Worker declines rescue in Magdalen Nabb: Sex work in fiction

michaelrougierEfforts to save migrants and sex workers also appear in ordinary fiction (by which I mean not melodramas produced by moral crusaders) and some authors have a fine-tuned sense of irony. In Magdalen Nabb’s Some Bitter Taste (2002), Marshal Guarnaccia, a policeman in Florence, helps an Albanian woman escape from her pimp, who is sent to jail. The woman goes to live with a nice man, Mario, but after a time she visits Guarnaccia in his office to tell him his effort to help her has failed.

You’re the only person who’s ever been nice to me… so I wanted to tell you because if I don’t somebody else will. You’re bound to find out. I’m going back on the game.

– What? You’re what? And Mario?

– Oh, Mario… Jesus… I mean, he trotted off every morning at a quarter to eight and I was supposed to clean up his crumbs and wipe the floor over and then he’d come trotting back again and I was supposed to have the water boiling for his pasta and then it was one long whinge – there are no clean shirts, have you seen the fluff under this bed? Where’s the other sock to this? You’ve forgotten to get milk again… No, no, I couldn’t stand the boredom. So I upped and offed.

– Back to Ilir?

– Why not? He’s out now and he wants me back. Nobody ever earned him as much as me and he kept me in style. We ate in a restaurant every night. I like a good time and I get clients who give me a good time, you know what I mean? I like champagne and a few presents. I’m not spending the rest of my young life washing the floor of some poky little kitchen for a boring spotty clerk who thinks he’s earned the right to have his socks washed for a lifetime because he’s been good enough to save me from the streets.

– But what about when you’re not young anymore?

– Well, it’s all over then, isn’t it? Get it while you can, I say. I just… I wanted to tell you myself. It’s not that I’m not grateful to you. I know you meant well. Are you pissed off with me? You are, aren’t you?

-No, no…

– You’ve every right to be. I’d better go. I’m sorry. Because of you, I mean, not that little prick Mario, only because of you. I know you did your best.

Carve it on my tombstone, thought the marshal, watching her leave through a skein of cigarette smoke.- p 309

It’s good commentary on the institution of couplehood: the marriage model in which woman has a domestic capacity. Some would say all would change if they were to have children, but, after all, she still wouldn’t be able to eat in restaurants every night. And the presumed debt to saviours sounds awful: a side-effect of Rescue rarely addressed.

Funny how she comes to thank the policeman but calls the husband-man a little prick.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Ellroy’s Black Dahlia as a B-girl: Sex work in fiction

elliott-convention-girlA typical paperback cover from the heyday of pulp fiction makes convention girls look carefree and glamorous. Some might have been and still be, but picking clients up at bars where convention-attendees hang out may be the sex work of everyday women, sometimes opportunist and unplanned.

It seems that Elizabeth Short was such a woman, looking to get ahead in postwar Hollywood. James Ellroy memorialised her in his novel The Black Dahlia (1987), which draws on the actual police investigation as well as the author’s feelings about his own mother’s murder. In Ellroy’s snappy 1940s cop-lingo, women under scrutiny are described:

Together, we questioned fifty-odd people, mostly men, about their association with Elizabeth Short. We heard predictable stories of them meeting Betty in bars and buying her drinks and dinner, listening to her fantasies of being the bride or widow of war heros, bedding or not bedding her. A number of the men did not even know the notorious Dahlia–they were “friends of friends,” their names passed on out of pussy hound camaraderie.

Of our parcel of names, sixteen of the guys were what Fritzie labeled “Certified Dahlia Fuckers.” They were mostly lower-echelon movie minions: agents, talent scouts and casting directors who hung out at Schwab’s Drugstore chasing gullible would-be starlets, empty promises on their lips, Trojan “value packs” in their pockets. They told proud or shamefaced casting couch stories every bit as sad as Betty’s tales of bliss with studs in uniform. Finally, the men in Elizabeth Short’s little black book had two things in common–they got their names in the LA dailies and they coughed up alibis that eliminated them as suspects. And word filtered back to the squadroom that the publicity eliminated more than a few of them as husbands.

The women–just pals–girl talk acquaintances, fellow cocktail lounge cadgers and aspiring actresses heading nowhere. A dozen or so were hookers and semi-pro B-girls, instant soulmates that Betty met in bars. They gave us leads that petered out on follow-up investigation–basically, the word that Betty sold herself freelance to conventioneers at several lower-class downtown hotels. They hedged that Betty rarely peddled it, and could not identify any of her tricks by name; Fritzie’s canvassing of the hotels got him an angry zero.– The Black Dahlia

highPussy-hounds: marvellous. B-girls are bar girls, if you didn’t know. But hanging out waiting for an opportunity leads to terms like semi-pro. What if you have sex with someone who might give you a part in a film, apart from buying you dinner tonight? Did the crime against Betty the Dahlia occur because she was having sex or because she was an opportunist or because it was LA or because there was a sadistic killer at large? To blame it on prostitution is — limiting.

Ellroy includes Mexican migration in The Black Dahlia too.

–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