Inside the ethical brothel

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More than a decade since controversial law reform, a brothel owner tells Corazon Miller her modern establishment is finally bringing prostitution out of shadows.

By Corazon Miller

Dressed in trousers and a loose-fitting shirt, holding her baby to her breast, ­Antonia Murphy is a far cry from pop culture expectations of a brothel madam.

But the San Francisco-born and raised, Ivy League-educated mother is the madam of Whangarei's The Bach, an enterprise she's taking pains to describe as an ethical brothel.

"If you start by saying it's a ­brothel, in my experience people immediately start relating it to violence and gangs and drugs," Murphy says.

"That's absolutely not what we are ­doing, so I start out by saying ethical."

This means treating her workers with respect - providing them with condoms, briefing them on their legal rights, paying them at least $150 an hour - and there's free childcare on site.

"New Zealand seems way ahead of the curve in terms of decriminalisation and yet for some reason much of the sex industry is still bogged down in sort of shady working practices," says Murphy.

"It's still not socially accepted and there is still a lot of judgment."

A Columbia University graduate with a degree in European History and Comparative Politics, Murphy spent years travelling and doing odd jobs ­before embarking on a sailing adventure with her then husband, arriving here 10 years ago.

She is a published author who ­featured in the 2015 Auckland Writers Festival with her book Dirty Chick.

Workers at The Bach are treated with respect, provided with condoms, briefed on their legal rights, are paid at least $150 an hour - and there's free childcare on site. NZH Photo: Brett Phibbs.
Workers at The Bach are treated with respect, provided with condoms, briefed on their legal rights, are paid at least $150 an hour - and there's free childcare on site. NZH Photo: Brett Phibbs.

Murphy says the plan at first was to set up a sensual masseuse parlour.

But along the way it evolved to ­become a fully servicing brothel.

"I see no reason why it shouldn't be done in a healthy, safe, open way."

Madam Murphy, as she calls herself, officially opened the doors on The Bach in mid-January, together with business partner Madam Nikki.

The business runs at its riverside ­location seven days a week, 10am-10pm. It has only one room, but Murphy hopes to spruce up more service rooms as the business grows.

Services on offer are fairly standard in this business. There's the "Girlfriend Experience" the "Porn Star Experience" and at its most basic a sensual massage.

Prices range from $200-$500 an hour - $150 of which goes to the worker. ­Extras cost $50 - and also go straight to the worker.

Along with the wages, there are ­professional photos, advertising, ­changing rooms and a work outfit.

It is almost 14 years since prostitution was decriminalised in New Zealand. But Murphy says it's an enigma that ­after such a progressive move, those who buy and sell sex are still cast in the shadows.

Madam Murphy, as she calls herself, officially opened the doors on The Bach in mid-January, together with business partner Madam Nikki. New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
Madam Murphy, as she calls herself, officially opened the doors on The Bach in mid-January, together with business partner Madam Nikki. New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

Inside The Bach it's less "red-light ­district" and more "home sweet home". Positioned in a picturesque spot by the Hatea River, there's nothing to identify the site as a brothel - no signs, no flashing lights and no women in heels loitering out the front.

A light-filled ensuite, painted white walls, cream-coloured lounge suit, kitchen, large double bed and blue and yellow themed decor are far removed from the shady black and red interiors of brothels typically seen on the big screen.

Murphy says the light and airy decor is part of her mission to bring prostitution into the open.

It frustrates her that many still frown upon sex workers and their clients. In her experience the men who come to her are "decent human beings" looking for sex, intimacy and female ­companionship.

"[Paying for sex] is something that is frowned upon in some circles, but I don't see why it should be," she says.

"Why shouldn't a man want sex? Why shouldn't a man want intimacy?

"And if for whatever reason he's not able to have that in the rest of his life - perhaps it's a marriage that has gone stale, or perhaps he's just very busy and doesn't have time for a girlfriend - why do we view that as being abusive or predatory?"

Inside The Bach it's less "red-light district" and more "home sweet home". New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
Inside The Bach it's less "red-light district" and more "home sweet home". New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

Murphy has strict rules around whom she will employ - she views prostitution as a valid career and won't consider anyone who is taking desperate measures.

"First of all a drug-free workplace.

"Second, hiring girls who genuinely enjoy sex and are doing this of their own free will, not because they are in any kind of desperate circumstance, or ­because they are trying to work out some sort of abuse issue."

Today there are just 66 active brothel operator licenses, according to the Ministry of Justice.

That is down 260 from the 326 approved after decriminalisation in 2003. Another 94 are pending approval.

Although these figures don't take into account smaller brothels that don't require a license, they seem to put to rest fears the law change would lead to a sharp rise in people becoming sex workers.

It was amid heated and passionate debate that the Prostitution Reform Act was passed mid-2003.

The controversial bill was tipped to fail but it passed, with a narrow majority of 60 votes in favour to 59 against and one abstention.

Tim Barnett is hugged by Georgina Beyer after his Prostitution Reform Bill was passed in 2003. Photo / Ross Setford
Tim Barnett is hugged by Georgina Beyer after his Prostitution Reform Bill was passed in 2003. Photo / Ross Setford

Former Labour MP Georgina Beyer drew on her own experience to make an impassioned plea in Parliament - a speech many credited with swinging the balance in favour of the bill.

Beyer says she almost didn't make that speech after an 11th-hour walk down memory lane reminded her of the "violence and unpleasantness" in the sex industry and almost made her withdraw support.

"Parts of it were brutal, unforgiving and hopeless in lots of ways, but on the other side of it I picked up certain strengths and resilience and abilities."

Continued below.

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Beyer says simply maintaining the status quo would have achieved nothing and prostitution would have continued with or without the law at its back.

At the bill's third reading, Beyer told Parliament that had the law had existed when she was 16, she might have been "spared" and given some form of "redress for the brutalisation that might happen when a client pulls a knife".

"I might have been able to approach the authorities and say, yes, I was raped and, yes, I'm a prostitute and, no, it was not right that I was raped."

As a young transsexual she felt she had no choice but to go into prostitution.

"Most of us [who were transgender] had an encounter with the red-light ­district. When rejected by family and society this left very few options for making a legitimate living.

"I couldn't get on the dole back in those days, because they expected me to be the man I was supposed to be and make a living."

More than a decade on, she is proud of having played a critical part in such a large reform and sees it as a milestone accomplishment in her life and career.

New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healy says the pre-2003 days "were hopeless and truly undermined the safety and wellbeing of sex workers".

"Today you have sex workers who are confident interacting with ­police and know they have rights and that gives them a sense they are not ­isolated and disconnected.

"I don't want to say it's all pleasant, lightness and pleasure, but for some people they are really happy, others say they can't wait to stop."

New Zealand's Prostitutes Collective's Catherine Healy, extreme left, and others celebrate in the public galleryt after the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed 2003
New Zealand's Prostitutes Collective's Catherine Healy, extreme left, and others celebrate in the public galleryt after the Prostitution Reform Bill was passed 2003

Debbie Wiesehan, manager of Streetreach, an ­organisation that works to help prostitutes ­exiting the industry, says ­despite the laws protecting ­workers there are still many issues. She wants better social supports so women don't have to turn to prostitution.

"I still know women who are raped and who won't go to police even though they know they have rights. Who won't stand up for their rights and won't use the law to their favour."

She says women the organisation works with often express a desire to quit prostitution. Once they are out they don't want to be known as having been in the profession.

Wiesehan believes the current laws are good, but points to the Swedish model, in which those paying for sex are criminalised rather than the prostitutes, as another option for New Zealand.

But University of Otago Associate Professor Gillian Abel argues that ­model is more likely to drive the industry back underground. "No matter which way you regulate sex work or prostitution, it's never going to get rid of it."

She says the way to protect the ­vulnerable is to make their environment as safe as possible.

"The only real way to do that is by ­decriminalising it and by bringing it out into the open and putting protections in place."

Abel has researched the impact of the act on the health and safety of sex ­workers and says prostitution then and now is like "chalk and cheese".

The act paved the way for workers and brothel owners to be able to report issues without fear of a legal backlash. Exploitation can be addressed and there were better protections to ensure safe sex and that women could withdraw consent for sex at any point.

Abel's research suggested very few women in the industry were forced into it and "most felt they had gone in on their own free will".

"Most are happy, and some talk about leaving, but sometimes it's difficult to leave, because to get the money they earn in a few days they'd have to work 40 hours or more a week."

Queen Sugar turned all these assumptions of the sex industry "sideways". New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.
Queen Sugar turned all these assumptions of the sex industry "sideways". New Zealand Herald photograph by Brett Phibbs.

Nearly 14 years since the law change, we still have an uncomfortable relationship with the ­notion of selling sex.

It's at odds with a society that often glamourises it.

Auckland University Board of ­Gender Studies director Carisa Showden says although society has become more comfortable displaying sexuality, sex workers are often presented with a "coded reminder that women being ­sexual are dangerous".

"It's kind of an 'it's better to be a good girl' message."

But Showden says this, too, is slowly changing.

She points to US TV series Queen ­Sugar, which includes a storyline showing the treatment of a prostitute who was gang-raped. Many assumed she was lying or looking for a payout.

Showden says the show then turned all these assumptions "sideways".

"It showed how you can talk about violence and exploitation in sex work without turning sex workers into abject victims, or just women who deserve what they get for saying yes to sex ­outside of socially acceptable circumstances."

One of the three women Murphy has on her books is a 19-year-old on her first foray into the sex industry.

Brianna dropped out of school at 16 and failed to land a job she was happy with. A career in the sex industry is not something she had contemplated - but she says when she walked into The Bach she instantly felt at ease.

She only offers a sensual massage, but hasn't ruled out selling sex in the future. "The money is good, but it's more about being able to not be on the benefit and actually afford things.

"I don't really care about what people think, it's about what I want to do and it makes me feel comfortable."

The reason she kept her identity ­secret in this piece was not for fear of a backlash, but because she wanted to remain in control of her own story. "I'm okay with telling people myself, but I don't want others telling it for me."

Antonia Murphy, Ivy-League educated, mother and published author, opens an ethical brothel in Whangarei. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Antonia Murphy, Ivy-League educated, mother and published author, opens an ethical brothel in Whangarei. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Murphy herself has never been a sex worker. She briefly considered it in her early 20s but got cold feet. Seeing the "emotional sadness" of a friend working as a stripper in New York made her wary.

Then she met the consort to the ­Sultan of Brunei, who was happy making a ­living as a sex worker. This, says Murphy, illustrates that as in any ­industry there are good and bad sides.

Today, ethics are at the core of her brothel's practice - but she shies away from being seen as a saviour to those trapped in the dirty underbelly of the industry.

"Sex workers are skilled professionals and they don't need to be saved by me," she says.

"Young women of today own their own sexuality and if they choose to monetise it - that's their right."

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