On Reading about Prostitution

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The working title of the next novel in The Splits Archive is Zombies in a Brothel and it spent several months being no more than that. This is because my knowledge of sex work was simply too meagre to write anything convincing.

I needed to research commercial sex. So I began by googling reading lists - I found this cracking one from Leeds University. Then I went to the British Library, which is the second largest in the world and holds every book published in the UK and Ireland.

Mind-blowing

Sitting in the hush of the BL with its high ceilings and rows of leather-topped desks, my mind was completely blown.

I realised that I had only the most basic understanding of sex work, determined by my own anxieties. For example, I’d absorped a famous statistic that around 70% of men visit prostitutes at least once in their life – and promptly suppressed it. That’s just too many men. That could be anyone- Dad, Grandpa, my teacher, the doctor.

As I read I was amazed to discover this figure is completely wrong. More recent research estimates that actually just 6% of men visit a prostitute once in their lives and only 1.5% visit a prostitute more than once.

That’s much more dealable with. Hysteria be gone!

Also, although I knew that there is more than one kind of sex work, I’d taken a similar mental shortcut to many people. I’d condensed it all down into street-level prostitution and trafficking – very poor, coerced, possibly drug-addicted women controlled by violent pimps.

Now I was reading about the middle class sex-worker in the US. I was reading about Spanish road-side brothels where tired truck drivers stop for the company of other drivers as much as for sex. I was reading about women in rural shacks who cook a meal for their clients, iron their clothes and let them sleep the night.

Similarly, men who buy sex are a very mixed bag. Some just have an excess of sexual energy. Some have a fetish for buying sex. Some are unable to meet women in any other way. Some are stuck in a bad marriage. Some have no time for intimate relationships. Few if any of the reasons on this list signal a happy person living a well-rounded life, but nor do they sound that different from the unhappinesses of men who do not buy sex.

Sex and the Self

However, I wasn’t convinced by one of the main feminist defenses of prostitution, - namely that it’s patriarchal to insist that women see their sexuality as an intimate part of their selves.

For me, it’s human for sexuality to be enmeshed with our emotional depths. It’s not a very sexy thought at all, but our consciousnesses are constituted through touch and eye contact when we are babies.

The effect of separating the two is the same for men as for women. The patriarchy might reward women who say their sexuality isn’t part of their essential selves differently from men who say the same. But that’s quite distinct from how it makes men and women feel as human beings.

It’s obvious that some people – women and men - are able to make the separation more easily than others. I accept that the machine-like drive to reproduce has a life of its own. I can see that some people – both women and men – are able to, or even find it quite natural, to meet this need without the involvement of their emotions.

What about love?

But the list of reasons why men go to prostitutes makes it clear most of them haven’t detached this need.

When you look at this list, you can’t help realising that even the coldest and creepiest commercial sex is actually about love. More precisely, it’s about love's absence. Perhaps the odd well-brought-up sociopath can genuinely use prostitutes as a service. But most men invest more whether they’re conscious of it or not.

Take the two motivations that seem to have least to do with love. First, men who see commercial sex as a practical solution to give them more time for their career. After reading some case studies, it seems these men usually have an underlying depression (unless they are total sociopaths, although there is an argument that sociopathy is actually a defense against mental disintegration).

Second, men with a fetish for commercial sex. By definition, they are replacing a thing they want with something they don’t. That’s the meaning of a fetish – a substitute for the real thing, which can then absorb your feelings about the thing you really want. I am arguing the real thing they want is love.

Two different worlds?

Nor do I buy the argument that marriage is just a socially acceptable form of prostitution.

But I did begin to see that what happen in commercial sex is not in one universe while what happens in ‘normal’ sex is in another.

There can be tenderness in commercial sex, and there can be exploitation and hurt in ‘gift’ sex.

One prostitute I read about said she felt she was drawing love up out of the earth and sending it into her clients. I expect this is not the full story, but neither is it the full story when people say “I do”.

It was this woman’s words that finally convinced me sex work can illuminate our humanity rather than simply disgrace it. Just as well, seeing as I’m about to write a novel set in a brothel.

 

 

 

 

 

Guts Reaction - Eyes of My Mother

***SPOILER FREE***

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A lot of reviewers have said Eyes of My Mother (2016) has elements of torture porn. Now I HATE torture porn, but I loved this film.

What gives? Well, torture porn has two key aspects - first mutilation of the body, and second, taking pleasure in mutilating the body. I'm not sure Eyes of My Mother really qualifies.

It's set on a remote US farmhouse where a Portuguese immigrant family lives quietly (or are they exiled? They certainly have the wary quality of people who have experienced trauma). The mother is a former surgeon and teaches her daughter to dissect eyes.When their lives are shattered by a violent tragedy, things take a very strange turn and a number of horrific acts are committed, albeit off-screen.

But I don't think the perpetrator takes any pleasure in these acts - she's childlike, almost infantile, she doesn't actually understand what she's doing.

Eyes of My Mother did push me out of my comfort zone - it was so disturbing I had pause it and look up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia to check I wasn't going to regret watching it. That's never happened before.

But I loved the sense of this calcified Portuguese timewarp in the middle of the US, this old, sad energy of an immigrant past that's never really been left behind.

Some reviews say the ending was disappointing, but I thought it was incredible. It conveyed beautifully the inevitability of the lead character's behaviour, like the return of a musical fate motif at the climax of an opera.

Yes, opera. Poetry too. There was all kinds of high art in this horror film. All bad and old and no good, but absolutely stunning.

 

 

On Being a Clive Barker Virgin

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I’ve been saying for a while that if loving horror is an orientation, I’ve only just come out of the closet. I denied myself a lot of wonderful horror writing for years because of this and I’m only now catching up.

First came Shirley Jackson and The Haunting of Hill House, which I've blogged about here.

Then I was preparing for my YouTube show Title Fright 10: Curious Cruelty, which pits Hellraiser against Candyman. I felt I should at least read The Hellbound Heart and The Forbidden, on which they are based respectively. So I opened my first ever Clive Barker book.

Clear, cool and lyrical, with riveting and stunningly relevant plots, they could have been written yesterday, or even in ten years time.

They were also much more frightening than I expected. When I got to that famous line in The Forbidden....

‘I am rumour,’ he sang in her ear. ‘It’s a blessed condition, believe me. To live in people’s dreams; to be whispered at street-corners; but not have to be. Do you understand?’

…it bowled me over. It was as if Candyman was transcending his fictional status by owning it as his chief characteristic. It was as if he had stepped off the page into my reality, and I got a tremor in my gut that is the absolute holy grail of any horror fan.

Good as the film Candyman is, it doesn’t quite manage that.

It’s ridiculous that it’s taken me this long to get into Barker, but I’m seeing my glass as half full - there can’t be many horror fans at my age who can jump in fresh to his oeuvre.

As they say, it’s never as good as the first time.

Sick notes

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My ear was recently grabbed by a radio show on how diseases get their names.

The show was the BBC's Word of Mouth presented by Michael Rosen and Laura Wright. The guests were Laura Spinney, author of Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World and Professor Peter Piot, co-discover of Ebola.

Listening, I learned that diseases used to be named after places, often misleadingly. Take 1918’s global pandemic of Spanish flu, for example. It got its name because during World War I neutral Spain was the only country where the government was honest about the existence of the disease.

The episode also covered new rules drawn up by WHO in 2015 to ensure that disease names are informative, without attaching stigma to particular places or social groups. For example a bacteria that affects the lungs of pregnant women might be called Streptococcal Maternal Respiratory Disease, or SMRD. It would not be called Bromley Breastfeeder's Lung.

However, these rules are regularly flouted – recent newspaper stories about Japanese and Aussie flu show old habits run deep. Ultimately, if a name catches on it is very hard for the authorities to change it.

My novel, The Splits, tells the story of a communicable disease that ramps up to the maximum the anxiety we feel about infection.

In the book, the official name for the disease is Scott-Lapidot Disease (SLD), after two scientists who 'discover' it. I didn’t know it when I made this up, but this is now considered to be in very bad taste - it's the microbiology equivalent of 19th century explorers naming countries after themselves. In the episode, Professor Piot stressed that the discovery of a disease actually involves collaboration on a massive scale.

SLD also, I now realise, isn't informative. It doesn’t tell anybody anything about what causes the disease, who it affects, or how.

If I were going to use WHO's new rules, SLD might be called Severe Contagious Complex Amyloidotic Dissociation, or SCCAD. I’m not sure that has much of a ring to it. If I was going break those rules I might call it Mad Corpse Disease.

Perhaps I’ll play around with these new naming conventions in the next Splits novel. Or perhaps I’ll stick with the visceral, descriptive common name that springs from the lips of some shocked eye-witnesses in the book – the Splits.

It could have had any number of similar names. I actually quite liked 'the Cold' but that's already taken! 'The Pressure' or 'the Hate' might have worked. But the Splits captured both the physical and psychological manifestation of the disease, so that was what I went with.

If you read the book, you’ll see 'the Splits' say more about the disease than SLD, SCCAD  - or even Mad Corpse Disease - ever could.

 

Guts Reaction: It

***Spoiler free ***

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I wasn’t looking forward to the 2017 film version of It.

I’ve read the sprawling Stephen King novel many times, and always felt it was just too complex to be boiled down into a movie. I’ve never been a fan of the 1990s miniseries (mainly, it is true, because I couldn’t get my hands on it).

I didn’t see how there could be anything good about an even shorter screen adaptation, especially one directed by Andy Muschietti, who made the deeply disappointing Mama (2013).

It’s lovely to be wrong. Pretty much everything about the film is perfect. There’s not a single bad performance – the child actors are all brilliant. The cinematography is stunning, capturing that sweltering summer King wrote about so vividly. And Pennywise. Oh boy, Pennywise.

At the heart of It is Pennywise, the most malicious clown in literary history. When I read the novel as a teenager, a strange ecstasy used to come over me during the Pennywise interludes. He was a kind of fear-poem that sneaked around every logical barrier and … I don’t know…  scared me and yet gave me something I needed.

It was Pennywise I was least looking forward to in the film adaptation. Because how could anyone capture that strange celebratory malevolence? Like I said, I haven’t seen the miniseries, but Tim Curry never looked particularly convincing to me.

Bill Skarsgard, however, is a revelation. He’s helped out a little with special effects – in particular, they play around with his size so that he’s just slightly too large. But on the whole it’s all Bill, pulling faces and throwing shapes and delivering his lines with a terrifying mad energy that actually does the book justice. Each time he appears, the film comes to joyous, terrifying life, just like the book used to do.

To my surprise, the next day Pennywise stayed with me. I felt as if he was following me around the streets. It was a good feeling.

Twit Follows: @Polar_Bear_Edit

I've got a tingling at the end of my fingers and that means only one thing - another Twit Follows contender has emerged.

@Polar_Bear_Edit is consistently charming and funny.

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She tweets things like this:

and this on the quintuple-strength caffeinated beverage Death Wish Coffee:

and this:

and this on the fashion for turning your books so the pages face outwards, creating a neutral effect:

But last night she made me read 125 of her tweets. How? A 125-tweet long account of a Sims game (or session) she was playing. I've never played the Sims and I have only the vaguest knowledge of it but her commentary on her avatar's ridiculous antics kept me gripped. There was this:

and this:

But the killer for me was this tweet:

Yup!

I haven't got some big analysis of @Polar_Bear_Edit or what she's about or where she's coming from. I just really enjoy her feed. An essential follow.

Guts Reaction: Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper is a slow, mournful film about a girl who lives in two worlds and may or may not be haunted. It’s also way scarier than most textbook horror films.

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Maureen (Kristen Stewart) has been staying in Paris with her twin brother Lewis, when he dies of a congenital heart problem which she also shares.

She’s a medium – of course – as is Lewis and they promised each other if one died they would give the living twin a sign. So Maureen is living alone in Paris, wandering around the wreckage of Lewis’s life – he had a girlfriend, a house and a project – waiting for this sign to come.

At the same time, Maureen is a personal shopper for an A-list celebrity, Kyra. Kyra displays all the worst kind of aristocratic traits associated with fame and glamour.

Maureen despises the work but at the same time she cannot resist trying on the designer clothes and shoes she chooses for, and delivers to Kyra. The film goes to great lengths to establish what a taboo this is.

I lived in Paris when I was in my twenties, and it was a haunted time for me too, albeit for very different reasons from Maureen. Seeing her scoot along the boulevards as the evening draws in and the lights of the cafes come on was just magical.

There’s also a scene when Maureen takes the Eurostar to London – I’ve sat in all those locations several times, and it gave me a shiver up my spine.

But there's a lot more. There’s a psychopath, who the film barely spends any time on, because actually psychopaths aren’t that interesting. What takes the fore is Maureen's terror, which is so real it reaches out of the screen in a way few conventional horror films manage these days.

One enigmatic scene plays on absence and is reminiscent of an all-time great in French cinema, Hidden.

Supernatural elements are handled conventionally – they may or may not be Maureen’s own emotions – but with great skill because they never displaces the real story, one of bereavement and coming of age.

There are many ways to interpret the end of the movie, but it’s still satisfying.

All in all, Personal Shopper is a wonderful film.

 

Guts Reaction: Creep 2

***Spoilers***

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Creep (2014) created an unforgettable monster in the figure of Josef (Mark Duplass).

Superficially bright and cheerful, under the surface Josef was a toxic mess. He hired Aaron, a shy young film-maker, only to draw him into an socially awkward and increasingly sinister cat and mouse game.

Creep’s clever study of personality made us laugh as well as shudder as Josef’s cringingly peculiar worldview crept out into the light. Arguably the first chink on this vista was opened by Christian Bale’s performance in American Psycho, but Creep grabbed the doors and threw them wide open.

Creep 2 is a brilliant follow-up. Instead of a shy male film-maker we have a confident female one – Sara (Desiree Akhavan). Josef, now calling himself Aaron, admits within minutes of her arrival at his remote house that he’s a serial killer.

This renews the dynamic and results in a film that is just as riveting as the original, if not more so.

As a woman, it’s totally unbelievable that Sara stays, but the motivation is twofold. First, she’s anxious that she’s failing as a film-maker and Aaron (as I suppose we must call him now) is the best material she’s every come across.

Second, she’s extremely bold. When Aaron strips naked she calmly films his full frontal nudity. She then takes her own clothes off and invites him to film her.

In fact, Aaron has met his match in Sara. In a way, she is as much of a predator as he is, although she wants to spill people’s vulnerability on film, rather than spill their blood on the carpet.

The pair go through a bizarre romantic arc. It’s not love exactly, but eventually, I think, Sara’s boundaries erode and she begins to feel something for Aaron.

And so do we, the audience. In fact we’re more confused – Sara doesn’t think Aaron’s a murderer but we know he is. And yet we’re charmed at their pre-lapsarian frolicking, like Adam and Eve before the fall. We’re going ‘aaaaah!’ as they excitedly invent games around their mutual interest in weird shit.

The fact that Mark Duplass looks much less creepy in a beard – in fact he looks quite cute – doesn’t do any harm.

The fall, when it comes, isn’t particularly shocking or scary. As other reviewers have observed, Creep 2 has less horror in it than the first, and more character.

But what a wonderful film.