Tag Archives: urban space

Wearing slammerkins and dreaming: Sex work in fiction

64be395da850ff563440fc4da91994b8In Slammerkin, Mary is a street prostitute in mid-18th-century London. Thrown out of her dismal basement home by a mother absolute in condemnation of Mary’s pregnancy at 14, she meets a friendly whore, Doll, who initiates her into street trading. Mary is in love with nice clothing and comes to see there is no hard line between the Good Woman and the Bad.

2505937ea8c9c8e6aebb554012fa4295[Her mother] Susan Digot wouldn’t likely recognise her child-as-was, all gussied up in a flowered jacket-bodice and a worn silk skirt buoyed out by a pair of improvers. Mary looked like a woman of the town, these days. She smelled different, even, with the mouth-watering lemony reek of Hungary water.

What a fool Susan Digot had been, to think everyone in gold braid her better, and the wider the skirt, the higher the breeding! Mary had seen commoners walk as queens on the stage in Drury Lane. Doll was opening Mary’s eyes to all life’s shortcuts, back alleys, gaps in the walls. In these uncertain times, Mary was learning, a duchess was sometimes just a stroller who’d picked the right honourable cully.

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

Kitty Fisher by Joshua Reynolds

In a four-story house in Golden Square lived a lady who’d once been known in the trade as Angel Arse. On the corner of Hyde Park was a new mansion the Duke of Kingston was building for Miss Chudleigh, who’d been his mistress for a dozen years already and he still hadn’t tired of her. The famous Kitty Fisher was said to be about to swap all her lordly lovers for a rich husband from the Lower House. A bit of loveliness, a bit of luck; that’s all a girl needed.

Richardson_pamela_1741On long bright evenings, Mary sat on the grass in Lamb’s Conduit Fields behind Holborn and watched the courting couples meander by. The air was full of the sounds of leisure: the archers’ arrows hitting the target, the click of balls on the bowling green, or the distant roars of a dogfight or wrestling match. She was reading again for the first time since school. She bought crack-backed romances and memorised all the long words, in case she’d ever need them. The History of Pamela Andrews was her favourite. The crafty wench, to fend off her master all those times, then squeeze a proposal of marriage out of him in the end! She’d swapped her maid’s apron for bridal satins and ended up as good a lady as any other, hadn’t she? It all went to show, Mary thought. If a girl had her wits about her, nowadays, she could rise as high as she wanted, as sure as cream through the milk. Anything was possible. – Slammerkin p247 (Emma Donoghue 2002)

About Mary’s interpretation of Pamela – well! Astute doesn’t begin to describe it. No wonder social blowhards began to condemn the reading of novels by gels.

The word for the loose gown, a slammerkin, came to be used for the women who wore them. On the word slammerkin, from one etymological dictionary:

There is a group of North Sea Germanic words in sl- that mean “sloppy,” and also “slovenly woman” and, less often, “slovenly man,” and that tend to evolve toward “woman of loose morals.” Compare slattern, also English dialectal slummock “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly person” (1861), variant of slammacks “slatternly woman,” said to be from slam “ill-shaped, shambling fellow.” Also slammakin (from 1756 as a type of loose gown; 1785 as “slovenly female,” 1727 as a character name in Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera”), with variants slamkin, slammerkin. Also possibly related are Middle Dutch slore “a sluttish woman,” Dutch slomp, German schlampe “a slattern.”

This knowledge came to me during regular posts/tweets entitled Today’s word for a Bad Woman. There are way way way too many of them, and almost any negative meaning deteriorates sooner or later into promiscuity and prostitution – beginning with sl- or not.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The girlfriend experience in Lawrence Block: Sex work in fiction

11473117_icon-realty-picks-up-elizabeth-street-tenement_b40882c2_mLawrence Block is a successful mainstream writer whose plotlines often include sex workers, in a normalising way (call girls, mostly). Matthew Scudder, the detective protagonist in one of Block’s series, has a long-term, friendly, sex-for-favours relationship with a call girl that eventually turns into marriage. The woman invests her money in property, allowing her to retire gracefully. Block doesn’t avoid portraying the dangers and problems inherent in the lives of women who sell sex, but he gives other sides of the picture, too, particularly refreshing given the usual police view of vice and prostitutes.

In Eight Million Ways to Die (1982) one New York call girl explains her lifestyle.

This is something different, she said. The johns who come here, they don’t think they’re johns. They think they’re friends of mine. They think I’m this spacey Village chick, which I am, and that they’re my friends, which they are. I mean, they come here to get laid, let’s face it, but they could get laid quicker and easier in a massage parlor, no muss no fuss no bother – dig? But they can come up here and take off their shoes and smoke a joint, and it’s a sort of a raunchy Village pad, I mean you have to climb three flights of stairs and then you roll around in a waterbed. I mean, I’m not a hooker. I’m a girlfriend. I don’t get paid. They give me money because I’ve got rent to pay and, you know, I’m a poor little Village chick who wants to make it as an actress and she’s never going to. Which I’m not, and I don’t care much, but I still take dancing lessons a couple mornings a week and I have an acting class every Thursday night, and I was in a showcase last May for three weekends. We did Ibsen, and do you believe that three of my johns came? (p 145)

4e52506f1b4d8702331483d23e7a2bb6I was living in New York the year this was published, and my friend Mona lived the same way Block’s character does. Mona also didn’t call herself a prostitute or anything else. Using a casual feminist analysis of the time, we thought she was doing what a lot of wives do, in a careful, selective way and without ceremony. In a context in which rents were sky-high and lots of people were trying to make it in demanding professions, Mona’s choice was sensible. She got to take her lessons and audition for parts, and, in the rare case that she got one, she was free to accept it. I don’t know whether she would have advertised GFE as a service had the term or the Internet been available, but that’s what she was offering.

Mona’s lifestyle illustrates how sex-for-money occurs in casual ways that are part of normal life in informal economies. If you recall the obsessive quality of hustling culture that John Rechy conveyed so well, this Village chick sounds serene (or spacey). But her way of looking at things is also common. In order to bring out more of these situations, I proposed a field called the cultural study of commercial sex. Scholarship without moralising. In my view, in fact, if you are moralising you are not a scholar.

Part of a series on sex work in fiction: scroll back a few days, then again, then again. [First published 19 January 2009]

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Hustling and cruising with John Rechy: Sex work in fiction

You know how it is when you are staying at someone’s house and you finish your own book and have to look around the alien shelves for something you’ll like? That’s how I wound up re-reading John Rechy’s City of Night, published in 1963. I first read it decades ago and had completely forgotten the intensity of his descriptions of cruising and hustling and the symbiosis of human relationships in one kind of sex work.

Here’s an example from the Los Angeles section:

This is clip street, hustle street – frenzied-nightactivity street: the moving back and forth against the walls; smoking, peering anxiously to spot the bulls before they spot you; the rushing in and out of Wally’s and Harry’s: long crowded malehustling bars.

And here too are the fairyqueens – the queens from Everywhere, America – the queenly exiles looking for new ‘husbands’ restlessly among the vagrant hustlers with no place to stay, and the hustlers will often clip the queens (if there is anything to clip), and the queens will go on looking for their own legendary permanent ‘Daddies’ among the older men who dig the queens’ special brand of gone sexplay, seldom finding those permanent connections, and living in Main and Spring Street holes: sometimes making it (employed and unemployed, taking their daddies and being taken by the hustlers) – sometimes, hardly, sometimes not at all.

And the malehustlers live with them off and on, making it from bar to lonesome room, bragging about the $50 score with the fruit from Bel Air who has two swimming pools, jack, and said he’d see you again (but if he didn’t show, you don’t say that), and you’re clinching a dime and a nickel for draft beer at Wally’s or Harry’s or the 1-2-3 or Ji-Ji’s so you can go inside and score early, and make it with one of the vagrant young girls to prove to yourself you’re still All Right.’

From p 100 of the Grove Press 1984 reprint.

There’s a good interview with Rechy in The Independent, in which he recounts what his life was like after City of Night was a success:

In the 1970s, when I was teaching at UCLA, I’d finish my evening classes, then change my clothes somewhat and go down to hustle on Santa Monica Boulevard. One night, a student saw me down there and said ‘Good evening, Professor Rechy. Are you out for an evening stroll?’.

It would be difficult to find a more appealing sex work story than that! But also see Rechy’s other books on his website.

And a final thanks to the friend with the bookshelf – he knows who he is.

[Post first published 11 November 2008]

Part of a series on sex work in fiction (scroll to a few days ago and a few days before that.)

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

James Lee Burke with French Quarter scam: Sex work in fiction

Bayou-Burger-Sports-Bar-features-balcony-dining-Bourbon-Street-New-Orleans-LAIn today’s shrill anti-trafficking culture any differences in forms of facilitating prostitution/ sex work are practically erased. I’m not talking about whether anything is fair or gender-equal or exploitative here but about the many ways humankind has evolved for making money through commercial sex. In James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox (1996) one swindle involving sex work in New Orleans is described: the Murphy scam.

Vice had identified the hooker as Brandy Grissum, a black twenty-five-year-old heroin addict who had done a one-bit in the St John the Baptist jail for sale and possession.

She worked with three or four pimps and Murphy artists out of the Quarter. The pimps were there for the long-term regular trade. The Murphy artists took down the tourists, particularly those who were drunk, married, respectable, in town on conventions, scared of cops and their employers.

It was an easy scam. Brandy would walk into a bar, well dressed, perhaps wearing a suit, sit at the end of the counter, or by herself in a booth, glance once into the john’s face, her eyes shy, her hands folded demurely in front of her, then wait quietly while her partner cut the deal.

This is the shuck: ‘My lady over there ain’t a reg’lar, know what I’m sayin’? Kind of like a schoolgirl just out on the town.’ Here he smiles. ‘She need somebody take her ’round the world, know what I’m saying’? I need sixty dollars to cover the room, we’ll all walk down to it, I ain’t goin’ nowhere on you. Then you want to give her a present or something, that’s between y’all.’ — p 24, Cadillac Jukebox

320px-Grits_Bar_Interior_New_Orleans_2The Murphy scam is robbery by a couple who lure a client to a room to have sex (in exchange for seemingly reasonable, non-professional fees). After client and woman are in bed the other partner rushes in posing as a jealous husband (or whatever). The client leaves in a hurry and the Murphy artists collect his belongings and money.

In Burke’s description Brandy works with several pimps as well as with Murphy artists, so even though she’s an addict she is not anyone’s slave. We aren’t told what proportion of the takings she gets, so we don’t know how bad a deal she has. The scam is interesting in offering a kind of commercial sex palatable to clients who cannot see themselves as clients and thus lend themselves to being scammed. A different kind of ‘demand’ – that now over-used, less-meaningful-than-ever term. A man who can be ‘lured’ – not much of a monster. More on different kinds of pimping in Nesbø’s Blood on Snow and in my own The Three-Headed Dog.

This is part of a series of posts about sex work in fiction. The other day it was Doris Lessing’s turn.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

The postwar London of Doris Lessing: Sex work in fiction

b9a907e1e2523f49ac6e82860572f05eThe Four-Gated City was published in 1969 by Doris Lessing. The passage quoted below describes a single young woman walking west on the Bayswater Road in 1950. The woman is Martha Quest, recently arrived in London from southern Africa, a migrant from colonies considered peripheral observing life in the presumed cosmopolitan centre. Her route takes her from a middle-class dinner held east of Marble Arch to a poor squat in Notting Hill. The photo above shows another part of London at the same period; the photo below the young Lessing.

29lessing-master675-1Note the absence of moral comment and that the job of the police is to make sure the marketplace functions peacefully.

Now she slowed, almost stopped in surprise at a cool hard getaway look from a young woman who stood with her back to a hedge. Of course, she had passed another invisible boundary. From here until Queensway, the pavements were lined with prostitutes, standing singly or in pairs, dozens of them, along the pavements. But Martha was freer here than she had been in that other territory she had only just left, whose boundary was simply a bisecting street. She was protected precisely by the line of girls for sale, who knew she wasn’t one of their trade union and because their hostile warning faces that said go away, you shouldn’t be here, kept her safe from being accosted. Three kinds of animal here. The women, standing with their backs to the hedges, on sale. The ordinary traffic of the pavement – but a slight traffic, mostly couples hurrying past the marketplace, keeping close under the lights, looking embarrassed, as if they were here by mistake, yet glancing furtively at the buying and bargaining.

NYC39209The customers, men of all ages, walking slowly past the women, or standing under the trees smoking, making choices. And across the street, policemen, spaced out with twenty or thirty yards between each couple, not looking directly at the haggling and dealing, but observing it sideways to make sure that it went on without incident. Martha walked more slowly than she had had to walk in the part of the street she had left. All the way down the street, by lit airy trees, they stood. Although it lightly drizzled, they wore summer dresses, bare necked, bare shouldered; and high thick sandals with bared insteps; and sometimes they held a jaunty umbrella. But there was no elegance here either. They weren’t well-dressed. They shared the national disposition towards gracelessness.

82867b7fe426e102857aaf9970f08b72There has been a war on. Suppose one of these men who was making up for the starvation of the war… approached one of the girls saying: I’d like you to wear … whatever was his fantasy, would she snap back: There’s been a war on, you know? Yes, very probably … Martha found herself imagining rooms where furniture, curtains, objects had charm, had flair, and a girl with charm, flair, undressed slowly to show off wittily charming underclothes – a man’s fantasy? Perhaps in all this city it was only these girls’ rooms where there was anything attractive, gay, rightly made? Well, not from the way they were dressed as they stood on the pavement.

–Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist