Brothel creeping – life in a Glasgow sauna

October 24, 1993

Caroline dresses like a hooker. Fishnets, stilettos, low-cut leotard, leather waspie with detachable handcuffs, black widow eyelashes and several cwt of slap. But Caroline is also known as Neil, and follows quite another calling. ”Oooh,” somebody squeals, spotting him. ”It’s the electrician.”

Meanwhile, the girls, the real girls, prefer softer versions of feminine allure: baby-doll nightwear, satin camiknickers, sheer black stockings, skin-tight skirts and gaping blouses, even the velvet-ruffled saloon-gal look. Oh yes, and then there’s me: trousers and jumper. Well, what would you wear to a brothel?

Easy if you’re a man. Towels are the style, greyish from too many tangles with the spin cycle, tied unselfconsciously around milk-white midriffs curdling into middle age. The great thing about towels is their anonymity: without clothes these guys could be anything, tinker, tailor, dustman, bank manager. Perhaps that’s why so many punters hold on to their mobile phones.

It’s midnight in the heart of Glasgow office-land, a bargain basement blend of gentlemen’s club and bachelor pad. Remember Roger Moore in The Persuaders and you’re getting the flavour. Casket-joinery panelled walls, butch shades of burgundy and green baize, pictures you just know were bought for their frames, and a shadowy feel despite the 100 watt lighting, a pervasive atmosphere of fuzziness that the Parkhead floodlights couldn’t dispel.

Maybe it’s the cigarette smoke, a solid fug overlaid with the sweetness of too many perfumes too liberally applied, the taped music that nobody heeds, the blurred precarious bonhomie of drink. Maybe it’s just the anaesthetising effect of all that anonymity.

Let’s get one thing straight right now: no names. Everyone uses false ones anyway. The girls favour the frilly and ultra-feminine, or smirk-raising excursions into Bond-girl exotica. The men prefer a bloke-next-doorish cover, so many Johns, then the dummies pay by credit card. Within these walls, just about everything is called something else: the services on offer, even the place itself. To the law it’s a brothel, Louie says ”massage parlour”, Penelope ”health club”, and Donna calls it a “sauna”. As Elizabeth observes, in a wider context, ”As soon as you walk in that door it’s fantasy-time.”

The first thing that strikes you, after you’ve learned to look the men in towels in the eye (actually, eyes are the safest place to look), is the utter unsexiness of the atmosphere. This is no Bacchanalian rite, no intimidating exhibition of priapism. Brian’s brought his guitar along, for God’s sake, so we can join him in a few Everly Brothers hits. There’s the ever-present threat that somebody’s going to switch on the karaoke machine. It could be a youth club pyjama party.

Here we are, among the exploding Dralon armchairs and plastic plants, the tomato-soup textured carpet, drinking gin and tooth-rotting mixers, singing along with that ballad of a poor boy’s ruin, House of the Rising Sun. Or we would be, if we could agree on the words. By the final verse it’s just Louie, our host, belting out a solo whose chutzpah carries him over the odd bum note.

So mothers tell your children/ not to do what I have done/ spend your lives in sin and misery/ in the House of the Rising Sun.

Sin? Every so often a girl will disappear to the cabins with a punter, but they’re back in the blink of an eye. There’s a certain amount of lubricious backchat (”you dirty bugger”), but when it doesn’t have a Carry On jolliness about it, the innuendo is so obscure that you’re reminded of schoolroom Shakespeare and those sexual puns whose footnotes ran to several pages.

And misery? Not at first glance. The punters seem happy enough, sitting there in their dingy togas, basking in all that attention, complete acceptance with no emotional obligation, intimacy without strings. But relaxation of this order doesn’t just happen. The girls talk to me and to each other animatedly enough, but one eye is always scanning the room. Suddenly, disconcertingly, they’ll assume those Stepford smiles, and you remember: this is business.

About two in the morning, in that No Man’s Land between intoxication and hangover, the dregs of the party are clustered around the reception desk with its timesheets and spare pairs of black stockings, and Penelope takes a punter through to the cabins. The music’s off now and through the smoky silence travels the distinct smack-smack of kisses. We chat desultorily. The girls don’t want me wandering the streets in search of a cab, it’s dangerous out there. Caroline is telling us how he lost a false nail in the neck of an assailant; he considered sticking the head on him. ”But I thought, no, that’s not very ladylike.”

After a time Penelope and her customer reappear, puffy-faced, eyes unfocused, among us but apart, subject to other gravitational forces. And even after all the jokes, after spending the evening among men in towels and women in their underwear, even though nobody’s being coy, there’s still a faint frisson of embarrassment.

Taboo or not taboo, that is the question. The prurient indignation perfected by the News of the World has a dwindling constituency. The SNP, even the Mothers’ Union, considered calling for decriminalisation, but does anyone really want the oldest profession brought into the fold? It’s not so much the fear of deviance, sordid practices, unnatural acts; the resistance is of a different order. Deep down, there remains the disquieting possibility that it’s already too close to home.

Louie was the man who brought the cotton gusset in from Hong Kong. A sales executive with a major public company in those days, but always something of a ringmaster of sleaze, hiring call-girls to celebrate the clinching of a deal. It’s the continental way. There came a time when there were fewer deals to clinch.

It started off as a legitimate massage parlour, he insists. Members only, very swish, a home from home for business people up from London and over from the continent. A lot of Chinese too. That was the late Seventies when there were just two saunas in Glasgow, both sticking to the rules. Then a new place opened and started playing dirty.

During the brief golden age of the Glasgow sex boom there were 20-odd massage parlours around the city. Big money. Bosses driving fancy convertibles. Now half of them have shut up shop and those still hanging on are only there because they don’t know what else to do. Aids and the recession, Louie says. Promiscuity is past, sex is out of fashion. And there are too many girls on street corners doing it for fifteen quid.

You’ll know Louie’s type, they’re a speciality of the West End of Glasgow: no longer young but refusing to grow old, they dress with the jumble-sale abandon of students but their receding hairlines are grey. Like a lot of men who spend time around a lot of women, he’s an unconvincing cock of the walk, slinking off when the girl-talk gets too raucous, a man whose facial expression starts his sentences a couple of seconds before he gets the words out. It’s easy to be lulled by his mildness, but when it matters everybody knows who’s boss.

Listen to Louie and Strathclyde should be subsidising him as a branch of the social services. They get the lonely, the disfigured, amputees, all manner of deserving cases. They save a lot of marriages. If it wasn’t for places like his the punters would be sorted out with their secretaries or going to the dancing and having affairs. At least in the massage parlour they practice safe sex.

”Say a guy’s wife – it’s been known – has been frigid, for whatever reason. Or she went off him. I don’t think it’s fair to say she’s frigid because I’ve screwed lots of frigid wives. They’ve got financial commitments, emotional commitments, does he have no sexual life? Or does he spend a few pounds, strictly business, and nobody’s hurt?”

Louie pays a high price for all this philanthropy. He’s a social outcast. No one asks him to dinner, which is their loss, because he’s good company. He’ll tell you about the guy who likes to sit in the sauna with a bucket on his head, the wives who storm in while their husbands are scrambling over the back wall, the executives who arrived from a football international with the official piper in tow.

Massage parlour bosses are a colourful crew. One hangs his washing in the sauna cabin, another used to set his girls up for the day with a bible reading. Crooks and vagabonds, the lot of ’em. And Louie? ”I’m a vagabond but I’m not a crook.”

Certainly the police seem to be the least of his worries. If customers get over boisterous, as has happened a couple of times, the boys in blue arrive promptly, eject the troublemakers, and say their goodnights. In the early days there were raids, Keystone Cops affairs involving months of surveillance and dozens of men, but in 13 years in the trade Louie has had to pay just one £50 fine for running a disorderly house.

The Inland Revenue are a bigger bogey, but it’s his colleagues in the sex trade he seems to fear most. Once, after he’d refused an invitation to sell up, the police intercepted a posse of shotgun-toting heavies waiting to ambush him. Not that he wants anyone getting the wrong idea. ”There really isn’t organised crime in the saunas,” he insists. ”There are people who slot in the grey areas of life.”

Inevitably, Louie has grey areas of his own, and all the anonymity in the world won’t persuade him to talk about money. The official version is that customers pay an entrance fee for use of the facilities, and anything which transpires in the privacy of the cabin is the subject of a ”tip” to the girl involved. In fact, prices and terminology – the ”hand relief” and ”reverse massage” – are standard throughout Glasgow, starting at £25 and rising through various services to £50 for full intercourse.

Louie has around a dozen girls on the books, an ever-changing register: students who’ve given up their courses because they can’t afford to live, ex-nurses, housewives. The husbands know, though not all of them admit it. Getting staff isn’t a problem; getting staff of the right standard is. It’s not that they’re ugly, it’s their attitude: greedy, lazy, but most of all… he frowns, groping for the phrase… uncaring. The punters don’t want somebody who’ll give them a rough time, they get that in the house. ”They don’t want a substitute wife, they want a caring person.”

The best masseuses tend to be ex-nurses. ”If you get somebody who’s been working in a caring industry and they go into that, they’ve got an aptitude for what they’re doing. A young dolly bird that’s in love with herself, she won’t make a good massoose.”

Everyone has their own threshold of shock. Some find the very notion of prostitution offensive. For others it’s the Oxo-ad normality of the clientele. To me, hiring out the body doesn’t mean selling your soul, but caring: that’s a very different commodity.

What you have to remember, Louie says soothingly, is that it’s entirely different from real sex. But which particular brand of reality does he have in mind?

Party time again, and the usual cross-section of pseudonymous Scottish manhood. Someone’s brought along a box of Black Magic bearing the tell-tale blueish bloom of many months in the window display. Louie’s teasing Donna about being a psychological virgin, Penelope’s refreshing her Estee Lauder lipstick for the third time in five minutes, and the guitarist has decided he loves me. Wants to give me his lucky necklace. Mercifully, he’s too drunk to untie it.

The electrician arrives in his shop window wig and fetishistic clobber to provide the cabaret and persuades Serena to surrender head and hands to a medieval stocks hijacked from some community centre production of Robin Hood. He opens with a joke so lame that the audience don’t even groan, then, huffily, starts switching his assistant with slow, careful taps from a riding crop. This is not Serena’s idea of a good time. Nor, it appears, anyone else’s. One by one the men in towels drift away. Eventually the dominatrix tires of the pantomime ows and ouches of his victim. They change places and she returns the punishment, asking anxiously after each tentative blow ”Is that too sore?”

Ex-nurse, you see.

It’s daytime, but how are you supposed to tell? The windows have been painted out and covered with acres of beige gauzy drapes. It’s like finding yourself on the set of an am-dram Terence Rattigan, or perhaps, under the circumstances, Waiting for Godot. Sometimes they sit around for hours before a punter darkens the door. Since there’s nobody on the premises, we might as well take a look around.

Louie’s place is as upmarket as a Glasgow brothel gets. You should see some of the others, Donna assures me. There are saunas and showers and lounges and a billiard room with a girl huddled over the electric radiator trying to put a flush on her hypothermic pallor. The cabins are surprisingly homey, with dressing tables and armchairs and heart-shaped satin cushions ranged around the black leatherette massage couch. Windows are swathed in the inevitable Havisham net.

Twice a week you’ll find Elizabeth here, Elizabeth Collins they call her, doyenne of shoulder pads and false nails, a flirty mother hen with a taste for sequin and velvet and an inexhaustible line in chat. The comedy works well with her cosmetics-counter glamour. To see her swishing around in an off-the-shoulder cocktail gown, displaying a sizeable margin of bra, is to witness a clever, even a class act. But drop by in the daytime and catch her in her masseuse’s white overall, notice the straying lipstick line and that tender purple welt on her heel from decades of too-tight stilettos, and you realise there’s another Elizabeth.

Penelope’s her pal, younger, plumper, a bit of a Liz Taylor. They’re enjoying this: who would Donna be? Let’s see. One of Hitchcock’s ice blondes, the untouchable receptionist with her sidelong looks and ”you must be joking” manner.

And what do they really look like? The woman in the next seat on the bus. With extra lipstick. These aren’t your wind-chapped junkies out on street corners. They occupy what Louie might call a grey area, mid-way between vice girl and nice girl.

”Why do you think we wear a lot of lipstick?” Elizabeth asks out of the blue.

Because it’s sexy? Vampish? Appealing to unsubtle tastes?

None of the above. ”So we don’t get kissed.”

They call them working girls, but they’re ”on the game”. How’s that for mixed messages? In theory it should be quite straightforward, a simple physiological transaction, but since when was sex a simple anything? Punters fall into two categories: nice guys and perverts. Perverts are easier: they don’t want kisses, they don’t want it personal, and they don’t beat about the bush. Most, however, are just your average Joes, and that’s where the demarcations start to blur. Punters or personal: they’re all men.

Penelope was married for nine years. ”It’s like I was away,” she says wonderingly. ”I had nothing but the house and the kids, it’s like I was locked up.” Whatever you think of her current lifestyle, it offers certain advantages.

After her divorce she served behind a bar, 50 hours a week for eighty quid. Then last year a friend who worked asked her if she’d be interested in giving it a try. Just came out with it. That was what intrigued her. How did she know she wouldn’t freak out? Funnily enough her mum, a strict Catholic, was similarly unfazed.

She can tell what the punters are after within five minutes: talk, a bit of loving, whatever. One of her regulars is like a 14-year-old; likes to chase her and get kissed on the neck. Above all, the job is to make them feel special. One way traffic: they don’t want to know that you’ve got a life or feelings.

And then once in a while it’s genuinely pleasurable, usually with a guy she wouldn’t look twice at. It doesn’t happen often. Nine and a half times out of ten the girl is in control, one step ahead, planning the next move. So who’s using, and who’s being used? It’s not a question she recognises. The deal is to their mutual advantage at the time.

And yet. They say a year of prostitution ages you ten years. Mentally, that is. For the first six, eight months she thought she was strong enough. ”I used to keep it separate in my own mind, me and Penelope were totally different, and now I don’t know where one starts and one ends. People say ‘bubbly personality’, but some days you’re like a zombie, you’re like a clone.”

She doesn’t trust anybody any more, certainly not guys, but it’s hard for her to say whether that’s entirely due to the job. A steady relationship is out of the question. She wouldn’t like it if the man knew, but she wouldn’t like to lie to him either, it’s bad enough keeping it from the kids. Of course men ask her out. She turns them down. ”You think, maybe they think they’re going to get this sexpot for a girlfriend.”

Behind her professional permissiveness, Penelope remains the good Catholic girl she was brought up to be, the one who married the second man she ever slept with. The crucifix nestling in her cleavage isn’t just for show. At Louie’s she always waits until she’s picked, never approaches the punters herself. If she ever got involved with somebody she’d be shocked to find them wanting the sort of things she does at work. But then, the man who fell for her would have a hell of a hard time.

”The guy who started with me, he’d need a hammer and chisel.” She smiles, heartrendingly. ”I’m sure he’d be delightfully surprised, but it’d be awfully hard getting there.”

Too much of this sounds too familiar. They could be any group of women bemoaning the selfishness of men. Elizabeth remembering how she rang a punter who’d cried on her shoulder often enough, a guy she thought was a friend, only to be told ”Phone me back when you’re better.” Donna’s never touched a customer in her life, but even she’s convinced that, for men, women are second class citizens.

Nobody forced Elizabeth into this job, it just seemed the best of the available options. She’s done bar work but it’s all low-paid, live-in or cash-in-hand. She worked her way up to manageress at one hotel but couldn’t take the boss’s sexual harassment and he refused her a reference when she quit.

Social security’s no answer. By the time the bills are paid she has £2.50 left to live on. Do they expect her to sit in the house with the gas off? When she goes to sign on she knows the punter on the counter from Louie’s. At her Restart interview the guy behind the desk starts chatting her up. Men don’t pay the real price of prostitution, she points out; they don’t get done, not even embarrassed sometimes. When her case came to court after a luckless spot of moonlighting last year – guess what? – the top names had all vanished from the witness list.

Her attitude to the job has its own logic. Out on a date she likes the romantic side of it; in there, it’s just work. When a punter walks out without paying, as a doctor did last week, wisecracking ”I thought you liked me”, that’s degrading. What must he think of her if he can do that?

Men are weird, she muses. ”They actually think we love it in there. We kid on, but all the same, how can they think we’re not just doing it for the money?”

Men. They like the sussies and the bright red nails, but start going out with them and suddenly they want you to dress like their wives. Hers likes her depressed so she mopes obligingly when he telephones, then hangs up and becomes the party girl again.

They met at Louie’s. He’d been using saunas for 10 years, then fell in love with her. Now he wants her to leave, says she’s too good for that. And she is, but at the same time, she’s no different from the rest. He’ll never leave his wife anyway, she shrugs, hoping for contradiction. He’s a Pisces.

Elizabeth is as confused as anyone by contemporary sexual politics. Sometimes men are bastards, sometimes she’s man-daft. One minute she couldn’t go back to the rules, the next, all she wants is a husband who appreciates her. The job is ”totally business” but, deep down, surely there must be something there?

And why shouldn’t she be mixed up? She’s playing the same game as the rest of us, not off-limits in some social exclusion zone. Sex, with or without commitment, can be many things. The marriage of true minds is only one of the possibilities. Love doesn’t preclude trade. It’s hardly relevant whether they push fivers down your bra, sometimes it’s a very unequal exchange. Who’s the real user: the customer who pays up, or the married boyfriend who wants her dowdy and depressed?

Ain’t no such thing as a happy hooker, that’s what society wants to hear, but it’s not the moral of this bedtime story. There’s more than sin and misery at the House of the Rising Sun. If Elizabeth’s off sick she misses the place; OK, they squabble and bicker and fall out with each other, but it’s her social life.

Some days you drop by and the girls are having a ball. Cracking up over Louie’s dress sense, or the customer who only talks about industrial machinery (”nice guy, but boring as sin”), or the time Elizabeth took a punter into the sauna, topped up the booze and the temperature, and gave one of her famous foot massages. He falls asleep, wakes up two and a half hours later, and can’t remember a thing. Feels wonderful though, so she charges him full whack for the best night he’s had in ages.

On days like these you might glimpse a punter shuffling by in his shin-skimming towel or showing off his Ibiza stripe, skirting around the edges of female laughter, and in the moment before those Stepford smiles flicker on, you almost feel sorry for him.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications