If you thought walking around the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and admiring brush stroke, painting…
“It’s nice, isn’t it?” prompts Jacquie.
“Yeah, it is,” I answer truthfully, somewhat unsure of the level of praise necessary.
We’re standing in a big, red bedroom. To my left is a deep spa bath on a raised platform, in front of me is a bed that could easily sleep four, in fact, it probably has. Behind me is a tall silver pole, floor to ceiling. “For those girls who can dance,” explains Jacquie.
We’re in one of the most luxurious rooms of Canberra’s most luxurious ‘bordello’, Langtrees, in Mitchell and I feel like I’m backstage at Disneyland.
Growing up in Canberra, the legal sex industries of Mitchell and Fyshwick were always known to my friends and me, mostly as the punchline of jokes. As I grew older, however, I often wondered about the women and men who live alongside us, quietly serving a very particular kind of public behind closed doors all across the ACT.
In a city that breathes power, with an ever transient population of affluent diplomats, politicians and public servants, it seems obvious that the sex industry would thrive, let alone the fact that the ACT’s laws pertaining to sex workers are radically liberal.
When HerCanberra’s third magazine was named ‘The Hidden Edition’, I was determined to make contact with a Canberra bordello, to discover what it’s really like as a member of Canberra’s hidden population—our sex workers.
Jacquie beams at me across the red bedroom. “I’ll show you the other rooms!”
When I arrived at Langtrees a few minutes earlier, I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. What would I get to see? Would they be cagey about a journalist? What if I knew one of the escorts? What if I knew one of the customers?
Jacquie has been allocated as my tour guide while we waited for manager Aaron, my contact at the bordello. Jacquie is both an escort and the nighttime receptionist. An elegant Singaporean woman who appears to be in her early 40s, perhaps even older, she has caramel skin with laugh lines, long dark hair and an infectious sense of humour.
After the red room, Jacquie shows me another huge, spa room with identical features to the first, except in gold. Directly next to these rooms is the Lounge. This, Jacquie explains, is where the customers sit and wait. Just like the rest of Langtrees, the Lounge seems caught between the old and the new.
The Langtrees bordello (a title which Langtrees clearly prefers as opposed to brothel) is brought to life within its walls with rustic finishes, plush furniture and gold metal abound. This whimsical, Midwest opulence is paired oddly with green LED lights. They’re everywhere; washing over you in the hallway, dancing over the furniture in the Lounge area. Most of the time I feel like I’m in Mission Impossible.
Each room contains a large bed and a shower or bath. In one room, Jacquie steps into one of the showers and grabs some assistance bars that have been drilled into the wall.
“For shower sex!” she announces, laughing.
The highlight of the tour is when Jacquie glances over her shoulder as we walk through the corridors and casually asks, “So, when are you starting, darling?”
I laugh as I realise that Keryn, the daytime receptionist, never told Jacquie that I was writing a story.
“Oh, I’m not” I say, “I’m here to interview…anyone, really.”
Jacquie is incredibly apologetic but also laughing hysterically, as am I. It’s only later that I realise I should have been flattered.
Aaron arrives soon after and we dive into the history of the bordello. “Mary-Anne Kenworthy [a sex worker and activist from Perth] opened this business in Canberra about a year and a half ago,” says Aaron, “as part of her efforts to get a liquor licence in Western Australia.”
Langtrees Perth, Aaron explains, operates at some four times the capacity that Langtrees Canberra does, however as prostitution is not ‘legal’ in Perth; “it operates under a containment policy.” Aaron also explains that, in WA, if you are a ‘madam’ by occupation, the state recognises you as ‘unsound of mind’.
“[Mary-Anne] legally purchased this business with an attached liquor license, and traded for around six to seven months here without incident, and then she brought that as evidence to the Liquor and Gaming Commission in Perth to say ‘well I’m fit and [sound of mind] in Canberra, why aren’t I in WA?’,” explains Aaron. Mary-Anne was denied her liquor license in Perth, but Langtrees Canberra continues on.
As Aaron gives me another tour of the rooms, he explains the services available within Langtrees.
“The longest booking that’s happened while I’ve been here is 14 hours.”
We’re back in the red room.
“Was that with multiple women?” I ask, stunned. “No, just the one” replies Aaron. “The next [longest] would be a 12 hour booking where a gentleman had two or three ladies. The spa’s really, really popular.”
“We also do dinner dates in these rooms—four hour bookings. We charge $1300 for that.”
“It’s $400 an hour with any of our ladies, regardless of the services exchanged during that hour. We then split that 50/50 with the [escort]”
We walk into one of the smaller rooms.
“The ladies bring the client in here and then perform a health check, which is where they look for [STIs]. The client then jumps in the shower.”
“In the ACT it’s illegal to [perform] any services without a condom,” he explains, showing me the sanitary disposal bin. I feel somewhat like I’m at an induction for a part-time job and a small part of me looks from the bed to the shower and back, wondering if I have the guts—or the mental finesse—to moonlight as an escort. $200 an hour is still going around in my head.
“The ladies do have a choice,” says Aaron, “they have the option of saying no to a client…some ladies don’t like tattoos, piercings, that sort of thing, but nine times out of 10 they go with the client.”
I ask if they have a relationship with any particular condom supplier – surely it would be big business for brands like Ansell or Lifestyles.
“We do sell Ansell condoms in a [few sizes] but ladies supply their own – that way they can decide whether they do latex or non latex.”
Aaron calls out to a tall, dark young woman making a cup of tea in the kitchenette. “Isabelle what brand do you use? Any preference?”
“Nope,” she shrugs, “I buy mine online. In bulk.”
We walk back out into the Lounge and Aaron asks Jacquie if she’s available to talk to me. Jacquie and Aaron were interviewed by the ABC a while ago and aren’t media shy. I’m hoping there are more like them at Langtrees.
Before my visit I had a million questions, some hyper personal, others merely logistical, but in the presence of women in the ‘oldest profession on earth’ I’m slightly lost for words. How do you interview these women without fetishising them? Without reducing them to their profession? Without seeming condescending?
Luckily, Jacquie is a great first interview because her life, it turns out, has run parallel to Langtrees for the last 25 years.
“I went to work for Mary-Anne in Perth, about 25-27 years ago. Don’t get me wrong, where we worked, it wasn’t ‘acceptable’, but yet people closed their eyes. We felt like we were accepted in Langtrees. We were in a safe place,” says Jacquie.
“Compared to those days…money-wise it’s nothing.”
I’m surprised when she says this. “Was it more expensive or less expensive?” I ask, somewhat confused.
“We used to make more money in those days,” says Jacquie. “Oh yes.”
I ask if this was because the market was less saturated. Jacquie nods.
“In those days, in one night I could easily make $5000,” says Jacquie. “I could easily have a tip of $5000. That’s actually the biggest [tip] I ever had.”
I tell them that I’ve heard sitting weeks of Parliament are one of Fyshwick and Mitchell’s busiest times. Aaron nods.
“We forecast these things into our roster, our next one is next week. We have hotel(s) organised already, we’ve got extra girls that will [fly] in for that, it also coincides with pay week next week. In Canberra we alternate between a busy week and a quiet week, depending on when the public servants get paid.”
The next escort I speak to is Anastasia. I had glimpsed her in the Lounge before, speaking French to one of the drivers and had assumed she was European. It turns out that Ana, with her long blonde hair and doll like face, is Russian but has been working in Europe for the last year or so. She’s only been in Australia for three months.
“I was living in Europe, in Switzerland, and I [wanted] to see a new place, to discover [new things],” says Ana. “I want to visit Canada and the US as well.”
With her Russian Bond Girl accent, I can see Ana’s exotic appeal. I ask Ana if her occupation as an escort gives her the freedom to travel that no other job could.
“Of course. It’s easier. But I know that I could get another job, if I [wanted] and I could travel around the world if I [wanted].”
Ana’s English is slightly limited and we struggle in our communication. I want to know so much more about her background, the state of the Russian sex industry, what sort of culture there is in Europe around the sex industry, if she’s ever worked in Amsterdam. Instead, I ask her what the best thing about being an escort is.
“The money, the [flexibility], you can work when and where you want – it’s up to you.”
“[Canberra] is nicer, living is easier. Not because of money but because the attitude is completely different. Many people support me and people are nicer. Not so stressed like in Europe.”
Ana says she sees a different type of client than in Europe.
“There’s not so [many] drugs [in Canberra]. The preferences are different. In Europe they need a strong service and here it’s quite normal, a light service. Less pornstar experience and more girlfriend experience.”
Aaron stresses to me later that night that Langtrees has a very strict no drugs policy.
“But when you get a client that wants two girls for a party booking at a hotel somewhere, you know what’s going to happen, and you can’t stop anything, it’s the nature of the business.”
When I ask Ana if she prefers Australian clients to European clients her answer is an immediate “Yes.”
Isabelle joins us later, looking a little nervous. It turns out she’s not from Canberra, but comes here regularly to moonlight. By day she’s studying Psychology at a prestigious university.
“I just did two semesters full time [at university] and now I’m part time. When I come to Canberra I usually work as many nights as I can, usually six in a row,” says Isabelle.
I ask her whether she is an escort in her hometown and she shakes her head.
“That’s the whole point of coming to Canberra, I used to work close to home but it’s easier to work when you’re not worried about every person who walks in – whether you know them or not.”
“It does happen,” interjects Aaron. “I’ve had girls rock up at uncles’ houses, cousins’ houses…”
Isabelle nods. “It’s just not worth the risk because there’s no explaining it.”
I ask Aaron what Langtrees considers ‘off-limits’. “There are no limits,” he replies. “As long as the service is delivered safely and with a condom, there are no limits.”
“I’ve had clients who wanted women to walk them on a chain. They asked to be walked out [into the Lounge area] like dogs and have all the rest of the staff point and laugh at them. They pay extra for that.”
“There are a lot of powerful people in Canberra, people with a lot of responsibility, for them to be able to relieve some of that tension, the BDSM market in Canberra is quite strong. There are quite a few people who like to be dominated.”
“There’s a gentleman who rings up very regularly who asks for someone’s shoes to clean with his tongue. He wants to be made a slave. We tend to keep those [bookings] in-house, just because it gives us a lot more control over a situation.”
“Everybody, behind closed doors, has their fantasies and I think the sex industry is [beneficial] because we can facilitate that in a safe environment.”
Aaron says that Langtrees is often a way for people to explore their sexuality away from public stigma.
“We get a lot of young guys in here who want a man and a woman,” explains Aaron. “Some of our girls do a ‘bi experience’ where we get couples coming in who want to spice things up. We had a couple come in a while ago for their 20th wedding anniversary. We get some interesting clients through, but we never judge.”
Jacquie has gone back to reception and Aaron and I sit at the bar, chatting away. There’s so much to discuss – every facet of the company is interesting. Aaron tells me about the Canberra hotels most frequented by escorts, the high profile figures Langtrees has hosted over the years, the fact that at any time their escorts have the opportunity of flying to Langtrees bordellos in Sydney or Perth for a week, just to spice things up. The occasional customer walks in behind me and I make sure I don’t turn around.
I don’t want to end this on a sentimental note because I don’t want to spread the message that the sex industry is sunshine and rainbows and $200 an hour for little effort because it’s just not true. Equally, I don’t want to lie and say that my visit to Langtrees was anything less than warm, enjoyable and educational, (as I’m sure most paying clients find).
Instead, I’ll end with my favourite story from Langtrees.
“Jacquie, tell Bea about that famous person you had dinner with,” calls out Aaron.
We’re behind reception at the end of the night. Aaron is showing me the complication logistics of coordinating myriad drivers, escorts and clients. The software Langtrees use to keep track of the escorts’ multiple bookings and whereabouts is particularly impressive – everything from doctors visits to notes on relationship statuses are documented meticulously. Jacquie walks over.
“When I was younger, in Singapore, I was booked for a dinner date – just dinner,” begins Jacquie. “I get to the restaurant and am taken to a private room – there are so many security guards, I can’t even see who it is. It was John Lennon!”
“You were paid to have dinner with John Lennon?” I ask, detaching my jaw from the carpet.
“Yes,” says Jacquie, matter-of-factly. “He was very handsome, but he tried to light a [joint] during dinner and I said to him ‘if you do that I’m out of here! Don’t you know the laws about drugs in Singapore?’”.
Jacquie, all these years later, is still unimpressed.
“What did he say?” I ask. Jacquie looks at me.
“He put it out, darling.”
Read this article and more in HerCanberra’s latest edition of ‘Magazine: The Hidden Issue’ available for free now at these stockists.
Image of ‘mysterious woman…’ via Shutterstock