Vile Bodies

Rosemary Dinnage

Prostitution is not going to disappear for a long time, says one of the six women who tells her story here, so it is time people accepted prostitutes. ‘They could at least be ready to look them in the face and acknowledge them,’ she says; and so say the other five, and the heads of the prostitutes’ collectives who have contributed chapters, and the male journalist who edits the book; fair play, both legally and socially, is what they ask for, for working women who have simply struck a private bargain with another individual. How could one disagree? But the looking in the face, the sorting out of disgust, sympathy, blame, envy, is horribly difficult. The book’s spokespeople are clear where the blame lies (in male-dominated society), and what the remedy is (much larger allowances for single women with children); the women who tape-recorded their stories seem more muddled and honest.

The two deeply emotive things involved are money and bodily integrity. Prostitution is one of those things, like payment for psychotherapy or breach of promise, where the money involved seems to become meaningless, both too much and too little. Getting paid, for 15 minutes of passivity, what it takes hours of book-reviewing or concrete-mixing to earn, is obviously ridiculously too much. For losing social acceptance, sexual choice and physical safety it is obviously ridiculously too little. Putting up with strangers’ disgusting bodies is what nurses happily do for low pay; but then, there is no question of monotonously dealing in just what seems most private, fruitful, of their own:

We worked on vaseline. That means we smeared ourselves with loads of vaseline and then afterwards got the sperm out. I only had time to wash after every four or five clients. While the guy was washing I’d go to the top of the banisters and shout, ‘Coming down.’ The boss downstairs, she’d answer, ‘Coming up.’ And the next client would be getting ready to come up while the other one was still washing.

It really isn’t simple.

The six stories here are of course too few to explain the whole scene (there are no male prostitutes among them; no casual part-timers; no choosy and successful call-girls), but’ are vividly informative. This is what I have learned from them. First, how it all starts: usually little by little, not difficult to imagine (‘each time I realised that it was really impossible to stop. Yet it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. I did, from the start’). Only one out of the six set out with any deliberation; the pattern described is from casual jobs, to bar hostessing or ‘doing a favour’ to plain prostitution. Money and habit are crucial (‘there’s no mystery – if it weren’t for the money, then I’d rather be doing any job than this one’). Even if Margaret Valentino and Mavis Johnson of the English Collective of Prostitutes are right that better pay for women is the heart of the matter, it is unlikely that there will never be anyone willing to earn even more and finding the bargain worthwhile (‘I tried taking a job ... clocking in at eight in the morning, going out to lunch, one month off in the summer, waiting all week for Sunday to come – I tried it and I couldn’t do it’).

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