Selling sex, intimacy and acceptance, Wellington sex worker Cleo takes Katie Harris and Cheree Kinnear inside their life as a non-binary Wellington escort.
When Cleo steps into the bedroom at the affluent Wellington brothel, they put on more than just a physical costume.
On the job, Cleo is hyper-feminine, dolled-up to the nines, but in real life they are non-binary.
"Walking into the brothel looking like a client and leaving looking like a client, versus being in there providing as a high-end escort, I love it, I love it so much."
To their clients, they have "high heels on, bimbo energy", but outside the brothel, Cleo is at home in board shorts and a singlet. Their friends refer to them as a "himbo", he-bimbo, wearing the "12-year-old skater-boy aesthetic".
"Ultimately, we're just really good actors, so it's kind of like almost an escape for me to be able to experience that hyper-femininity in my own controlled way."
Even clients they've seen face-to-face outside of work while wearing their more androgynous clothing have been unable to recognise them.
Cleo - who goes by Ratbag online - works as a professional dominatrix, sensual masseur and escort at one of the capital's top brothels.
They hope that by sharing their story with the Herald on Sunday, it will encourage people to educate themselves before passing judgment, and to respect sex workers.
Each day is different, and each client's wants, needs and deepest desires vary.
Usually, clients book out an hour or a 90 minute session with Cleo, meaning they would generally see a maximum of three to four people a shift - but some submissive clients require up to three hours for a dominatrix session.
"If I see a sub for that long, I'm pretty emotionally and physically drained so I'll just go home after that. Same with full-service, I know one of my friends had a booking with a client that was like six or seven hours I think."
Everything is priced individually, they said, with clients purchasing a certain amount of time and then paying for "extras", like certain sex acts or the "girlfriend experience", which is a more intimate session that includes kissing and oral sex.
While their pay fluctuates depending on their work each week, on one of their best days they saw a few clients and earned almost $2000.
When it comes to client selection at Cleo's brothel, which caters to a wide range of clientele, their pimp texts them and asks if they want to see a certain client.
"It's entirely up to me if I want to agree or not.
"It's hard when you're engaging sexual services for money, but you always have the right to say no to providing services even if money has been exchanged."
The pimp vets each client, as they have "zero tolerance" for clients' "bulls***" and want to ensure the workers are safe, Cleo says.
But on some occasions, clients have ignored the rules, coercing them into doing things they're not comfortable with or trying to remove a condom.
"Every time I've experienced something negative at work it has been because of the client's perspective of sex and sex workers, so that kind of falls all the way back to consent education in schools, or the lack-of.
"The feeling I'm left with the most is just frustration, just anger at how I've been treated. Because I'm in this situation, consensually, you know, sharing these experiences with someone that are quite intimate and they are incredibly sacred, and a lot of people take advantage of that.
"A lot of people assume the negative experiences in sex work is the intimacy part but no, I love creating a safe space for that mutual vulnerability. My negative experiences have all risen from clients crossing boundaries and previous management disrespecting me as a contractor setting those boundaries.
"The industry itself I adore and [I] just want to be able to work in safety."
Cleo sees themselves in a position of privilege when it comes to safety as a sex worker, which isn't afforded to all in their profession.
Although overall Cleo's mental health has improved while working in the sex industry, when they do see a "bad client", their post-traumatic stress disorder can be triggered. But they say colleagues support them.
They say their brothel also has a close relationship with trusted police officers who can help if something goes wrong, and the manager cares about their well-being.
How it all began
Cleo's first dalliance with sex work was when they were a 19-year-old student, in debt, having difficulty making ends meet and struggling with mental and physical health issues.
"I couldn't really hold down a job, I'd been through StudyLink, WINZ, all of that kind of stuff, and then one of my friends [who] was a dancer at a club in Auckland, she invited me to come and watch them."
At the venue Cleo ended up giving it a go themselves, immediately liking the stage (perhaps in an exhibitionist sense, they concede) and how present it made them feel.
They started working in a strip club in Auckland, but they were still in debt to the tune of about $15,000 and living in their car.
Things changed after Cleo started at the Wellington brothel two years ago.
They say they are in a better space mentally and are able to support themselves financially, pursue their studies and run their own business outside of sex work.
"And within sex work, I'm using that time to try to work towards becoming a member in this advocacy circle."
Throughout this interview Cleo reiterates how the perception and stigma sex workers face has real-life consequences, and that sex work is not something they need to be saved from but something some enjoy doing.
"It's not like sex work is bad and I'm selling myself and I need rescuing. I had a client literally - he must watch Pretty Woman or something - because he asked me to be his girlfriend after a session and I was like, no. I was like, 'you've taken girlfriend experience [too far]'."
Cleo politely informed the man they in fact already had a partner.
Cleo's romantic relationships have been hindered by sex work, but now they are in a "very monogamous" partnership with another person.
"We don't have to share explicit details. They want me to come to them if something's gone wrong and they ultimately trust me because I am doing this as a job. If I wanted to be in an open or polyromantic situation or polysexual situation I would also voice that."
'Polyromantic' denotes someone who is attracted to many genders but not necessarily sexually, and 'polysexuality' is a term for someone who is sexually and/or romantically attracted to multiple genders.
Having a supportive partner and being loved no matter what they're doing for work has been helpful for Cleo, who is now the predominant income provider to the family they are creating together.
Their family so far consists of two cats, and they are hoping to add a lizard and some more foster animals in the near future.
"I just love being able to have the financial stability to treat them [their partner] when I want to, [to] go to Airbnbs when we want to."
Work with benefits
Cleo says being in the sex industry works best for their lifestyle.
"I don't want to be trying to adhere to a society ... 9-5 five days a week at minimum wage. No, that's absolutely not good for me, my mental health or my surroundings."
Cleo says being able to work presenting as a different gender has empowered them to play the role as a female sexual provocateur and leave who they really are.
It has also enabled them to help clients open up about their own identities.
"It's really beautiful as well, even as being a non-binary provider, I've had a few people come out to me."
With one of their submissive clients, Cleo began doing "forced feminisation", making the client take on a feminine role for gender exploration and/or sexual pleasure, which helped them feel safe to open up about being trans.
"She has now begun her transition and it wasn't until I told her I was non-binary outside of work. And she would [later] spend a lot of our sessions talking with me about gender.
"It's just a really beautiful, beautiful industry when it's run well and it's respected. Sadly, on both ends, there's a lot of stigma."
That prejudice is part of the reason Cleo, Vixen Temple and other sex work contemporaries created Filthy Geographic magazine, an online and physical publication platforming sex, art, resources and culture from within Aotearoa's sex work community.
"We are just basically wanting to create something that can't be censored, but is still obviously aligning with all of our morals as a team, but just a space for existence, and celebration and education."
Sex workers, Cleo believes, are on the front-line when it comes to confronting issues with sex and consent in society.
This was evidenced last year when what was believed to be the first rape conviction for stealthing was achieved after a Wellington sex worker filed a police report against her client who sexually assaulted her.
*Cleo's name has been changed to protect them and their clients' identities.
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