Sex worker’s story held until now by WA state library details life in red light districts like Roe Street

In 1988, Joan St Louis gave an oral history recording to the State Library of WA detailing her life as a sex worker from the 1930s to ’50s on one condition — that it not be released until after her death.

She died six years later, and the library has now decided to share her story online

Joan was born in 1912 in Tasmania and moved to Melbourne in her teens, marrying at 17 and initially working as a waitress before taking up sex work.

She told the interviewer she couldn’t remember quite why she became a sex worker, saying simply “it was just one of those things”.

Joan moved to Kalgoorlie in 1941 where she worked in the mining town’s famous Hay Street red light district while her husband worked as a barman.

Jules Kim, the chief executive of sex workers association Scarlet Alliance, said the recording was a fascinating insight into a little-documented experience and revealed similarities with the profession today, including workers being married.

“I think people have a misconception that sex workers don’t have partners or aren’t married, but it’s not that unusual,” Ms Kim told Christine Layton on ABC Radio Perth.

Sex workers outside Kalgoorlie’s Club 181 brothel in 1990.(Supplied: National Library/Trish Ainslie & Roger Garwood)

Joan told the interviewer she was extremely busy in Kalgoorlie — sometimes seeing 20 clients a night at weekends — and that conditions were good.

“… very nice, very comfortable, carpets, comfortable beds, very clean. There was a housemaid. You visited the doctor.

“There was everything that was needed, just like an ordinary home, a comfortable home.”

Barred from polite society

But while the brothels of Hay Street were famous in Kalgoorlie, the women who worked in them found themselves cut off from society, Joan recalled.

“We couldn’t go anywhere. It was just all work and no play.

“You weren’t allowed in the hotels, you weren’t allowed to go to the movies.

“You weren’t allowed to go out in public, except shopping. The only pleasure was to read.”

The Questa Casa brothel on Hay Street, Kalgoorlie.
The Questa Casa is the last of the original brothels still operating on Hay Street.(ABC Goldfields: Sam Tomlin)

Ms Kim said people might be surprised to learn the same laws that barred the women from pubs in the 1940s were still on the books today.

“We still have laws in place in WA, the Liquor Control Act, that state that it’s an offence to permit a reputed prostitute to remain on a licensed premises, and you can be fined up to $10,000,” she said.

“Now, there’s no record of these laws being used since 2000, but they’re still on the books and they still can be used.”

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