What happens when a brothel opens up next door

by Joanna Wane / 30 October, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Brothel

When is it your business what people get up to next door? Joanna Wane weighs up a polarising issue.

“Help!” the post read. “Our next door neighbour has decided to turn the property into a brothel...”

Now that made a change from the usual despatches from suburbia on the Neighbourly website: rabbits (lost), maths tutors (wanted) and rogue neighbours (shamed) dumping rubbish late at night in other people’s bins.

The message had been posted – like the complaint about rubbish dumpers – on the site’s “Crime & Safety” noticeboard by a guy called Dan, who lives in a central Auckland suburb not far from me. “Are they allowed to set up shop in the middle of a residential area?” he asked. “I am horrified about this as it is in a family orientated neighbourhood. Any help would be appreciated.”

Over the next few days, the online community rallied to answer his call. Comments poured in offering various degrees of advice and support, from Epsom to Mt Eden, Mt Roskill to One Tree Hill. Until, without warning, the entire thread was erased.

I tried to track down Dan with no success, so who knows how the story ends. But when “Brothelgate” first broke, you could almost feel the collective shudder. Many of those who responded to Dan’s post were appalled. “Eww,” wrote one. “Contact the police,” advised another. Or dob them into the landlord. Someone even recommended calling the Chinese embassy, although ethnicity hadn’t been mentioned. That didn’t go down well. “It’s 2018, guys,” chipped in Charlee. “People have terrible sex for free all the time!”

An intriguing number of people had their own stories to share about living in close quarters to a brothel. “Had same problem,” noted a member from Epsom. “Conversations and activity in back spa area were enlightening to say the least to this elderly couple. Thank goodness the house was eventually sold.”

But there was a lot of misinformation, too: that there are restrictions on brothels operating near churches or schools in Auckland (there aren’t); that a tenant needs permission from the landlord to operate a business on-site (under the Residential Tenancies Act, the premises must be occupied principally for residential purposes, but it’s generally okay to run a home business on the side, as long as it’s not “unlawful”, which rules out a P lab).

Edward, another Epsomian, was quick to call fake news. “Prostitution is not illegal!!” he wrote, exasperation evident in each exclamation mark. “Their clients don’t usually want to be seen any more than you want to see them. It’s supposed to be a discreet service.

“It could be worse... your neighbours could be a student house partying all hours, throwing up along the driveway and footpath, girls staggering down to get in their Uber... we have four children and this is an affluent family area but which behaviour is more acceptable? I’d prefer the quiet house next door with frequent visitors than the parties and puke every week...”

A sex worker rests up after a session with one of her regular clients. Hannah Peters/Getty

A sex worker rests up after a session with one of her regular clients. Hannah Peters/Getty

More than 30 years ago, Catherine Healy quit her job as a school teacher to work in an illegal brothel opposite a church in central Wellington – quintupling her pay packet. This year, she was one of five women to be made a Dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, alongside an esteemed chemistry professor, a Pasifika educator and former MP, and the Topp Twins.

It’s taking her a while to get used to people paying their respects. “I’m more prone to thinking the long arm of the law is going to come up behind me and tap me on the shoulder,” she laughs. “It’s such a huge shift, I could never have imagined it. When sex workers come up to me and say, ‘It’s great for all of us’, that makes me a little bit weepy.”

Dame Catherine, who founded the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) in 1987 to advocate for sex workers, was watching from the public gallery when Parliament narrowly passed the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 – and “massage parlours” transitioned into brothels overnight.

The legislation left it up to local authorities to make the rules around where and how the business of sex could operate. Hamilton and Queenstown have some of the toughest regulations, largely restricting sex workers to the CBD, while Wellington is among the most liberal. Auckland and Christchurch City Councils initially put a buffer zone around churches, schools and community facilities, but both were forced to backtrack after a legal challenge, with the courts deeming the bylaws too restrictive and in conflict with the intent of the law. 

In August, Dame Catherine was in Christchurch helping prepare a submission to the council as part of a statutory five-year review of brothel bylaws. On her wishlist is seeing the current ban lifted on sex work in multi-unit residential complexes, which she says creates difficulties in a city that’s rebuilding.

Home-based sex work has flourished in Christchurch since earthquake damage put the CBD’s larger brothels out of action. After the NZPC’s office was red-zoned, South Island co-ordinator Tracy McKenzie drove all over town doing home deliveries of lube and condoms, and found herself dropping supplies to two sex workers living on the same street. “They were only a few houses apart and I don’t think either of them knew about the other,” she laughs.

In the heat of the debate over legalisation, the public’s imagination ran wild. “It was crazy, some of the things you had to listen to: that there’d be a brothel on every corner like McDonald’s and people working in the middle of fields in Geraldine,” says McKenzie.

“But clients want to be discreet and so do the workers. It could be your neighbour having some visitors while the kids are at school and you’d never know. We’re all grown-ups and it’s only sex, isn’t it? It might be much more annoying if the girl next door is a hairdresser and has the blowdryer going all afternoon.”

In the US, where prostitutes remain part of the criminal underground (with the exception of a few licensed brothels in Nevada), residents have turned vigilante in some upmarket New York apartment blocks, banding together to drive out anyone suspected of trading sex for money (as opposed to the ones making booty calls for free on Tinder).

Online forums on “how to get rid of the brothel in your building” advise staking out the hallway to photograph people coming and going, hiring a security guard, and instructing the doorman to photocopy the ID of all guests. “Don’t, as one board president did, pose as a customer, get arrested in a raid, and have to call your property manager to bail you out.”

Despite legalisation, guerilla tactics have also been deployed here. Working girls have been “outed” in pamphlet drops and clients have had their car licence plates photographed. In 2011, a brothel in Remuera closed down after neighbours collected evidence that included men paying for sex after church on Sunday. In Christchurch, residents formed a group called Families and Brothels Don’t Mix, claiming “audible noises of climax” could be heard at night from a brothel in Merivale.

Most recently, a complaint was laid with Auckland Council about a brothel trading at the top of a Northcote cul-de-sac. According to a report in the New Zealand Herald, an anonymous letter was delivered to homes on the street alleging up to eight sex workers were operating from the property.

Home-based brothels fall under the category of small owner-operated businesses (Soobs), which are allowed in residential areas as long as there are no more than four operators, working independently and on equal terms. But one Northcote local, who didn’t want to be named, told the Herald a council officer he spoke to said it was impossible to say exactly how many women were offering their services at the brothel because “all the Asian sex workers looked the same”.

While Soobs have to comply with council bylaws (such as adequate client parking and restricted hours of work), they don’t need to be officially registered, whether the commodity they’re selling is sex, manicures or tax returns.

Large-scale commercial brothels, however, are generally limited to commercial or industrial zones, and anyone who operates a “business of prostitution” (by controlling workers’ wages and conditions, for example) must hold a certificate from the Ministry of Justice and pass a criminal check. There are currently 69 active certificates nationwide, with four more pending approval – continuing a steady decline since the first flurry post-reform. In 2008, 162 applications were made to the ministry, compared to 115 in 2013. 

Because they’re not licensed, the number of residential brothels are difficult to estimate, but there are probably more of them than you think.

The communal dressing room at The Bach, where various changes of clothes, lingerie and shoes are provided ahead of a booking. Hannah Peters/Getty Images

The communal dressing room at The Bach, where various changes of clothes, lingerie and shoes are provided ahead of a booking. Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Debbie (not her real name) offers sensual massage with optional “full service” from her townhouse in a trendy central suburb. In the kitchen, there’s a cat bowl, and a basket of complimentary snacks for other working girls who share the house, with shifts scheduled between 11am and 7pm. Most of their bookings are with wealthy businessmen (“it’s not cheap”) or tradies downing tools for an hour or so. Arrivals and departures are carefully managed so clients don’t bump into each other on the driveway.

Earlier in the year, a council compliance officer dropped by. “But it’s all legal and above board,” says Debbie, who suspects a competitor dobbed her in. She reckons the neighbours don’t have a clue what she does for a living. “We do our best to keep it low-key.”

Across town, Ōnehunga community constable Don Allan wasn’t aware of the Neighbourly controversy over a potential brothel somewhere in his patch, but he’s happy to hear from any-one who’s worried about it. Sex workers aren’t of much concern to police these days, as long as they’re discreet and operating legitimately, he says, but it’s still a “touchy subject” and gossip spreads like wildfire. A few years back, some locals jumped to the wrong conclusion when they saw a business on the main street moving in a lot of bedding, and posted signs in the window saying brothels weren’t welcome.

As in most cases where there’s an issue with the neighbours, the first place to call is the council, who can see if any bylaws have been breached. The Prostitutes Collective is also happy to act as an intermediary, and acknowledges there have been problems with some immigrants not understanding the rules around legitimate sex work here.

Auckland-based regional manager Annah Pickering says one of the main problems for neighbours is when clients come knocking at the wrong house (she suggests home-based brothels have a secret code, such as putting a garden gnome out by the front door).

“Sex behind closed doors doesn’t concern the neighbourhood, whether it’s for money or not,” she says. “If it’s a hairdressing salon, an accountant, or a lawyer, the same rules apply; the only difference is [sex workers] wear lingerie and answer the door looking hot.”

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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