Sex a hard sell

By Stephen Cook

It's approaching midnight and in Auckland's Gore St there's barely a soul in sight. Inside The HQ - one of the city's newest brothels - business has slowed to a dawdle. Despite all the flesh on display, tonight the punters seem more intent on guzzling double bourbon and cokes than plucking up the courage to confront the real reason they're in this part of town.

The telephone rings and the girl behind the bar answers cheerfully: "Yes, tonight we have eight girls available." All have exotic full-of-fun names like Raven, Pandora and Isabella.

"Our youngest? Okay, yes she's a lovely leggy brunette with size... and we have a slightly older girl who won't disappoint. Yes, of course love, that's full service."

To the left of the bar, and looking just a little out of place, is owner Josh Ford. By day, the Glasgow-born Ford is an electrician, by night he sells sex with the promise of "satisfaction guaranteed, discretion assured".

As a career choice, it's a curious combo and one Ford isn't entirely comfortable with. His family in Britain know nothing of his risque new business venture in Auckland; he's not sure they would approve.

Ford is one of a new breed of brothel keeper. When the Government legalised prostitution - estimated to be an $800-million-a-year industry - in mid-2003, it legitimised a trade which until then had been regulated by ambiguity.

Before 2003, running a brothel was neither fully illegal, nor fully legal. With the legal issues resolved, prostitution could now be treated like any other lawful business.

For supporters of the reforms, the hope was the Prostitution Law Reform Act would eliminate rogue operators and take sex out of the side streets into the safer, more regulated brothel environment.

Despite the fears and false promises, the only real change has been the fact that prostitution is now more visible.

Certainly there is no evidence to suggest a rise in the number of brothels or working girls since 2003. In Auckland City there are currently 25 licensed brothels, just a handful more than in 2003. North Shore and Manukau have two each, the same number as four years ago.

Nationwide, it is estimated around 6000 girls are making a living from prostitution, a number that has also remained steady since 2003.

Money - or the need for it - is still the number one reason women choose a career in the sex industry. For many, though, the rewards come at a huge emotional cost.

Until recently, Ford had never even set foot inside a brothel. But last year he was offered the chance to become a silent partner in a new, high-end boutique brothel, or "gentlemen's retreat" as he calls it, in Gore St - part of the city's unofficial red light district.

These days, the downtown red-light area is a shadow of its former glory. In the late 1980s and early 90s - the hedonistic days when flamboyant "King of the G-string" Rainton Hastie reigned supreme - strip clubs, dimly lit massage parlours and neon lights dominated the area.

Now much of the sex and sleaze has disappeared, the area a mix of pokie bars, parlours, commercial premises and apartments.

Nevertheless, Ford believed the venture had promise. "I was told we'd be doing 50 jobs a day, $25,000 a week. The numbers sounded great," Ford said. In return for his initial investment, Ford was to receive 10 per cent of the turnover, but the deal went pear-shaped shortly after the brothel opened in January this year and Ford was left with one option - lose all the money he'd sunk into the project or take over the business.

A sparky running a brothel? He admitted it was a daunting prospect. "I had visited a brothel once and it wasn't for sex, and I'd never even worked with women," he said. His expectation was "if you build it, they will come", but a cold winter plus rising interest rates and petrol prices had put the squeeze on the sex industry.

Competition was also red hot. There were more established parlours in the city, and all had loyal regulars to carry them through the lean times. Some were turning over more than $100,000 a week.

He'd invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovating the building to meet council compliance codes. He could only sustain a loss for a short time. Initially, Ford's biggest challenge was finding "quality" girls.

Although working girls tend to be a transient breed, most flock to the busy parlours where they can be guaranteed five or six jobs a night. At $100 a time that means they can get by working only two or three nights a week.

On opening night, Ford had 14 girls on his books, well below what he required. "You can have a parlour in the Taj Mahal, but you're not going to make a go of it if you don't have decent girls," Ford said. "The parlour is all about your girls. They are your gold, they are your business." That said, they could also be a curse.

Many were unreliable and "lived close to the edge", Ford said. All the girls on his roster were employed as subcontractors, which meant they could come and go basically as they pleased.

"That's where the problem lies. Some days they just don't turn up and there's nothing you can do about it."

Ford had little to spend in the way of marketing so for the first few months had to rely on foot traffic and word of mouth. "It was bloody tough in those first few months and at times I wondered what the hell I'd got myself into. All this talk about fast easy money was bull," he laments.

"Every day was a different set of issues. I'm an electrician and just wasn't equipped to deal with everything that was being thrown at me. I knew the potential was there, but that was all we had."

The cold, wet winter didn't help business either. Ford could count on a reasonable number of clients on a Friday and Saturday, but on other nights it could be dead quiet.

Former working girl Lacey remembers those dark days.

After two years on the game she has now moved into management, but says in those early days she also had doubts whether the club would survive.

Girls left because they couldn't afford to sit around for hours on end waiting for a client, she says. Yes, there was the potential to make $100 an hour but the reality was often quite different. While on a good night some girls might get up to 12 jobs, during a quiet shift they might not land one client.

And many of the girls paid a high price. Lacey says her stint virtually turned her into an alcoholic. The booze was the only way of masking having sex with someone who repulsed her, she says.

Clients ranged from 18 to 80 and came from a mix of backgrounds. Many were married, or in long-term relationships.

"It's men looking for a bit of variety. In some cases we help spark up relationships which have gone a little stale. It's not our place to judge whether the guys are married or not," Lacey said.

"That said, there's definitely some sick puppies out there who request all sorts of bizarre things. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen, or been asked to do."

It was always left up to each girl to decide which of the clients they had sex with, she said. "It is always the prerogative of the girl. Some girls won't have sex with certain types of men. That is their choice and there's no pressure from the club owner at all."

If a girl did not want to have sex with a particular client, but had agreed to take the job, she would use stalling techniques on them once in the room to use up the hour.

Most people would be surprised to learn that with 75 per cent of jobs, the girl never ended up having sex with the client. Some clients just wanted to talk, while others were content with a massage or spa.

"It's not always about the sex. There are other ways men like to be satisfied," Lacey said.

Some people also had the view that working girls catered for only the desperate and dateless, Lacey said. That couldn't be further from the truth.

During the day, the club catered mostly for retirees and businessmen looking for "a physical release" after a long boozy lunch. During the evening the club attracted a wide range of age groups, from young partygoers to labourers and executives.

But Lacey admitted it was a job that took its toll.

"It's a job that has a life span. But then I know girls who have been saying for the past seven years they were going to quit and are still doing it. The money keeps bringing them back. But the cost physically and emotionally is huge."

For a self-confessed parlour rat like Tony, who uses prostitutes about six times a week, it is about coming to a place where the women "treat you like the centre of the universe".

He enjoys the variety and the "no-strings-attached" nature of the sex.

"I don't have a steady girlfriend. I see nothing wrong with what I'm doing. I have built a relationship with many of these girls and that's what keeps me coming back," he said.

It's now nine months since The HQ opened and Ford says it's been a long, tough haul.

At times, he wonders how he has survived so long, but says things are now finally looking up. He has regular clientele and is starting to build the business.

Still there are challenges. "If anyone thinks this is easy money then they're wrong. Without doubt this job is the most difficult thing I've ever tackled in my life."

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