One of my most profound memories of sex work happened when I was approached by a man in the introduction lounge of a parlour.
Clearly agitated, he edged over to me and offered a $50 note, asking what kind of service he could receive for that amount and whether there was anywhere nearby we could go, quickly.
While a big part of me wanted to inform the man that there was quite a bit more time, administration, and money involved in making a booking than he assumed, I read his red-rimmed eyes and shaking hands and decided there was something more to the story.
It only took a quick conversation to find out that the man had been cheated on. His partner had slept with someone else and he had found out only a few hours earlier. Desperate for something — revenge, comfort, a mixture of the two? — he had decided what he sought lay inside the neon entryway of a brothel.
Talk about sex work for long enough, and the topic of cheating spouses invariably arises. When I first started working, I told myself I would refuse to see any married clients — but I quickly realised that men would pocket their wedding rings before stepping over the threshold of the parlour, leaving only the famous band of white skin around their tan ring finger as an indicator they had someone waiting for them at home.
I'm glad I never baulked at seeing men who were married. What fascinating stories I was told by them: as they showered and dressed at the end of bookings they would often pepper the conversation with anecdotes about their wives and girlfriends, not put off at all by the surreal situation in which they relayed stories about their home lives.
I've listened to tales of all sorts of relationship problems: wives who travel frequently, girlfriends who live abroad, women who work 'too much' or, for some reason or another, have lost the drive or desire to be intimate with their partners.
Some men told heartbreaking stories of their own search for intimacy after their partners passed away or became unwell; others offered excuses that were almost offensively glib: "My girlfriend is really skinny," admitted one young man, "and I've always wondered what it was like to be with a bigger girl."
While sex workers are often blamed for luring men away from their happy homes and marriages, it's difficult to imagine a situation in which an individual service provider can be held responsible for the clients who approach them. Sex workers do not, contrary to popular belief, contact innocent husbands and entice them to stray; a quick look at the prohibitive advertising laws around sex work in Australia puts that theory to rest.
A man who elects to spend some time with a sex worker is choosing to do so of his own free will; and I would warrant a bet that most have probably thought about doing it for some time before taking the plunge. Grabbing a Mars bar at the Coles check-out is an impulse purchase — seeing a sex worker isn't. But why step outside a marriage for a quick thrill?
I'm not the first person to say this, but the service a sex worker offers goes far beyond the sexual. When I think back, the majority of bookings I've had have included some form of sexual activity — but they've also been focused on conversation, intimacy, and confession. Some men do see sex workers just to chat, or cuddle. Many see sex workers for sex, but stick around afterwards to talk about the stresses of their job, or their problems at home. I believe that for some men, the pillow-talk they have with a sex worker is the only time they allow themselves to talk about their feelings and worries: perhaps knowing that they will likely never see us again helps them truly let down their guard.
In Australia, many men — particularly older men — are brought up to be tough and stoic, never sharing their fears or asking for help with their problems for fear of being seen as weak and unmanly. Raised to be the breadwinners of the household, men are rarely given permission by society or by themselves to be emotional or sensitive. I've spoken with plenty who were terrified to go in for a routine prostate exam, let alone go home to tell their wives that they were feeling depressed, weren't coping with the demands of work, or were struggling with family issues. Perhaps by turning to the one thing they've always had societal approval to seek — sex — they're making a space for themselves to feel comfortable and heard.
Of course, it's idealistic to think that every married man who visits a parlour is seeking emotional connection. I'm sure some do it simply because they're horny. Some, because they're bored. Peer pressure occasionally plays a role: I was once chosen as the lucky lady to see a man on the night before his wedding. His friends had taken him to the brothel for his buck's night, pooled their cash to buy him an hour in a deluxe suite, and cheered as I took him away down the corridor. Once I shut the door, his bravado disappeared and he practically leapt away from my side: he explained that he had no interest in cheating on his fiancée, but didn't want to embarrass himself in front of his friends. We spent the hour sitting on the bed, fully-clothed, talking about his honeymoon plans.
As for the man who approached me with the $50, I took him aside and asked if cheating on his spouse would truly make him feel better. It might put them both on a level playing field, but then they would have two instances of infidelity to work through if they wanted to continue the relationship. The man admitted that it probably wouldn't make him feel better, but he was desperate. He was looking for something to take away the feelings of anger and betrayal he was experiencing, but he didn't know what.
I gently suggested that he spend the money on a bottle of wine or a bunch of flowers, go home to his partner, and tell her that he wanted to repair the relationship. I don't know what he did, of course: he could have easily walked out the door and in to the next parlour down the road. But I hope he did as I suggested.
I think of him sometimes, and his partner, and wonder if their relationship made it through that night.
— Kate Iselin is a writer and sex worker. Continue the conversation on Twitter @kateiselin