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"What I learned about love from working in a brothel."

The manager told me working in the sex industry means being let in on the secrets of the male mind…

There is no supply without demand.

And many documentaries ask why women sell sex, but … why do men pay for it? What exactly are they paying for?

I worked two months as a brothel receptionist to find out.

“Surely it’s obvious” – that’s the first answer I always got – ’They’re paying for sex.’ Men are beasts, animals. Alright, alright, we’re all animals. But men like sex in a way women don’t… the proof is the hundreds (probably thousands to be honest) of men paying for sex in Australia every day.

working in a brothel
“Men are beasts, animals. Alright, alright, we’re all animals. But men like sex in a way women don’t… “

I’ve grown up in an era of casual relationships, ‘friends-with-benefits’ and Tinder, but I guess I never quite escaped the idea that sex should happen within a loving, committed relationship. Sure, sex can be ‘just sex’… but why do casual relationships always seem to have an end date? They reach a point when things are not so casual anymore. That proves sex can’t really be ‘just sex’. Confused? Maybe I was.

Anyway, the brothel that agreed to have me work and film is big. It’s in the centre of Melbourne’s club district and can have up to 25 women on duty on a Friday night. I knew it would be confronting and interesting, but did not expect the brothel to unsettle my belief in love.

Victoria, the manager, said working in the sex industry means being let in on the secrets of the male mind, and that I would never look at men the same way again. Men, she said, see sex and love as two separate but related things – like third cousins who get along really well when they catch up, but actually live in different cities. Men compartmentalise while in a woman’s head everything including love and sex is all connected by a long, twist-y string.

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As I clocked in for my 8pm – 8am shift I spoke with women getting dressed up to start work, or men who’d wandered in after knock off drinks. They told me that in a brothel men and women tell it like it really is, underneath all the romance and heartbreak and lust. Relationships are transactions; men trade love for sex, and women trade sex for love. In the brothel they’d just replaced love with money, and things were cleaner and simpler as a result. It was a sobering thought, I considered my past relationships and had to admit that perhaps they were right. Maybe. Sometimes….

Sexologist Nikki Goldstein- Single But Dating:

And then I’d leave work while the birds were tweeting and dawn was breaking. I’d catch a tram to Northcote to see Nick as he woke up, the guy I’d just started dating.

I did not expect to find a boy while filming in Melbourne for two months. We met through an old friend, Mel. Nick was her new housemate so Nick and I we were introduced over pizza. I was tired and a bit rude, he asked Mel for my number.

Because working nights in a brothel and making a film for television means you are very busy (and jacked up on coffee and sleep deprived), most days Nick would cook me dinner in my spare half hour and let me crash out in his bed. I think I was a pretty boring, workaholic type of new romance. But if I was dropping the ball, Nick was doing fine in the romance department. Once he borrowed a housemate’s car, drove into town and met me at the train station to walk me to work, only 10 minutes around a corner, because I’d slept through a date.

But I started to feel really weird… Nick listened (he also talked a lot) and he cared for me. But I felt strangely lonely. I’d gone to the brothel to understand a different point of view and bought into the idea that relationship are transactions. Because it’s true; we trade, bargain, negotiate and compromise in relationships.

I’d started measuring how much time, affection and money I got and how much I gave. According to the rules of the brothel – I was ‘giving’ sex, but was I ‘getting’ enough love back?

So I decided to interviewed Nick for the documentary… (I admit not the traditional way of addressing personal issues in a relationship). Nick was was frank in his beliefs. Basically he said ’the whole world is not a brothel’, and I thought ‘this guy is pretty alright’.

What I’d learnt in the brothel is not untrue – but it’s not the whole truth.

I mean, it’s silly to say men give love for sex and women give sex for love. Because if women are only ever giving sex… does that mean they never get any? That sounds pretty lame.

And, despite Nick’s opinion, I started to hear a different, deeper story from the men and women at the brothel anyway. As the weeks went by, things got complicated.

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working in a brothel
“Ultimately, underneath it all, it seemed the men were paying to feel a connection with another human being, they were paying to feel special.”

Sure – sometimes it was just plain old sex that the customer wanted. But there was also the man who had fallen in love with his sex worker. And the young accountant who’d just been dumped by his girlfriend. I met a single man who claimed he didn’t want love because it was too irrational, so he’d switch sex workers regularly to avoid falling for them. And I heard sex workers confess that they didn’t realize at the start that they were signing up to be an unqualified social worker. Ultimately, underneath it all, it seemed the men were paying to feel a connection with another human being, they were paying to feel special.

Perhaps sex is often a means to an end, like drinking a coffee for the caffeine hit. Coffee can be milky and sweet, but it’s the caffeine (the intimacy) that keeps you coming back.

It’s a natural human desire. Sex work is not creating a need that didn’t exist (like coffee is… baristas are basically drug dealers, right?) it’s servicing something humans have always wanted.

But the world is not a brothel, the brothel is a stop gap – a place where people can get a performance of intimacy for a price… or, as some argue, the real thing just within a limited time frame.

It’s a business. Not to be looked to as a guide for one’s love life.

Maddie Parry: Brothel Hostess to discover what exactly men are buying when they pay for ‘sex’.  Aired on ABC2 Wed 16 Dec. Catch up on  iView www.abc.net.au/iview

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