Over the course of its coloured history, Fremantle has been a melting pot of immigrants, sailors, wharfies, hippies, yuppies, and, naturally, sex workers. At one point Fremantle was littered with brothels, the colonial terraces of High Street servicing everyone from naval officers to a young DH Lawrence. South Fremantle once had a red light district running from the end of South Terrace all the way down to the long gone pier. But not these days.
These days the Ada Rose is Fremantle's last brothel. For me, as a lifelong Freo boy, the Ada has been the only constant—besides the Pickled Fairy, the shop that sells fairy statuettes. In this way the brothel is the last link to a pre-America's Cup Fremantle that I knew of from the collective memories of my family's exaggerated mythopia. It's the final link between the Fremantle of wool exports of yesteryear and today's Fremantle of craft beers. And with this link comes questions: namely, why has the Ada Rose survived? And what happened to all the other brothels?
The Ada Rose. All photos by Olja Tanaskovic
When I arrived I was surprised by the lax atmosphere. It was like any other heritage-listed Fremantle homestead: ascetic colonial architecture, high walls, and long halls. It was like my home, if my home was a vintage bordello festooned with 70s pinup art hanging from the walls.
The Ada was brought under new management last year, when Annette—its owner since 1976—died from lung cancer ("They all smoked," explains Hazel the receptionist). We chew the fat while waiting for Dora, the Madame of the Ada, who finally emerges from the back. Ada turns out to be a remarkably candid and down to earth woman, and beguilingly timid for a person in her line of work. I ask her why she thinks the Ada has survived, while other brothels have disappeared, to which Dora attributes the community.
When they revamped the place a year back, one of Dora's first moves was to invite everybody in a three-street radius over for breakfast. "We had 45 locals, including council members, show up and just embrace it." Dora also notes that three of those locals were clients. It's this kind of transparency that put Freemantle's young families at ease, she says. The only complaint they've had since came from a neighbour, whose four-year-old daughter's bedroom window overlooks the backyard where the girls "smoke and debrief."
Dora proceeds to show me around the brothel, running through the process from customers coming in to the customers cumming. We start off in a tiny entrance room on a vintage lounge set, surrounded by framed vintage porn. This is where you peruse the services, any following negotiation with a girl hinges on her consent: "If you want anything a bit more kinky, you need to discuss it with each lady individually. Because some people like golden showers, anal, Spanish, there's lots of things out there that clients want."
The girls come in, introduce themselves, and when everything is decided upon, the customer is brought up to the desk to pay. We enter a larger room with a bed, adjacent to a shower room. The girls check the customers for STIs—"some girls have a big fucking torch which frightens the shit out of them." Dora explains this is integral to the process because as Dora says, "If there's something wrong, we'll let the guy know."
After the customer showers the girls give them a massage, with the customer face down. This is a way of sussing out, as well as asserting the balance of power: "She'll start teasing, but she's got control. Because as soon as he turns over, hands go everywhere like an octopus. She'll get the feel of him before they start the booking."
This control is vital and it also manages the client's expectations or biases. Dora tells me they do not put porn or "doof doof" music on because the girls "are not pornstars" and they're "not going to pretend they're something they're not… they're not going to sit there and say 'fuck me harder' because they don't want it."
"They want the girl next door. We provide that," Dora tells me. "A lot of clients extend. On Christmas we had a booking from Christmas Eve right through to Boxing Day. And the guy just wanted someone to wake up with on Christmas. It was beautiful. It was so nice. I brought a girl over from Queensland who I knew would be able to accommodate 'emotional.' And she did awesome."
The Ada Rose is adapting to the internet and the proliferation of migrant workers. Dora confirms that while the Ada is indeed Fremantle's sole official brothel, there are a lot of "Asian" massage parlours in the area. "They're probably our biggest—not competition—but they do it so cheap," she says. "And unfortunately they do offer natural services [unprotected sex]. I can take you and show you how quickly it is to find natural sex on the web."
Dora has also attempted to bring the Ada into the 21st century with a new website and a pun-heavy social media presence. "I always advertised in the West Australian," she says. "But on the first of January I stopped because I monitored how many calls we got, and it wasn't worth the money. These days it's is all about online presence." Dora is even working on a site that will allocate girls to particular booking based on requests, while she dreams of perhaps even selling the platform. "Potentially the package could be used for any industry," she says.
Somewhere along this conversation I understand why the Ada has no need for a bouncer. There's something about Dora that seems familiar yet utterly disarming. She seems like your friend's no-bullshit mum writ large. "I can walk up, have my hand on a guy's back and say, 'Come outside and have a cigarette,'" she explains. "And he's already outside before he's even worked up. Women are better at that than men. At the end of the day, we just are."
Dora asks me if I have ever paid for sex. I say (truthfully) I haven't. "You need to do it once," she insists, "once in your life. Not today, but honestly, once in your life you should do it. It's not a bad experience. It's relaxing. It's self-satisfying. It's not empowering though. It's not like you own that person… Just it's just a very different experience."
To explore these sorts of benefits more, she brings in a customer and starts to interrogate him. He is an older gentleman, the only john in the joint, and he seems bit shaken and prone to repetition (he keeps mentioning John and Yoko Ono for some reason). He tells us that he'd been coming to the Ada for over 30 years "give or take." He's waiting for a girl who is running late. "It's become a way of life for me," he says. "I'm not harming anybody. It's the oldest job in the world. I put it pretty high up there with other fields."
He knows Dora, but Dora never says his name: "I've seen you three times. I can't tell you your name but I remember where you live. Did you notice that? Because I try to never remember names. So when I'm out at the IGA and I see someone, I won't ever stuff up and say their name," she winks at me.
In this way, Dora presents the Ada like any other line of business. It is the neighborhood brothel. It provides a service, which Ada seems to see as a necessity. "Men have an appetite," she says. "These men still dearly love their wives," she says. "They'll never leave them, they wont have an emotional affair but they will have sex, because sex is just sex. There's a big difference. And anyway, love doesn't fix everything."
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