I was 13 when I found my mum’s old diary in her dresser. It was dated 1977, the year she turned 17.
I had snooped before, but never with as much freedom or incentive. She was overseas with her sister for three weeks and had left me and my younger brother in the care of our father, my parents having separated when I was six.
My mum managed a brothel; I already knew that. It had been several years since I’d seen my brother standing with his pants down, surveying a fleshy magazine spread he’d obtained from her workplace. But there was, it turned out, a lot I didn’t know. The diary spoke of abusive relationships and drug use, both in vivid detail.
It wasn’t the content that shocked me, though. It was what I found next. Tucked inside the diary was her current resume, with an employment history listing a number of English teaching and hospitality roles, and something else: Sex Worker - New Zealand, Australia, Japan. When my mum returned home I confronted her with the resume, shaking. Reluctantly she confirmed that, yes, she had been an escort, years before meeting my father.
She also said something bad had happened to her at 15 — that she had dealt with it through sex work. I was, by then, aware of the concept of rape. I burst out crying, distraught but also filled with immense respect and admiration.
Of course, not all sex workers are survivors of trauma. Personally, I just wanted leather boots.
Within one year of my parents’ separation, mum secured work as a brothel manager. She told us that men came into her work for a massage and sometimes a cuddle, if they were sad or lonely. That she sat at a desk and took bookings. Instinctively, I knew that there was more to her workplace than that. At home, she would answer calls with ‘Jo speaking’, and my brother and I would shout, ‘Who’s Jo? Your name’s not Jo!’
We lived on the Mornington Peninsula, an epicentre of middle-class families. I went to a Catholic primary school — purportedly the best school in the area — and was one of only a few students from a low-income, single-parent background.
I was embarrassed to bring friends home, having seen how my wealthier friends lived. Our house was outfitted with roadside and op shop furniture, and garish yellow-gold bath towels hung over the banisters. When friends visited, I’d turn them over so their most incriminating detail was hidden: the name of my mum’s workplace — ‘Palace Playmates’ — in cursive lettering.
‘Your mum’s a prostitute,’ my friend Maddy said one day after school when I was 10.
‘No she’s not,’ I said. ‘She works at The Clinic for Lonely Men.’
I didn’t know then that Maddy was simply repeating what her mother had said. Apparently all my friends’ mothers thought my mum was moonlighting as a sex worker. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t; that in actual fact she was just managing a brothel — and had told no one about her past. She was already disgraced.
Until that moment, I’d envisioned my mother at the helm of a secret society of altruists issued with the task of treating loneliness. Maddy’s words challenged my respect for mum’s occupation. They also taught me that sex workers didn't have the status of ordinary working women and housewives. They were low, debased — shameful.
No matter that my mum only managed the brothel for two more years before leaving to start her own domestic cleaning business. The rumour that she was a prostitute spread through our small community, and Maddy’s bullying continued. I eventually changed to a public school; I felt helpless—like I would never be free from the judgement.
In early 2017, I ended an abusive relationship which had damaged my self-worth. I was unemployed, but I didn’t have the confidence to find work. I just wanted someone to take care of me. So I turned to Seeking Arrangement, the site that pairs successful, older men ("sugar daddies") with younger women ("sugar babies"); the former pays for the company of the latter with allowances, one-off payments, or lavish gifts. Instead, I encountered numerous men wanting what I can now confidently categorise as cheap or free brothel services. “I don’t want it to feel transactional,” they’d say. “Hookers aren’t my thing.”
I had sex with one such "daddy" in a trashy hotel. He didn’t pay me and I felt too awkward to ask, so I left empty-handed. I felt used and violated but reasoned that I didn’t care about the money — that I was to blame because I’d exercised poor boundaries.
I started brothel-based sex work because I wanted leather boots: I was dating a married man and our upcoming trip away was going to be 5-star. I wanted to look the part. I also felt desperate — for financial security; to feel desired, validated and in control. A friend recommended erotic massage: lucrative and easy, with flexible hours. I could start work instantly, unqualified, and buy a whole new wardrobe within days. She was right.
The only required service at these parlours is naked massage with hand relief, but many workers provide additional services ("extras"). Workers set their own prices for these extras, which for many includes full service. At this point I didn’t provide full service, but I did offer oral, "DATY" ("Dining at the Y"— meaning cunnilingus), "DFK" ("Deep French Kissing"), prostate massage, and fetish and fantasy play.
I was extremely nervous for my very first client, and it showed in my mediocre service. I barely touched him.
My mum had told me about her work over the years, but suddenly I was part of the world immortalised in her resume. When I told her I was quitting the massage parlour and moving to a full-service brothel, she was shocked. She said, “I can’t believe my daughter is a prostitute.” Although she laughs at my anecdotes and evaluates my outfits, she is sensitive to what she believes are the main drawbacks of sex work: stigma, and strain on the body and psyche.
“I’m disappointed by your recent life choices,” she said recently. This led to one of our more serious fallings-out, which we have since reconciled. She acknowledged that her feelings about my work are complicated by her experiences of trauma.
Clients and friends ask if my attitudes towards sex have changed since I started sex work. The answer is yes. I am more sympathetic to the universal need for meaningful connection. I love my work. I enjoy it more than all of my previous minimum wage hospitality and retail jobs. I’m well-paid, sexually and intellectually fulfilled, and physically fit.
But, like my mum, I detest whorephobia’s gross double standard; its negation of sex work as a career choice. I carry the weight of stigma; I enter my workplace via the back alley door and leave cautiously at night. I can’t truthfully debrief my work day to the cashiers at my local supermarket. If I could, I’d say, “I’ve had four orgasms.”
It’s early 2018 and my mum is at my house, reading my workplace brochure beside me. She stresses the importance of condom breakage protocol: immediate booking cancellation, sexual health testing, and PrEP—pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV prevention. I don’t tell her about my most recent booking—the condom coming off inside me. I don’t want to add to her list of worries.
The next day, we are at breakfast when I tell her I am getting fake nails for work. “Make sure you leave one blunt so you can—,” she says, and makes a prostate massage gesture with her index finger. “Wear two gloves. Get a big bottle of hand sanitiser and a scrubbing brush for under your nails. If you mess around with arseholes, you deserve to get sick.”
Afterwards, I find a work-appropriate dress at an op shop.
“Sexy,” she says. “You’ll do well in that.”
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