One of the first prostituted women I ever met told me that I had to check the johns’ penises for venereal disease before accepting their trade. Aside from the obvious herpes welts, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to be looking for. In any case, the first john I encountered at an Auckland brothel took thorough umbrage at the idea. I had asked, timidly, to examine him and he pointedly assured me that if I should continue in such a manner he would speak to management (who he claimed to be friends with) and have me fired. Not yet 19-years-old and overwhelmed by this strange new world, I didn’t argue.
I spent a summer there, although I remember the small city as being distinctly sharp and grey. Perhaps because I mostly only saw it at the end of the afternoon or at the first light of day, as I laboured from 6pm until 6am. The rest of the day I spent hovering in and out of a jaded sleep, always trying to come down off of the ledge of something: hyperactivity, adrenaline, anxiety…
A few years later, New Zealand changed their prostitution laws and fully decriminalized prostitution (previous to 2003, solicitation, running a brothel, and living off the earnings of prostitution were illegal). It wasn’t only the prostituted, collectivized in houses for their own security, who were decriminalized, but the large, branded brothels too — brothels like the one I worked in, that poured money into their interiors in the form of wine bars, sweeping staircases, marble-looking suites with jacuzzis and wipe-down beds… Wipe-down luxury.
It was an aesthetic that fit the owner, who had an air of seediness and a jet black sports car, bought with the high commissions he collected from the dozens of prostitutes who laboured under his roof. He would occasionally saunter around the brothel’s bars, ostensibly to check that we were sitting properly and engaging with the men correctly, but also to demonstrate his general omnipresence. It seemed to be one of his sole activities, other than interviewing new prostitutes to assess their sexualized suitability for his little kingdom.
It was preferred that we sit on stools along the bar, with our legs crossed elegantly, smiling pleasantly. We had to present ourselves to the johns — who swarmed comfortably in relative darkness — without seeming hard or confronting. We were to appear available but without seeming too assertive. Of course, this was a rigidity that management could not always discipline. During our 12 hour shifts we became apathetic and sometimes hostile, oscillating between high and lows brought on by alcohol and other clandestinely consumed narcotics. To make money you had to keep up a good front, and not allow slow spells or virulent competition to wear you down. This was easy to manage in the first few weeks, when the high of making what was initially a lot of money propelled you through the night, but difficult to maintain in the long-term. I remember one pretty, blonde prostitute I spoke to, who mourned the loss of her early days when she always had a spare few thousand pounds hanging around her house, now finding herself just barely able to make ends meet.
We only made money if we interested a punter enough for him to take us upstairs. In the early days this was easy — our enthusiasm was a lubricant — but as time moved on, lethargy from poor sleep patterns and an unhealthy lifestyle wore me and many others down. This lifestyle was endemic and institutional: we couldn’t rest, eat healthily, take breaks and, by sleeping during the day, we mostly missed out on natural light. Compounded with a culture of substance use and abuse, this wasn’t a healthy way to live. Beyond that, the competition (sometimes as many as 50 women a night) was incredibly intense. Because many of the johns were regulars at the brothel, the longer you worked there, the harder it was to induce their fickle attention. If the women did not successfully cultivate “regulars” (which they did by giving the johns everything they wanted), it was not always easy to make money in the long-term. Indeed, the idea that most prostitutes are rolling in money is one of the most persistent myths about the industry. Johns want the newest, youngest girls.
Whenever a john showed interest in me, I would walk with him, in tottering heels, to the front desk, where he would pay his fee to the receptionist before taking me upstairs. It was a clever system for management — taking control of the money meant that you couldn’t simply wander off before the end of your shift. Even the women who only wanted to see a minimal number of men were more or less forced to stay until 6am in order to get paid. We were supposed to be “independent contractors,” I discovered later, but the way the system was set up, it didn’t feel that way. We had to keep careful count of what we earned, otherwise, some of the women told me, the receptionists would try to shortchange you. Often, though, I was so confused by my necessary intoxication that I wasn’t entirely sure how much money I was owed and mostly didn’t bother to count. I wasn’t the only one.
There was plenty of unpaid labour involved in these transactions as well. It was not imperative that every punter took a woman upstairs, because they would still spend money on drinks at the bar — drinks that were priced at a higher premium than other bars, due to the fact that they came with a side order of underdressed young women. We didn’t get any percentage of these earnings, of course. There was (intentionally) no lounge or room for us to go in order to take a break from hustling — the makeup room had been orchestrated so that it was impossible to relax in, with vanity mirrors lined up tightly like the prongs of a fork. Occasionally I would escape to the laundry room, to pull off my wig and chat with the guy who negotiated a bottomless pile of white, stained towels, but could usually only barely catch a breath before a receptionist or the owner noticed me, via the CCTV monitor (cameras were almost everywhere), and pulled me back to the floor.
My memories of johns are foggy — I vaguely remember trying not to fall asleep, and hoping the hour would pass quickly, as sweating men came and went. But one john sticks out. The boss liked us to work most nights and so the constant interference from (often) rabid men left us bruised and sore. This one particular john had a thick penis, which he liked to jab in and out of me, as hard and fast as he could. Initially, I tried to breathe deeply and relax my muscles, but the pain was excruciating. I began to hold onto his hips to slow him down, push him away from me, but he got impatient and then angry, before flouncing off to complain, as though he was the victim of some great injustice.
When I walked back down to the foyer, the receptionist pulled me aside to inform me of his grievance. I hyperbolized his brutalization, knowing that if I simply said I was too sore to cope with what was a fairly banal experience of prostituted sex, it wouldn’t satisfy her. She narrowed her eyes cynically, but said she was willing to let it pass as this had been the only complaint leveled against me. One imagines, looking back, that the other women had to learn how to alleviate these situations for themselves — learn how to cope with the bruising, the discomfort, the tiredness, the objectification, and the hours of unpaid and thankless work they conducted for the benefit of the brothel.
A waitress might have to smile incessantly, but she doesn’t have to be mauled or bruised. A carpenter or a brick-layer might scuff his fingers or hurt his back, but he doesn’t have to pretend he finds it pleasurable. He doesn’t have to ignore the pain. But in the culture of the mega brothel world, these distinctions are collapsed and these complaints are erased. The thousands upon thousands of women who will have passed through the doors of brothels like the one I worked in are scattered into the ether, not on picket lines shoulder-to-shoulder with the punters and pimps calling for its further legitimization — for this destructive gratification to be considered just “a job like any other.”
Rae Story is a part time freelance writer living in the UK. She describes herself as “sex industry critical” after having worked industry for over 10 years, in various capacities and countries. She completed her Masters in Film Studies from the University of Exeter. As well as prostitution, she has interests in feminist film theory, socialist feminism, and women and addiction. Rae blogs at In Permanent Opposition.