LEGALIZED PROSTITUTION IN AUSTRALIA : BEHIND THE SCENES.
INTERVIEW WITH SIMONE WATSON
Simone Watson is a prostitution survivor and the director of NORMAC (Nordic Model in Australia Coalition) http://normac.org.au/
S : You have worked in legal and illegal massage parlors. Can you describe these places and are there any differences in safety and material conditions for prostituted women between these different types of indoor prostitution ?
SW : I worked in decriminalized, legalised and illegal prostitution in Australia. Prostitution was legal in brothels, but it was illegal in massage parlors. So when I worked in massage parlors, it was technically illegal, but that’s where I got the so called « high flyers », the politicians, the star athletes. The business men. The massage parlor was in a penthouse, on the top floor in the center of the city of Melbourne. We had security cameras, we did not have to parade in lingerie, we had separate apartments and we were called by intercom when the pimp or madam decided we fitted with a certain client. There was none of the usual degradation, and it was supposed to be a very « safe » environment.
I was called to make this client and we were supposed to give them massages, we were told it was like being a nurse in an hospital : like giving a patient a bath, and you have to touch their body, sometimes they get an erection, and things happen. That’s how they covered it up and pretended it was all ok. But what I found out from this experience is that from the very first day, I had to start using prescription medications to be able to do it. It didn’t matter that it was a high class brothel, it didn’t matter that we were not paraded in underwear, shown off in lingerie and degraded. Even in those circumstances, in order to have to « make » six of these men who were so awful, I needed prescription medication right away.
In the other place, which was the next place where I worked, brothel keeping was legalised, but it was a similar story, except we got to wear expensive dresses to parade for the clients And they didn’t mind if we had to take drugs to do the job ; as long as we didn’t look like wasted junkies, they didn’t care. But women who became addicts were kicked to the curb. No one cares about these women. We had to look happy, we had to look smiling but there was not one woman on the premises who was not on some kind of medication to get through that.
S : The prostituted women I talked to who « worked » in a massage parlor said those places have all the bleak and dangerous sides of prostitution, plus one : it increases the control of the pimps on the prostitutes. What are the many ways pimps watch and control prostitutes in a massage parlor—besides drugs ?
SW : You get told that you have to shut up. In the first brothel the name for us was « sheep brains ». Also you were told that you are going to be expelled from the brothel if you are caught having sex with any client that the police could find—even though it was legal. This was baffling to me, we didn’t understand it. The men were there for sex, the condoms were there for sex, but if they thought that you were telling anybody you were there having sex, you’d get attacked.
My first job in a brothel, I started to think : « I can’t do this anymore, I can’t take it, I am starting to hate every man I see, even in my general life ». I wanted to leave and I thought I could leave, so I left. That was where prostitution is legal.
Two weeks later, I was walking down the street in a different suburb, far away from the brothel, when two men, twice my size—I mean 6 foot 5, huge men –started to run across the road towards me as I was walking . I thought they were running after someone else but they came up to me, they shoved their fist in my face and told me : « you have to go back to work »– and left me there. So they physically intimidated me for this so-called high class brothel where politicians go, where we were supposed to be all free and safe—but it’s all bulls…t. They told me I had to go back to work, or they would be coming to bash me…
S : So much for women being free to leave anytime in these brothels…
SW : I was lucky that I had enough money so I could get away to a different suburb where they couldn’t find me. That’s prostitution for you : the point is, it’s not because I was so wonderful that they loved me in this job — because we were all disposable there. It’s rather that the pimps are psychopaths and they don’t like it when you make your own mind. This pimp bothered to get these two huge men, to find me, track me down in the middle of a huge city and threaten me. Even if there is a new girl walking in everyday, desperate to « work » because of poverty, what this woman pimp didn’t like is that she didn’t have control ; she did not think I was a great worker, she just did not like the fact that I made my own mind to leave. It was really frightening ! We were treated like sheeps and disposable, we were told we could leave and we would be fine, but when I left, they hunted me and tried to hurt me.
S : So the main way to control prostitutes in these places is through threats and violence ?
SW : Yes, absolutely. That, and the constant playing on insecurities.
S : Were there any « panic buttons » where you worked ? In some brothels, there is a panic button, so the prostituted woman can press it if a john becomes violent.
SW : We didn’t have a panic button, we could just open the door and walk out.
S : Did they tell you what to do if a john became violent, were there standard procedures to follow for safety if such a situation happened ?
SW : No, I was not given any instructions on how to deal with violent men, there was an understanding that you could walk out the door and call for help.
S : But walking out the door is not always possible if the john overpowers you…
SW : But it did not happen, nobody walks out the door, you don’t call for help because you are there to do your job and you’ll just upset somebody if you do. In my experience, the women who did call for help lost their job.
S : Was it like « if a john becomes violent, it’s your fault, because you made him unhappy, you did not give him what he wanted » ?
SW : Absolutely, it’s always your fault. Even if you think of it as a business, if you are a smart boss, you’d want to look after your workers—to some extent, right ? Even if you don’t care about them, just to make sure they look happy for the clients. But we didn’t even get this : if you were in a situation where you had to flee a room and run out, they just got rid of you—and this was fully decriminalized prostitution…
S : Is it true that, contrary to what you can do in the street, it’s near impossible to refuse painful/harmful sexual practices when you are in a massage parlor—because johns are willing to pay extra for that, and the pimps want the extra money and are not going to say no ? And was the « no sex without condom » rule really enforced ?
SW : You can’t refuse. Well, rarely.. They tell you you are allowed to refuse, but you are not allowed to refuse. Some men will use a condom if they are penetrating you because they don’t want to get an STD, but of course they don’t care if they ejaculate all over you, or if they are going to give you an STD. They encourage the use of condoms, they encourage telling the john the things you don’t like, the things you don’t want to do, but when you are in this situation, you just do what the johns want, or you are out of the brothel, they kick you to the curb.
I had myself some experiences and I know women who have protested and who have been kicked to the curb–and I don’t know where lots of these women are now. I know at least two of them who have died. That was in legal prostitution.
And again about the drug use : we were not allowed to use any medication to make things easier or safer for us. But we all used medication of some kind. You just had to look like you were not out of it and of course, smile all the time. They gave us lubricating cream and encouraged the use of condoms, but a lot of men who come to these places prefer to have sex without condom. So you do what the johns want you to do, but if you do open that door and say : « I don’t want to do it like that », the pimps kick you out. I mean you get only so many warnings. So I didn’t open that door, the only time I opened it was to walk out and leave, and I said I was not coming back. That’s when I was threatened later in the street.
S : Are clients willing to pay extra for sex without condoms? Can they get extreme sexual practices if they pay for it ?
SW : That’s correct but when you are being bought, even straight sex, vaginal penetration, is extremely offensive. But yes, we are subjected to very painful practices, even in high class brothels, even in decriminalized prostitution. It wasn’t seedy or dirty to look at on the surface, they said it was a safe environment, that we were taken care of and we were lucky. They even presented us as naturopaths : you know, green plants, white walls, not too much make up, we were not allowed to have nail polish except for French manicures. This is the kind of environment we were working in, and the men would walk in to « get a massage » from a « naturopath », and they would drink green tea , no alcohol in the house—and then behind doors, we were treated to this abuse. And the pimps profit from that abuse.
S : Spa, detox, hygiene etc, but behind the facade, you were treated like pieces of beef ? Clearly, in the brothels you are talking about, the sex industry works very hard to make legalized prostitution appear as a sanitized, respectable, clean, non criminal type of prostitution—as opposed to the old time brothels and pimps, more or less associated with the underworld. Is legalized prostitution really so clean and dissociated from organized crime ?
SW : When I was a teenager in King’s Cross in Sydney, I was working in a brothel that specialized in Asian women. I was not there to sell but I was the door girl, to let the clients in. I don’t know about the legality of this business, but it was run by a Chinese man and the women in there—they were lovely women—they came from Asia and Thailand, mainly South East Asian countries. Some of these women had been living in Australia for seven years, —and most of them had never left the brothel ! Seven years in Australia, and they had not seen anything else in this country but this brothel in King’s Cross in the city, and that’s what they thought Australia was.
All their clothes were brought in by a man, and he would arrive with a rack of clothing, and they would choose from it. And another person would arrive and he would sell stuffed toys, dolls and things like that, fluffy toys from Disneyland that they’d put on their bed. And the women would laugh and giggle over that. And there was an aquarium with some fish that they like to feed. Only two of them had been out of the brothel to Cabramatta, a suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, and they were sending money to their families.
At that age, I was not very aware of what took place around me. I wondered why the women who were basically living 6-7 days a week in a brothel while earning thousands of dollars a week weren’t having holidays. Why had some been there for 7 years and never been home to see their famillies? I assumed they had the money and had earned enough to retire comfortably and support their parents- so why were they still there? I hadn’t heard of debt-bondage–what the Scarlet Alliance insist is incredibly rare. And also equate to a HECs fee, you know, where the government funds education and you pay it off? Yes, they equate debt-bondage to a HECs fee!
Even when I was older and in prostitution, nobody around me called themselves a pimp or a traficker. Why would they?
S : So it’s likely that these women were traficked?
SW : Yes, and this Chinese guy who operated this brothel in New South Wales, he had this huge dog, -and he tried to fix the dog on me once. He said « this dog will kill you if you bother me», he was half-laughing but he set the dog on me to prove that it would. And this dog didn’t want to kill me, I was already friends with the dog- and the guy was really angry with me after that. And I left, I was kicked out.
S : The Scarlet Alliance (the Australian « sex workers union » ) insist they are opposed to underage prostitution. However when there are police raids on brothels (on Eros Centers in Germany for instance), it’s very rare that underage prostitutes are not discovered. Did you notice any underage prostitutes in the brothels where you worked?
SW : No, I didn’t see them to know about them. I worked in legal and decriminalized brothels, and the women working in these places don’t have full access to the brothels. In Victoria, there was one legal brothel and there are 2-4 illegal brothels ; I didn’t have access to these brothels. I got to go home at the end of my shifts.
I am sure that the women from Asia who were in New South Wales were trafficked, and that some were probably underage but obviously, they don’t let us know that. They don’t let the legal workers know if the others are illegal And it’s not possible to know the age of anyone you work with for sure. Given that these women probably had family at home who would be put in danger if they were to expose the pimps, they were stuck there.
S : Can you tell us about the Scarlet Alliance ? You say they offer no help to exiting prostitutes and are well liked by brothel managers. However, they present themselves as a « sex workers union ». What are they exactly ?
SW : I remember meeting people from the Scarlet Alliance only when I came out against it. When I was in prostitution, they didn’t help me at all.
S : Do they really do nothing at all for prostitutes ? Don’t they at least hand out hot coffee and condoms ?
SW : They are supposed to be a support group for prostitutes, so yes, they will provide condoms and things like that. And they get government funding for that in Australia. What they also say is that they are like a union. Although there are lots of corrupt unions, I never heard of a union that works to reduce the safety of the workers but the Scarlet Alliance is opposed to mandatory STD tests for the prostituted and johns. One of the few things I agree with them on is that health checks shouldn’t be mandatory for the prostituted. But where they disagree with me is that I think all the johns should be registered, have mandatory tests for STDs. I think they should wear labels and be listed in back-pages of newspapers, with their names in full! The Scarlet alliance opposes these restrictions, they oppose mandatory testing. And if you want to leave prostitution, they turn on you and you become the enemy. If you go to the Scarlet Alliance and tell them « I don’t want to be a prostitute anymore, help me get out », they will villify you, and they will make your life hell—like they have done to me. At least, they are trying to do that to me.
You might think it’s a sweeping statement to say : « they are all pimps », but the reality is that the majority of them are in management positions. They say things like « I’m a current sex worker », and people don’t want to call them out on that because it sounds rude to ask if it is true. These so-called « sex worker unions » globally call themselves things like « Current sex workers » and project managers for « migrant sex workers ». If there anything more revolting than that? They are in management and « work » with trafficked women is what that means. They don’t help them get out of the sex-trade because they deny sex trafficking exists in general.
They have been given a voice on the round table of the National Anti-Traficking Plan of Australia—where they say that sex traficking does not exist ! And they call any person traficked for sex a « sex worker » or a « migrant ». We have a huge refugee crisis here, people need admission and housing and we have a hostile government who is not willing to admit vulnerable people in the country. But the Scarlet Alliance uses this opportunity to get more people inside. Of course most of us want to help the refugees, but when the Scarlet Alliance say they want to help the refugees, they just want to get more women in Australia —and then they are going : « great, we can look like we are Left wing and humanitarian » . They oppose penalties for anyone knowingly buying or selling a trafficked human being. I mean really people, get a clue!
We just had a prostituted woman who was released after being locked in a cupboard for months, she could barely breathe, she was in Victoria where prostitution is legal. And when a lot of women come here, they think they come on students’ visa, but when they arrive, they are put in decriminalized brothels in New South Wales. They think they come here to learn English, but these desperate women are deceived and brought here to join the ranks of « migrant sex workers ». These Scarlet Alliance people are so awful and vile, there are no words to convey how awful they are.
The government give them money, it’s supposed to be for condoms, and for sexual health check ups for us, and things like that, but in reality, they don’t give anybody who wants to leave that. All they do is take the money to spread the idea that trafficked people are « migrant sex workers ». If you were in a country illegally, and know that your family back home will be murdered as well, what would you do? Stay and keep your mouth shut. The Scarlet Alliance take this money from the government and donations, but if you want to leave prostitution, they will turn on people like me.
Just last month, I was asked to speak at a University. I live at least 500 kilometers away from the city and I have agoraphobia, so I hate leaving my home. But I agreed to go, because I am happy to do this work, and I will always do this work. But to go up and having to debate against the Scarlet Alliance who called themselves « sex workers » when they are not even selling themselves but only selling other people, that really upsets me.
I was on Al Jazeera the other day and I won’t ever do that again…
S : Yes I have heard about that, people who watched this debate said it looked like a set up…
SW : Yes, it was a set up, that’s why I won’t ever do that again. The people of this show, they told me there would be another person with me. So they asked me : « Who would you like to be on with you to support you ? ». So I gave the name of a person, and they said yes. And when we got to recording, they had me on my own. Also they had a convicted pimp against me in the debate, and they allowed her to call herself a working prostitute. She is a pimp, she is not a working prostitute. They afforded this respect to what she said because she was introduced as a prostitute—but it’s a lie ! They accepted her calling herself a prostitute but she had a conviction for pimping. She has been arrested for money laundering, she has had a restraining order against her for harassing exiting prostituted women … It was two against me, an Amnesty International policy advisor and a convicted pimp who agreed with Amnesty International. I think that says a lot about the policy no?
S : Very often, these debates about prostitution are rigged to work in favor of the sex industry.
SW : Yes, the media will set these things up all the time. You can tell them you are a trauma survivor, and that you have PTSD and they will still treat you like this.
I am thinking of my first nation sisters who are worse off than me. When I was in prostitution, I got treated like s…t but no one is treated worse than women of colour. Johns are often fetishists. I was raised in a pretty middle class family, I had a family to fall back on, I wasn’t stolen from my family. Even if I am living in poverty now, my internet is going to run out, and I can’t afford my next line of credit, that kind of thing. And I was in the best side of the industry, the decriminalized, glamourized sex industry. And even if people in my life died and terrible things happened to me, ultimately, I am a lucky one even if I have PTSD and hardly live a normal life.
Can you imagine being a woman living in a poorer country, or being in the poorest of the poor demographic even in a wealthy country like Australia, can you imagine what Amnesty International’s policy does to these women when they decriminalize pimping and buying sex ? When they say that sex is a human right and that pimps have a right to sell poor women to johns ? Section 13 of Amnesty International policy says « countries and States still have the right to restrict the sale of sexual services » ; it means that Amnesty will support countries that criminalize women selling sex while they unequivocally support the pimping and buying of women. How can they do that and say it’s about our rights ? How can they do that—decriminalizing pimping and buying sex, and say that States still have the right to legislate to criminalize prostitutes ? Women the world over are going to be f…d over by this policy, it’s a free for all. I am the lucky one to have exited before that.
S : You just mentioned that you had to debate with a woman who says she is a sex worker but in reality is a pimp. I wanted to ask you about the place of women in the sex industry. Did you come across female pimps when you were in prostitution ? Are there any difference between female and male pimps when it comes to dealing with prostituted women ?
SW : I worked with a female pimp and a male pimp, and there was no difference. Except that the woman was nastier—and I really don’t want to have to say that. When I worked in a legal brothel, the guy was more tolerant about us using drugs, he was nicer and more flexible. The woman working as pimp was awful to us because she was a woman in a man’s world, and she had to prove herself so she was nastier. I hate to answer this question like that !
S : You are just stating the truth…. When they work in a male environment, women have to be tougher than men.
SW : This is common knowledge, and anyway, it’s just my personal experience.
S : Who can become a brothel manager in Australia ? What are the conditions to open a brothel (purchasing a licence, city hall regulations, inspections etc) ? Is there any vetting or background check ?
SW : It’s different according to the place : in Victoria, it’s legalised prostitution, in New South Wales, it’s decriminalized prostitution. In New South Wales, almost anyone can get a license, no background checks for anyone or if there are, they are minimal. Also you can get a licence and just pass it on to somebody else anytime, no checking. Victoria is more heavily regulated, which causes a bit more trouble for the pimps. Obviously, when I was in the industry, I was not really looking into how to open a brothel. Can I just send you the documentation about the actual legal stuff ?
S : Of course !
SW : I do know that in New South Wales, the regulation is so slight. Also they are doing investigations into brothels in New South Wales right now, and it’s a hot point of politics. At the moment, they are doing an inquiry, and all the pimps and the sex industry are trying to get the decriminalizing model picked, because it’s so easy to hide trafficking and the brothels can up and move on very quickly if the pimps know they are going to be targeted.
The reason there is an inquiry going on is because the police was getting so concerned about how bad prostitution has become in New South Wales. The pimps think there is too much regulation in the legalized system, what they want is full decriminalization, they say it is for the safety of the prostituted, but of course it is for the safety of the pimps and johns.
S : You mentioned that a number of your johns were politicians, star athletes etc What are the relationships between the police, the politicians and the brothels ?
SW : I recognize them now from watching television : when I was in prostitution, it was like : « Oh my God , we have royalty, star athletes ! » . I had to massage people like that, and they were difficult, demanding, it was physically hard work : I weight 49 kilos and I had to massage and service someone who weighed 120 kilos of muscles. Then I’d get politicians, and they’d want me to act like a little girl, they wanted the « little girl experience ». Well, I was a little girl when I was in prostitution. And you get these other guys who want you to slap them, because they don’t want to be in power, you have to give them the feeling that you are in power. And then you have the people from the brothel who tell you : « you get involved with a client, we are going to kick you to the curb ! ». And that was quite frightening because many johns wanted to get involved with us : they offered to set us up in an apartment : « I’ll give you a flat, I’ll pay for it, you just live there and you only have to see me once a week ». These men were really revolting and the majority of us knew we would lose our jobs if we accepted their offers—because you can’t trust these men. Also we knew that if we accepted their offer, we’d have to be there and have sex with them any time they wanted. As for the police, what about the police? If prostitution is full legal or fully decriminalized, what can they do? I’m certainly not a fan of laws, or the police who enact them, where women are treated like criminals for selling sex. That’s why I want the Nordic Model.
S : Can you tell us about your work in favor of the Nordic model in Australia ?
SW : I work with NORMAC, the Nordic Model in Australia Coaltion. I recently became director but it was founded by two incredible people and we are growing in supporter numbers. We’re a secular organisation focused on education about the Nordic Model and work with various other groups and individuals to this end. Until recently, (about 2 years ago), I had never heard of them and the only reason I got to meet them is that, last year, I came out as a survivor and I was with other survivors and allies fighting against the Amnesty International drafted policy.
I said to myself : « I am going to leave my home and I am going to go up to my Amnesty State Branch in Australia, and I am going to protest because I think this policy was drafted by pimps—and I was not the only one who got that. Women were taking them on globally! We still are at this stage. And sisters survivors on the other side of Australia said « yes, we’re all doing it too! We are all working on it » So I ended up meeting with NORMAC Melbourne, at the Amnesty International National Annual General meeting (NAGM).
As for the Nordic Model itself, I was really thrilled to find that there was an alternative to « harm minimization ». Because « harm minimization » or full decriminalization just ends up in expansion of the sex-trade, economic strife for the prostituted and expanded trafficking.
If I thought full decriminalization worked, I’d be all for it. If I thought making it completely illegal worked, I’d be all for it. But neither of these models work. We need the prostituted to be fully decriminalized, and the pimps and johns to face penalisation. We need a a huge injection of funds for the prostituted to get out. And not just half-way houses (which are thin on the ground in any case) but decent places to live, health care, child-care, long term funding. This may irritate the vocal minority (and they are the minority) who say they « choose sex work », but I care about the majority for whom there is no viable choice.
And I’ll be damned if I ever think men have a right to buy other people for sex. Yes, even disabled men. Sex is not a human right, but being free from sexual abuse is. »
Opening a brothel in New South Wales http://www.crikey.com.au/2008/03/10/any-tom-dick-or-harry-can-own-a-nsw-brothel/
This interview will be published in French next week/Version française la semaine prochaine.