Mary Brennan, the country’s most outspoken former dominatrix talks about her life from fish ‘n’ chip shop owner to dominatrix, and her relationship with sex and her body. Katie Harris reports.

She’s unapologetic, headstrong and honest.

Unburdened by the shackles of social stigma that dog her industry, Mary Brennan is a true maverick, says childhood friend Geri.

“She is a force to be reckoned with – a force of nature and someone who lives in the world at large,” Geri tells the Herald on Sunday.

And it shows.

At a time when traditional brothels have to compete with porn, subscription site OnlyFans and the impact of covid lockdowns, Brennan pulls up her boot straps.

As the madam of Funhouse, an upmarket brothel in Wellington, she now trains workers in the art of being a dominatrix.

But her success in the industry hides a secret. A self-confessed introvert, Brennan isn’t a fan of sex.

She suffers vaginismus, a condition that can make sex painful and impossible for some.

“I’m actually naturally quite introverted. But I’ve trained myself to not seem like that, because of what I do.”

Dream job

Police officer, pilot or TV star are often jobs cited as the dream job for children, but
even as a Catholic schoolgirl growing up in Eastbourne something inside of Mary always knew sex work would be in her future, even if “full service” wasn’t possible.

“I was fascinated by Mary Magdalene and I remember the priests and everyone saying she was prostitute and because I had four brothers, and she used to hang out with the apostles and I thought, ‘wow, it can’t be that bad, she’s hanging out with all the boys’.”

Her first brush with sex work came at 18, when she and a friend applied for jobs at a massage parlour.

However, when they arrived a sign on the door stated all massages were “fully nude” and the girls made U-turn.

She turned to hospitality, managing restaurants in London from 1988. To get a visa to stay there Brennan married her best friend Brent Robb, who was gay.

“It was like was the perfect relationship because we could never have an affair on each other. He was in and out of relationships and I used to have little drunk one night stands. But, you know, sex couldn’t ever come between us.”

The couple moved back to New Zealand in 1993 and ran a fish delivery business and later a fish and chip shop in Manaia.

The was destroyed by fire – Brennan maintains it was an arson attack – which led Robb to move to his brother’s farm in the Waikato.

Brennan moved to Martinborough and turned back to the industry she had first been drawn to as an 18-year-old.

She began managing a Wellington brothel part time in 1995 and was soon promoted to manager of two city brothels. Under her guidance, she tells the Herald, the brothels soon became the biggest and busiest in the capital.

“I’m a people manager, that’s what I do. It’s one of the things that made me a really good dominatrix.”

Brennan says she always had a strong belief in human rights for sex workers and clients.

“You know, there’s a lot of clients whose lives are enriched by being able to see sex workers and for that to be in a really safe and decriminalised environment.”

Over the years, Brennan’s worked with friends in the disability sector, trying to marry up the services of sex workers to disabled people who want them.

Spending time with someone who makes you feel special, she believes, can help clients leave feeling like “a million bucks”.

Professionally, she was excelling, but heartbreak came knocking when Robb was diagnosed with cancer. Brennan quit her jobs to take care of him.

After he died she returned to managing brothels and met a woman who was working as a dominatrix.

Brennan went into business with her in the early 2000s – even selling an investment property to boost the business, but things turned sour.

“I lost absolutely everything, got really sick because I was so stressed, the whole thing fell apart.

“I guess I thought that she was a superstar. But she wasn’t, I’d just never seen a dominatrix before.”

Brennan was deep in debt but decided to start again. She and her flatmate Mikel began renting out their spare room for sex work.

“So she was working and I had the phone number, and people were ringing me and saying ‘would you do a dominatrix session with me?’ No, I can’t. I couldn’t do it.”

Eventually, she came around, and the clients she started with instantly booked her again, and again, one was a weekly regular for three or so years after.

For Brennan, being a dominatrix was validating, satisfying, heart warming, fun and financially rewarding, but it couldn’t last forever.

“I stopped because the business in general became too busy and I am first and foremost a business woman and second a dominatrix.”

She says it was time to step away, bowing out at the top of her game, and “leaving them wanting more”.

While she was operating her clients didn’t know she had vaginismus, that she didn’t like taking off her clothes, or that she was not “relaxed sexually” about a lot of things.

“I have enjoyed sex from time to time. But it’s not something that I, you know, that’s part of my life now.”

Instead of hindering her work, she says these restrictions actually made her a lot more skilled because she had to compensate for what many “doms” would do naturally.

“I had to be a lot more inventive to make sessions exciting and because when I first started, I would see a client and I’d throw everything I knew at them.”

Two weeks later, they’d be right back, calling to book in another session.

Some, Mary says, would ask her to wear skimpier clothing like stockings and suspenders but this was a flat no.

Wearing “thunder pants” during a session was more her look and helped reassure her former partner nothing else going on.

“No way you’d get naked and strip down wearing them.

“I also wore tights, black thick tights. And if I was doing anything with a strap on, I’d wear little black boy shorts I put over it, like I had about 18 layers of protection.”

Working as a dominatrix gave her a deep understanding of humans, of men in particular, and how simple she says they are – which she says has affected how attractive she finds men.

“I haven’t seen anybody for about 15 years that has made me go ‘woah’. You know, it’s just, this is nothing.

“Once that veil of illusion is stripped away, then there’s kind of nothing exciting anymore.”

Providing BDSM services, Geri says, is Brennan’s way of helping people live out their desires.

“And they’re not all missionary style, and they’re not about a man having a very big ejaculate.”

Advocacy too is a large part of what Brennan does, speaking up on the rights of workers, and the issues and stigma they can face.

When Brennan tells people what she does for a living she says they often remark that she’s not what they expected.

“It’s like what did you expect – someone a lot harder, a lot colder?

“If you judge sex workers, just don’t, they’re just people, just human beings.”

Although managing brothels has been a huge part of her life, Brennan’s never been a full service sex worker. But there was one client she slept with for money.

“He was a barrister at the time and then once a week he’d come in and you know, usually book someone, but he’d always come into the office and say, ‘what about Mary, how much to see Mary?'”

This was typically met with laughter, however, after some time she did sleep with him but it was for a lot more money than usual, she says.

Over Brennan’s years in the industry, sex work has morphed significantly from it’s dark alley predecessor, disrupted by the proliferation of online pornography, OnlyFans and camming.

“When I started in the industry the only porn was in a magazine, so you’d have to go to a shop, it’d be in a sealed plastic bag, you know, people have the stash under the bed, or in this sheet or whatever. Now everything’s online,” Brennan says.

Clients also have more than just “one option” when it comes to buying sex now days, so brothels have to work even harder to get people in the door.

To combat diminishing in-person sex clientele, Brennan only takes about 5 per cent of the women who apply for sex worker roles, something she describes as a “business model judgment”.

“If they’re not going to get the work, their confidence will go through the floor and there is somewhere for everybody, you know, and I try and give as much information and advice and guidance to everybody who applies to me.”

Adding more services to their repertoire helps, so she now advertises things like sensual massage bookings, which are now relatively common.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit in-person sex businesses hard: while the online sphere boomed traditional spaces have been forced to close doors for rolling lockdowns, if not permanently.

NZ Prostitutes Collective national organiser Dame Catherine Healy told the Herald the situation was still unfolding and with Delta it’s uncertain what the future of brothels will look like.

HIV was also a tremendous challenge, she says, but the industry adapted and a strong safe sex culture was built up.

“The industry wasn’t a casualty to HIV transmission, but Covid, with Delta, is certainly something different.”

With the most recent lockdown Brennan says her workers have more of an understanding about what is going on.

“Funhouse women are resilient and smart. They are also generally frugal and good savers, and pay tax so like other self-employed people are eligible for the wage subsidy.”

When sex work was decriminalised in New Zealand in 2003 sex workers and clients were able to operate without fear of legal action.

Before the law change, brothels were advertised as massage parlours, and staff had to figure out what kind of service a client wanted – without putting themselves in too much risk.

“So you know, someone would come in, and they would pay, say, $40 to the agency, and choose the lady from the lounge, and then they’d go through to a room.”

If a client “just wanted a massage”, Brennan says the worker wouldn’t get paid.

Responsibility for bounced cheques or ensuring clients paid correctly also fell on the workers.

Victoria University of Wellington senior lecturer Dr Lynzi Armstrong studies the impact of this and says the most significant change is that workers now have rights in this country,
“which is extremely unusual, unfortunately when we look at what’s happening in other countries”.

“Having those rights has been so powerful in terms of interactions with clients.”

Having access to justice is another important factor, but this is not available to everyone, she warned, as migrant workers still don’t have the same rights.

For five years after the law reform, Brennan was on the parliamentary review board, and she’s still a vocal advocate of sex worker rights.

“What happened with our decriminalisation, as opposed to what’s happening around the world when they’re trying to come up with rules and laws, is that sex workers were allowed to be part of a process.”

At 60, she sees her life and the things she’s gone through as a mixed bag, and often very left of centre compared to many people’s lives.

“But those experiences have made me the person that I am and given me the confidence and knowledge to do what it is I know I am here to do. I consider myself very lucky.”

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