Western Australia has some of the most criminal laws around sex work in the world, but that hasn’t stopped Questa Casa, a brothel in the mining town of Kalgoorlie, operating since 1904.
It’s Australia’s oldest running brothel, founded during the gold rush of the mid 1890s, and for the last quarter of a century has been helmed by the unflappable Madam Carmel, an 80-year-old woman who bought the brothel after becoming widowed. (She’s not permanently 80, obviously, but like Questa Casa, seems almost ageless, a permanent fixture while Kalgoorlie changes around her.)
Born in Sydney, Madam Carmel moved to Kalgoorlie in after buying up the business in 1992 following the death of her husband. She’d never worked in the sex industry before, but hey, a business is a business – and it’s certainly more lively than the morgue business she was planning on buying, so to speak.
She’s speaks in clipped, deliberately delivered tones, as if every sentence is a life lesson she’s told a hundred times before. And even though she’s managed the brothel for some 25 years, she seems largely at odds with the industry she works in.
“Well, I’ve always thought that prostitution shouldn’t be a mainstream thing,” she told PEDESTRIAN.TV over the phone, when the conversation turned to decriminalisation. “I think that ladies who do this industry should work in certain sections, and not be spread right through the country.”
Both she and Questa Casa are the subject of a new and fascinating documentary called The Pink House, which takes a peek into the usually secretive world of brothels.
The doco – which won Best Australian Documentary at the recent Sydney Film Festival – follows Carmel as she battles to keep the brothel in business following both the end of the mining boom and the end of Kalgoorlie’s controversial containment policy.
You see, brothels were – and still are – illegal in WA. The mishmash of laws governing sex work make the the practise incredibly unsafe, according to Scarlett Alliance, the national peak sex worker organisation. (For example, police are allowed to use your clothing and the presence of condoms to determine if you are a sex worker, but will also fine you for being a sex worker not carrying condoms.)
Containment was a way around that. Sex workers stayed on Hay St, and police turned a blind eye while monitoring from a distance. In its heyday, there were 18 brothels along the street. “It was fabulous,” says Carmel. “The girls made far more money here than they ever made in private.”
But in 2000, the WA Liberal Government abandoned containment, and sex workers similarly abandoned Hay St. Fast forward 17 years, and business has all but dried up.
“There are always girls wanting to come here to work. But I tell the truth: there’s very little business on the street. We’ve gone four nights with nobody walking down the street at all,” says Carmel.
“It was claimed that when containment lifted, it wouldn’t make any difference to the industry. In fact, it killed it for the main street that had always been here.”
Mother and daughter
Until a short time ago, one of the last women working at the brothel was BJ, and the doco spends a great deal of time exploring the relationship between madam and sex worker.
Carmel describes theirs as like “mother and daughter”, and there’s certainly elements of that. BJ looks to her for support, and Carmel frets about her wellbeing. “I’m going out front, boss,” BJ says in the doco in a cheerful manner, meaning she’s going ‘out front’ to work (Questa Casa opens onto the street, with ‘stable’-like rooms for each of the girls to attract customers from). Pretty much everything BJ does is in a cheerful manner. She has an easy laugh, a way of making the punters who take her up on her services feel like they’re treating themselves.
But you can’t stop your heart aching for her. As the documentary goes deeper into her story, you find out about the shocking abuse and mistreatment in her past at the hands of those she was supposed to be able to trust the most. While it’s not explicitly stated, you get the feeling that her occasional drug use might be a coping mechanism – but that doesn’t stop Carmel from taking a hard line with it. If BJ’s using drugs, she’s not working at Carmel’s.
And then when BJ became mixed up in a gruesome murder back in 2014, Carmel banned her from working at Questa Casa for good.
She had been living with four men at the time, who one night early in the year kidnapped, tortured, killed and dismembered Kalgoorlie man Beau Davis. She came home in the middle of the crime, and was forced to clean it up.
“I have a lot of nightmares about people losing limbs and a lotta blood, all that sort of stuff,” she says in the documentary, revealing that she was on some pretty heavy medication. “Smells ignite me too… the smell of blood, the smell of urine. It sets me off sometimes.”
After the murder, she wanted to move back in with Carmel, but her ‘mother’ was unsympathetic to her plight.
“She wanted to come back here and I said no, you can never come here,” says Carmel. “When you swim with sharks, you have to expect to be eaten.”
“The best and safest place for me is Questa Casa and Carmel, and now I’ve ruined all that,” says a tearful BJ. “It was the drugs that enticed me away.”
The pair remain in touch, and Carmel has even invited her up to stay for Christmas this year. “But not to work,” she says. “She can never work here again.”
The end of an era
The business is dying. There’s no getting around that. These days, Carmel runs tours to supplement the income in the afternoon, crafting wild and salacious stories for the retirees who trope through.
She still feels a sense of obligation to keep the history of Questa Casa. “It’s the only part of old Kalgoorlie left,” she says. “I am the conservator of it.”
And while there are days when business is booming, the death of Hay St and changing industry means it hasn’t been like it once was for almost two decades.
“Eventually, this house will finish up just a museum,” she says. And she seems resigned to it, too.
For session times for The Pink House, head to demand.film. If you can’t find a location near you, you can host your own screening and sell tickets via your social media channels to your mates and colleagues.