Gambling, Brothels and Marijuana Down Under, Oh My!

Gambling, Brothels and Marijuana Down Under, Oh My!
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(This blog was written on 11.14.15 when I was living in Melbourne. It was the only blog out of more than two dozen that the Huff Post declined to fun. I’m still not sure why. You decide. But given their decreased editorial supervision I’ve decided to add it now to my Huff Post Archive so others can read about these institutions-Aussie style).

I was on my way to the brothel when two chaps at the tennis club asked me to join them for a hit, so I wound up playing tennis instead. I am delighted to begin this next Letter with what would seem to be a reasonably provocative opening sentence, especially since I’m a married man and also hope that these missives remain at least PG-13. But indeed, I’m being quite honest about my original intentions. However, my interests in checking out the brothel, I can assure you (and my wife, Denise) were entirely in the spirit of this ongoing series -- comparing American and Australian society and practices.

About three weeks earlier while walking with a friend/colleague along Gertrude Street in Fitzroy, he off-handedly remarked about the brothels in the neighborhood. “Are you kidding me?” I asked. “No, I’m not. They are absolutely legal in Victoria,” he replied with some surprise of his own in that I was so surprised. I think he believed that brothels were similarly legal and present in the U.S. Patently they are not, with one exception.

I had been aware of large gambling casinos in the centers of big and small Australian cities. Three years earlier, Denise and I, in exploring Adelaide’s North Terrace area, came across a beautifully restored building (it had been the main train station) and were surprised to learn it now housed a large casino.

Gambling is advertised in the newspapers and TV. Off track and sports betting are both legal and huge businesses. The somewhat gaudy ostentatious Crown Hotel gambling complex sits on a prominent position on a turn in the Yarra River just across the CBD in Melbourne. I’ve walked by many times but have never been inside. Not interested…

In Queenscliffe, a picturesque historic town on the southern shores of Phillips Bay 90 minutes from Melbourne, needing a toilet we popped into a small gambling room in the middle of the day and found middle aged patrons playing what is called locally the pokies – on screen poker machines -- and found the scene utterly depressing.

Just in Victoria alone, $5.8 billion dollars were lost ($2.6 billion on the pokies) in the past year. On the other hand, the state government earned $1.6 billion from gambling activities (some of it is spent on trying to treat problem gamblers).

But many older persons (I was about to use the term “elderly” but at 64 I’m getting up there myself) like very much spending their time (and money) gambling. My mother, in her 70s living in Forest Hills, Queens, each month used to get on a bus organized by her Jewish Temple for an hour and a half to spend the day at the Indian Casino just north of New York City. I’d say both Australia and America have legalized gambling, but it seems more ubiquitous here Down Under.

But brothels…I must admit I was surprised and curious. As an American man I suspect I am in the majority in never having visited a brothel. They are legal only in various rural counties in Nevada. I’m not sure what the statistics are about paying for sex, however, in the States. Reforming prostitution laws began in the late 1970s in Australia on a state-by-state basis. It culminated in legislation for Victoria where prostitution became legal and regulated with the Prostitution Act of 1994, renamed the Sex Workers’ Act in the 2000s.

Brothels are more than two sex workers. They require registration and a license from the local town councils. No alcohol is permitted on the premises. No one under 18 can either work there or purchase services. Escort services that include sex are also permitted but do not require a license. Only the worker must be registered. In 2004-2005 it was estimated that $1.7 billion AUD was spent on sex related services in Victoria alone. There were 3.1 million instances of sex for sale for the 1.3 million males in the state of Victoria (there was no data to distinguish visiting men from locals who bought sex in Victoria).

Six to eight large companies dominate the ownership and running of an estimated 400 brothels in Victoria. You can access 86 brothels on line in metro Melbourne on RhEd’s site - Resourcing health & Education (RhED) [UCSF spam filter would not allow me to post this website] - which describes itself as a service for the sex industry in Victoria. Individual women find it more difficult to come up with the money for rent and licenses so it’s fallen to larger organizations to run the industry. A criminal element and organized crime relationship are thought to be present. Ironically, conditions for “working girls” in some ways may have worsened over the two decades of legalization. Wages have definitely fallen and since regulated prostitution is legal in the brothels, the prohibition against street prostitution is now vigorously enforced. I could not find data on whether the women’s health had improved. Sex trafficking and child prostitution likely continue.

Responsibility to uxorial sensitivities ultimately precluded any on-the-ground local research of Melbourne brothels on my part. I did investigate some local brothels on the web. I noted that a number of them closest to my neighborhood in South Yarra (there was none that I could find approved by the Stonnington Council that is the local government of South Yarra) were located in South Melbourne, an interesting area that is just south of the upscale tourist area of Southbank. It is a fairly non-descript section of town. Indeed the photo of the front of the Gotham City brothel [UCSF spam filter blocked this site as well] on Clarke Street shows it sitting next to a one story small somewhat run down office with garages on either corner of the street.

Gotham City is not allowed to advertise but its website proclaims it is Melbourne’s only “6 star establishment”! I never realized there was anything more than five stars but I recall that X-rated movies were soon superseded by XXX movies and then XXXXX attractions. They state they have up to 120 women working for them, but usually there are only three or four around. The rates seemed high (but what do I know about this stuff? – believe me nothing – that’s why it seemed so interesting to me): $260AUD for 30 minutes and $360AUD for an hour.

That’s about all I want to say about this subject. My sense is that modern Australia is much less puritanical about this arena than America. The oldest profession will never go away. Much like abortion, gambling and alcohol, prostitution, Australians feel, is better legalized and regulated (and taxed!) than driven underground. Though by making it legal, the problems surrounding its practice have certainly not gone away – they may even be worse in some aspects.

The Australians’ position on prostitution and gambling appears progressive and libertarian compared to the U.S., but their attitudes and current practice with another “vice”, marijuana, appear lagging behind America. Granted in the U.S. I live in Piedmont, which is surrounded by Oakland, otherwise known as Oaksterdam, where buying, selling, growing and smoking marijuana is virtually legal and commonplace. Indeed, smoking a tobacco cigarette generates far more social opprobrium and even legal consequences compared to puffing on a joint in the East Bay.

Except for die-hard conservatives, everyone in the U.S. recognizes that marijuana prohibition is in its last days and months in many American states. The medical marijuana movement, no matter how reasonable it may be indicated for a very limited number of medical conditions, mimics the end-around last days of the 18th Amendment and Prohibition of the 1920s and 1930s. Daniel Okrent’s book, Last Call [removed link because of UCSF spam filter] details how Americans never fully endorsed prohibition. The legal and illegal ways Americans found to get hooch and drink it, is a primer for the pathway to marijuana’s full legalization, regulation AND taxation.

The Western and Rocky Mountain states are at the vanguard of this change. Contrast the literal atmosphere of marijuana use in those sections of the U.S. compared to Melbourne and Australia as a whole. It is striking. Medical marijuana is just being discussed and funding for some research is beginning here in Oz. I have only smelled marijuana on the streets maybe three or four times in four months here. Walking around a similar section of Oakland or Berkeley I might notice it in the air nearly every day. Also it’s just not a big deal any more. I’m not sure, but the sense I have is publicly smoking marijuana here is still considered quite risky.

I also don’t have much experience with the Australian outdoor rock concert scene but this past week Denise and I caught Mumford and Sons at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in the Arts Centre. I estimated a crowd of about 15,000 in attendance. I do not recall sniffing a whiff of that sweet odor during the time we hung out there. Admittedly, we didn’t stay through the whole show. It was standing room only once the band started playing and at our age we tend to capitulate to our bodies’ complaints and depart. I can’t imagine an outdoor concert in the Bay area without the smell of marijuana smoke present. Hell, you even smell it at Oakland Raider football games.

I have neither the drive nor desire to try to determine the etiologies behind the differing status of prostitution, gambling and marijuana use between the two countries. But I continue to be fascinated and often tickled by differences between these two seemingly very similar cultures.

Moving on quickly to some final thoughts in this Letter. I previously discussed the absence of jock straps Down Under. I discovered yet another serious void – pencils with eraser tips. I brought two Ticonderoga #2 pencils (my favorites) from the States but four months down the road I was down to only half of the second. So I wandered over to Officeworks (the main stationary chain in Melbourne, maybe in Australia) just down the street from my home and discovered that of the two dozen brands of pencils sold at the store only the Staedtler norica HB’s had erasers on their ends. The salespeople had never noticed that this brand had erasers attached because their experience has always been that one erased in pencil what one wrote with a separate rubber eraser. Go figure (bad pun).

Australian words of the week for us temporary ex-pats: to knacker – to dismember, as what a butcher does to a carcass (British) “would seek to bring horror and havoc to the world by knackering a betting shop.” And chook – a hen or slang for: a woman (Australian).

Finally, under the “Don’t call it Frisco” category, I was correctly reprimanded yesterday that proper pronunciation of “Aussies” is not with the “s” sound in the middle but with the “z” sound as in “Auzzies.” I am forever grateful for the correction.

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