In a quiet cul-de-sac nestled in the industrial area of East Wagga sits an unassuming, red brick house. Overgrown grass edges its fence and a slightly cracked driveway leads up to the property. Despite its rather underwhelming appearance, however, this is the town's most popular brothel.
Behind its doors dreams are made and the fantasies of so many are fulfilled, yet it’s a place forced to hide from the stigmas and stereotypes that are so often forced upon it from the outside world.
On entering the main lounge room of Gypsy’s Kittens and Cougars, you’re greeted by what might be expected: leather couches, dim red lighting and a table bearing packets of Trojans.
But what might not be so apparent, or typical of such an establishment, is the unexpected community of strong and competent women who work within these walls.
Gypsy herself, who has owned the parlour for three years, has a powerful presence. She wears black pants pulled tightly over taught thighs, shiny stiletto boots and a white see-through tank top that reveals a red, lacy bra underneath. She looks like a woman who commands respect. A woman you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Gypsy has been in the sex-working industry for more than 18 years and admits some of the stereotypes are founded, but she’s doing everything she can to change that in her own establishment.
“I want sex-working to be taken seriously and to be seen as a profession,” she says.
“But there are some in the industry that don’t want to go through council and don’t want to bother with the health and safety of their workers and they’re the people making it difficult to promote a positive image of what we do. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still so much corruption.
“If we as working girls want to be seen as professionals, it’s time we started applying for ABNs, following OH&S standards and acting like professionals.”
To ensure her business doesn’t fall victim to the murky waters of the sex-working industry, Gypsy requires all her 15 “entertainers” to receive a health certificate, which they are asked to update every 12 weeks.
She says this isn’t typical among operators in her profession, but for her, educating her girls and caring for their safety is crucial to what she does.
“I want to promote a lot more safe sex and I’d like clients to also be made more aware,” she admits. “A lot of owners don’t necessarily encourage safe sex, because they think they can make more money from clients that way, but that’s a disgusting way to think.
"There are things that happen in our industry that in any other business would cause them to be closed down by the council or WorkSafe, because they’re completely corrupt, illegal or unsanitary. But we’re not regulated in that same way.”
Self-respect is something Gypsy also wants to impart on her girls, teaching them self-confidence and giving them a sense of belonging.
“We want these girls to respect themselves and know they don’t have to go into rooms with men and do things they don’t want to do,” she says.
“They are in control of themselves and with the support of our community we can help them be healthy, happy and achieve their financial goals.
Financial gain is perhaps the most common reason women turn to places like Gypsy’s for work, with many needing to pay off legal fees, mortgages and even their children’s school expenses.
"The money does become addictive,” Gypsy admits.
“Especially when you're trying to get somewhere and make a life for yourself. My girls aren’t just women who want to pay for drugs or plastic surgery, and with our support they can achieve their financial goals.”
A pale, 23-year-old girl, who goes by the working name Alice, turned to sex work for the first time six months ago, when she found herself unemployed once again.
“It’s so hard to find a job in Wagga,” she admits, shaking her platinum blonde hair, a cigarette clutched tightly between her fingers.
“And when I lost my job I didn't want to go through that whole rigmarole of handing out resumes and getting rejected again and again.
“I have a house to pay rent for, animals to feed and I couldn’t afford to be unemployed, so I thought I had nothing to lose and I would give this a try.”
After six months of working at Gypsy’s, Alice says she’d not only saved more money than ever before, but she’d also met some truly inspirational women.
“So far I’ve really enjoyed my time here,” she said.
“Some of the most amazing women I’ve met have been in this industry and they’ve inspired me so much with their positivity and strength.”
According to Gypsy, even the stereotype of her clients as sleazy, cheating men is way off the mark, with many simply looking for affection and even, in some cases, education.
She says only 60 per cent of men usually ask for sex during an appointment, with many being “first-timers” looking to build confidence, or else are older men whose wives have passed away and come simply looking for some kind of intimate female connection.
“The funny thing is that as sex workers, only such a small percentage of what we do is actually have sex,” she laughs.
“So may people come to us just for attention and affection, they just want to feel close to someone.
“Everyone deserves to feel a connection with someone, everyone deserves to be touched. Even if it’s just for a night.”
Tori, a curvy brunette who has been working at Gypsy’s for a year agrees, saying she’s had men come to see her for a wide, often unexpected, range of reasons.
“It’s not just men coming in to be creepy, cheat on their wives and behave like arseholes,” she said.
“I have clients whose wives have passed away and they’re not ready to go into another committed relationship.
“Some married men have admitted to me that they still love their wives but, for whatever reason, the sex has gone and they have to fulfill a certain need.”
Despite the struggles Gypsy faces in transforming the image of her industry, she’s proud of what she and her workers have created in their small, unassuming cul-de-sac.
“We’ve still got a long way to go, but I believe we can make a difference,” she says. “Even if that difference is just making men wear condoms.”