High-fliers who turn to escorting
Late afternoon sunshine streams into The Bedroom. The furniture looks antique, beautiful artworks line the walls and French music plays quietly. A silk dressing gown hangs from a stand. From luxurious bed linen to ornate mirrors and gilded tissue boxes, the attention to detail is exquisite.
It's not what you'd expect from a place that sells sex.
At a dressing table, 29-year-old Lyla* is getting ready to greet her client. She is elegantly dressed in a pencil skirt and low-buttoned black shirt, with matching lingerie just peeking out. She wears light makeup and a hint of perfume.
Checking her reflection in the mirror, she smooths her hair and adjusts her necklace.
When the doorbell rings she feels a thrill of anticipation.
It is not what you would expect from a woman who sells her body.
Lyla's smile is welcoming as she opens the door to a tall, distinguished man in his 50s who kisses her on both cheeks as he enters the apartment.
It is his first time at The Bedroom and he comments on how impressed he is. They chat for a few minutes by the fire, then Lyla gives him a glass of wine and leads him upstairs to one of two waiting bedrooms.
It is not what you would expect from a former teacher.
But with the cost of living on the increase and the effects of recession still rippling through our economy, the number of women with university degrees and corporate careers choosing to earn money from sex work is growing.
Since 2003, it has been legal to provide commercial sexual services in New Zealand. Another factor making it easier to join the profession is the increase in high-class agencies offering a sophisticated service.
Sarah*, owner and manager of The Bedroom (Wellington's newest escort agency), says she has seen a huge change in the type of women who work as escorts.
"When I first started running an agency, most of the women were younger with no tertiary education, or were students who could do 12-hour shifts in parlours then sleep all weekend. I think because the industry is now legal and better agencies have opened, women who are attending university, have careers or are raising children are turning to escorting as a way to make a bit of extra income or pay off a mortgage.
"Our clients also drive this trend, as many are looking for an experience where they can have a good conversation with a woman, as well as share some physical pleasure."
Sarah says she opened The Bedroom because she wanted to offer men the opportunity to be intimate with a lovely woman in an upmarket boudoir setting.
"Men don't want to be reminded they are paying for an escort. I wanted a place that wouldn't feel like a brothel or hotel room but would feel more like their mistress's bedroom.
"Just as importantly, I wanted to open a place where women would be really looked after and treated fairly. Most agencies offer a 50-50 cut for the escorts but I've always believed in the woman getting more than the agency. [At The Bedroom, the escorts get 60 per cent].
''The atmosphere in a work environment is so important. If the women are respected and can come together and talk without it getting competitive, then it usually means they will enjoy what they do."
Sarah also takes time to talk to the men on the phone and then matches them with women who will best suit their needs. Her escorts see clients by appointment only and discretion is guaranteed.
"It's not a marketplace - the client meets only his chosen companion and is made to feel like it's his private retreat," she says.
When Toni*, in her 40s, saw The Bedroom's advertisement for escorts "of all ages" a few months ago, she was looking for a change of direction. She had a successful corporate career but wanted to study film-making.
"As a single-income earner, it's very hard to give up work to study full time, with a mortgage and bills that still need to be paid each week," she says. "I'd never thought of venturing into this industry before but the ad intrigued me. It still took me quite some time to pluck up the courage and call to ask about it.
"I've always been a supporter of prostitution law reform but hadn't really thought about what it's actually like to be a sex worker. I know there are parts of the sex industry where conditions for workers are precarious in all sorts of ways but I've been fortunate to enter the industry via an agency where that is far from the case.
"I also had a perception that the profession was only for younger women in perfect shape. But not all men want this. Part of the experience for some is having a woman to talk to and share stories with, as well as physical pleasure. Men in their 50s to 80s seem especially to want a woman who can relate to them on lots of levels."
In a boutique agency like The Bedroom, men are booking an experience in the knowledge that it is a temporary separation from the real world, which stops at the door - jobs, bills, relationships, homes, worries and the mundane.
"For a negotiated time, there's openness, honesty and uninhibited fun,'' says Toni. ''And it takes place in luxurious surroundings with a beautiful, attentive woman and a glass of wine or two. It's pretty hard to beat as human experiences go.
"It really is a fascinating job. It's always different and there are moments of real connectedness. Regardless of what has occurred in the bedroom, clients leave smiling and with an experience to daydream about when the real world kicks in again. You're a provider of happiness and this is very rewarding."
Toni says she is surprised how often the topic of prostitution comes up in conversation, usually in derogatory terms.
"The prevailing attitude is that sex workers are desperate women selling their bodies. I'm not desperate, nor am I selling my body - my body is all mine and I only do with it what I feel comfortable doing."
She does not plan to be an escort forever, but for now it is paying for her studies and will tide her over until she finds a job in the film industry.
The Paradise Club is one of the few Wellington agencies that has a fully-equipped dungeon. It has all the whips, chains and leather one might expect, as well as an impressive collection of sex toys. Not for the faint-hearted, but apparently quite popular.
Other bedrooms look cosy and enticing. Photographs of the girls who work at the agency adorn the walls of the corridor. They are tasteful and alluring.
Paradise Club day manager Stephanie Borland agrees that more highly educated women are choosing to become escorts.
"Gone are the days of sex work being seen as a last resort," she says. "There are definitely more reputable agencies around now that offer a more supportive environment for escorts, as well as a better service to clients. These factors do attract more sophisticated women into the industry.
"Most of our girls are successful, independent contractors who have flexible work hours, choose their own clients and enjoy their new-found freedom. They are usually studying or paying off student loans or have had successful careers but want to earn more to buy homes or set up their own businesses.
"We find the more educated girls tend to have better conversation skills, so are able to build greater rapport with clients. But being confident, friendly and attentive will always be more important than education or stunning looks."
Borland says she ensures escorts are provided with a professional, caring environment.
"The focus is on an atmosphere of trust and support at a personal and professional level. We also fully train our girls on health and safety practices and have open communication with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective."
Jessica*, who is in her 30s and a solo mother to 5-year-old twins, became an escort when her relationship with the father of her children ended.
"I was suddenly in a situation where I couldn't make ends meet," she says. "I have a post-graduate qualification in commerce and could easily find a fulltime job with a decent salary but I only want part-time work so I can be there for my kids after school.
''Escorting is not something I had ever thought of doing but it popped into my mind when I was exploring what sort of options I had. It seems like one of the few jobs that pay enough on a part-time basis to cover the daily costs of living."
Jessica says her perceptions of the industry before she entered it were totally different to the reality.
"My expectation was that the women would be uneducated and hardened, perhaps drug addicts, and I thought the men would be lecherous and unattractive. I couldn't have been more wrong on both counts.
"I was also worried what psychological costs being in the industry might have on me and that I might end up emotionally scarred in some way. But that definitely hasn't happened.
"I've actually found escorting very enjoyable on the whole and the men are very respectful. I don't have time to date, so it's nice to dress up in beautiful lingerie I wouldn't normally wear and have some intimate encounters with nice men. It can be fun to portray a femme fatale or be the girl next door.
"I'm also surprised at the way I feel. I've actually helped some clients, such as those who were feeling lonely and wanted physical contact, others who wanted to talk over an issue in their life that was making them unhappy, and a few who had always felt unattractive then left feeling on top of the world after an intimate experience with a beautiful woman. It makes me feel good to help ease people's stress from demanding jobs or simply to spice up their lives with an afternoon rendezvous."
NZ Prostitutes collective national co-ordinator Catherine Healy points to extensive research published in 2007 that confirms many highly educated women work in the sex industry.
''We know from this study that 37 per cent of all sex workers around New Zealand are tertiary educated and that one fifth are over 30. Most stay in the industry for two to four years but others have remained in it for decades and wouldn't consider leaving.''
Healy says many women gain more from sex work than just money (escorts earn between $60 and $300 an hour).
"Certainly, it is an occupation which is loaded with stigma but it can, for some women, be an empowering experience. I know there are people who want to move on from sex work but others who are quite at home with it and have found nurturing places from which to work."
Savannah*, 29, got married and fell pregnant when she was just 20. Once her daughter was born, she gave up a well-paid fulltime corporate job to care for the baby. However, when the marriage ended, she decided to take on part-time work to make ends meet.
"I was also studying again, so the versatility of escorting seemed to be a way I'd be able to achieve some sort of balance between all my commitments.
"Apart from the obvious financial benefit, I love the experiences I've been exposed to, which range from incredibly sensual to fun to bizarre. No two meetings are ever the same.
''I like the way I can make a difference to somebody's day. That I can be an objective sounding board to what they have to say and they know it will never leave the room.
''And I love the friends I've made, other working girls, who like me are well-educated, intelligent, sophisticated women.
''My clients are also wonderful people. I can honestly say, after four years in the industry, I have never had a negative experience. And the perspective I have gained on people is amazing, I have become less judgmental and more open-minded.
"Another benefit of working in the industry is, if you're open-minded, you'll probably get to try something you've personally been open to but never had the opportunity to try. One thing I really enjoy is a menage a trois. This scenario is a lot of fun and it's surprising how many couples like to bring a woman into the bedroom to spice things up.
''For a lot of men, it's a dream come true to see their partner interacting with another woman and it's something I have discovered I really enjoy."
Savannah got into a relationship after her marriage ended and had to hide the fact she was an escort from her new partner.
"It was really hard because although I know what happens with a client is nothing like what happens at home in an intimate relationship, it's something men cannot get their head around.
''In fact, when I decided to tell my partner, our relationship ended. I was not in a position financially to give up escorting, so decided to stay single until I was ready to. Although it can be done, it was just too difficult for me to lead a double life.
"Before I became an escort, I thought sex workers had no respect for themselves and I associated the industry with the negative image often portrayed by the media of parlour or street work.
''Although I now know this image is not accurate, I don't want to be judged by people who simply don't know what really happens behind those closed doors. I find it much easier just to keep it all a secret."
It's late on a Tuesday evening. Jessica sits in front of a mirror removing her makeup while finishing a glass of wine. Her best friend has just called to say the twins are in bed, asleep. She's looking forward to being with her children after school for the rest of the week without having to worry about money.
"It may sound weird to a lot of people, but this really is the perfect job for where I am in my life. I'm not a burden on anyone, I'm providing for my kids and having interesting experiences. I won't be an escort forever, but right now I'm happy."
*Last names removed.
The Dominion Post