Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri

A prostitute

I wrote this essay in the early nineties, and some of the references are dated. But I don't think the basic contention is.

I don't read The News of the World as a habit, and I certainly don't buy it. But I am a compulsive reader, and if I find a copy lying in the street or on a tube seat, I can't help looking.

English tabloids have the minds of old maids, incapable of thinking of great subjects except in terms of petty prejudice (and that rarely), and fixated to an unhealthy degree on gossip and sex. But while they insure that the heads of the otherwise sovereign people should never be bothered by any serious political, religious or moral question which might trouble their masters, their very fixation with personalities insures that, from time to time, they bring up fascinating human stories; to which, being what they are, they inevitably fail to do justice.

One subject on which, from what I can see, NOTW "journalists" must be absolute experts, is prostitutes. In my limited experience, there can hardly have been an issue of the paper without a double-page spread exposing this or that fille de joie or organized brothel, often in curious corners of the country. A regular reader with a card file might build himself a prodigious "little black book". How this knowledge is built up, I don't know, since nobody has to my knowledge published a book exposing the exposers; one has to suspect that often it's the girls themselves who get themselves written up for free publicity.

One instance, however, in which this can't have been the case, was the recent exposure and presumable ruin of a former TV soap actress. Minor TV figures are meat and drink to these newspapers, known to most of their readers, but without the clout and studio backing of Hollywood stars. Most soap actors are grunt labour with no standing in theatre or cinema, taken on for their looks or their accents, as easily hired as forgotten. This girl was one such: still in her early twenties, her career seemed stalled, and she worked in a metropolitan club, charging fancy prices.

Expensively accosted by a disguised NOTW man (only to talk with her cost him over a hundred pounds), the young woman was taken to a hotel room where he invited her to speak about her lifestyle. She did this gladly and glibly; prostitutes, it seems, are often used to having clients who are so fascinated by their life choices that they would rather listen than do. The clients want to know what makes them tick, why they do what they do, and whether, after all, they do enjoy their work.

She did, she said. She had more than two dozen regulars and countless casual clients; and she enjoyed the variety. From the point of view of pleasure, it beat having a relationship with only one man. (She also gave lesbian performances if asked, with the help of selected colleagues.) But there was a hint of self-justification, even at that stage, in the way she insisted that the house was a comparatively orderly one because the punters were members of a club; that there were things she would not do (such as violent sex); and that anyway she did not get drunk out of her head like some of her colleagues (which somewhat negates the first point). Anyway, she said, what she really wanted was to be a TV make-up girl.

The music changed when the Murdoch man revealed himself. The girl was horrified, and the newspaper describes her swift backtracking; through the extremely economical (ÂvoireÀ dreary) prose, we can read malicious glee. She was, she "bleated", only doing it because she was unemployed, and she trotted out a horrifying list of debts which suggested (if it was true) that she must have overextended on her brief run of luck in a well-known soap, and found herself in desperate straits when it ran out.

If it was true; because this list of contradictory views and claims leaves everything she said in doubt. The reporting itself must be correct, as these papers live in constant dread of libels and damages. Even so, the partial and shallow article is no great help. It is a coarse, brutal, unscrupulous and yet unforgivably boring piece of writing, the chronicle of the crushing of one wretched life by the juggernaut of the Murdoch empire profit motive; it is, I think, no base instinct to sympathize with the unfortunate prostitute caught in its headlights. The monster took her on not because it had any revulsion against commercial sex, but because she was an easy target. They dragged her struggling into the public gaze and left her there. Her name is now in every clippings file in the country: can she ever get back to the moderate respectability of showiz?

But her own self is as murky as the motives of her discoverers are base. In the article, she presented two faces: first, when she thought she was with a punter, she was the Happy Hooker; then, when faced with the Murdoch monster and disaster, she was the unhappy, dignified single woman forced on the street by circumstances. She left with the classic tag that she was not proud of her work, but had to do it; and we remember that she is, after all, an actress.

Some of it we can discard. It is easy for anybody to grow fond of one's "berth" and one's colleagues, but the claims she made for her club were belied by her own words. In a club that was "like a family", someone must have sold her to the Murdoch press (or else how did they know she was there?); in a "very safe" club, there are girls who perform violent sex acts: there are girls who drink themselves into a stupor, then let the clients do whatever they want, scarcely remembering it the next day. They must either be hopeless drunkards, or unable to face the bed unless battered by alcohol; or both. No doubt they too would claim that they enjoy what they do; in the false consciousness of this life, being drunk is fun, and having sex is fun, so being drunk and having sex must be twice the fun.

The girl herself makes it something of a proud claim, or at least a sort of self-justification, that she does not get drunk like that. If this is true, it does lend some credence to her claim to enjoy her promiscuous trade for its very promiscuousness. She does not have to drug herself with alcohol. She finds it thrilling to have many partners, the experience is totally different each time. These excited statements have something of a ring of truth. But she does not get drunk: she is in charge. She enjoys her work, and claims not to lose control of herself: it follows that what she does is her own choice and quite legitimate.

In the eyes of most people, this would damn her last statements ad usum Murdochii: if she feels so positive about it, she can never have meant that she wasn't proud of her work, or that she only did it to pay her debts. I wouldn't be so sure. If she was quite happy with her work in the first place, she would not have brought up all those disingenuous distinctions and excuses. At the same time, the divergence is too obvious and huge; and her closing words are too pat. Of course most people deal in clichés to describe even the most honest emotions, but in this case the whiny tone that can be felt in her list of debts - and the too obvious contrast with her previous words - make the cliché of not being proud of what she has to do sound a bit hollow.

It is my impression that both parts of her story are equally true, in the sense of both being rather pat and glib, with aspects that suggest sincerity and others that are too obviously insincere for words. The actress is turning the face her public requires, one of two (if not more) according to circumstances. Both have a real base in her experience, and yet both are there purely to serve the moment. In each occasion she stretches the fragment of true experience, decorates and makes use of them for the public's benefit. And this ought to disabuse us of certain received notions; or at least, to modify them.

Punters and pornographers on the one hand, and social workers, charities and Church groups on the other, have contradictory and thoroughly incompatible views of prostitutes. Most punters could not think of making use of prostitutes if they felt that they were more or less raping the girls; most pornographers laugh out loud at any notion that the girls are abused - abused? for crying out loud, they come a-runnin' at the chance! And yet it is also true that nobody who ever worked with prostitutes, social worker, charity worker, probation officer or priest, is without his or her stock of dreadful stories of personal misfortune and abuse.

What the story of this girl shows is that the same stories, and the same attitudes, can both come from the same person, in the same situation, at the same time. The punter who asks is told that the girl loves sex; and the odds are that she does. The social worker is told that she hates the life; the girl may want out, or she may want a temporary advantage to be able to carry on untroubled - but she is probably quite sincere. She can feel both more or less unmixed, exhibitionistic pleasure in the sex, even anticipate it eagerly, and within twenty minutes declare her shame at her situation. If asked to tell us which is her 'real', 'genuine' attitude to her life, I don't think she could honestly answer; not if she was asked to make a choice between the two. The choice is in effect meaningless.

It should be becoming clear that the two views delivered are not on the same level. The one is to do with a single aspect of life, and a singularly fleeting one at that: the pleasure of sex. The other refers to the whole of the life. This particular girl, without a doubt, enjoys sex; and if the question is one of pleasure alone, then I think there is no lie at all when she tells us that the abundance and variety of sex she gets from her work is highly pleasant to her. The lie can be felt creeping in when she is trying to justify her life and that of her colleagues - the club is one big family, it is a safe environment, and at any rate she is not as bad or as self-destructive as some. The first two statements are blatantly false, the third is at best doubtful. On the other hand, her shame and horror at being found out is indubitably genuine: she did not want the world to know her in this light, and it is probably quite true that she had taken the job to pay off debts. But plenty of young women get themselves in bad financial trouble, and not all of them pay their way out like that. We must assume that a good part of those who do believe they will enjoy it.

And yet the constant flow of desperate stories and suicidal girls, even discounting the matter of drug addiction - too large and tragic a subject to touch here - shows that the promiscuous lifestyle is in effect inhuman. If a certain number of women, and a smaller number of men, manage to live it for decades without the same reaction of disgust and weariness, this no more than a spiritual version of the Winston Churchill syndrome, the curious invulnerability to harm that allows a few people to drink, smoke, overeat, run the Devil's own risks, and live untroubled into their nineties. Everyone knows some rumbustious old sinner who has roared his way into a disgraceful old age and manages to be still good company and to still have fun; and if we don't, we wish we did. What we don't consider is how many people, indulging in the same lifestyle, have died in their forties. And in the same way, the existence of more or less satisfied long-time prostitutes and pornographers is not evidence that the lifestyle is healthy or even moderately sane; only that there is no condition so damaging that someone is not immune to it. (And I swear that when I spoke of Winston Churchill, I wasn't thinking of the most celebrated such case - his egregious daughter-in-law Pamela Harriman, the most successful courtesan of the century.)

Sex is easy; sex is pleasant; sex is a moment, and a good one. But to open oneself in that fashion, to make oneself open again and again, to be a passing post, is not human, and it certainly is not easy. A man and a woman do not pair to live together for the sake of the sex; they do so because this is the easiest, the most natural life for most of us, and promiscuity the most stressful. Nothing can be more of an effort than the pursuit of pure pleasure. The instant is pleasurable; the life is hideous. It separates you from the rest of mankind, for you regard them only as occasional causes for your own pleasure, or as occasional objects of conquest on whom to work the power of your sex. Either way, they are not there for themselves, and this makes for a horrible emptiness: as a pagan Norse poet said, "man is man's delight". Not what you can get out of people; nor what you can make of them; but they themselves are your delight.

An attitude that disregards this means misery; not immediate, not obvious, but deep and lasting. It means a misery that can hardly be told apart from the pleasure, just as the insensate drinking and sex of the more self-surrendered girls - those whom the girl of our article describes - is both pleasure and anodyne. The pleasure itself separates you from the common humanity; the pleasure itself is the misery.

Neither the punters nor the girls, at least not most of either, can live that way. That is why the punters have this habit of talking to the girls, of asking them about their lifestyle, of establishing contact: they want to know that they are not just taking and driving away, they want to be told that they are not really doing harm. And the girls themselves want to believe it. And on a deeper level, both punter and girl want to reassure themselves that they have not thrown humanity quite away. In a sense, it is a nice impulse. So they only tell each other the pleasant bits - and lie about the reality of the world they live in - the club is like a big family - it is a safe environment - anyway, it's not as bad as some I could name. The self-reinforcement is blatant.

If the girl did not live a good part of her life in complete disguise, in the part of the Happy Hooker, the heroic and pleasing rogue pointing up the emptiness of conventional morality, she could not go on. In the long run, I doubt she will. But it is important to realize that when the girls tell the punters about how enjoyable a life theirs is, not all of them are lying; perhaps not even most. It is by no means the rule that women are pushed into this life by violent men (and a few depraved women) forcing unwilling girls through the meat grinder. To a very large extent, sin is a matter of free choice, and we patronize those girls if we regard them only as victims of others. For one thing, a lot of girls know perfectly well that nobody forced them to choose their life: and if you treat them as victims, they will quite rightly tell you to get lost - unless it should be, at that moment, to their advantage to pretend to be victims of others. (Remember that prostitutes lie.) And unless these women are really and truly victims, if you treat them as such you encourage them to find some other convenient peg to hang their responsibilities on; and one way or another, that is not what we want. We want free people, not slaves who replace one slavery with another.

In the end, it does not matter how these women took up prostitution; all that matters is that prostitution is wrong. It is inhuman. It leads women and men to deceive themselves as to the deepest realities of their lives. And they know it: most of them only put up with it for a few years - and then go away and carefully forget about it. It is only the freaks, the people born by some misfortune without natural sensibility, who can live with it for long; and even for them it rarely is a lifetime.
Tags: evil, pornography, prostitution
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