This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.
Le Boudoir is one of Melbourne, Australia's few brothels to be run entirely by women. Jill, who has been in the industry for 40 years, opened the place in 1998. She's a sharp but kind lady, in a no-bullshit way, and after a few meetings Jill invited me and my photographer friend to come spend Valentine's Day at her establishment. I had some questions that I thought only a brothel could answer.
It's often assumed women care about Valentine's and men don't. As a single bartender I usually spend the day witnessing other people's traditions rather than creating my own and honestly, from the other side of the bar, it doesn't look like I'm missing out. I don't think about Valentine's and I don't get lonely, even though I know more than a few single women who do. Having said that, I wondered about the supposed gender divide on Valentine's loneliness and decided a brothel could offer some insights. Is it true that lonely men just want to fuck? Or does Valentine's have no bearing on the sex industry at all?
Le Boudoir is in the Victorian-era industrial/hipster suburb of Collingwood, snuggled between an alley and the back of a Porsche dealership.
Past the front door we found ourselves in a public waiting room decadently furnished with two sofas and lots of gold. No one was around but I felt underdressed. Is there even a dress code for visiting a brothel? I rang the doorbell and a receptionist let us into the inner sanctum. The deal is that people can come in off the street, staff can eye them off via CCTV while they sit in the waiting room, then decide whether they're going to let them in. I wondered what kind of conversations arise while dudes hang around the waiting room.
Once inside we were given a brief tour by the receptionist, who was an older woman with perfect hair and a warm smile. The rooms just got better and better. There was a kind of opulent Elizabethan theme to the place, contrasted with the sound of their constantly-ringing phone and a playlist of DJ Snake and Zara Larsson. Was that "Habits" by Tove Lo? Yes it was.
The receptionist, who didn't want her name mentioned, led us to the staff room. "This is the only place you can stay because the rest of the rooms are being used," she announced, glancing at the CCTV monitor. "Wait a sec, I'll be right back." Then she left us to answer the phone outside.
Le Bourdoir has six working rooms, four upstairs and two downstairs. Then there are the two waiting rooms: one public, and one private. On the CCTV monitor we could see both but were under strict instructions not to leave the room because we'd freak out the clients. The girls would come in on their individual breaks and we'd have a chance to ask questions. Until then we'd just have to wait.
The monitor was fascinating. I watched as guys were admitted into the second room, where they'd meet the girls one by one until they decided who to go with. This was a time for each woman to advertise her strengths and set boundaries, if need be. As each woman introduced herself you could see her instantly get into character. Each seemed so confident and in control—from the way they walked to the way they sat down. As I watched the ghostly screen I realized it was a skill, but also an act.
Then I watched each new couple journey up the stairs, into a room, and close the door.
Time was going slowly so I decided to fold some towels in a wash basket on the staff room floor. I don't even do this at home. My photographer friend Rebecca and I took turns watching the monitor.
Finally a 28-year-old woman named Phoenix came in on her break. With short blonde hair and a curvaceous figure, she explained to us that she was only working to raise cash for a business venture. She explained that she'd only been working two days but already loved the job. She also had a theory that guys are looking for more than just sex. "There's so much crap out there now with Tinder and all that, people can get a shag so easily," she said. "A quality connection is something that's really hard to come by and that's what men are looking for, even on Valentine's Day."
Twenty minutes later another woman named Adaline came into the staff room. She was easily the most excited person we heard from all night. She had a small figure, long brown hair, and I noticed how casually she lounged around on the couch. We started talking about her most memorable experiences and she regaled us with a story of a guy who barked every time he came.
Then the conversation shifted to what she'd learned at Le Boudoir. She explained the insights sex work has given her about relationships. "We hear a lot about the arguments men have with their partners," she said. "When I went home, back when I had a partner, hearing these perspectives meant I could understand where he was coming from. So working here helped me gain that perspective in my own personal love life."
It never fails to amaze me how sex workers like Adaline can maintain romantic relationships. Personally I don't think I could make that work, but I can understand how these women do. For these women there's a dissociation between sex and legitimate intimacy, which their clients could even find attractive.
It was Valentine's Day and I was surrounded by escorts, laundry, and some really interesting TV. I don't think any future partner can beat that.
Josie, 45, told me that she'd been in the sex industry on and off for 20 years and like Phoenix, she felt that working in a brothel allowed her to ditch some of life's pretenses. "We all have these socially acceptable masks that we've been brought up to put on," she said. "Getting intimate with strangers, as we do here, means we can get behind the mask quickly."
I asked her about how she thinks Valentine's Day affects sex work, and she paused to flick her fringe out of her eyes. "It's good for people who feel left out during this Valentine's crap to come here," she said thoughtfully. "We're all vulnerable animals you know, even when it comes to love." She then told me that her last client, just five minutes earlier, wanted her to act as though they were in love. "It was weird but it was a fantasy. He was even saying that he wanted me to have his children. I mean, I like fantasies, I put effort into fulfilling them, but the thing about fantasies here is that they eventually end."
With that the receptionist popped in and Josie rushed out to her next client, who had just finished showering and was waiting upstairs.
All night I was surprised at how everyone was so positive about men. Then finally a woman with a gentle demeanor and big boobs named Raine disagreed. "Porn is too accessible," she told me, before launching into a description of how damaged her customers can be. "You can tell the men who are affected by it because they base their ideas of sex, women, and relationships on porn. They lack a certain humanity and human connection in relation to love."
We left after talking to Raine, followed by the stares of the guys hanging around the house. At the receptionist's desk I realized there is another monitor and a buzzer connected to phones in every room. This lets the women know when their time is running out. Our time at Le Boudoir had similarly come to an end.
Valentine's Day for Le Boudoir ended up being busier than anyone expected. As I sat in the empty staff room, hearing thoughts from the girls as they came and went, I decided that maybe brothels exist for more complex reasons than I'd expected, if not sadder. Maybe Adaline summed it up best: "Guys want company and we're here to provide it," she'd told me. "The whole industry is just funded by people who are lonely."
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