This originally appeared on VICE AU.
I am standing at the back of a small warehouse observing a sea of naked bodies writhing around before me.
At my feet is a blow-up mattress, on which lie two groups of people: one group consists of a woman seated upright, austerely directing a man through the process of fingering her. To her left, another woman ferociously rides the body of an older man, who lurches around in ecstasy.
I am covering a "Bordello Workshop", part of Australia's growing scene of sex-oriented events aiming to both liberate and educate. Some of the classes are spiritual and meditative, others involve role play, while some—like this one—are more practical ventures involving real sex acts.
To my right, a woman clad in a red satin robe rides a large man in a lace blouse like a pony. According to the promotional material, participants can chose to be either clients or service providers. There is a madam, and lots of "hot and sexy play," with the overall aim to reflect on our fantasies and assumptions about sex work and "appreciate the complexities in terms of gender differences, class, the exchange economy and empowerment."
The workshop uses monopoly money, and participants are encouraged to come in "alluring" costume. There are approximately 50 people here tonight, in various stages of undress. There are blow-up mattresses, couches, and a small stage in the corner lined with whips. As the class begins, the workshop's director, James*, introduces himself. This class will explore the social nuances of sex work, he announces, by replicating its structures within these warehouse walls.
We are instructed to line up in order of true economic status. I rush to the direct centre of the room, reasoning that I am pretty middle class in every way, while the group awkwardly disperses around me. The woman who has assumed the very back of the line cheerfully insists on displaying her bank balance on her phone screen to the group ($17.35); everybody erupts into hearty applause.
The lower tiers of the line-up are led up onto the stage: they will be the sex workers, and us the clients. Presumably this is to demonstrate the economic disadvantage of the sex worker, but there is a certain amount of freedom to this division, and participants are able to "swap teams" if they so choose.
For the next hour, the clients will be able to experience the act of purchasing sexual services from the workers lined across the stage, using Monopoly money. James introduces us to Juliette, a tall and commanding woman in a corset who will act as our bordello's madam.
I settle into a blow-up couch by myself, observing as clients approach Madam Juliette to bargain for services. The first to do so is a man in his 60s; he announces that he would like two women to pleasure him. Two of the "workers" happily volunteer themselves for the task. Next, a young woman confidently strides forward and requests two men. She walks away delightedly with two of the (admittedly more strapping) male members of the group.
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As the pile of Monopoly cash accumulates in the brim of Madam Juliette's corset, the room rapidly becomes a medley of various sexual acts. To my left, two men in leather harnesses smack one another with paddles. To my right, a woman clad in a red satin robe rides a large man in a lace blouse like a pony.
Meanwhile, a male "sex worker" approaches James to complain he was rejected by his client for having too small a penis. "That's horrible," the group around him coos, "Show us!" He flops his dick out of his pants for inspection, and we politely reassure him it's fine.
David, a handsome man in his mid-40s who is observing the scene like I am, tells me his wife left the class early to care for their child. He says he feels uncomfortable participating alone, despite the fact that he and his wife regularly attend events like this.
It's not long before people stop approaching the stage, and the dissolution of James's vision becomes clear. People are simply joining the party now, so to speak, without regard for the Monopoly cash. On the sofa beside us, two men have taken to aiding the process of a rather loud and aggressive blowjob by holding the woman's hair and spanking her.
What strikes me at this moment is how normal this scene has become; how quickly social norms can readjust in the human brain. I step over the ankles of a couple fucking to retrieve my phone and check my texts.
"There has been fear," James says—when I ask about the reaction he has received from actual sex workers—"that this workshop reinforces the idea that sex work is easy money, and that anyone can do it, which is far from the truth. They also feared that the workshop would put the efforts sex workers have made to improve society's attitudes to them in peril."
Tilly Lawless, a sex worker, writer, and activist, says she hates even the most basic concept of this workshop; that is to say, the notion of people playing at sex work "while just over the state line in South Australia, sex workers are arrested for actually doing sex work.
"The whole thing almost sounds like a sort of period-piece type romanticising of a job that doesn't exist in the real world," she says, "forgetting that sex workers are in the now—and fighting a very real fight for their rights.
"In holding something like this, you should seriously think about whether this is being done to reduce stigma, benefit sex workers, engage in real and needed dialogue around the sex industry, or whether it's just utilizing the tired and salacious tropes [around] sex work, and trivialising the work and sex workers themselves."
For his part, James says he has always been careful to plan and run the workshop with someone who is a sex worker, or "identifies as one." The idea being to ensure he wasn't reinforcing negative stereotypes, but rather "encouraging people to examine them."
"I should say," he adds, "that that did not allay their concerns."
*Not his real name