By Chris Jaques
At nearly 61 years of age, former sex worker and madam Linda Watson is clearly still an attractive woman: bright, articulate and passionate about her 16-odd years of ministry in helping women transition out of the sex industry in Perth.
As a longstanding and vocal opponent of prostitution, Linda has often been the target of violence, threats, intimidation and break-ins. The Prostitution Bill soon to be debated in Perth, where Peter Abetz MLA will encourage the Nordic model of making both the buying and selling of sex illegal, has her approval, but her main concern is to stop ongoing violence in the industry.
As a beautiful, young woman at 24, Linda was encouraged into prostitution by her then employer, a Greek Orthodox Perth lawyer. She said two reasons stopped her: the thought that her mother would kill her and that she certainly wasn’t going to charge for sex because that was something you gave away for free to the person you loved.
The three children she already had by that age came from relationships which would not last, Linda repeating mistakes learned in her own childhood where she had been abused, left school at 15, was dyslexic and, in her words, “dumb as s***”.
On her own with the children, she was persuaded into prostitution, deciding she would earn her $2,000 per month for two months; no-one need know; and she could set herself up.
Unfortunately, that two months turned into 20 years and, being “good stock”, she was quickly groomed for the ‘richies’ and as a potential madam.
The containment policy of the time meant sex workers could not be registered before the age of 21 but Linda found that clients often tried to refer their younger daughters; she would then dob them into the now defunct Vice Squad.
In the late 70s, there were an estimated 500 women working the brothels; today, there are tens of thousands, many of whom are hooked on lifestyle drugs and gambling, both of which perpetuate the cycle of addictions.
Linda likened being in the industry, a “lonely life”, to the battered wife syndrome where the “horrific” violence, increasing lack of self-esteem and lack of hope made it almost impossible to leave.
She talked about men who “lacked integrity and self-control”; those who don’t want a relationship, just the convenience of sex; that 99 per cent of clients were married or in a relationship; and lost count of how often she was likened to a client’s wife, except that she would provide the sex.
When Linda’s mum discovered she was a madam, she hit her over the head with a frypan and proceeded to pray for her for the next 20 years. Having been brought up Catholic, but “misplacing” Christ along the way, Linda often asked God for help but it was not until the late 90s, after she had left the profession and married, only to be encouraged by her husband to go back to prostitution as the funds were running out, that she started to actively seek help.
Then Perth Archbishop Barry Hickey (now Emeritus) helped Linda Watson to change the direction of her life when he encouraged her to stand with him against prostitution, gave her a house and helped her to establish the charity, Linda’s House of Hope, which has aided so many others to exit the industry.
He told her, “don’t ever change who you are”, and Linda has clearly drawn on her own strengths, which helped her to survive, in order to help others. She describes her faith in God as the only thing which helped her to leave, with no hope, no education or prospects of employment, and which then gave her the courage to continue.
It appears to be a fairly thankless ministry: the funds are extremely limited; all positions are voluntary; the assessment house and office is also Linda’s home which makes her vulnerable to attack; there are SO many people who need assistance and her health and the limited hours in the day mean not everyone can be helped.
Someone Linda was able to help, Cath, spoke about how lucky she was to have found Linda who helped her escape a breakdown following a failed relationship which led to drug use and temporary prostitution. She describes that time as vague and difficult to comprehend now, but uses that experience to work alongside Linda, as do many others. Like most voluntary organisations, however, the pressure put on volunteers can burn them out. Linda’s health at present will soon necessitate her having a complete break so her ministry will rely on those volunteers to keep things ticking over.
While she trusts in God to provide, and freely acknowledges the generosity of so many, her wish list to make life somewhat easier and to then enable her to help many more women and their families, is for a new car as hers is on the way out; a small home for herself and her family distinct from the assessment centre and office, to ensure anonymity and safety; a regular source of funds which would allow some paid help; access to building tradespeople who would assist with running repairs; and, in her wildest dreams, a farm on which to minister to people and animals.
Currently surviving on a duplex block, with the Church about to offload the rear, Linda would love to see investors willing to buy that block and leave it empty in the short term to allow her ministry to continue. She is clearly exhausted and struggles daily to cope with a raft of phone calls from those needing help, those abusing her because her help is limited, and those threatening retribution for one reason or another.
Linda Watson could only shake her head at the state of prostitution in WA, where supposedly illegal activities are promoted on telly ads late at night, bring in an estimated $12 million per year in revenue to newspapers in advertising and a containment policy which failed and has still not been adequately replaced. The absolute minimum this woman of faith asks for is your prayers.