Often prostitutes, or working girls, are portrayed as either drug addicted run-aways or glamorous high-class call girls.
The gritty truth of the sex industry is generally somewhere in between.
When I approached my friendly neighbourhood brothel, I was fairly sure that I would never set foot in the place. Instead, when I made clear my motives, they welcomed me.
Danika* says she has aged ten years in the last five years, and looking at her now, I see a woman who looks exhausted. Her skin is sallow with bags under her eyes and her hair needs a wash.
She’s just had a 9-hour shift and been with the same young guy for much of that time.
"It’s nice when it’s a long call, because much of the time is spent hanging out, chatting and drinking rather than having back to back sex with clients trying to get bang for their buck," she says.
A 12-hour shift with a lot of clients can take its toll.
For working girls, sore bits are just an occupational hazard, amongst many other health risks. Guys will try to get the girls to do natural – no condom - French (oral) or sex.
Obviously, the girls’ sexual health is their biggest concern; their kit is their moneymaker.
Danika has a few regulars, one of whom she’s been seeing every couple of weeks for three years.
Do you ever get attached?
"Yeah, I do, you can’t help it. Sex is an intimate thing. Some of the guys get crazy about you but it would never go anywhere. It can’t."
I guess the Pretty Woman idyll does not live here.
Danika is a 39-year-old, single mum of three who lives with her parents and her elderly grandmother. After a string of bad relationships, when she found herself in a dire financial struggle, she decided she would try prostitution.
Does it ever get to you?
"Mentally, I’m pretty tough. Things just roll off my back. I’ve seen wackos, but they don’t bother me. I don’t like the paedophile guys. Guys come in and want you to act like you’re 12 or 13. I won’t do that. I won’t play under 16. I don’t do lesbian either."
The girls are never required to do anything they don’t want to. If someone requests something out of the ordinary, like anal or BDSM, they just opt out if they’re not into it. For the most part, it’s all fairly meat and potatoes.
Danika’s mother found her out when an embittered ex-boyfriend called and left a message on her machine. Danika couldn’t lie to her mother, so the cat-house cat was out of the bag. Her mother keeps her secret and is very supportive, looking after her children while she works, sometimes days at a time without returning home.
"The rest of my family think I'm a receptionist in a hotel."Danika and I are lying on a bed, shooting the breeze like two teenagers on a sleepover, except there is a spa bath in the corner of the room and a TV playing porn above our heads. I try not to look at the TV but my eyes kept drawing towards it. It’s surreal trying to conduct an interview with bouncing arses and boobs in your peripheral vision.
Holly* is a tiny little slip of a woman. Glittery eye shadow and red lips adorn her face, and she’s wearing a little black dress. She won't divulge how old she is but I'd guess late forties or maybe her life has just been tough.
Holly lives at the brothel and she warmly invites me into her room that fits barely more than a double bed and a dressing table (and her new up-cycled shoe rack, of which she’s extremely proud).
All the rooms have large mirrors adorning one wall and on Holly’s there are song lyrics emblazoned.
Sunshine. Good times. Moonlight. Boogie.
Shine bright like a diamond.
It seems fairly common to come and go from the industry, but lure seems to bring the ladies back time and time. The girls kept saying the job was addictive.
I would have guessed they meant the money, but on closer consideration, the job creates a sense of loneliness and segregation from the real world. Conversely, the job also quenches that feeling because behind those walls there are no secrets.
Everyone knows that they are selling sex and there is no subterfuge.
"I like the industry," says Holly, "I like the atmosphere. I like the activity. Even on my nights off I like to hear the activity. It makes me feel as though I’m not alone."
Are you lonely?
"I’m so lonely."
Usually the girls will stop working when they have a relationship, but Holly is currently madly in love with a man who has no idea what she does for a living.
"We’re talking about our future together so to spare his feelings I need to tell a little white lie. It’s not as if I’m cheating on him, because this is work. I’m only acting. I’m effectively an actress."
He believes she’s a live-in nanny and they see each other only on the weekends. I think she realises it’s more than a white lie, but the fear of his judgement and retribution seems too great a risk.
This is a very real fear for all of the girls, but Holly has already felt the brunt of this when she lost her entire family, including her three children, after being found out.
She no longer has any contact with her children, but she hopes one day they will find her and look beyond the odium attached to her profession and reach out to her once more.
"You get to know who you can tell and who you can’t. There’s a stigma attached to the industry. On TV you see streetwalkers, drug-addicted streetwalkers. People don’t realise how clean and beautiful the women are in these houses. I’ve worked with nurses and business owners."
Are you happy?
"I’m content. It’s what it is. The Universe has given me this job for a reason."
What do you want to be when you grow up?
Holly tells me that it doesn’t take long to become desensitised and tough. That’s how you get through.
Holly began in the industry after falling into a large hole of debt. Her day job as a bed sales girl wasn’t cutting it.
"It seemed a natural progression," she laughed, "from selling beds to f__king in them."
I asked the girls about the money. Obviously amounts vary from girl to girl and brothel to brothel, but an average weekly income after the house takes its split is about $2500.
In theory, they would only need to work a few months at a time and take time off, or save enough to do something big with, but the girls I spoke with all seem to have money issues.
Young Sasha admitted that in the last three months she’s been gambling much of it away. In one sitting she’ll blow her entire night’s wage on a poker machine.
Sasha started working in massage, or Rub and Tug, as it’s known colloquially, when she was only 20. She was on an apprentice wage and wanted extra cash.
She said until she started working in the sex industry she had no confidence with men and hated getting undressed in front of them.
Sasha’s bold and brash sense of humour is worn like a coat of armour. I felt as though she deflected much of her feelings by being coarse or crass, particularly with her clients. In fact, she attributes often getting the client in the first place with her overtly bolshie and sexual approach.
She’s outrageous in her approach. Often in the ‘Intro’ (where the client comes in to view the girls before making his choice), she’ll be a clown, albeit a sexual one.
She’ll parody thrusting and masturbating, take the piss out of them. She initially assumed that guys would go for the prettier or the slimmer girls, but the more often she was chosen, the greater her confidence in her sex appeal grew.
In the precursory sexual health check she will inspect a client for obvious lesions whilst making a man stand on one leg.
"By the time he realiwes I’m taking the piss, the ice is broken and he relaxes. I also hate getting on top. I have no rhythm. None. I’ll tell them I have a knee injury so they have to do the work. I’m the laziest hooker you’ll ever meet," she laughs.
When she went for an intro during our interview she suggested I come in to the room with her if she was picked.
"I don’t care. I’d do it. I reckon a guy would be up for it. You wanna?"
I admit I considered it briefly, but I had to draw the line on this story somewhere… besides, I wouldn’t know where to look.
Whilst not hard work, like building the Burma railway or breaking rocks with a pick axe, it is still quite physically gruelling in it’s own way. The 12-hour overnight shifts are difficult to stay awake on, and not all clients are created equal.
Some are nice, some are not.
I asked Danika if they were shown respect by their clients, and she replied that 90% were lovely, normal guys. Now and then someone will want to talk rough or dirty to her.
"You’re a slut, they’ll often say... No, I’m not, I’m a whore," Danika laughs with her gravelly tone. "You’re paying me."
The consensus between the girls is that married guys are the worst. On a recent outcall, one of the girls walked into the lounge in a family home that was strewn with kids’ toys and the walls were plastered with family photos. His wife and kids were away and he got a hooker to come to the house.
Many guys are shown tenderness, especially the broken-hearted ones, or widows, but married men are judged harshly.
Although house rules stipulate that there is to be no drug use on the premises, there is most certainly a little underground scene, with one of my girls admitting she had actually had ice, or crystal meth, that afternoon.
I figured that the industry and the drug scene were quite tightly enmeshed so when I spoke to management before the interviews I asked them how they handled it if they saw one of their girls going down, either physically or emotionally.
"Oh, we see it. If it seems like they need counselling we help them get it, and if they need to clean up, we help them with that too. We take them to rehab or support them while they get clean. We’re a family and we need to look after our own."
I only met three working girls out of thousands across the world. I imagine that motives vary but the main reason is it seems like easy money.
Although the stories of how my girls came to the industry are vastly different, I feel that the industry has shaped them all similarly. Cynicism and mistrust are rife.
They all admit that they have not been treated well by guys in the past, and this profession does not leave them with a trust for the hairier sex.
I got in my car to go home, and I was thankful to be heading to my bed and not staying for an all-nighter with the girls. I’m grateful to them for letting me in, just a little bit, to their lives, and I know that each woman I spoke with is just a woman doing her best to get by, regardless of how society may view her.
Danielle Colley is a writer, blogger and mum. She is a regular contributor to The Weekly and other online and print publications.
You can see more of Danielle on her blog, Keeping Up With The Holsbys, or her Facebook page facebook.com/keepingupwiththeholsbys.