In the 2015–2016 financial year, five of Queensland's brothels shut their doors, bringing the number of licensed brothels down to 22. This is the lowest it's been in a decade.
"It's certainly a lot worse for me personally than it was five years ago," says Eva, who works as an independent escort in Brisbane. "That's something I hear a lot from other workers in brothels, private work, everything—even street work."
Eva attributes the sex industry downturn to a whole range of issues, starting with the post mining boom slump. This means there are less FIFO workers in Queensland with cash to burn. "The places to go if you wanted to make quick money used to be the north-east coast mining towns," says Eva. "The first time I went to Cairns in 2013, I made a buttload of money. I went last year and I had just one booking in three days."
But according to many, it's not just the state of the economy that's affecting sex workers. It's the way Queensland licenses its brothels.
New South Wales is the only state to have fully decriminalised prostitution. In both Queensland and Victoria, brothels are legal but are subject to highly prescriptive—and expensive—licensing regulations.
Annual license fees, paid to Queensland's Prostitution Licensing Authority (PLA) aren't cheap, says Aart Brons, who owns Northern Belle, the only legal brothel in Cairns. "Last year it was about $35,000, and each manager has to be licensed up as well, which costs $1,000 each."
He explains that Northern has been open for 10 years but it's only become financially viable in the last year. In the past five years, he's watched two other Cairns brothels open just to go out of business.
Under Queensland law, brothels can only have a maximum of five rooms and eight workers on shift at any one time. In comparison, the limit is six rooms in Victoria, but brothels that were established before 1995 are allowed to have more. Victoria's largest, Daily Planet, has 18 rooms.
Eva worked in several Victorian establishments, where she was sometimes on shift with more than 15 people. Such large rosters allow Victoria's brothels to more easily pay their overheads, which aren't as large as Queensland's. And as Eva explained, Queensland's sex workers "can't just put their rates up to $100 per half hour, because nobody will pay it."
Not only are Queensland's brothels paying more, with less staff to make money, but they're also prohibited from offering escort—or outcall—services, losing a large proportion of business to private sex workers. Victorian brothels are allowed to offer such services.
So while Queensland's licensed brothels are closing, more and more workers are turning to private work. Eva explains that you can earn a lot more, and you're not forced to work unfair conditions. "The provider is allowed to negotiate various services at different prices," she says. "A lot of brothels have really strict rules. So they say things like the maximum you're allowed to charge for anal is $100, which for a lot of girls is unacceptable."
Such rules are why girls like Eva are turning to independent work, making it hard for brothels to retain workers.
Brenda, who manages The Viper Room, in Brisbane's south, says few women these days stay with them for long. "The average would be 12 to 18 months," she estimates.
Brenda admits private workers can set their own rules and make more money, but argues "you have to take into account their overheads and travel costs, plus their lack of security." As she points out each of The Viper Room's five rooms is fitted with a hidden emergency buzzer, as well as a telephone to reception.
Brenda and Aart both cite unfair competition from unlicensed illegal brothels as another problem. They can open up anywhere, they don't pay licensing fees and they can charge as little as they want. According to Brenda the Prostitution Enforcement Task Force (PETF) is also pretty hopeless at catching unlicensed operators. "The [illegal] massage parlours are getting away with a lot," she says. "The cops have to send in undercover workers to try to catch them."
Eva agrees that illegal "knock shops" or "cheap Asian services" are becoming more common, but doesn't buy the theory they're ruining the market. "A client who is going to an illegal erotic massage parlour for $50 is not same client who patronises a legal brothel," she says.
A bigger factor, she believes, is increased supply. "There are far more workers than there were five, 10, even 20 years ago," she says, although admits the total is difficult to measure. She thinks that society in general has become a lot more accepting of sex work, and subsequently more people are turning to it as a way to make good, fast money.
She believes that the only true solution is to decriminalise prostitution, as has happened in NSW. This would allow brothels to hire more staff, increase rooms, generate revenue from alcohol, and better advertise their services. And the only opposition to doing this, as always, rests on shifting notions of decency and morals. But of course, the sex industry isn't going away, which is also why she's not worried about a downturn.
"People tend to cite this 'the sex industry is dying' thing," she says. "It's not dying. It's in a slump. But it'll come back. It always does."
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