Every stereotype of what to expect in a brothel whirls around in my mind.
An uninviting corridor to endless rooms? Scantily dressed women lined up and waiting around for a paying ‘john’? Too many Hollywood movies…
Ultimately, I don’t really know what to expect.
When I ring the bell on the video intercom a woman's voice answers and the door clicks open to let me in. Inside, I’m greeted by a steep staircase.
Immediately my senses kick up a notch as I leave the greyness of the inner-city street behind me. Aromatic oils and smooth cafe-style tunes waft quietly through the air.
A woman in her mid-50s with wild, curly black hair and dark eyes framed by glasses (Madame Mary) welcomes me to The Fun House.
The establishment we walk into has five rooms, each named after classic cars, and rivals any five-star boutique hotel.
The first words out of my mouth are “I would like to live here”. She laughs, but isn't surprised – she gets this a lot.
But this isn’t your average weekend getaway. In the bedside tables, condoms and lubes replace the Holy Bible and free pens. Here women sell sex and (mostly) men come to buy it.
First things first, Mary has a few rules for me, and as a self-confessed control-freak, she’s not afraid to be clear about what they are.
She tells me I mostly have free rein in The Fun House on three conditions – I cannot show the exterior of the building, she and her partner (Mikel) are not be to filmed at the same time and she will remain ‘on-duty’ throughout the interview.
It’s a Sunday morning which also happens to be Father’s Day – apparently a ‘quiet’ day for The Fun House.
We set up the interview in the ‘Ambassador’ room, which is also Mary’s very own dominatrix dungeon. The dark wooden walls are adorned almost floor to ceiling with anything a sadist or masochist might desire.
Mary takes a seat in the middle of an old hospital bed in front of a wall with a pair of handcuffs fastened to it.
Mary is intelligent, professional and generous with her time.
She starts from the beginning. Growing up in a strict Catholic home she didn't see what was so wrong with Mary Magdalene.
She openly talks about her sometimes-turbulent past, working in brothels in New Zealand and overseas and owning a business with her late husband that was burnt to the ground.
Over the years she has come and gone from it, but something always pulled her back, she says. She tells me she’ll work in the industry until the day either her mind dies or she does – whichever comes first.
During our interview Mary’s mobile runs hot and she handles the non-stop calls and texts like a master juggler. Her demeanour is so calm you might guess the enquiries and bookings were for routine dental appointments.
Some of the men call in with endless questions, and I can’t help but wonder about the person on the other end. When one caller asks for a 15-minute booking, the look on Mary’s face says it all – this is something clearly not on offer at The Fun House.
“Sex work is work and that’s why it’s called sex work” she says at one point.
I found the many characters who make up the sex industry an eclectic mix. They do the work for different reasons, although money is the main draw card.
Telling this story has been challenging at times, but the people I've met have been gracious in sharing stories of the journey they took into the industry.
Some stories are heart-wrenching to hear.
There is no denying that some parts of this world are troubled – souls are broken, families kept in the dark. Sometimes drugs are used and lives have been lost.
Other stories are more positive than you might expect.
Some people have families, others hold down other careers or are training to be a pilot or lawyer, some are working towards a PhD. Some are married with children, while others struggle to maintain relationships. Some love the sex, while others simply see it as work.
But many see the street or brothel as more than their workplace – it’s the place they belong, their home.