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’).

How they feel about the job when they start: usually hate it (‘You make light of it, you try to condition yourself to it inside, and yet the first time it really is horrible. At the last moment, you desperately want to run away; but you can’t any more’) and cherish plans for getting out. Dennis Potter, in his television serial Pennies from Heaven, very clearly got across a sense of drastic change in the girl once she had gone on the game; shocking not in a moralistic sense, but because she had acquired a kind of new, brittle facade that obliterated her as much as the clothes and make-up. A split takes place. This is described in a similar way by most of the women here. Just as society splits them off, as ‘bad’, from the rest, they themselves make a very strict demarcation between what is for hire and what is not. Kissing is taboo; the head is inviolate. It is not in fact the body, a whole body, that is involved at all (‘To me, being a [bar] hostess is even more revolting than being a pro ... You really have to let yourself be fooled around with to get a man to order one bottle; whereas as a prostitute there are hardly any caresses, there’s hardly any touching’). One or two of the stories, in fact, suggest a move towards prostitution because in a way it provides more autonomy over the body than mutual sex. Again, not simple.

Sexual pleasure: more or less mutilated by the demands of the job. The attempt to keep men as lovers or friends separate from men as clients is made as strenuously as the demarcation of body zones, but is difficult (‘It’s very hard for me to have a normal relationship with them, everything’s out of sync. For example, if I go out with a man and flirt with him, and at the end of the evening he makes it clear that he wants me, it gets my back up ... A client doesn’t matter one bit’). Social life is determined by the work (‘I stopped going out with men from the moment I did my first client; and yet before I liked going out, I liked going to nightclubs – I loved dancing, for instance’). A quotation used as chapter heading – ‘It’s over so fast’ – could not be more untrue: for the pro it is never over, because it profoundly determines attitudes: ‘I saw men’s penises, all kinds of pricks – big, small, long, bent, thick, hairy. They were all the same to me. It became a complete non-event, it left me utterly indifferent.’

Money: because it is the raison d’être it acquires extra significance, extra mystique (‘You “live” through money and what you can buy with it, in the same way those other people live through their shop or their profession’); and it is addictive (‘When you’re used to earning a lot of money, it’s hard to be satisfied with a secretary’s wage. Money’s a drug’). But pros – those who remain in the work at any rate – do not seem to organise money well: muddled, recurrent debts which are never quite cleared appear in the stories. Nevertheless, though the job may be started at a time of financial desperation, the money becomes a small symbol of power among humiliations and powerlessness. The question of pimps comes in here: an area of confusion in the contributors’ stories, partly because a pimp can mean anything from a property dealer to a husband, partly (says the editor Claude Jaget) because it is the part of their lives they least want to talk about. When they do, they give little support to the popular conception of the oppressor from whom helpless victims should be freed. He may be the lover they take a pride in financing and cherishing: another part of the life-style where there is a chance to choose rather than be chosen (‘Some of us, if we have the money, prefer and are proud to support friends or lovers, men or women, rather than send them out to a factory or a hospital job and get them back destroyed after a day’s work. We consider this our business’). In the Potter play the man is the weak partner, the girl the stronger one, whose affection for him makes sense of the life she has adopted. What the women quoted here are angry about seems not to be exploitation, but the fact that any men who live with them are liable to prosecution for pimping.

Ideals: just as some parts of the body are inviolate, some parts of life are separated sharply off from the rest. Several of the women describe the simplest kind of roses-round-the-door daydreams – home, husband, children. Children, by these accounts, are almost sacred (‘My own dream is for my daughter to get married in white and be a virgin ... After all I’ve gone through, that would make up for it all, it would be ideal’). The two founders of the English Collective of Prostitutes claim in their chapter that most women go into prostitution to support their children: ‘Generation after generation, we’ve made sure that the younger ones get a better deal.’ But it seems that the children may have to be brought up in foster homes, and perhaps theirs isn’t the most enviable situation. One of the women describes her son’s reactions of severe shock on discovering what his mother’s job was when he was 13.

Rewards: quite apart from money, from the tangle of things that make it hard to go back to straight life, there is a suggestion that a kind of glamour and camaraderie in the life can be appealing (‘I like this street world, this night life ... When you know it, it’s extremely lively, it’s exciting, it’s a fascinating world. There’s a kind of freedom you don’t find anywhere else’). The ‘freedom’ aspect of the life is crucial: the bodily freedom is given up in exchange – theoretically – for a freedom from employers, conventions, clock-watching, penny-pinching. Dangers: the work invites real danger of attack and even a murder risk. A proportion of the clients go to prostitutes not for simple sex but to vent their hatred of women (‘Once she got there she found herself faced with four of them ... they went at her from all sides, they did every conceivable thing to her’). Prostitutes, in an even more fundamental way than Jews or Blacks, are pelted with society’s projections; occasionally projections of goodness (there was an inane remark of Malcolm Muggeridge’s about some quality – holiness? spirituality? – shared only by nuns and prostitutes) but usually, of course, of badness (‘the ones that ask me to defecate in their mouths, they’re the ones who turn on me afterwards and say, “You’re disgusting, agreeing to that, you’re a slut, I don’t know how you can do such filthy things” ’).

The idea of safe, legal and well-regulated brothels, however, is anathema to all the contributors. It denies the precious area of freedom:

‘The following ladies to the salon,’ she’d say. When I heard that I’d freeze up inside ... It was the man who’d chosen me, who’d had me, I was the thing he’d literally bought. He’d judged me like he’d judge cattle at a fairground, and that’s revolting, it’s sickening ... When you’re on the street ... you feel less like their property, and also you can always refuse.

Out in the open there is the illusion that it is the women who do the choosing. The super-efficient German version of the brothel – the Eros Centre complete with bars, swimming-pool and sauna – is no more popular. The women have to line up and proposition seminaked. If such centres multiplied, one contributor predicts, they would become ‘hooker supermarkets’, with compulsory competition for the most pornographic get-up.

Solutions, then? I can’t feel at all clear about them by the end of the book. It should be explained first what the legal situation is, for those who are as ignorant as I was before reading it. Though it is the British set-up that is described here, the women whose stories are recorded are French, and the book was inspired by the ‘strike’ of French prostitutes against their working conditions in 1975, when they organised a sit-in in a church in Lyons. But the Catch 22 to be described seems to be much the same in both countries. The schizoid aspect of the life-style and of society’s attitude to it is reflected in legislation. Briefly, while prostitution is not illegal, any action which leads to its practice is: in other words, it is legal to be a prostitute but impossible to operate as one without breaking the law. A prostitute cannot, legally, solicit or advertise. A restaurant or bar cannot ‘harbour’ her; a landlord cannot knowingly let premises to her. It is hard to see where or how she can carry on her ‘legal’ trade. The result of the system is to put a great deal of power into the hands of the police and to open very wide the door to corruption. Nearly all the women quoted in the book express deep bitterness against the police and the system that empowers them. Their demand – presented by Baroness Joan Vickers to the House of Lords in 1977 – is for the abolition of all laws relating to prostitution.

But, yet again, it is not simple. Do I personally want to let my spare room to a prostitute? No, not as long as I can get any other tenant. But this ‘legal’ trade – and we would be even deeper into hypocrisy if we tried to make it go away by a total ban – has to be carried on somewhere, and the women say with one voice that they don’t want official premises. Some giant effort of honesty and rationality seems to be needed – but the problem is so fantasy-ridden. John Updike’s story ‘Transaction’ in his latest book of short stories shows the prostitution bargain from the side of the male partner: his confusion about her blank availability and boredom, his attempts both to reach her as a real person and to use her in his imaginative life. The man going to a prostitute hires a fantasy as much as part of a body, the women know this:

We’re often the only chance men get to sleep with their fantasy ... Their sexuality is quite different from women’s. On the one hand, they can really make love with a woman, and it’ll take an hour, two hours, the whole night, and they’ll have a real relationship with this woman ... But they’ve got their own desires, and now and then they need to let go, they need a safety valve. Then, a woman has to understand, take it with a smile. And it’s really hard.

One thing that can only make it all worse is to scapegoat men’s sexuality for the fact that the women who trade with them get scapegoated in their turn. Now that it is fashionable to assess everything from music to mental illness for its biological value to the species, the usefulness, for perpetuating ourselves, of an assertive male sexuality complementing a more conservative female one is too obvious for comment. Remarkably, some of the women represented here, like the one quoted above, manage not to scapegoat men. In any case, if male heterosexual prostitutes were only more feasible, women would certainly sometimes use them.

And where it is a question of sorting out the roles of victim and aggressor there are, again, utter confusions. The most shocking chapter in the book is the one told by a girl who specialises in sado-masochism. When she was nine she was raped by her stepfather and was dumb for a year afterwards. At 18, she left the Children’s Home where she had lived and bought a butcher’s knife and stabbed the man in the genitals. She spent five years of a nine-year sentence in prison. She is the only woman in the book who admits to getting a sexual kick out of her work: ‘When they want you to stick pins in their penises, the blood really gushes out because when they come all the blood rises and when you take the pins out there’s a flood. For this operation, you have to pull everything tight with elastic so there’s no loose skin, really stretch it, and then dig the pins in. They don’t scream while it’s going on, they tremble, they get their kicks from it.’ How can one restrict one’s pity to one of the partners in this transaction? Each is necessary to the other.