The Madame of the House

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This is a story about the time I jumped the desk to become the Madame of the house. Its about running a business in the South Australian sex industry, about who has control over who and about the myth of easy money. I wrote this for the feminists who believe our industry is dominated by male bosses that make big bucks by controlling female workers. I wrote it for every 5th client I see who has multiplied the money he spends on sex by the hours in a day and the number of rooms in a house and thinks he has hit jackpot. I wrote it for the politicians who worry about organised crime taking over the sex industry. For the wanna be bikies n thugs that fancy playing boss man to some ladies of the night, for the desperado that thinks owning the business will control the girl and for the saviours that honestly believe they would treat their ‘girls’ differently to how we are treated anywhere else. And I wrote it for the sex workers that don’t like their boss, or are sick of having a boss, or think they could do it better, or just feel like trying something different.

This story is from many years ago, sometime after my second brush with law and before my forced break from the sex industry. I was between jobs when a friend of a friend introduced me to Neil who apparently had an interesting proposition for me. I had heard about Neil the wanna be pimp before. I use the word pimp flippantly, I’m not sure Australia has pimps, but if we do, Neil would probably LIKE to be one. He definitely had the sleaze factor to fit the stereotype but lacked the backbone. Neil had a reputation in the industry as a slimy sucker, with more money than sense and a boner for big talking. Needless to say I was curious about his proposal, but wasn’t surprised when he told me he was having another go at opening a brothel. I say another go because, as legend had it, he had tried to open a number of brothels in the past and had failed.

One of the difficulties Neil had always encountered was that he was a man. There is not much of a role for a man in a South Australian brothel, other than client. A lot of female sex workers aren’t that keen on having men hanging around on premises and the cops generally aren’t that thrilled with it either. So Neil had decided he needed to pay a female manager. In addition to that, clients are generally put off if their phone calls or door bells are answered by a man, so Neil would also need to employ a female receptionist. It struck me as ironic that in order to brag about being a big brothel boss, he had to remove himself from any actual brothel bossing. He was forced to downplay his involvement in the brothel, hand over control of the brothel, stay away from the brothel, and give up a decent amount of profit from the brothel, in order for him own a brothel.

But Neil must have been impressing someone with his brothel bragging because he was determined to try his hand at the game again. When he met me, he already had the lease on a town house in the city and had furnished it simply and adequately. He knew a few workers from other brothels who were ready to jump ship and take advantage of the new businesses honeymoon period, one of which was the friend that had introduced him to me. At the time I was in a relationship with one of those partners that made it difficult for me to do sex work, and I had been missing the industry. So when Neil asked me to manage his new business, I was excited about the opportunity to be involved in the industry in a role that I hoped my partner would find more palatable. I accepted the offer immediately.

From the beginning Neil and I disagreed about everything right down to the goofy name he had given the business. I fought for what I considered to be fair pay for all the workers of the business, I pushed for flexible conditions and I advocated for an increased budget for advertising. But Neil was stubborn or stupid and wouldn’t give. He had a bottom line that wouldn’t budge. So for those first few weeks, we did it his way. But it didn’t take long before Neil was again learning that the sex industry is not easy money and opening a brothel is not a get rich quick scheme.

Business was up and down and Neil was becoming anxious. After paying the manager a cut, the receptionist her wage, the rent, the overpriced advertising, the utilities and essential supplies for the business, Neil quickly discovered 50% of a coupla jobs a day doesn’t go far. He responded to his anxiety by reducing the advertising budget further, cutting receptionist wages and introducing ‘shift fees’ for the workers.

But it’s a vicious cycle. Without enough advertising, business became even quieter and without clients bringing in the money, the workers became unhappy. When Neil introduced the shift fee, the workers felt disrespected. Who would be happy about coming to work, sitting around all day for minimal pay with the risk being caught up in a raid AND then being forced to pay an illegal shift fee!??! They began to resent working there and those that stayed were unreliable.

Anyone who fantasises about making easy money off the backs of hookers is going to struggle. Hookers are not that easy. Many of us chose sex work for the flexibility it offers us, so we expect a flexible work place. Many of us chose it for the money we can make, so we expect to make money. Many of us chose sex work because we are good at it, so we expect to be appreciated by our employers. Neil offered his workers none of that.

But an empowered hooker is a powerful force. A hooker that knows there are ten other businesses in the vicinity that need staff (and there usually is) will not settle for anything less than what she expects. A hooker that knows its OUR service that makes the money will expect respect. And if that hooker works for a boss that disrespects her, she will disrespect them right back.

None of Neil’s workers respected him, and the business suffered because of it. One typically quiet Saturday I caught out the receptionist and worker on shift doing something dodgy. I knew they had done two jobs, but the bookwork indicated only one. They had decided to not record the second job, splitting the business’s 50% cut between them. I couldn’t blame them. They were making next to nothing and Neil’s decisions were only making it worse.

I was frustrated. I knew Neil was not meeting his target, or even covering costs, but less advertising and unhappy, unreliable and resentful workers was not helping to bring in the clients or the cash. And the expenses were still mounting.

That’s when I decided to go around him and do what needed to be done. I started taking the money from one job a day off the books and used the money to pay for more advertising. I also introduced a small retainer for the staff to cover lunch and maybe a cabfare, on those occasions when they didn’t do any jobs. And when no workers showed up to shift, I did the jobs.

At the same time Neil seemed to have an epiphany. If he wanted money he needed clients, if he wanted clients he needed workers, and if he wanted to keep the workers, he would have to loosen his rules. Since he couldn’t work himself, he was on his knees. He had no choice but to give the workers the flexibility and work conditions they were demanding. Its not unusual for sex industry employers to take advantage of the criminalised setting by attempting to control us like they would an employee but only giving us the pay and conditions of a contract worker. But in a situation where there was little money to be made, not many would accept a bad boss.

So Neil began to back off and let me take a bigger role in managing the rosters and staffing. Sneaking around behind Neils back doing jobs myself and advertising more, started to pay off and I managed to keep the business afloat a little longer. The staff appreciated the token retainer and the more flexible conditions and when I abolished the shift fee that Neil had introduced the mood shifted.

The flexible, fair and friendly work environment resulted in word of mouth reaching the workers of a brothel that had been closed down recently. It was early one quiet weekend when Winnie, an unremarkable woman in her mid 30’s came in for an interview. Looking like a proper house wife dressed in ladies floral and a perfect perm, Winnie was an unlikely looking hooker, but she bought a huge loyal and very regular client base with her. And the good fortune Winnie bought us did not stop there. She immediately sent for her two friends who she had worked with at the previous brothel. They were impressed by the guaranteed retainer our business offered and were keen to start work straight away. So at that moment, our luck had changed and business looked up. Winnie had swept in with a hoard of clients and a couple of fresh faced workers under wing and saved the day, and the business.

And so it was, that due to the decision to treat our workers well, my ability to perform ALL the duties necessary, and a little bit of good luck, business began to boom. And Neil didn’t know the half of it. His pressure was gone and he was making enough to cover his costs as well as a reasonable profit for doing nothing. He could finaly hold his head up high while he bragged round town about his latest business venture. I kept lying to him about how many jobs we were doing so I could use the extra money to continue paying the staff well, stock the business with nice things, pay for adequate advertising and offcourse I gave myself a bonus.

Everyone was happy, business was flourishing under my management, the workers were all content and making money and even Neil was satisfied. Everyone was happy except my partner. The generous pay packet I was bringing home did not sweeten the deal for them. Running any business is hard work, and clearly a sex industry business is no exception. I was on call 24/7, I was stressed about the threat of police, and I was doing lots of unrostered work relieving staff when needed. Stopping sex work and taking up this new role as manager was meant to appease my partner who was uncomfortable about sex work, but instead I had succeeded in making the sex industry a bigger part of my life than it had ever been before. My partner didn’t know about the occasions when Id provided the service myself in order to keep the doors open, but that didn’t matter. They didn’t want me involved in the industry at all.

My job was beginning to cause problems for my relationship which was probably a good thing. Looking back on this time of my life I’m glad my controlling and jealous partner made my life hell to the point I ended up walking away from the business all together. Because I nearly did something that coulda been mighta not ended well.

Neil was a shmuck. Worse than a shmuck. He was a sleazy roadblock to our success and he made me cringe. I was sick of answering to him, lying to him, even seeing him. Basically, I was sick of having him on the pay role. He was the ‘owner’ of the business, sure, but what exactly did he own? The workers? No, certainly not, most of them at this point had never even met him, and would never work for him under the conditions he wanted me to apply. Did he own the clientele? Definitely not, some clients will perhaps follow a worker from location to location, but generally clients go everywhere and belong to noone. And the clients we got came from the advertising I DID, and it was the happy skilled workers that kept them coming back. Did he own the business name? well, sure, he owned a ridiculous goofy name he chose, but that wasn’t the name that I used in our advertising, or the name that the clients had come to know, or the name that the staff and I used. The name we used, was the name I chose. Did he own premises? Well sure, he had the lease on the townhouse we operated from, but, after being there for 8 months and with a steady stream of business coming and going, it would be time to move on soon before we attracted police attention anyways. So what did he own? Some of the furniture was his, but I had also bought a lot of newer pieces for the business since we opened. And he owned the phone number.

The workers and I began talking about ditching Neil and taking complete control of his business by simply shifting the location to a new premises that was in my name. We even joked about diverting business phone to our newly connected number until Neil noticed and got round to disconnecting it.

A sex industry business, in an illegal setting, is nothing. In an environment where businesses have to move regularly, operate discreetly out of residential properties or under the masquerade of health clinics or massage parlours, a reputation or a name, an address or even a permanent phone number is not something any brothel in South Australia has. Places and faces pop up and get shut down all over town all the time, and while certain individuals may have a reputation in the industry, finding a brothel you like, is largely a case of trial and error for both sex workers and clients. So when people talk about buying a business in our industry, I always wonder what they think they are buying, and when I thought about leaving Neil and setting up shop elsewhere, I didn’t feel guilty.

I started looking for a new place to operate from and found a perfect house. It was fully furnished, in a central location and it oozed executive luxury, which was a long way from the plain and simple townhouse Neil had rented. The landlord approved my application and I was excited, nervous and determined to break away from Neil. But the night before I was due to sign the lease, my partner gave me an ultimatum. My relationship or the sex industry.

To be honest, I didn’t think too long about it. I was so sick of fighting about this, and the stress at home combined with the stress of running a business was getting too much. I allowed my partner to believe that our relationship won and the sex industry lost the competition for my loyalty. In reality, I knew I wasn’t leaving the sex industry, just leaving this role in the industry.

I suddenly realised that while there was some satisfaction and profit in successfully running my own business, it was also hard work, with big legal and financial risks. I reminisced about how easy life was when I just had to suck cocks and count cash. That night spurred on by my partner’s ultimatum, I did a 180. The next day I left the business, its workers and Neil to fend for themselves. And the next week I left my partner and went back to fending for myself.

Soon after I heard that Neil’s business had been visited by police and had been closed down. I felt a mixture of regret and relief about what was and what could have been.

Now when I reflect on the business owners and employers I have known in our industry I notice that those that have survived in the industry the longest are current or ex workers themselves, and I think that’s due to the fact that they willing and able to jump back over the desk and into the bed, in order to keep the doors open when business is tough.

The South Australian sex industry is also made up of lots of collectives of workersand private and independent workers. Having these choices easily available to us is an important aspect in ensuring we have the power to negotiate pay and conditions that suit us.

However, the fear of the police and the law does mean many workers are reluctant to work for themselves, as part of a collective or open their own business. Criminalisation does mean that many workers will not be willing to risk taking out a lease on a property in their own name and instead will opt for working anonymously for a boss. We NEED law reform urgently in this state, but any new laws we consider must support our choice to work in a variety of ways. We do not want laws like those in Victoria that favour big business and make it impossible for the average worker to try out other roles in the industry, or to work for themselves, or that stops a group of sex workers from working together. Any new laws must not take away the power we DO have. That’s one of the reasons I advocate for decriminalisation. It is the only model of law reform that protects and empowers sex workers allowing us to work for ourself, in collectives, or even to open our own small business. It’s the only model that supports our cottage industry here in SA.

But until we get decriminalisation I will continue to giggle and enjoy the stories I hear about bosses who attempt to rip off workers but end up getting ripped off themselves. Because its true that the most successful businesses are those where the workers are happy and respected.

Comments (01)

  1. It’s a shame that prostitution is illegal. I dont see why it is. No one is being harmed. Simply an unorthodox strategy that gives girls an opportunity to make decent money if they dont have any other options.

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