Ian Hamilton

  • Women Working: Prostitution Now by Eileen McLeod
    Croom Helm, 177 pp, £6.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 7099 1717 1
  • An English Madam: The Life and Work of Cynthia Payne by Paul Bailey
    Cape, 166 pp, £7.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 02037 4
  • All the Girls by Martin O’Brien
    Macmillan, 268 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 333 31099 3

‘To me it’s just a job. They get on, they get off and get dressed and that’s it.’ Thus Sharon of Birmingham, one of several matter-of-fact working girls interviewed by Eileen McLeod for her study of Prostitution Now. Most of McLeod’s interviewees would go along with Sharon’s view of her vocation. Here’s Carol: ‘When they give me the money I say “Look then get on with it I haven’t got all day,” and they say “I hope you’re not going to rush me,” and I say “Look cock, you’ve got a certain amount of time here I don’t expect you to be in and out in two minutes, but I don’t expect you to spend two hours here”; they say “Fair enough.” ’ ‘Fair enough’ may indeed be what they say to Carol, but it’s probably not what they are saying to themselves. Yet there they are again, the punters, once more forking out good money for bad sex. Carol and Sharon have little need to brood on the niceties of customer-relations.

Nor do they ever seem drawn to speculate on why chaps keep coming back for more – more of what the girls themselves perceive to be an almost derisively brusque freeze-off. So far as Carol and Sharon are concerned, it’s all a matter of ‘relief’ or ‘despunking’, something that men have to have done to them from time to time. As a car needs to be filled up, a man needs to be emptied. And the fact that necessity is involved does not in the least soften the working girl’s view of what she’s up to. On the contrary, it makes her all the more secure in her contempt, all the more confident that business cannot fail to prosper – supply and demand nicely balanced by Nature in favour of the supplier.

As for the men, most of them probably know very well that prostitutes despise most of their clients, that some simply despise men, and that the whole transaction is likely to be, shall we say, offhand. Some keep at it, presumably, because they keep hoping that they will get lucky – that tonight, unlike all the other nights, they will chance upon a true ‘lady of pleasure’: a healthy whore who likes it, and who quite likes them. The fantasy of purchasable and yet genuine (just for you) sexual compliance has brutally deep roots. As to the others who ‘go back for more’ – well, in many cases, Carol and Sharon are probably correct about ‘despunking’. Quite a few, though, revisit the house of shame in the hope that Sharon will be just a touch more hostile this time, that Carol’s irritability will have sharpened up a bit since Thursday. These men go back for a sweet taste of ‘just what I deserve’ and would flop dreadfully if Sharon suddenly went soft on them, or if Carol let them play on into extra time.

Or so I hazard after reading the confessions of Cynthia Payne, the ‘madam’ jailed in 1978 for running ‘a disorderly house’ in Streatham. The police raided her place during a Christmas party and picked up 17 women and 53 ‘middle-aged to elderly’ men, including clergymen, MPs, barristers and diplomats. Only Cynthia herself was punishable by law: Messrs Bedwell and Lovejoy simply had to give their names to the police. The press raised a few murmurs, and a few laughs, on Cynthia’s behalf. Her own attitude was summed up by the wall motto in her kitchen: ‘My house is CLEAN enough to be healthy ... and DIRTY enough to be happy.’

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