issue 252 - February 1994
Soliciting for change
Everyone has something to say about prostitution. Feminists,
moralists, radicals, pragmatists all have pronouncements
to make. Nikki van der Gaag suggests we try listening to
what prostitutes have to say.
The interior of the building was like something out of hell; long corridors which appeared to lead nowhere, mirror-panelled lobbies painted black, and windowless conference rooms with orange wallpaper and appalling acoustics. In short, it was not a place to put me at ease. And I felt distinctly uneasy. I had spent ages wondering what to wear; if I wore my short black skirt, would I be taken for a prostitute? If I wore leggings and a jumper, would I stick out like a sore appendage as the only ‘media’ person invited?
In the event, I compromised on a smart skirt and jacket. I had no need to worry. Inside the conference room I found the strangest confabulation: a white-haired woman in a dog-collar, two stuffed shirts from the Vice Squad; several tired health workers and a few lawyers. Next to a brothel owner sat a woman from the Salvation Army. And among them all, a pride of prostitutes.
We had clearly all come here with different agendas. But we had a common aim: to work out in detail what abolishing the laws on adult prostitution would mean.
So what would it mean, in simple, practical terms? It would improve working conditions, health and safety for prostitutes. They could work together in a more organized way; two or three women could rent a flat to work from without being accused of brothel-keeping. Women could carry condoms without fear that they could be used as evidence, thus reducing the risk of sexually-transmitted infections. And, finally, prostitutes could negotiate more safely with clients knowing that the police would protect them as citizens rather than harass them as outcasts. All this would mean that prostitutes, like any other workers, could have greater control over the economic exchange.
But it will take more than decriminalization to remove the complex barrage of prejudices facing all prostitutes, everywhere. A registered prostitute in a legal brothel in Ankara, Turkey, comments: ‘As soon as society realizes that you are a prostitute, society will have nothing to do with you. You are cut off completely, you are not treated as human, you are excommunicated from society.’1
Of course, like any other oppressed group, prostitutes have different and sometimes conflicting voices and experiences. Those who sell sex are as diverse as sex itself. Most are female, some are male. Most are heterosexual, many are lesbian or gay. Some see prostitution as a personal tragedy; others have chosen it freely. Some of the voices are louder than others; some are not heard at all. But they all oppose the stigma and the laws that pin them down.
Most of the time their voices are drowned out by the babble of those with more power in society. Loudest in the chorus is the voice of patriarchy, often linked to that of religion. That patriarchal voice says that sex outside marriage is immoral and that the women who sell sex are ‘fallen’. This makes it easy to lay blame on the prostitute and not the client. For example, prostitutes have always been blamed for spreading sexually-transmitted diseases. No doubt a higher incidence of intercourse does raise the stakes. But who is doing the spreading? The New York Times on 5 November 1987 carried the following story:
‘The disease appears to have entered the Philippines, in many cases through prostitutes who have had contact with servicemen near two large American bases, the doctors said’.2
Note the bias. Although it must clearly have been the servicemen who brought in the disease and then spread it by having sex with prostitutes, it is the prostitutes who are blamed.
This patriarchal language echoes across the world. It was there at the Scottish National Party’s annual conference, when Andrew Welsh, MP for Angus East and an elder of the Church of Scotland, argued against a motion for the decriminalization of adult prostitution in Scotland. He urged members to study the scriptures and said that ‘anyone in favour had not even begun to understand the nature of human beings, or indeed, of human society’. He feared that if the motion went through, Scotland would be turned into ‘the greatest little whorehouse in the European Community’.
Kay Miller, who proposed the decriminalization motion, argued that: ‘Prostitutes supply a valuable service and deserve to be accorded the same respect as anyone else in society’. She pointed out that she had worked for 10 years in the defence industry and ‘if that isn’t classed as immoral earnings, I don’t know what is’.
It is in the interests of patriarchy to condemn the selling of sex as immoral at the same time as making full use of the services provided. Such hypocrisy was encapsulated most famously by Shakespeare in King Lear:
Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand!
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back:
Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
For which thou whip’st her.
The whore was presumably lashed nonetheless. And Kay Miller lost the debate. But before she did, she drove her point home: ‘Every last person that has come up here and slated off this motion has been a man. What in the hell’s name is wrong with them?’ Perhaps the answer lies in their trousers.
Another voice in the chorus is more subtle and complex. It includes US feminists like Catherine McKinnon – who sees sexual objectification as the first step in turning women into objects – and scholars such as Kathleen Barry, an expert on female sexual slavery who has documented abuse against women in all its forms. They argue that prostitution is not primarily about economics, but about sexual exploitation. According to Kathleen Barry: ‘Free prostitution does not exist, whatever the means of exercising it... prostitution of women [is] always by force... it is a violation of human rights and an outrage to the dignity of women.’3
This view is supported by the UN Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, which states that ‘prostitution and the accompanying evil of the traffic in persons for the purposes of prostitution are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person.’
Kathleen Barry sees all prostitutes as oppressed, but unable by the very nature of their work to recognize that oppression. So she excludes the voices of prostitutes who do not agree with her.
There are many prostitutes who do disagree with her, arguing that they do not believe prostitution to be better or worse than any other kind of work. Norma-Jean Almodavar, an ex-cop who became a prostitute, claims that selling sex is less morally degrading than being part of a corrupt police force. And Eva Rosta, an English prostitute, puts it even more bluntly:
‘All work involves selling some part of your body. You might sell your brain, you might sell your back, you might sell your fingers for typewriting. Whatever it is that you do you are selling one part of your body. I choose to sell my body the way I want to and I choose to sell my vagina.’ 4
There are official moves in favour of this viewpoint – even if they would express it somewhat differently. The International Labour Organization, for one, has recognized prostitution as work. Whatever the arguments, prostitution is one of the few ways in which women with no other skills and little education can earn a living. As Emma Goldman, a nineteenth-century activist and feminist pointed out:
‘Why waste your life working for a few shillings a week in a scullery, 18 hours a day, when a woman could earn a decent wage by selling her body instead?’
Sometimes it is not a question of a decent wage, but of any wage at all. Take the case of Nsanga, in Zaire. She is 36 and has two children, a five-year-old girl and a boy in primary school. She was deserted by her schoolteacher husband in 1984 when he lost his job – along with 80,000 others – as a result of the structural adjustment package imposed by the IMF.
Nsanga tried many things to earn money. She cooked food for neighbourhood men, she sold uncooked rice in small quantities and dried fish when she could obtain supplies cheaply. These efforts brought in only pennies at a time. She got into debt, and took a lover who made regular support payments. Then she got pregnant and he left. So Nsanga had to take on more partners –‘breaking stones’ (kobeta libanga) as it is called – in order to make a living.5
In Nsanga’s case, she had no option but to ‘break stones’. You might say that the IMF, in this case, was her ‘pimp’. And her situation is very common. Wider social and economic factors, combined with patriarchal rules about women’s role in society, drive women into prostitution.
The United Nations believes that at least 10 per cent of the world’s female population in urban areas earn all, or part, of their living from selling sex. And this is on the increase. War, migration and recession all lead to more people searching for any means of making a living.
So where does prostitution begin and end? The reason we have so much difficulty in coming to terms with the issue is that it involves challenging our own views of sex and possibly even our own sexual mores.
Self-defined ‘career’ prostitutes, wherever they come from, are the minority. Many people sell sex from time to time, casually, as a way of making money. This applies equally to a teacher in the UK as it does to a trinket-seller in Sri Lanka. So how is a prostitute different from someone else who engages in a sexual transaction? Prostitutes often argue that they are also therapists. Therapy now includes ‘sex surrogacy’, where substitute female partners help men who lack sexual experience or suffer feelings of inadequacy in bed. Sex surrogates would certainly not see themselves as prostitutes, and yet they are performing a sexual service for money.
Wives too, are part of an economic, social and sexual bargain. In marriage, a man acquires the right to a woman’s body and to her labour – for unlimited usage. And here the ‘sexual slavery’ lobby and the pro-prostitution camp agree at last. Kathleen Barry once again:
‘Marriage and prostitution are experiences of individuals but they are also institutions. They are, in fact, the primary institutions through which sex is conveyed and in which female sexual slavery is practised. Sex is purchased through prostitution and legally acquired through marriage.’6
She echoes Daniel Defoe’s eighteenth-century heroine in his novel Roxana, who protests that:
‘The very nature of the Marriage-Contract was, in short, nothing but giving up Liberty, Estate, Authority, and everything, to the Man, and the Woman was indeed, a meer Woman ever after, that is to say, a Slave.’
Prostitution and marriage are both ways in which women can look to gain some measure of economic security. In neither case is it guaranteed. The wife may find herself beaten, raped and thrown out; the prostitute too may be raped and battered. In both cases, those who wear the trousers win.
In both cases, too, it is in the interests of patriarchy that wives and prostitutes do not meet, and that prostitutes do not organize among themselves. The fact that prostitution is illegal helps. In France, in the 1820s, the law forbade prostitutes – and other women who might be prostitutes – from ‘walking together, standing around the streets, forming groups, taking up the pavements, soliciting passers-by and provoking scandals by their free discourse and indecent dress.’7
Today it is still difficult for prostitutes to meet. In order to do so they have to admit publicly what they do and so face possible imprisonment. Dolores French, now well known for her work on prostitutes’ rights and for setting up HIRE (Hooking is Real Employment) in Atlanta in the US, wrote of her trepidation when first faced with ‘going public’ on TV:
‘I was already public as a prostitute. The members of Atlanta City Council knew I was a prostitute. The women in HIRE knew I was a prostitute. My friends knew I was a prostitute. And anyone who had heard me speak knew I was a prostitute. But that was quite different from going on national television and announcing to the world – and to my parents – that I was a prostitute. Once I did the Donahue show, I would never be able to get a regular job again, ever.’2
Prostitutes in countries of the South risk not only stigma and loss of employment, but violence and even death when they try to speak. Take this example from the Philippines:
‘In March 1986, the women in a bar outside Olongapo went on strike...The bar owner was American. On Palm Sunday of that year, at about 5.00am, one of the organizers was shot in the head and killed. The killer was caught: he had been hired by the bar owner, who was already out of the country. The strike continued...’ 8
The women won – but at a high price. In many parts of the world today prostitutes are speaking out – and beginning to be heard, at last. In Brazil, Britain, Thailand and the US, prostitutes – both men and women – are meeting and Organizing. Some of them held an international ‘Whores Congress’, reclaiming the word ‘whore’ as lesbians had reclaimed the word ‘dyke’.
The conference that I went to was part of that growing and broad-based movement. It was not solely a prostitutes’ conference, nor a feminists’, lawyers’ or police conference. It was attended by people from all sectors of society out of recognition that for necessary change to occur in the law on prostitution there needs to be a willingness to bridge the age-old stigmas that divide us all. We need to listen to the voices of prostitutes.
I left the hotel no longer worrying that I might be taken for a whore, but hoping that I would not feel it mattered if I were.
1 Anti-Slavery International, Forced Prostitution in Turkey, (1993).
2 Dolores French, Working: My Life as a Prostitute (Victor Gollancz, 1989).
3 UNESCO/Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, The Penn State Report on sexual exploitation, violence and prostitution, (1991).
4 Gail Pheterson (ed), A Vindication of the Rights of Whores (Seal Press, 1989).
5 Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, essay ‘Women at risk: case studies from Zaire’ in Social Analysis in the time of AIDS edited by G Herdt and S Lindenbaum (Sage Press, 1992).
6 Kathleen Barry, Female Sexual Slavery (New York University Press, 1979).
7 Nickie Roberts, Whores in History (Harper-Collins, 1993).
8 Sandra Pollock Sturdevant and Brenda Stoltzfus, Let the Good Times Roll: prostitution and the US military in Asia (The New Press, 1993).
I’ve worked as a waitress. I’ve worked as a mother. I have one kid who is 18 now; a great kid. I’ve worked as a stripper. I guess I haven’t had many traditional-type straight jobs.
I started off as a stripper when I was a teenager. When I was 24 years old I stopped. I got really sick and tired of it. I ended up on welfare for two months and I didn’t want to do that. I met these two friends who were prostituting themselves and doing very well at it, so I asked them all about it.
I thought it was a major step. It was very different from stripping and I wasn’t sure that I was going to like it. All this programming that prostitution was a terrible thing. I did it with a heavy heart.
But after I’d turned two or three dates all I thought was ‘how could you have been so stupid not to do this before? How could you let your stupid little suburban small-town morality get in the way of a wonderful way of making a living? You set your own hours, you make a lot of money, and you don’t give most of it back to the government in taxes.’
I was really terrified of getting AIDS when we first started hearing about it from the media. But my clientèle kept insisting it was a gay disease and they didn’t want to use condoms since they were paying over $100. So I went out on the street, because everybody on the street thought they were getting a dirty girl so there was no problem wearing condoms. Eventually there was more press about AIDS and I got my clientèle back. I lost a third, but the rest got up to using condoms, so that was fine.
What it’s about is that it’s OK to be a whore. You can be a wonderful person while you’re being a whore. There’s no such thing as a 24-hour whore. Prostitutes have kids, gardens, pets. People only think of you as a whore. I’m studying at university to be a veterinarian. But all people can think about is that I suck dicks. They think a prostitute is incapable of love, of a relationship.
Contrary to popular belief a guy coming to see you for an hour doesn’t call the shots. I call the shots. No unsafe sex. If someone comes in and I feel weird about them, I don’t see them. I screen them on the telephone answering machine. It weeds out a lot of what we call the ‘cluch’. You can tell a lot by their tone of voice.
My girlfriend and I have been together for eight years. We do a two-girl show. The guy watches and can join in. We get to charge more money since there’s two of us. My girlfriend’s an ex-boxer and I’m pretty good with a knife. I haven’t advertised for about five years. I still have three regular guys; one I see weekly; one I see monthly and one I see every two or three months.
Some women will say to me: ‘I don’t know how you put up with guys for a whole hour’. But ten minutes of that hour is sex; the other 50 minutes is talk. We talk politics, art. I always read at least one of the daily newspapers. I listen to public radio. It doesn’t take much to be a good conversationalist. I just prod them a little. They’ll do all the talking. I just do all the old femme tricks. It’s a lot better than getting up early to go to an office and coming home late.
The people who say that prostitution is the epitome of the patriarchy are well meaning but misguided. They have a problem with sex. In order for women to be truly free sexually they have to have the right to say ‘no’ and also to say ‘yes’ – but on their terms. It’s not about sex. It’s about power. Women become prostitutes because they decide to go for the best deal – for the amount of time they put in the money is good. It’s right up there with being a lawyer.
Valerie Scott was interviewed by Toronto freelancer Erica Simmons.
This special report appeared in the prostitution: soliciting for change issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.