“Bye, Mom! I’ll see you tomorrow morning!”
It’s 8 a.m. on a Tuesday and my workday probably started out a lot like yours: packing lunchboxes, making sure the kids eat a healthy breakfast, finding socks and shoes and homework. But when my 9-year-old daughter Miranda kisses me goodbye to catch the school bus, she knows I won’t be home until long after bedtime.
That’s because I’m a pimp. More politely, I’m the madam of The Bach (rhymes with “catch”), a feminist escort agency I own in the North Island of New Zealand.
This is not the career I expected to have. Having grown up in San Francisco, gone to private French school, taken piano lessons, I should probably be something “respectable,” like a scientist or a teacher. But life can take unexpected turns.
I was always interested in sex work ― the notion that we women could use our sex appeal to make money ― and later when I was struggling to get by in New York as a college student, I even called one of those escort agencies that were listed in the Yellow Pages. (Remember the Yellow Pages? I know. I’m ancient.) But in the end, I lost my nerve. It wasn’t the sex work that scared me — it was breaking the law. What if somebody beat me up or raped me? I knew that if I ever called the cops, I would be the one getting arrested. So I went back to my part-time work-study job and ate a lot of rice.
Fast-forward 20 years and I found myself immigrating to New Zealand. I came here for the national health care and spectacular scenery, but New Zealand has something else I didn’t know about at the time: the most liberal laws around sex work of any country in the world. I took note of this, but only in theory. For 10 years, I was busy raising children and running a household. Then my marriage ended in divorce and I needed an income ― fast. So I started a feminist escort agency.
When my daughter asks me what we do at The Bach, I explain it to her in words she can understand: “Ladies do dress-up and give kisses and cuddles to men and make lots of money.”
And basically, that’s true. But I’d like to explain to you what it’s really like, especially since legalizing sex work has become something of a hot topic recently. California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia all have serious movements underway to begin rolling back criminal penalties for prostitution, and last month New York lawmakers introduced the most progressive measure yet: to completely decriminalize sex work throughout the state. The New York move is particularly radical: Unlike legalizing prostitution, which generally leaves in place some government control over sex workers, decriminalizing sex work makes it a job like any other.
When my daughter asks me what we do at The Bach, I explain it to her in words she can understand: ‘Ladies do dress-up and give kisses and cuddles to men and make lots of money.’
And I think that’s great. Along with Amnesty International and the World Health Organization, as well as just about any sex worker you happen to ask, I believe full decriminalization is the safest model for sex workers.
Back in America, people are happy to shout out their nightmare predictions about loosening criminal penalties for sex work: Streetwalkers will take over our cities! Children will be kidnapped and exploited as sex slaves! Men will treat women like objects to be used and thrown away!
But we don’t need to make up horror stories. The experiment’s been done. In 2003, New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized prostitution between consenting adults — although sex trafficking, unprotected sex work and child prostitution are all still criminal. Five years later, the government commissioned a follow-up study, which found that “the sex industry has not increased in size, and … the vast majority of people involved in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously.”
So what’s my job like as a pimp? Do I spend my days snorting lines of cocaine off the breasts of exploited teenagers? Not hardly.
First of all, The Bach is not the glamorous sex palace you might imagine. As it happens, I run the agency from a budget motel. That wasn’t my first choice. Even under decriminalization, there’s still a lot of stigma around sex work. When I tried to rent space for my agency, every landlord turned me down. They’d never heard of a “feminist escort agency” and they assumed I would drag in a mess of gang activity, drugs and crime. But in the end, the motel has worked well for us. It’s discreet for our clients and the rooms are all equipped with their own bathrooms.
This particular motel has eight units spread across a pair of unremarkable buildings painted in shades of grey and white. I run six of the units as motel rooms and most of our guests ― traveling businessmen and families — have no idea there’s an escort agency on site. The other two rooms have been completely redecorated: One has a summery, beachy feel (in New Zealand, a “bach” is a summer cabin by the water) and the other is painted in shades of crimson and burnt umber with Japanese erotic wood prints on the walls. There are other touches, too, that you won’t find in your usual cheap motel room: fresh flowers, a bottle of warm coconut oil for massages, and a variety of condoms and lube.
The first thing I do when I get into work is open up the two service rooms. I check that they’re fully stocked with linens, drinks and safe sex equipment, and I turn on the oil warmers and heaters.
Then I go down to my office, a basement room we affectionately call the Dungeon. There, I check the Batphone (our nickname for the agency’s cellphone) for any messages that came through overnight. Sometimes, these are kind gentlemen who didn’t realize that we close at 10 p.m. Other times, they’re drunk idiots (“U open? Anal?” is a typically charming example of our middle-of-the-night texts).
Before long, my phone starts to ping. A man I call “Ben the Shy Farmer” wants to see Grace, as she’s the only escort he feels comfortable with. Ben is a widower in his 60s who’s spent his whole life on his sheep farm. He is cripplingly shy and he has a bit of a speech impediment.
I text Grace. “Would you like to see Ben at 11 a.m. for a one hour GFE?”
“Sure!” she texts back. “Cyu soon!”
We don’t sell women and we don’t sell sex. Like any skilled professional, such as a massage therapist or a caregiver, an escort sells her time.
“GFE” stands for “Girlfriend Experience,” which is the primary service we offer at The Bach. We don’t sell women and we don’t sell sex. Like any skilled professional, such as a massage therapist or a caregiver, an escort sells her time. In a Girlfriend Experience, she is offering the opportunity for vaginal sex, mutual oral sex and kissing. She is also offering her companionship and kindness ― services our clients often value more than intercourse.
There’s a reason why I say “the opportunity” for sex. Under New Zealand law, a sex worker has the right to withdraw consent at any time, even after a paid booking has started. No one has the right to make her feel disgusted, disrespected or threatened. And that’s why I always ask our escorts if they would like a booking — I never order them to come in. They are independent freelancers and consenting adults, and it is always up to them to accept or decline a client.
Besides GFE, the other main service we offer is sensual massage, which is an erotic naked massage with a hand job finish. In my experience, three kinds of clients book a massage: cheap ones (at $120 for 30 minutes ― that’s New Zealand dollars ― and $160 for the hour, it’s our least expensive service), married men who think they’re not cheating if they don’t engage in penetrative sex, and the occasional tired farmer who actually just wants a rubdown.
But a massage at The Bach isn’t always inexpensive. Anything beyond a hand job costs extra in those bookings. If you want to kiss the escort, it’s $50 extra. If you want a blowjob, it’s $50 extra. And those “extras” go directly into the escort’s pocket — she shares none of those fees with the house. Our most talented saleswoman once racked up $500 in extras during a massage and the guy didn’t even get laid.
Twenty minutes later Grace breezes in looking incredible with her makeup impeccably applied. In her mid-20s, with shoulder-length black hair and stunning Maori-style tattoos up and down her arms, Grace is a single mother putting herself through a carpentry apprenticeship. She could try to get along on single parent benefits (New Zealand has a generous welfare state, at least by American standards), but she doesn’t want to struggle to make ends meet. She wants a warm home for her son, good clothes on his back and — yes! — the occasional nice pair of shoes and dinner out with her friends. She also happens to love the sex.
Grace goes up to the service room and I watch her on the security camera, continuing to field calls and texts as I observe Ben pull into his designated parking spot. When a client makes contact with The Bach, he is given a firm set of instructions: when to arrive, where to park, which door to knock on. The lady locks herself safely in the room, behind tinted glass. She can see out but he can’t see in, so she can take a good look at him and make sure she feels comfortable before she opens the door. On the monitor, I see the door open and Ben goes inside. I set my timer for one hour.
While the booking proceeds, I make a number of other appointments.
“Ravi Learning English” is a new immigrant to New Zealand and his traditional family expects him to remain a virgin until he goes back to India for an arranged marriage. Now that he’s in his mid-30s, he’s decided to get a little sexual experience at The Bach instead of torturing himself with a life of celibacy.
“Michael Kind Respectful and Honest” is a successful local salesman who happens to have an enormous sex drive. He loves his wife and he wants to stay married to her, but she doesn’t want to have sex twice a day. So they’ve made an arrangement: He can visit escorts, as long as she doesn’t know any of the details about his encounters.
“Professor Leo” is a retired English literature professor. He’s only in his 60s, but his wife has early-onset dementia and he has to take care of her full time. Visiting escorts is one way he can get his needs met and still stay devoted to his increasingly disabled wife.
I also take a call from the mother of “Eric With Autism.” Eric, who lives with his parents, saves his disability check for weeks to visit us. When he has enough money saved up, his mother drives him to his bookings.
When I talk to these guys, it’s my job to make sure they sound sober and respectful, and to recommend a lady I think they’ll enjoy meeting. I usually have about 12 to 15 women working at The Bach, ranging in age from 18 to 45. Some are Maori and some are New Zealand European, but, as an added protection against trafficking, all are permanent residents — it’s illegal for anyone to do sex work here on a tourist visa. And because the women only work when they want to, at any given moment there might be only two or three escorts available.
Some of our ladies are available every day, usually while their kids are in school. Others only come in at night, once they’ve finished with their day jobs. Some of the younger ones joined us to have a sexy adventure and make some extra money, and they might come in just a couple of times a month. And our most successful escort, who happens to be 45 years old, comes in one day a week and works all day. She has three or four regular clients, all in their 60s and 70s, and they all book her for two or three hours at a time. We call it her “day at the office” — she works from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and she takes home about $900 at the end of the day.
By the time Grace’s session finishes, I have four more bookings scheduled and my day sheet is filling up. She comes down with a smile on her face and hands me $240, the fee for a one-hour GFE. “How was Ben?” I ask. “Did he behave himself?”
“Oh, he always does,” she says, flopping on the couch and pulling out her phone. “He’s a sweetie.”
“Do you want to cash out or hang out?” I ask. “You’ve got a few more hours till you need to leave at three.”
“I’ll hang out,” she says. “Might get one more.”
Out of the $240 booking fee, Grace will take home $120 and I will keep $120. Some people waggle their fingers at this and accuse me of exploitation, but I would guess those people have never run a business. Out of my half, I pay for rent, insurance, taxes, city rates for land and water, advertising, utilities and salaries for two managers who also work for the agency.
Believe me, my $120 isn’t going to hard drugs and handbags. When all is said and done, I take home about $20 of that fee.
The Bach has employed dozens of women, helping many of them out of poverty. We easily offer the best-paid job available to young women in our New Zealand town.
Grace gets another booking and heads up to see “Dodgy Dave,” a handsome businessman from up north. This client makes me a little queasy. It’s not that he’s a security problem — he’s always scrupulously polite. But he spends an awful lot of money at The Bach. Over the years, he’s probably dropped $50,000 on escorts — and I know he’s married. Does his wife know about all the money he’s spending? Could he be putting his grandchildren through college instead?
On the other hand, The Bach has employed dozens of women, helping many of them out of poverty. We easily offer the best-paid job available to young women in our New Zealand town. Even with a minimum wage of $17.70 an hour here, it’s difficult to make ends meet: Full-time jobs are hard to find, especially for young mothers. If Dave’s money is being redistributed to single mothers and students putting themselves through college, I’m OK with that. I insist that our clients behave like gentlemen, respect our ladies’ boundaries and use condoms. Beyond that, their life choices aren’t any of my business.
That afternoon, Grace has to pick up her kid from preschool and I take a few more calls. I chat for a while with “Sam the Single-Handed Cross Dresser.” He lost a hand years ago in an industrial accident and he’s shy about the disfigurement. He’s also exploring his interest in wearing women’s clothing, so he needs a kind woman who will help him put on his makeup without mockery or judgment. There isn’t exactly a category for that on Tinder — but it’s a service we can provide at The Bach. I think this is why so many of our escorts have a background in nursing or caregiving: For the most part, these are women who enjoy caring for others and they aren’t put off by physical or sexual differences.
I wish there were more calls for kink and fetish bookings in our rural town, but most of our clients are what the Kiwis call “meat and two veg” kind of guys. They book a GFE or a sensual massage, and they’re happy with vaginal sex or a blowjob. Our most commonly requested extra service is anal sex, which costs an additional $100 — and only some ladies will offer it. Domination, spanking, tie and tease, extended fantasies — those bookings are lots of fun, but they’re rarely requested. They’re so unusual, in fact, that sometimes the ladies are caught off-guard. Lucy came down from a booking once with a confused look on her face. “He wanted me to pee on him,” she said. “Is that a thing? I mean, I was happy to do it. But I didn’t know that was a thing people liked.”
“It’s a thing,” I assured her. “It’s called a ‘golden shower.’ And next time, you should charge him an extra 50 bucks for it.”
Since then, we’ve printed up a standard menu of extra services and the price for each ― and Lucy will no longer pee on anyone for free.
The government doesn’t give us any trouble here at The Bach and we support our ladies’ right to consent. If anything, the primary source of stress for our escorts is the fear of being “outed” in our little town.
Later that afternoon, Chloe drops by. I can tell right away something’s wrong — she’s agitated and she looks like she’s been crying. Chloe is a registered nurse who works at the local hospital, but once she pays her student loans and taxes, she’s barely clearing enough income to get by. She joined The Bach because, as she puts it, the extra money “releases me from the daily grovel.”
“My ex!” she spits out, kicking her duffel bag to the floor. “He’s such an asshole!”
In New Zealand, under decriminalization, no one needs to know you are a sex worker unless you choose to tell them. Selling sex has the same legal status as selling pizza or dishwashers.
I question her about what’s happening and it turns out her ex-partner has found out that she’s doing sex work and is threatening to have her kids taken away. Chloe is a smart, confident, professional woman and I’ve never seen her so upset.
“That’s impossible,” I reassure her. “Any judge in this country would throw his claim right out of court.” I know this because I’ve consulted a lawyer. Sex work in New Zealand isn’t just legalized, it’s decriminalized, and in practice those are two very different things.
Take, for example, the “Nordic” or “End Demand” model of sex work. It’s the one they use in Sweden and France, and there are movements to implement it in the U.S. But it makes absolutely no sense. Under the Nordic model, selling sex is legal, but buying it is a crime ― a logical backflip that makes some progressives feel good because they think they’re “saving” the sex workers.
But if a sex worker like Chloe has an ex who wants to kick up a stink, under the Nordic model she could still face trouble in a custody battle. She could also still lose her housing because a landlord could make the case that crimes were being committed in her home. And if she chose to work with other women for safety, then she could still be prosecuted for operating a brothel. The Nordic model isolates sex workers, forcing them to hide so their clients aren’t arrested. And isolated sex workers are always in danger.
In New Zealand, under decriminalization, no one needs to know you are a sex worker unless you choose to tell them. Selling sex has the same legal status as selling pizza or dishwashers. No one can take your kids away for doing it. No one can take your housing away for doing it. And if they try to take your dignity — well, you can laugh all the way to the bank.
Later that night, as I’m driving home, I think about Maya, one of our very first escorts. She was a nursing student when I founded The Bach and her partner had just left her with a toddler to care for. Working as an escort, she put herself through school with no student debt, and she could afford Christmas presents and a couple of vacations as well. Now she’s about to sit her final exams.
“This job saved my ass,” she told me once when we were hanging out in the Dungeon. “I would have had to drop out of school, take a minimum wage job just to eat.” Then she said it again, just in case I didn’t hear. “This job saved my ass.”
And I guess The Bach saved my ass, too. Employers don’t exactly come pounding on the door when you’re a divorced woman in her 40s who’s been out of the workforce for 10 years. Bucking social stigma, learning how to run two businesses, fielding the personal dramas of our ladies and clients — starting The Bach is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I say this as a person who once gave birth to an 11-pound baby in a hot tub with no doctor or midwife in attendance.
So, why do I call The Bach a feminist escort agency? Because we support women’s sexual agency and right to consent. We give women the opportunity to earn good money with completely flexible hours. I didn’t save Maya’s ass. She saved her own ass. I just gave her a place where she could work in safety.
Call me an evil pimp if you want. Just make sure to use the f-word, too. Because that’s the part I’m most proud of.
Antonia Murphy is a San Francisco native who moved to New Zealand permanently in 2008. She is the author of numerous magazine articles and the humorous memoir “Dirty Chick” (Penguin Random House, 2015). In 2017, she founded The Bach and she is writing a book about her adventures as a madam.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.