Each Friday, Roads & Kingdoms and Slate publish a new dispatch from around the globe. For more foreign correspondence mixed with food, war, travel, and photography, visit their online magazine or follow @roadskingdoms on Twitter.
PERTH, Australia—“What kind of girl would you like? Narrow it down for me. … Yeah, I’ve got a nice blonde. Young, size 8, double D. You won’t be disappointed.”
It is 2 a.m. on a Sunday in the back room of Langtrees, the best-known brothel on Australia’s west coast. Lana, the mumsy phone operator, places down the handset and puts on her specs to peer at her computer. She points to a profile photograph showing only an enormous pair of breasts. “Bridgette Blue. She’s 23.” She pauses and raises her eyebrows. “Natural.”
Bridgette is soon at the door. She wears gold sparkly stilettos, red lipstick, and thick foundation disguising poor skin. Her brown eyebrows are painted on, and her long, blond, Barbie-doll hair is curled and slung to one side. For 495 Australian dollars (about $400) per hour, Bridgette will come to your home or hotel for sex.
Outside, in the brothel lounge, about 17 other women—mostly Australian but also Asian, African, and European—bide their time waiting to be summoned for house calls or clients who walk in off the street. They gossip on glittery sofas and munch on chocolate bars from the snack machine under queasy, harsh lighting. The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” blares on the sound system.
Perth—one of the most remote cities on Earth—has gotten fat off the back of Australia’s decade-long mining boom. In years past, this city of 1.9 million people was a backwater, albeit one with long, sandy beaches and endless days of sunshine. Now, as residents have become richer, gleaming skyscrapers have sprung up in the business district alongside hip cocktail bars and swanky restaurants.
But there’s a darker side to the upswing.
Contractors often fly into Western Australia from homes elsewhere for fast cash. They work for weeks at a time offshore or in isolated mines. Because they have scant chance of finding a relationship if single, or find themselves far away from their wives and families if married, many turn to sex workers for intimacy. As one working girl says, “They’re young, they’re dumb, they’ve got lots of money, and there is no shame in going to a brothel.”
Here, local newspapers are chockablock with classifieds ads for sex workers. Some charge as little as $40 an hour, often utilizing the back seats of their cars (or stretch limos). Langtrees, one of the oldest and most expensive establishments, is more upmarket. It is located a few minutes’ drive from Crown Perth, a vast Las Vegas–style entertainment complex consisting of a 24-hour casino, plush international hotels, a nightclub, and numerous restaurants and bars.
With its discreet door hidden down a dark side street, Langtrees is a different sort of nightlife institution. But men also come here willing to splash serious cash. Of the $400 hourly rate, half goes straight to the brothel, and half is put in an envelope for the client to give directly to the woman. “Extras” cost more. Grubby laminated menus scattered on low bar tables list the prices for kissing, anal, and oral sex (from $50 a pop).
On this steamy summer night, a plump man in glasses loiters shyly near the reception. Seeing his resolve waver, the madam quickly whisks him away to introduce to a woman A group of intoxicated Irish men from the nearby casino sway near the pool table, slurping beer. Later, two men in their early 20s—both good-looking, one with a mane of trendy dreadlocks—are introduced to a gaggle of women. “What’s your name, sorry?” Mr. Dreadlock asks politely. “Nice to meet you, I’m Christian.”
Langtrees, which has branches across Australia, prides itself on its lounge atmosphere. Women in skimpy clothes and sky-high heels still do lineups for clients to take their pick. They all have profiles online with vital statistics listed: age, bust size, hair color, and height. (Some show their faces; some don’t.) But more often, men come in with their mates, have a drink, play some pool, and chat with the women before heading upstairs. “It’s the whole experience,” Sue, the madam in charge, notes. “It’s not just a ‘wham bam thank you ma’am.’ [The bar and lounge] gives the guys the opportunity to relax.”
Relax, maybe. But when it comes down to business, things quickly become more regulated. Private rooms with names such as Double Delight and Golden Dreams are decked out with gaudy murals of sex acts and cheap sheets. Once the door is closed, the woman will ask the man to shower. Only after she has inspected him for genital warts, suspicious discharge, and rashes (if needed she will call downstairs for a second opinion) will the session start.
In Western Australia, the sex-work industry operates in a gray zone: Prostitution is not illegal, but activities associated with it, such as brothels and pimping, are. (In some other states, it is legal.) For years, however, authorities have turned a blind eye to places like Langtrees. And, like the miners, sex workers have flocked to Perth from homes elsewhere—sometimes traveling from as far afield as Europe or South America—for the high demand and wages. Known as “fly-in, fly-out” women, they spend intense stretches living, working, and eating in the brothel. Many rent a bunk bed and locker for a small fee in addition to paying the $50 per night to work the floor: Essentially they are renting the Langtrees brand.
The money makes it worth it. Working nine-hour shifts, women can expect to earn over $7,000 per week. The top women might double that. “There is no politics, no bitching. They are here to work, to do their job,” Sue says. “They are looking for that golden ticket.”
“Eliza Champagne,” a brunette whose hair is tied back primly with a clip and whose girl-next-door looks are at odds with her too-tight leopard-print skirt, plops herself on the sofa with an instant coffee. Eliza, 25, divides her time between shifts at the hospital where she works as a nurse and escorting. (As an avid competitive horsewoman, she is also about to launch her own equestrian sportswear company.) While she comes from a middle-class family—her father is high up in government—she is fiercely independent. “I can’t stand people giving me money,” she insists.
Now she has no need to. When she was only 18, on her first ever escort job, Eliza made a cool $4,500. Bubbly, fun, and bright, she lives in Perth with her partner, who works in the mining industry, but keeps her sideline income hidden from him, as well as friends and family. “No one knows that I do it. The job is taboo as such—it’s not something to be proud of to say you sleep with X amount of men a day. That annoys me because it is purely just a job.” (“I just sneak off and my friends think I’m skiing,” a fellow sex worker, a university student named Ruby chimes in).
Eliza recently told her male best friend what she did, and the first thing he asked was, “ ‘Where do you stand?’ He thought I was a street walker!” she laughs, incredulous. “I only have sex around 50 percent of my bookings. I’m more of a girlfriend experience. I’m not a porn star. I don’t do screaming and anal. I have a fake name when I work but I offer the real me—[men] appreciate the realness because real women turn them on.”
Langtrees offers everything from the lithe, striking Caribbean 19-year-old “Diamond” to the peroxide-blond, fortysomething Russian single mom Alina. Often men ring up asking for a MILF (“Mum I’d Like to Fuck”) or a cougar. Two of the women working the floor are professionally trained as dominatrices, and the brothel has a separate swingers’ lounge for orgies, replete with glass windows where curtains can be drawn or opened for ogling. Drawing blood from whipping or other bondage is banned.
Brothels are an arena to act out fantasies. One of Langtrees’ most popular ever sex workers was Sasha, a kittenish preoperative male-to-female transgender woman with a small waist and voluptuous breasts. Sasha looked all-woman but had a penis intact. Clients would ring in advance then be ushered through the back door so as not to be seen—or judged—by the other men. Sue observes: “It was definitely guys over 30, not younger. Younger men are still dealing with their own sexuality.”
In the bunk room, Alina, the Russian, is taking a break. She adjusts her ponytail and pink body-con dress and takes a bite of her Big Mac. “The stigma that we are all alcoholics and drug addicts and we all have pimp boyfriends is not true,” she says in a strong accent.
Alina used to work in retail, earning just $20 an hour at the Christian Dior store. But when her partner left her to bring up their small son alone, she struggled and was forced to go on the dole: “I felt like a beggar.” Now things are different: She goes on holidays, buys luxury goods, and, when she’s not away at Langtrees, spends quality family time at home in Sydney.
“I’ll grab that handbag. I deserve it,” she states, wiping sauce from her mouth. “I have got a Louis Vuitton bag and I have Louboutin shoes. My baby can have everything.” This comes with sacrifices: Alina recalls once being pinned down by a man high on drugs, and just out of jail, who tried to force her to have sex without a condom. “It was rape,” she says matter-of-factly. It hasn’t put her off. “You go home with a grand in your hand and you have a good night. Why not?”
Not everyone agrees. “The worst things are the secrecy and the late nights. You’ll be here until 9 in the morning sometimes,” says Laticia, 27, one of the two dominatrices. She adds: “Older guys are more respectful. Younger guys just think that they shouldn’t have to pay. They think they should just get it for free. One guy [at a house call] said, ‘Can we be quick because my wife is coming back from the shops?’ Some men have no boundaries.”
At times, when men have gotten too pushy, Laticia has felt abandoned by the law. She shrugs: “The police, as soon as they find out you’re a working girl, they don’t care. They figure that it’s your fault for getting only that industry.” None of the women claims to have experienced violence at Langtrees, and the brothel will hire only women who are legally allowed to work in the country.
But rape, sex trafficking, and physical safety, especially regarding sexually transmitted diseases, are all concerns in the industry. Fierce competition—and resulting loss of morale—can also take its toll. When Sasha, the transsexual, started to gain popularity, the other women became jealous. Some started to tell groups of their male clients that she wasn’t a “real” woman. Management, afraid that Sasha might become subject to a hate crime, suggested that it might be better for her to leave.
Sue adjusts the security cameras to check that everything is in order, draws on a cigarette, and slumps into her chair at the desk in her office. The middle-aged madam—she has four children—wears black-framed square glasses and a gray T-shirt. She is tough but kind. Sue calls the women “sweetheart” and listens to their problems. On this evening one has to leave early to bathe in Epsom salts; too much sex has left her smarting. Sue understands: In the past she also worked the floor at Langtrees. “My husband and I really wanted to get ahead,” she says.
Safety and welfare are top priorities. The women are trained on techniques including how to hold on to the condom (“brothel rats” are despised for trying to wriggle out of them) and how to tease a guy so “that you’re not getting bonked for the full hour. How to use lube, how to wash yourself,” Sue says, emphasizing the point. “There is a lot involved—why you don’t let guys twist your nipples like you’re a radio station that needs tuning? You’re going to get sore, you’re going to get chafing.”
Sue sees sex, at $400 per hour, as an “art”: She gives the women respect and in return expects them to perform. (Men can review them online on popular forums.) Yet problems persist. Toilets are decked with fluorescent blue lights to flush out drugs—the brothel has a zero-tolerance policy (“I saw ice and what it did to one girl—she went from beautiful to this horrible scrawny woman. So sad,” she sighs). Sue insists the women have the last word: “I always say to the girls, the first time you say to the gentleman, ‘Honey I don’t like that. No.’ The second time you sit up and say, ‘I said no, if you do it again, end of booking.’ Third time you put on a towel, walk out, and give them the envelope back. When a lady says ‘no,’ that’s it. [The men] generally behave. Once guys are naked, they’re vulnerable."
“Langtrees is good—we see a lot of success but we also see a lot of failure,” she acknowledges. “I lost a really good friend to suicide. It all was too much for her. She hung herself in a Perth Park.”
Then Sue stops. She adds: “Today a 36-year-old woman came in to ask about work. Even though she was 36, we still sent her away to think about it. We always send them away. It’s very important. Because, you know, each time they are sleeping with someone, they are selling part of their soul.”
Some names have been changed to protect identities.