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This 80-Year-Old Woman Runs Australia's Oldest Brothel In A State Where Sex Work Is Illegal

"I come from an era where your word is your bond."

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Madam Carmel operates Australia's oldest brothel on the same street as a police station in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, where running a brothel has been technically illegal since 1892.

In 1904 Questa Casa — or, as Carmel calls it, "The Pink House" — opened its doors in the mining town when it was flooded with clients during Australia's gold rush.

Twenty-five years ago Carmel was widowed for the second time and entered what she describes as a period of "deep depression" when her doctor suggested she "do something with her life".

So she bought a brothel.

"I told everyone I'd bought a boarding house in Kalgoorlie and fortunately it was a little bit too far away for anyone to visit," the now 80-year-old, who has previously run a chicken farm, sawmill and boat hire business, told BuzzFeed News.

Carmel said the business flourished in the first few years when a policy of "containment" was still enforced by the state's government. Police would turn a blind eye to sex work, as long as it took place within the premises.

"This house has 10 doors across the front and once upon a time we had a girl at every door and they were constantly busy," she said.

"When I first came here the police told me what the rules were for working on this street and I come from an era where your word is your bond.

"All the girls had to be on the premises between dusk and dawn every night which kept the girls safe."

But reforms to the state's Prostitution Act in 2000 put an end to containment, leaving the sex industry largely unregulated, and Carmel said a growing number of sex workers without madams began visiting clients in hotels or houses. Also, the proliferation of fly-in fly-out (FIFO) miners meant not as many clients living permanently in town.

A report published by Curtin University researchers today said Western Australia's sex industry should be decriminalised amid the increase in private sex workers, and the decline in brothel and street-based sex work over the past decade.

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To offset the waning patronage at the Pink House Carmel now runs a daily two-hour sex tour of the brothel for grey nomads - retirees travelling in caravans - passing through Kalgoorlie.

"I explain to [people on the tour] that brothels are becoming like dinosaurs because girls can just buy a mobile phone and wait for it to ring."

Carmel stays busy by tending the gardens bordering the brothel. She prides herself on the mulberry tree she planted when she bought the business, which leaves a vast maroon carpet across her lawn every year.

She has always had two dogs. When one dies, she goes to the pound and asks: "Who wants to come to a brothel?"

One of the only women who has worked in recent years at the Pink House, "BJ", told BuzzFeed News she struggled with drug dependency and found the brothel a safe haven.

"Carmel's always been like a mother figure to me," BJ said. "She is very nurturing and caring and she looks after her ladies. She's the closest thing I've got to a mother."

She laughed as she considered life working under Australia's oldest madam: "Guys might ring up and ask for anal and she'll tell them they should be ashamed of themselves."

BJ worked on and off at the Pink House from 1997 to 2015.

"You were making big money back in the day, up to $1200 a night easily, but when [the government] dropped the containment policy it all changed, and prostitution started moving out into the suburbs."

The Pink House and the history of sex work in Western Australia is the subject of a feature-length documentary, The Pink House, which won Best Australian Documentary at the recent Sydney Film Festival and will be shown in cinemas across Australia from November 1.

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Gina Rushton is a breaking news reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Gina Rushton at gina.rushton@buzzfeed.com.

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