A sex work community post-disaster: Sasha’s on Cook Street after the floods
By: Sarah Hall
One of the 2627 buildings that were submerged by the recent floods in Lismore was the town’s brothel, Sasha’s on Cook Street.
Since Sasha took over the business in 2013, the South Lismore brothel has employed over 330 workers and has been the centre of the local community of sex workers and clients. Many speak about their workplace with affection, and of the community surrounding it like family.
Image by: Sasha
I spoke to the owner Sasha and two workers, Phoenix and Miami, about what Sasha’s has meant to them, and how their lives have been affected since the business flooded and was forced to close.
Sasha is currently investigating options for reopening, but has faced a number of barriers, and with the region preparing for more wet weather, she’s reluctant to reopen in the flood zone.
Given the anonymity that most sex workers maintain due to stigma around the profession, much of the Sasha’s community have mourned the loss of their workplace in silence. Below are edited excerpts from each of the interviewees, in their own words. Work names have been used for discretion.
In Sasha’s words: “I’m determined to rebuild”
I had never thought of running a brothel before, but I wasn’t getting by.
In 2013, the lady who was running it before me went bankrupt, and the receptionist asked me if I’d take it over. I saw an accountant and they told me not to do it, but I went ahead anyway.
It was traumatic at the start. We had bikies from the Gold Coast saying I had to hand the business over to them. And the girls at the beginning were horrible to each other. There was a lot of undercutting and openly taking drugs. We had a lot of fighting and carrying on.
But by about 2016, things started to shift.
I just wanted to make Sasha’s somewhere people could go, free of drama. Somewhere they could escape their normal life. I always said to the girls, “You’re welcome to drop in anytime – you can come talk to anyone at any stage.”
And that culture just kept growing and building. But when the flood happened, I thought, why did I do this to myself? I have just lost everything.
The first night after the flood, my partner and I went in at about 9pm. There was no power. I thought the flood wouldn’t have gotten into Sasha’s, because our building was at 12.6 metres. [Before February, the highest flood on record since colonisation was 12.46 metres. But that night, it reached 14.4 metres.]
We had to force the front door open because the lounge had fallen against it. It was pitch black inside. We only had our phone torches and every single fire alarm was going off. There was just this noise: beep beep beep. All we could see was mud – and furniture thrown everywhere.
I saved what I could: a couple of beds out of the 12 rooms, the antique ashtrays.
Initially, there were five of us girls plus my partner, just wheelbarrowing up and down the driveway with everything and dumping it all on the street. Then we had like eight more people come help, including the biggest guy you’ve ever seen. He helped with the mattresses, ’cos we just couldn’t lift them with all the mud.
I kept getting called to rooms: “Do you want to save this? Do you want to save this?”
I’d kept every single card from every girl over the years, and I lost all of those, as well as Christmas party cards with everyone’s names on them. I’d bought Playboy magazines from the birth year of all of us older ladies who worked there, from the ’70s. I was upset to lose those too.
And then there were the outfits that people left there. I had a whole row of them and I remembered who’d worn each one. There were a couple of things from my friend Jess who passed, but we also had a plaque for her and luckily we went back for that.
It’s not the actual building that I miss. It’s the girls. It’s the clients. The disability clients especially.
When the flood was happening, all these disability clients couldn’t get a hold of their carers and so many of them rang me – and still ring me – which I think says a lot for a business. If a disability client couldn’t get in touch with their carer, we were their next point of call.
A lot of clients are my friends, and if I don’t restart the business, I won’t ever get to see them again.
I keep coming up against barriers trying to reopen. Real estate agencies don’t even want to know about me. In our industry, we don’t have the options that other businesses do. We have to be in specific zones. We need showers in every room. It has to be safe and discreet, so that clients aren’t worried about coming by.
In our industry, everything is always harder.
Sasha’s was like a second home, because it was somewhere we could always go and have a chat and have a drink. You’ve got nowhere to go? Doesn’t matter, just go to work.
A more homely place would be nice next time – with a view, on a hill, out of flood zones, and not so commercial. That’s what I’m manifesting.
I don’t think it’s the end of Sasha’s. It’s just an interim period. I’m feeling a bit lost at the moment, but I’m stubborn and I’m determined to rebuild.
In Phoenix’s words: “The flood impacted my entire life”
Before the flood, I’d worked at Sasha’s for about four years.
I was only doing day shifts. Before I became a parent, I was addicted to drugs and depended on them to get through long shifts – through days and nights in the cities. So, I made a strong decision to no longer work at night.
Day shifts mostly involved seeing tradies. I had a lot of half-hour regulars. Every now and then, richer clients would come from Byron and book me for a couple of hours, sometimes up to four or five hours in VIP.
The flood impacted my entire life. I had just bought my first house in North Lismore, the repayments for which I could afford based purely on my income from Sasha’s. The flood took my house and my job, and my capacity to rebuild my house was compromised. After all, I could only afford home insurance because of my job.
Dealing with the insurance company and the stress of parenting, all while having no income, has been incredibly challenging.
I’ve been a sex worker since I was 22, and I’m now 39. It’s the only job that I really know how to do as well as I do. I suddenly feel confused about how to earn the amount of money I need to recover from the flood, while maintaining the lifestyle that I want to provide for my child.
In some ways, the flood strengthened my connection to the community, and in other ways, it totally fractured it. A lot of people who were renting moved away. All my sex worker friends from the brothel have had to travel for work, or move away permanently to find work.
On the other hand, we saw that even at the brothel – a business that usually experiences a lot of prejudice – complete strangers had shown up to help us clean. People moved sodden old beds, drawers full of condoms, butt plugs, dildos – all that stuff.
Some of them were Christians, and they helped clean up. That was the most spontaneous display of sex worker solidarity – from complete strangers – I’d ever seen in my life.
Sasha has been really supportive. She’s regularly been bringing packages for me and my son, trying to get outcalls for all the workers and always calling to check in.
I’m not ‘out’ about my job as a sex worker. Because of the stigma around sex work, I invented a fake job. After the flood, losing my job and my income wasn’t something that I could be openly upset about, because people thought I still had this fake job.
I was still pretending: “Oh, I’ve got to go to work. I’ll see you this evening.” But then I just sat in my car and cried, drove to other towns and cried, or worked with clients who were saying really thoughtless things about the flood.
Losing my job – that I’m not out about, that I really love, and that is the single thing that supports me and my son – was almost worse than losing my house.
In Miami’s words: “Sasha’s was like my home away from home”
I started at Sasha’s nine years ago, and it was my first time working in a brothel.
I’d been hooking up with losers and thought, “If I’m going to be a slut, I may as well be a smart slut – might as well get paid for it.” So that’s exactly how it all went down.
There was a period when I’d lost my kids – when they were taken from me – and I worked pretty much every weeknight. My partner at the time was locked up in Kempsey. So I’d work weeknights, and then on the weekends I’d go to Kempsey.
My then-partner said I had to stop working if we were going to be together. I told him I’d stopped, but I never did. To me, it’s just work, man. It’s not the same as having sex with someone, or being in love, or anything like that. It’s just work.
Sasha’s was like my home away from home. When I didn’t have my children, that’s where I would go, even just to hang. I enjoyed the girls’ company. There were only a couple that I didn’t like, but I wasn’t rude or anything – it was always like family.
Since the flood, it’s just… it’s shit! I’ve got no money. I have a gas bill that’s $450. I have an electricity bill that’s $350. And I’m starting to fucking wonder, what the fuck am I going to do?
Not only that, Sasha’s was my social outlet. The people understood me; not a lot of people do. I guess ’cos the other girls already understand the sex work side of things, so we were on the same level with that.
The flood has caused a ripple effect, I guess.
Now I’m virtually living payday to payday on Centrelink, and I haven’t done that for five years. I’ve renewed my RSA and I thought I could get a job doing bar work or something, but I don’t really want to do that.
What do I miss? I enjoyed seeing someone smile, and knowing that smile’s made from me.
Sometimes I’d go to Sasha’s just to have a spa because I don’t have a bath at home. Right up until the day before I gave birth to my baby, I was there having a spa.
I lost everything in my locker, and my locker was fucking jam-packed. You had to hold an arm in it to try to jam the door shut. And there was a lot of sentimental, I guess, outfits and stuff in there, because I’d been at Sasha’s for so long.
There were a lot of funny memories too: walking the bins out naked, the Christmas parties. I even had a baby shower there as well.
Like I said, it was my family. I just want my family back.
Sarah Hall is a writer living on Kulin land. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, Cordite, Stilts and elsewhere.
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