The Bedroom. “But I am able to support myself and live comfortably while doing what I enjoy. And I work about a fifth of the time my full-time friends do for the same money.”
In 2003 the Government passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which legalised commercial sexual services in New Zealand and introduced a range of new safety protocols for the industry. Since then, a rise in high-class agencies that offer a sophisticated service has changed the face of sex work. The aim of the industry is to rid the stigma surrounding sex workers, and create a new image of what prostitution is about. In Wellington, there is only one road you are legally allowed to be a street prostitute on, Marion Street. This regulation tries to encourage prostitutes to work in brothels rather than on the street, making it safer for the women.
In agencies, it is easier to monitor what’s going on between the sheets. The laws stipulate that clients must wear a condom at all times when sex is taking place. Condoms and dental dams must also be used for oral services. The aim is to significantly reduce the risk of spreading sexual diseases, and that’s a huge benefit to the industry. There are also laws surrounding how clean the establishments need to be—sheets must be washed after each booking, and anything used in the booking (for example sex toys) must be cleaned properly. Ultimately, the escort industry is hoping to remove the risk of spreading sexual diseases, which is a massive plus for the industry’s reputation.
There is also a stricter criteria for becoming an escort. Agencies also tend to turn away women who are virgins, and women who confess to having a large amount of unsafe sex. Of course, this is not the same for all agencies; lower-class agencies tend to accept anyone who wants to become a sex worker. But the industry is changing; women are more inclined to work for high-end agencies than the low-end establishments society is most aware of.
The reasons? For most, it’s the fact that high-end establishments offer a bigger cut for the women. The environment is also a lot nicer. Workers at The Bedroom are treated to a workspace that looks like something out of a movie. A quick search on their website shows clean white sheets, French-style décor and a gorgeous, sophisticated atmosphere. The Bedroom boasts only two rooms, which makes for a much more intimate feel. The hours are also better; in the high-end establishments you choose your hours to fit your schedule. For most, this means coming in for a booking and then going back to their ordinary lives. In lower-end establishments women can sit around for 12 hours waiting for bookings, and this has some pretty negative consequences. The women may walk away having earnt nothing all night, and the long hours often lead them to drugs in order to stay awake—a reputation the industry is trying to avoid. There is also something to be said for the amount of money a woman makes in a booking compared to how much she works. Escorting agencies are required to offer women at least a 50:50 cut of what they earn. At The Bedroom, the cut is 60:40 to the woman. That means that an hour’s work will earn a woman around $240, not including tips.
The new guidelines and laws surrounding sex work has made it safer for everyone involved. And this is reflected in the clientèle. Men are happy to spend more money to receive a safer, more enjoyable and sophisticated service. “I’ve had clients who didn’t even want to have sex,” says Alex*, an escort at a top Wellington agency. “We get a lot of lonely men who just want someone to talk to, and perhaps kiss. It’s not all about the sex for everyone.”
For most men, they don’t want to be reminded they are paying for an escort service, so agencies are trying to remove this feeling. Jane*, the owner/manager of The Bedroom, told Stuff in 2012 that she wants the establishment “to feel more like their mistress’ bedroom than a hotel room”. And this move has huge benefits for the women as well; they don’t have to feel like stereotypical sex workers. The women get to work in safe, respectful workplaces where they can feel comfortable. And the best part? The girls call the shots. “If I don’t want to have sex with a particular client, I can turn them down,” says Lily. “It lets me be in control of my body, which is great.” The right to turn down any client is written into the Act, and therefore applies to all agencies, not just the high-end ones. Again, the desired outcome here is to keep the women safe.
And the new laws have introduced another benefit for women: it celebrates sex. Anna*, an ex-worker at The Bedroom, told me that “when I first started, Jane* asked me what the difference was between working as an escort and going to Courtenay Place on a Saturday night and expecting a guy to buy you a few drinks before you fucked him? He’s still buying you; at least this way the money’s better and it’s a lot safer.” In the sex work industry, there is no discrimination. Everyone is treated as an equal, and there is an unspoken understanding between the women as to why they are there. And in some cases, there’s a real connectedness with the client.
“It’s a really fascinating job,” says Tara* from Funhouse, an agency that specialises in kink-focused services. “Every man is different, and sometimes there are moments of real connectedness. You’re a provider of happiness in the simplest form, and that’s really rewarding.” And with every man being different, there is a huge range of services offered across the numerous brothels around Wellington. At Funhouse, a man can be treated to a woman who enjoys his deepest fantasies. At Bon Ton, massage-only services are offered. The range is huge, and is tailored to what the woman is comfortable with offering. No one is forced to offer a service they are not comfortable with, and women tend to work for agencies that reflect their own areas of interest.
The Prostitution Reform Act had a massive impact on the sex industry. The Act saw a huge shift toward keeping women who work as escorts safe. New Zealand has made a great effort to reshape the reputation of the sex industry, but there is still a lot of work to do.
Unfortunately, there’s a massive stigma that surrounds sex workers. This stigma is usually the result of portrayals of the industry in American movies and TV. There’s also misunderstanding. There is a disgust, or fear, or whatever you want to call it, that comes from a lack of education as to what sex work involves.
But this is New Zealand. Prostitution is legal. And it’s legal for a reason. It’s safe, it’s secure, and the women are respected within the industry. Sure, it may not be for everyone, but if it’s not hurting or affecting you directly, why oppose it?
Essentially, prostitution in New Zealand is a moral issue rather than a legal one. It’s about where you stand on the idea, and how open you are to it. No one is forcing you to become a sex worker. And no one is forcing you to be okay with the idea. But there needs to be a social change in the stigma surrounding sex workers and the sex industry. These women are working hard for their money, just not in the traditional sense. And the industry as a whole is doing its best to revamp its reputation, and allow these women to be viewed in a more positive light.
This article was amended on 17 August 2015.