Closing the doors on Northland’s ‘ethical’ brothel

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

When Madam Murphy set out on her first foray into the world of sex work with Whangārei’s The Bach she was full of optimism. She dreamt of establishing a feminist escort agency that would empower women and give them choice.

But the reality turned out to be not so simple.

Her journey began back in 2017, when San Francisco local Antonia Murphy set up what she described as an "ethical" brothel. It gave women a safe, clean space to work in; flexible working hours and a salary of at least $150 an hour.

Most importantly, it gave women a choice to say no. “Consent was at the core of everything we did,” she says. “It was very clear that they could always withdraw consent, at any time, during a booking.”

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The women she hoped to hire were those 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 abuse issue.”

Four years on Antonia Murphy holds the same passion to empower women and strongly believes ethics can, and should be, synonymous with the sex industry.

“I was a bit idealistic going in. I had this idea, that it would all be this happy, feminist sexual adventure and that definitely wasn’t always the case.”

There were those for whom work at The Bach was that simple. H* was one of those who was drawn to the brothel as a way of fulfilling her sex drive and desire to experiment.

So when her husband told her of the new escort agency operating out of a riverside motel in the city, she thought, 'Why not?'.

“It was fantastic,” she says. “I did not have a single encounter that made me feel unsafe. Maybe a little uncomfortable sometimes, but nothing I couldn’t handle. And the knowledge there was someone watching cameras on the door, just a phone call away from me made me feel really safe.”

However, in Whangārei at least, H seemed to be the exception among the pool of women who came to The Bach seeking work.

Instead, Murphy says the typical worker was often a young solo mother in her 20s with limited, if any, qualifications.

“If they then wanted to better their circumstances by going back to school for nursing, or to be a police officer or whatever that is. What would you do?

“Would you scrape by with those less than minimum cash jobs and the benefit, and then you also have to pay childcare for all those hours. Or would you come in and work a few hours a week and really move ahead?"

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In today’s society sex is frequently glamourised; in music, comedy, films and in everyday conversation. Yet, when the concept of selling sex is brought up, eyebrows often go up.

The concept of an "ethical" brothel is often followed with the question, “What makes it ethical?”

Murphy says: “Luckily it’s not a bullsh** word. I actually have an answer to that – we were doing something different.”

The former madam may be the first to use the word ethical as a business catchphrase, but running a brothel with a strong sense of ethics is not in itself new.

Even before sex work was decriminalised in New Zealand, there have been those fighting for the rights of its workers. In 1987 the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective was formed by sex workers determined to seek fairer treatment.

And there are notable leaders within the industry who have built a reputation for running a high-end service that puts honesty and respect at the forefront of the business.

In fact, Murphy drew inspiration for The Bach from Wellington’s The FunHouse when she began exploring the impact of decriminalisation on New Zealand’s sex industry.

“I wasn’t sure if sex work could be done in a way that really supported the rights of the workers.”

But after spending two weeks in Wellington learning from brothel owner Mary Brennan’s 21 years of experience, she was convinced.

“I thought, 'Yes, that’s what I want to do. I want to start an escort agency that will really support the rights of women and give them a chance to earn at a higher level.'”

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Less than two decades ago, the world of sex work was far less cosy. Many were working in unsafe environments – on the street, in brothels – where choice was limited and they were at risk of exploitation.

Most felt unable to turn to authorities if anything went wrong.

The situation began to change in line with the law. Eighteen years ago, the Prostitution Reform Act paved the way for an environment most in the industry say is better.

It was a hard-fought battle that was tipped to fail but it passed with a narrow majority of 60 votes in favour to 59 against, with one abstention - making New Zealand the only country in the world to have decriminalised the entire consensual commercial sex industry.

There were concerns the law would see a proliferation of brothels and sex workers, but the latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show the number of those applying to run a brothel each year has been dwindling; down from 332 applications in 2004 to just 16 this year.

There are currently 45 active licenses.

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University of Otago professor of public health, Gillian Abel, has done research into the sex industry for the last 24 years.

Before the law was changed, she says people who exploited, coerced, or committed violence against sex workers had no fear of repercussion.

“Sex workers would be exposing themselves as working illegally, if they reported these incidents.”

Today, she says sex workers know they have more power.


“This has seen a change in business practice within brothels. Sex workers are able to refuse to see a client, are better able to negotiate what services they are willing, or not willing, to provide.

“They are better able to negotiate safe sex and are better able to do something if these conditions are not met.”

Wellington-based sex worker Mia* has never known what it was like to work in pre-decriminalisation years. But she says those that did have described a climate of violence, where they were forced into undesirable situations.

For her, the decision to enter into sex work was a choice - one that she feels has given her a sense of ownership over her body and her relationship to sex.

“I was afraid I didn’t have power over it. I wanted to reclaim sex and reclaim this control.”

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However, even as the industry as a whole appears to be safer, there remains a large cohort of women for whom the foray into the sex world is a more complicated tangle of choice driven by need.

Abel says even as she’s met many who are well-educated with other options, poverty remains a key catalyst for many women deciding to enter sex work.

“There is still a gender pay gap in New Zealand. Many women are in minimum wage occupations and single-parent mothers are at the bottom end of the scale.”

Those selling sex on the streets have the least choice.

“Frequently, these young people have been in the care system and have run away to the street. [They] are also more likely than those who work indoors to have mental health, drug and alcohol and family issues.”

But even then, she says most would say they freely chose sex work, “but their choices are obviously more limited”.

In Whangārei, where there are high levels of deprivation and limited employment opportunities, Murphy soon found her initial dream dissolve into a more tangled reality.

Among those who came to her were victims of abuse, others struggling with addiction and young solo mums barely scraping by.

“When these women came to me with all the impossible tangles of situations between the budgeting, the abusive ex and all of that, I felt really responsible.”

Ultimately, it was this toll of genuinely caring for her employees – alongside the ongoing battle of keeping the business running in the face of some public opposition – that saw her shut The Bach’s doors.

“I was faced with the choice, of was I going to leverage my house and try to purchase a commercial property and really become the Madam of Northland for the next 20 years and take that on board? Or was I going to move on and do something else?

“I decided the latter.”

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This idea of women in need selling their bodies for sex is an uncomfortable reality for some who feel the industry is exploiting their vulnerabilities.

Dutch researcher Joep Rottier writes in a recent book Notes from Isolation that the sex industry across the world is still frequently viewed as immoral.

“Sex workers are frequently seen as deviants and passive victims who have to be rescued against aggressive, unscrupulous clients.”

Wellington-based sex worker Mia questions whether it’s fair to blame the industry for society’s problems.

“Rather than say, ‘There is an issue with poverty’, they say, ‘There is an issue with sex work.'"

Instead, she suggests that when poverty is a reason, for those who are willing to do so, sex work could be seen as an opportunity.

But as negative perceptions continue to make it hard for sex workers to be socially accepted, the suggested change in perspective may take some time.

Even as New Zealand’s moved to classify sex work as a legitimate form of labour, Rottier points out stigma still exists here. He says this became even more transparent during the global pandemic when some, but not all, sex workers accessed the Government wage subsidy.

“At this point, it is interesting to consider whether the worldwide ongoing stigma on sex work also played a role in sex workers’ consideration to abandon the wage subsidy.”

None of those 1News spoke to who still work in the sex industry were willing to be named and identified in this story - all fearful of what it would mean for their reputation within the community.

But they say the stigma goes beyond just having an impact on their personal reputations to getting in the way of those who are trying to create a safer space.

An unidentified Whangārei woman who bought The Bach from Murphy, wanted to carry on its legacy, soon found no one was willing to rent her a suitable space.

“I think people have the wrong idea, and impression of both sex workers and the clients that use those services,” she says. “There are undoubtedly unethical and mismanaged brothels, but we find businesses giving everyone else a bad name in every industry.”

The fear is with nowhere else to turn to, the vulnerable women who came to The Bach in search of a financial leg-up are left with limited other options.

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While The Bach’s doors are closed for now, Murphy says it’s not that she failed.

“My goalposts shifted. I went in there with these very starry-eyed ideas of women who just loved sex and would do it for the sexual adventure.

“What I found was a much more challenging social climate in Whangārei, but that was real... That was what was really happening on the ground.”