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Last month, Salient published the article “The Working Girl’s Class”, about demographic changes in the sex industry. The article generated a significant amount of debate, and Phiona Baskett, owner of two Wellington escort agencies, has agreed to write about the stigma that many in the industry still face.
I’m writing today about social stigma in the sex industry. Too often sex work and sex workers are pushed under the rug—or behind the curtain, out the back door, down into the hidden corners of our society.
But this article isn’t about hiding. It’s about pulling back the curtain and shining a light on New Zealand’s sex industry twelve years after the Prostitution Reform Act was passed. Who are NZ’s modern sex workers? What do we do? What is life like in this shining era of legality?
And so I’d like to properly introduce myself:
My name is Phiona Baskett and I own both Paradise Club (paradiseclub.co.nz) and Paradise Retreat (paradiseretreat.co.nz). I also own a Chihuahua, because while sex work is my livelihood, it isn’t my entire life. Before I opened Paradise in 2009, I spent six years as the group manager for Splash, Il Bordello, and Mermaids.
In short I’ve been part of the sex industry almost as long as it’s been legal. I’ve learned a lot in all those years. I’ve seen a lot too. And I’d say that given Paradise’s enormous successes (voted “Best Establishment in New Zealand” every year since 2012 by the punting public, employs several women voted “Best Escort” by the same public), I’m well qualified to talk about the industry.
I have no problem coming forward. And yet the women I employ—several of whom are students at your university—would rather hide.
You nod, I’m sure. “Of course,” you think. “All those rapes, those murders. There’s some bad people out there. Of course they’re afraid to come forward.”
Except those same girls, sitting here in my living room, would roll their eyes. They’re not afraid of rapists and murderers, no more than any other woman is. They’re afraid of you.
They sip coffee beside you in the Hub. Argue with you in class. Check their phones while chatting with you on the overbridge.
And all the while they wonder:
- “Does she suspect why I can suddenly afford this coffee when last month I was broke?”
- “He looks familiar—have we had class before or did he visit my parlour last Saturday?”
- “It was not a great episode—I’m beyond sick of the genre reliance on dead sex workers. It’s tired, it’s lazy, and it’s offensive.”
The law changed twelve years ago but society still hasn’t caught up.
So sex workers hide.
And they shouldn’t have to. They shouldn’t have to feel as if their worth as human beings is tied to the price tags they’ve willingly put on their bodies.
Many sex workers, when safely anonymous, will admit to loving their jobs. Even the ones who don’t love it will admit there’s a reason they’re in the sex industry rather than working a till. And if that reason is money… Well, why do you work? If it’s genuinely for the pleasure of it then you’re as lucky as you are unusual. Although the happier workers, the women who stay for years and decades rather than months or years, find other benefits.
There’s the flexibility, for one. Sex work fits easily around lectures and assignments. Around childcare and family responsibilities. Around travel and illness. You can work any days, any hours, and if you need to change them, it’s rarely a hassle.
Beyond that—those of you who went to all girls’ schools will understand this—when there’s no men around, one of two things will happen. It will either be a hellish nightmare of never-ending drama and backstabbing, or the bras come off, the heels are kicked aside, and everyone heaves a great sigh as they relax into a safe and supportive sisterhood.
When you start sex work your bodily insecurities are rapidly eroded. Some people argue it’s because your desirability is being constantly proven. You’re not just hot—you’re so hot men will pay hundreds of dollars to sleep with you. And that’s a part of it. But beyond that you see other women. Not airbrushed, not photoshopped. Just other, real women.
You have cellulite? So does your co-worker and she’s beautiful. Think your hips are too wide? Her’s are wider and she turns heads wherever she goes. Not sure if your labia is “normal” or not? Mention this and someone will whip their undies off to do a compare.
You aren’t just desirable, you’re okay.
That weird fantasy? Someone has had weirder and they’ll tell you in exhaustive detail until you’re giggling in amused relief.
Among themselves, sex workers tend to be happy and open. But in public they’ll smile politely and demur, mumble how they’re sure sex workers have some reasons, shrug in confusion and say “Why are you asking me? Do I look like a hooker to you?”
And you’ll laugh, because that’s what you’re supposed to do.
But perhaps you sit there now and wonder why anonymity is so important. We’re an open and non-judgemental society, aren’t we? Sex work is legal, isn’t it? You’re all good people, aren’t you?
Why do sex workers even need to hide?
And we wonder that too.
- “If I tell a prospective employer my provided reference is my madam, will they still hire me?”
- “If I tell my friends how much money I earn, how long will it be before it’s always my shout?”
- “If my lecturer knew, would he try withhold a rightful grade for sex?”
- “Will my neighbour report me to CYFS if I tell her why I need her to watch the kids every Friday night? I’m a great mother, but which of us would they believe?”
- “How will my new boyfriend react if I tell him why he can’t visit me at work?”
- “If I tell my sister, how long will it be before she throws it back in my face? Tells me to she doesn’t want her kids around me—calls me a whore and means it?”
Sex workers wonder a lot of things.
The Prostitution Reform Act protects sex workers from violence, from trafficking, from being pressured into unsafe sex acts.
It doesn’t protect sex workers from jealousy, judgement, or ostracism. It doesn’t protect sex workers from their families, friends, or further employers.
The PRA is an amazing document. It made a huge difference in the lives of a vulnerable group. But twelve years on, there’s a lot more that could be done.
The PRA does not oblige employers to pay any particular percentage. If a 50:50 split was encoded as the legal minimum, it could only be to the industry’s benefit.
There are no rules about overtime or maximum hours. You hear of women working 12-hour shifts every night for weeks on end and while these women probably have their reasons, it doesn’t sound like the healthiest work-life balance.
The law is apparently unclear on dental dam usage—or so punters frequently insist. Legal clarification as to whether their use is mandatory would lessen the pressure on sex workers to not use them.
Furthermore, an additional branch of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective would be highly useful. The NZPC is a phenomenal group of people and they provide a number of services already. Sex workers can visit their local branch for free and confidential health checks. They provide supplies such as condoms, lube, and sponges. Best of all they provide coffee and biscuits, along with advice and support.
But their services could be expanded further. If there was another branch, it could go into brothels and advise sex workers on their rights. Not everyone knows to visit them in person after all. While this branch was out in the field, it could check brothel licenses and examine the premises for health and safety violations.
For that matter, they could truly go into the field and interact with the non-sex working public. Speakers could go to universities and other establishments to provide informative talks and advice which would help change the way people view sex work and sex workers.
All around the world people look to New Zealand for guidance on sex work. We’re heralded as having the safest, healthiest sex industry on the planet.
And yet sex workers still don’t feel truly safe.
Sex workers are afraid to tell friends, family, flatmates. They don’t come out to co-workers or casual hook-ups.
This robs sex workers of two great joys of life: Talking about how much you love your job and bitching about how much you hate it. Think about how often you do one of these things. And then imagine never being able to do it again.
Or imagine even if you could—imagine you had told someone. Imagine if every joy was belittled and every bad day turned into a reason you should quit. Imagine your mum crying as she wondered where she went wrong. Imagine your boyfriend looking sicker and sicker as he realises you’ve not just slept with other men, you’ve slept with hundreds of other men. Hotter men. Men with bigger penises. Men who were better at sex, or oral, or dirty talk. Imagine kissing him goodnight and knowing he’s wondering who else you’ve kissed that day.
How do you know in advance whether your loved ones will support you?
But of course it doesn’t stop there. This fear leaves many sex workers without a safety net.
How do you decide if your employer is a good one when you can’t get an outside perspective? It leaves sex workers vulnerable to subtle forms of exploitation—there’s a charge for this, and that, and oh yes it’s normal to get a 1/3 cut of your earnings.
And sex workers can’t complain. Who do they complain too? Their employer? Other co-workers who don’t know any better themselves? Perhaps the NZPC assuming they know about them and feel it’s worth the trip.
It turns out I lied. Sex workers do that sometimes.
All people do that sometimes.
I said this article wasn’t about hiding, but it is. It’s about the pain and fear. It’s about the stress. It’s about secrets that fester in your chest and every person you wish you trusted enough to tell.
I’m lucky. I burst out from under the rug years ago. Everyone in my life knows I run an escort agency and I know who my true friends are. But not every sex worker is ready to throw aside the curtain. Not every sex worker wants to be ushered into the light.
So next time you speak—think.
Before you call someone a whore—think. Before you exult in killing them in video games—think. Before you say one deserved what she got—think.
And wonder who you’re offending.