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 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 exchanging a thing they don’t really want for something they do. 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. Love, in other words.

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.