The Last Taboo

Prostitution presents many faces. From the violent sex slums of South East Asia to the brothels and deadly sidewalks of the West, the public is presented with a myriad of clichés about prostitution which are more often than not informed by lurid news reports and fiction than the complicated reality of sex work. The truth is that prostitution is as complex as the circumstances of those who sell sex, and the argument about decriminalisation and implications for the women and society at large are similarly complex. This is the first instalment of two exploring my ideas on the whore stigma.

On the high end of the industry prostitution comes packaged in style and luxury, where the women appear to choose sex work as their occupation and claim to enjoy the work and its handsome financial rewards. Many argue that job satisfaction comes from control over their work and a sense of empowerment. Celebrity hookers Xaviera Hollander and Belle de Jour, whose books and on-screen exploits have helped to shape public opinion and social narratives about sex work, present a blunt dichotomy to the image of the downtrodden street walker lamented in “Roxanne” by the Police and the testosterone fuelled tale of “Charlotte the Harlot” by Iron Maiden. The problem with these examples is that they reinforce sexual norms and lurid stereotypes on opposite sides of the spectrum, whereas the reality of the average sex worker, if she even exists, is nothing like the glamorised accounts underpinned in these stories.

So how do lived experiences of prostitution measure up to the myth? Have they done anything to enhance the debate and deepen our understanding of the many issues and discourses on prostitution or do they just play into the patriarchal archetype of the fallen woman? I think these questions are as important and as relevant as ever. Prostitution will always be controversial, but not only because it involves providing sex in exchange for money. The problem is that these women are not participating in ways that have been dictated for them by gender norms and turn traditional sexual roles upside down.

It can be argued that no other woman embodies the notion of the ‘happy hooker’ than Dutch-born Xaviera Hollander, who published a candid account of her life as a sex worker and madam in New York in the 1960s. Her autobiography might be the first of its kind to engage with the idea of prostitution as a legitimate occupation that is not only liberating for the woman, but provides a holistic service to the community by affording women with a safe and positive environment in which to sell sex. This school of thought suggests that women are able to enjoy the work if they can set the boundaries and be confident in the service they are providing. The financial rewards outweigh the difficulty of maintaining personal relationships, and that by criminalising prostitution society is in fact endangering women who would otherwise be providing their services within a safe and closely regulated environment. But are these women coerced or abused, and do they ‘care if it’s wrong or if it’s right’ as warbled somewhat ironically by the Police?

There is a growing movement within contemporary feminism that argues that the stereotype of ‘Roxanne’ as a prostitute who is driven to it by a damaged history is an outdated and sex-negative misnomer that must be challenged.

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Hollander isn’t the only famous prostitute who did not experience her life negatively or conform to the stereotype of the abused and drug-addicted street walker, but the next example is more problematic.

Belle de Jour is the pen name of a woman who published a blog about her experiences as a London prostitute in the early 2000s. Her blog was so popular that it became a book in 2005 and was adapted into a television show a couple of years later (Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which I warmly recommend). In the show Belle flitters around London in black cabs, designer clothes and the kind of hair and makeup that wouldn’t look out of place in a Vogue photoshoot. “The surest way to tell the prostitute walking into a hotel is to look for the lady in the designer suit,” (De Jour, 2007: p. 10). She is wined and dined by her clients and treated like a goddess. The opening credits have more in common with a titillating burlesque fantasy than a hooker about to hit up the strip. Yep, you could say it’s just television and should be taken with a pinch of salt, but the programme is based on De Jour’s memoirs and faithful to her narrative. And like Hollander, De Jour did not come from a broken home, suffer abuse, or have addiction problems. These women claim to have sold sex because they had a voracious libido and enjoyed the financial benefits.

Indeed, the happy hooker presents a dilemma. On one hand it challenges gender norms in social narratives that respond to one of the most persistent female archetypes, that of the fallen woman. Whether one agrees with their lifestyle or not it is difficult to argue with the fact that Hollander and De Jour represent a kind of glamour and passion which is disruptive of patriarchal control and order. But equally, I think it’s safe to say these women are probably not representative of the sex industry and present a skewed image of the work and the lifestyle. So what do the lived experiences on the opposite end of the spectrum tell us about the reality of sex work, and what gender or sexual norms do they underpin? Is there a creative tension between the whore stigma of the street prostitute and that of the high end escort?

Here’s a surprising fact; studies show that only 10% of the sex industry is street prostitution. But while it is the smallest section of the industry it is the one that grabs all the headlines. The dominant image of a street walker is that of a subclass junkie in fishnets, crop-tops and cheap makeup. She is not beautiful or desirable. She looks nothing like Julia Roberts. I love “Pretty Woman” but there isn’t much reality there save for the attempted rape scene. Interestingly, the first verse in Roy Orbison’s song includes the lyrics ‘I don’t believe you, you’re not the truth’. And while not officially about prostitution, the song has become another anthem that distorts the image of sex work, inspired no doubt by the film.

The lives of street prostitutes bear little resemblance to escorts on the high end of the industry. It is a brutal world in which there is more coercion and violence than in other types of prostitution and the women are more likely to have been victimised or forced into the trade. While sex workers in developing economies are often sold into prostitution as children, in the West many street prostitutes are driven to it by sexual abuse and it is estimated that up to 75% of street walkers are victims of incest. Crucially, street prostitutes are more likely to have a drug addiction and studies suggest that 85% of street prostitutes in the United Kingdom are addicted to crack-cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine or alcohol.

While high end escorts typically work in brothels or the relative safety of their homes, low end prostitutes pick up clients on the street where sex takes place in a car or a back alley where an attack may come at any time. The mortality rate among street prostitutes has led to some pressure groups to call for legalisation (or decriminalisation) of prostitution on both sides of the Atlantic. I think it’s a no-brainer. The main reason for supporting decriminalisation is safety for the women. They can take better care of themselves and have more recourse if something goes wrong. Decimalisation and regulation will offer protection to sex workers. But surprisingly, some feminist scholars argue that legalisation will amount to the state sanctioning violence against women, and that these women exist in an ever-present atmosphere of violation.

Interesting angle, but I think the whore stigma lies at the heart of the problem, and these feminist scholars are just as guilty of damning whores as the fire and brimstone brigade.

Consider that the stigma against high end prostitutes is stronger than against street walkers. People think that if a woman ends up on the street then it can’t be her fault and she ended up there due to a personal tragedy involving abuse or addiction, and therefore can’t be judged as harshly. But if the escort is high end, invariably young and ‘chose the lifestyle’ then this can be harder to reconcile, and the societal stigma is greater. But what about the men who use whores? Is there a stigma associated with buying sex and how do feminist prostitutes reconcile their work with the stigma?

More in the next part. As a side note, Putin recently quipped that Russian prostitutes are “the best in the world” as he dismissed rumours that Moscow had incriminating evidence on Trump. Hmmm. I think that’s the only fitting response.

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3 comments

  1. I LOVE how you have framed this topic D’arcy!

    I’ve never quite understood Conservative society’s obsession with “stopping” prostitution. The FACT of the matter is that we all “pay” (especially men!) for the act, benefit, pleasure, therapy, or honor (dishonor?) of sex! In my opinion “Pay me now, or pay me later” never rings more true when it comes to sex! The truer controversy is actually when it involves slavery, or sex-trafficking, when the woman/child/teenager is literally in fear of her life if she chose to stop. Outside of this illegal enslavement and trafficking, sex is ultimately legal between consenting adults. Always will be, no matter how one “dresses” it. Period.

    Indeed, the happy hooker presents a dilemma.

    HAH! A wonderfully EMPOWERING dilemma, I feel, for patriarchal mumbo-jumbo cow manure! [big grin]

    On a sidenote, but still relative indirectly… in Puritan America, my BDSM-lifestyle carries a similar stigma. This has always baffled me, not from those who have no clue about the Dark Arts — they are just bumbling cymbals with nothing significant to offer but more erroneous opinions — but more from the liberal-moderate communities, Feminist included. Inside legal SSC BDSM, in public dungeons, ed-meetings, conventions, etc, the full equality of women is vehemently protected. NOTHING takes place unless the woman explicit gives her permission. No arguement or questions, period! End of story! So despite the stigma surrounding our Dark Art, women are actually very well protected and safe in the lifestyle. Sadly, very few “outsiders” care to come inside to see for themselves.

    I feel you have the correct lens on this subject. Really looking forward to your second part D’arcy!

  2. lovingthepunks

    Fascinating article and one open for all kinds of opinion.
    Like you said different people bear different circumstances but in my short experience working as a volunteer (we had those rolling clinics, and we, upper class snots thought we knew all about prostitutes. We did not.) thought me that the vast majority of the women we catered for (lab tests, unwanted pregnancies, rape kits and comdoms were the everyday necessities ) didn’t give a dam about our good intentions, nor they wanted to go on protective programs or pursue an education. All they wanted was to be able to work their trade without hassle from the police and a safe space to do it.
    Criminalising prostitution is in my view, just another means to oppress these women into submission of what society deems acepptable. Out of view, out of thought. But as long as men and women and sex exists, prostitution will too. No wonder is it deemed the oldest profession in the world. Great piece, written as usual with great thought and care and I eagerly await the next installment.

  3. Perhaps because I have never engaged the services of a prostitute, (it’s never too late, I know…) I have always had something of a fascination with them. Friends who served in the army in Germany used them routinely, and always spoke highly of their professionalism. This was almost always in regulated brothels, with girls and women who seemed happy and willing to ply their trade. As always, you make your arguments fairly and with research and intelligence combined. I eagerly look forward to part two.
    I also watched and enjoyed Billie Piper in ‘Secret Diary of a Call Girl’. More recent documentaries have focused on the growing ‘niche market’ in the UK too. Granny prostitutes, very obese prostitutes, and others who cater for specific fetishes such as men who want to dress up as babies and be breast-fed. Others include balloon fetishes, messy food and mud, and being bathed. It is worth noting that few females seem to have any sexual fetish regarded as such, and it is just men that are turned on by individual obsessions. The whole thing fascinates me, I confess.

    As ever, Pete. xx

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