Sex slavery, the eros, ignorance

Do people want slavery to come back? It would seem that the idea is erotically compelling, granting permission to imagine naked women and children in bondage, in chains, in the thrall of evil captors. With these scenarios, viewers and readers don’t have to think, because Good and Evil are clearly identified with no chance that contradictory uncertainties will muddy one’s reactions. The ferocity with which Kristof is defended is proof that some people will not tolerate any interesting human ambiguity at all (see hostile comments).

But are visions of enslavement also attractive? A new film about an elite brothel in 19th-century France was reviewed in an extraordinarily biased way in the New York Times (whose judgement on slavery issues is now officially in doubt). After sketching what sounds like a dark, subtle, moody movie, the reviewer concludes There is only one word to describe life inside L’Apollonide: slavery.

But the reviewer sounds as though he did not understand the film or its particular artistic vision. Being set mostly inside the brothel itself, any aspect of prostitutes’ lives outside are omitted. The filmmaker has limited the stage to the usual focus in depictions of prostitutes’ lives – the workplace where they perform. The reviewer sounds very naive about women’s lives in general, including today, if he doesn’t know that we get ‘poked at’ by ‘imperious male doctors’ and feel like ‘slabs of meat’. Et cetera. Whatever he chooses to describe about this film, his conclusion that it’s about slavery is just silly.

The Life of a Courtesan, Viewed From the Inside

Stephen Holden, 24 November 2011, The New York Times

Madeline . . . is a prostitute . . . at L’Apollonide, an elegant Parisian brothel at the end of the 19th century. Early in the movie, when she entertains a handsome young client who produces an emerald, she wonders out loud if the gift is a proposal. But this tender moment is only a dream. [This is a sexist, pro-romance comment, as if marriage were so great.]

The young man, who confesses that he wants to hurt her, has other things in mind. In a subsequent encounter, he coaxes her into letting him tie her up. He produces a knife, trails it lightly across her naked body and between her lips, then slashes her from both corners of her mouth, while she emits a rending scream. . . .[Sadistic nutters exist everywhere, not only as clients in brothels.]

Demoted from courtesan to housekeeper, Madeline continues to hover on the edges of the film, a stoic, nearly silent presence. In a later scene she is the impassive erotic object of curiosity at an elaborate sadomasochistic banquet at which the madam has rented her out for the evening. [These are performances, remember.]

. . . Throughout the film there is an abundance of sumptuously photographed flesh on view. But House of Pleasures is not an erotic stimulant so much as a slow-moving, increasingly tragic and claustrophobic operatic pageant set almost entirely in the brothel. The heavy candlelit chiaroscuro paints the women as mobile Renoirs, Degases and Manets. . .[But real life is not always candlelit, even in a brothel.]

As this languidly paced film draws you ever deeper into a cloistered world, which it examines in microscopic detail, you become familiar with its rituals and breathe in an atmosphere that in the words of one character “stinks of sperm and Champagne.” And perfume and scented soap, I would add. [Why does the reviewer add this cliché?]

The movie details the rules of the house and shows the women bathing, dressing and preparing for work. Except for a daytime excursion and a brief epilogue set in contemporary Paris, it unfolds entirely inside the mansion. In one uncomfortable scene the women are lined up for minute internal examinations by an imperious male doctor, who pokes at them as if they were slabs of meat. In the days before penicillin, venereal disease was a major occupational hazard. One of the women is found to have syphilis. [And today other illnesses are hazards.]

We are told the conventional scientific wisdom of the day that prostitutes and criminals have smaller heads than other people. [That was the academic thinking of the day.]

The patrons — most of them are wealthy, older repeat customers — treat the women with a guarded, paternalistic affection that half conceals a profound condescension, one manifestation of which is the pressure on the women to act out elaborate, humiliating fantasies. One is given a chilly Champagne bath. Another goes through the jerky body language of an expressionless marionette. A third is made up as a Japanese geisha and required to speak in a kind of Asian baby talk. [Insiders will not be surprised at the odd requests of customers; nothing demonic here.]

As we become familiar with individual prostitutes, it becomes ever clearer that sex work at L’Apollonide is not a recommended means for a rebellious girl to assert her independence. The youngest, 16-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth), loses her enthusiasm as she realizes there is no future in the work. The best possible outcome is the unlikely prospect of being bought by a wealthy man, which the screenplay suggests is akin to exchanging one prison for another.[Compared with what? [There were no means for rebellious girls to assert independence in the period and place of the film without being stigmatised, abandoned or worse.]

All of the women sustain debts incurred by the expense of their high-maintenance appearance. Even the madam, Marie-France (Noémi Lvovsky), whose two children and pet panther live on the premises, is a victim. When the landlord decides to raise her rent astronomically, an official she counted on for help refuses to intervene. [Standard situations for women, then and now, whether they sell sex or not.]

There is only one word to describe life inside L’Apollonide: slavery.

Nonsense. The reviewer sounds inexperienced and unsophisticated. Someone go see the film and report back, please.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

24 thoughts on “Sex slavery, the eros, ignorance

  1. Maggie McNeill

    We are told the conventional scientific wisdom of the day that prostitutes and criminals have smaller heads than other people.

    How is this different from the conventional prohibitionist propaganda that prostitutes are less sane and mature than other people?

    The patrons — most of them are wealthy, older repeat customers — treat the women with a guarded, paternalistic affection that half conceals a profound condescension…

    As opposed to modern prohibitionists, who treat prostitutes with a guarded, paternalistic discipline that doesn’t conceal a profound condescension at all.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      Maggie, to find an absence of maternalistic attitude we have to go back to before the Rise of the Social, when the bourgeoisie and its family values came to the fore. In accounts before that time, women selling sex were seen as petty criminals, nuisances or born bad. The identification of the prostitute as victim necessitates looking down on her as an object to Do Something About.

  2. Stella Marr

    When you talk about ‘interesting ambiguities” you reveal your status as someone privileged. There is nothing interesting or ambiguous about being beaten, raped and threatened with death on a daily basis. I speak from experience.

    I was prostituted in NYC for ten years, for as little as $100 for half an hour and as much as $1500 an hour. And yet, the experience was remarkably similar across the price brackets. Many Johns were violent so I was scared of all of them. Prostitution did not change when the price went up.

    I was ‘broken’ and initiated into ‘the life’ via a gang rape by several pimps and their police officer partner. They held me against my will in a padlocked room, beat me, drugged me, and terrorized me until I agreed to work in their brothel. I didn’t know what day it was or how long I’d been there. All my sisters in prostitution had had similar experiences. When we’d meet each other for the first time, we’d often say “I know your sad story.” My pimps were connected with organized crime, a powerful threat they held over me and the women I worked with.

    Researchers have found that women in prostitution experience the same levels of trauma as the survivors of state-sponsored torture. When I read this, I was profoundly moved that someone had actually taken the time to discover the truth. (Rather than spinning intellectual conceits and titillations as some do.)

    I will never be the same. It took me years to recover. I can’t have children because of injuries sustained during prostitution. My vertebrae are all messed up due to the variety of Johns and pimps that beat and attempted to strangle me. My shoulder won’t stay in it’s socket. My prostituted friends were murdered. One killed herself after a John beat her up.

    And I was exceptionally lucky compared to most prostituted women. I’m white. Women of color had it ten times as hard as I did. The racism in prostitution is horrific. Men sexualize the women’s race within the abusive context.

    It’s important to understand that the sex industry has a powerful financial motive to present the image of the ‘happy hooker.’ It sends them lots of business. And it camouflages the massive sexual violence and harm the sex industry inflicts.

    You often compre being prostituted to ‘any other job.’ Clearly you have no understanding of what prostituted women experience. While I was prostituted I would sometimes stagger into the ER. The doctors would do a pelvic exam and they’d believe I was experiencing serious complications from an extremely recent abortion. But it was just the result of the ‘work’ of prostitution. That’s how hard the prostitution is on your body. It’s not like any other ‘job.”

    In my ten years in prostitution, I never met a ‘happy hooker” nor did I find myself in situations of interesting ambiguity. It was brutally clear: I have no power. But the pimps demanded that we present that happy hooker to the Johns. Because it was a big part of the Johns sexual fantasies and thus helped the pimps sell. It had nothing to do with the reality of our experience. Indeed, the most simplistic Google search reveals that Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the book The Happy Hooker, was a madam. In other words, a female pimp. She was making money off the sexual exploitation of other women.

    I very much support the Swedish model of legislation for prostitution: where it’s a crime to be a pimp or a John, but it’s never a crime to be a prostitute. If only this had been law in the USA during the time I was prostituted. What might have been. And what might have been for my prostituted sisters.

    Ms. Augustin, you describe yourself as a feminist. I feel compelled to tell you how horrifying it is to me to read work like yours. Because, perhaps unintentionally, you are pumping for the pimps and massive organized criminal and economic interests that sexually exploit women.

    You are making women like me invisible.

    So I’ve shared a lot of myself with you. There’s an incredible poem called Telling by Laura Hershey, an amazing poet and disabled activist who passed away recently.

    Those with power can choose
    to tell their story
    or not.

    Those without power risk everything
    to tell their story
    and must.

    Someone, somewhere
    will hear your story and decide to fight,
    to live and refuse compromise.
    Someone else will tell her own story,
    risking everything.

    In the words of the brilliant (and resplendently beautiful) Kasja Ekis Ekman:

    “White ‘wiggers’ absorb hip-hop, backpackers and travellers absorb third-world cultures, male transvestites and drag-queens absorb the female and the femme absorbs the prostitute. The ‘transgressing’ of divisions anticipates that the divisions remain. When the white play black or when academics declare themselves whores and drug addicts, they are mocking those people who are black, who are prostitutes and who are drug addicts”.

    “In the absolute meaning there are no whores. There are people in prostitution for a longer or shorter period of time. There are no ‘types’ of people, no characters. They are people who have ended up in a certain situation. The fetishised ‘transgressing’ of divisions separates itself from the the revolutionary ‘abolition’ of them. The abolition of divisions arises from seeing the human being, the humanity in everyone, everyone’s equal needs … It is an objective solidarity which is built on a subjective understanding. One puts themselves in another’s place and imagines themselves under different circumstances. It is to look into someone else’s eyes and see yourself. And with this insight comes also an insight into the cruelty of the system which has made her into a ‘type’.”

    From Kasja Ekis Ekman’s Book Varat Och Varan.

    1. Laura Agustín

      Why does using the phrase ‘interesting ambiguities’ show I am ‘privileged’, whatever you mean by that? Do you think that people with less education than I necessarily see things in black and white? That seems a quite disrespectful stereotype.

      Your tactic is tiring. I have never said the phrase ‘like any other job’ because I think there is no one job but many. Some people experience the sex work they do as a job; others don’t. No generalisation applies to everyone. I believe you that you had a horrible experience and I believe others who tell me they haven’t. What in the world is the problem with recognising the diversity amongst millions of people who exchange money for sex? What makes you want to impose your experience on everyone else?

      I don’t have power; I have a blog. I can be a feminist and you can too, I don’t see the problem.

    2. Xeginy

      Hi Stella,

      I think it’s important to consider the experiences of those who performs sex work/trade are all very different. It sounds like you had a very negative experience, but remember that not every person in the sex trade has the same experience that you did. To be a true ally, advocate or activist, acknowledging and validating the full range of experiences in the sex trade is incredibly important.

      I appreciate you sharing your story so openly. But I ask that you also appreciate the work done and personal story of this blog’s author. Both of your stories are critical for protecting the safety and interests of ALL in the sex trade, whether it is assistance in leaving or staying.

      1. Laura Agustín

        Xeginy, thank you. It is a bit distressing to see how this is positioned so often as all or nothing, one world view or experience having to ‘win’ over others. Even in religion people seem more tolerant nowadays.

    3. Maggie McNeill

      Stella, I see comments from you on many online articles, and they’re always much the same. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, and assume that what you say about your own history is true. But what you don’t realize is that, in your own words, you and people like you are “making women like me invisible”. This “prostitution equals degradation” narrative is used by governments to marginalize voluntary adult sex workers and deprive us of rights; it is used by fanatics like Melissa Farley to pretend that our voices don’t count when in fact we make up the great majority of prostitutes (as demonstrated not only by every methodologically sound study there is, but also by the very large number of intelligent, satisfied sex workers who write on the internet).

      You say prostitution was horrible for you; fair enough. So I suggest that YOU stay away from it and let the rest of us alone. I don’t see many women who had horrible marriages (easily as bad as what you say you experienced) agitating for the abolition of marriage; I don’t see many women who have suffered rape, mutilation, and other horrors at the hands of the police agitating for the abolition of all police everywhere. Yet people like you agitate for the abolition of all prostitution based on YOUR unusual experiences (and yes, they ARE unusual, no matter what you claim). Furthermore, since it is absolutely impossible to eradicate any consensual behavior, all people like you are actually promoting is a “war on whores” which will make the “war on drugs” look like a game of tag in comparison. With drugs, the oppressors at least have to present evidence (even if manufactured or planted); with prostitution all they have to do is lie.

      I’m not going to go into all the philosophical reasons why your campaign to strip adult women of their sexual and personal autonomy is ugly and evil, because you won’t listen; this response isn’t really for you, but for those well-meaning but uninformed people who might be swayed by your emotional appeal to continue supporting a failed and oppressive paradigm of control over women’s lives whose only purpose is to increase the political power of radical feminists and to give the State yet another club with which to subdue individuals.

      1. Laura Agustín

        What I said to Xeginy. The need to impose absolute homogeneity on an enormous and diverse population feels crazy unless one believes, as some seem to, that there is a war going on about whose definition is Right for everyone for all time. That is true fundamentalism.

      2. Stella Marr

        Maggie darling, you describe yourself as a madam. So you’re profitting off the sexual exploitation of women.

        That’s really all I need to say at this point. Except that to say I’m promoting a ‘war on whores’ is ugly and untrue.

        1. Maggie McNeill

          It’s not ugly; it’s a fact. When I had a sex-based business, I performed a service for a fee like any other agent; only those with a sick view of sex (i.e. who imagine that it’s always “exploitation”) or a sick view of capitalism (i.e. Marxists) believe otherwise. I am capable of making my own decisions about sex and work, and I assume other adult women are capable of the same. If you imagine that women are eternal children who require paternalistic “protection” from governments or self-proclaimed “feminists”, you have an extremely low opinion of us…and that says a lot more about you than anything else.

          1. Stella Marr

            A low opinion pimps — well I’d have to say that’s true.

            And you are describing yourself as a pimp, whatever euphemism you want to hide in.

            Do you really think people are still sayiing they are Marxists after the breakup of the Soviet Union?

          2. Vegan Vixen

            Stella, I noticed you’ve go onto various blogs villifying madams as female pimps. Like many things you say, this an attitude Melissa Farley promotes, who you’ve repeatedly praised.

            Speaking of madams, does the name Jody Williams “ring a bell”? She was a madam who was aligned with Melissa Farley. Here’s info. about Jody: . Jody came onto a sex worker advocacy board a few years ago praising Melissa Farley and promoting her agenda, while bashing sex worker advocates. She even mentioned that Melissa Farley invited her to write a piece for a book. Then, Jody came back onto that board saying that she’s no longer aligned with Melissa Farley, complaining that some of the anti-sex work people are getting more funding than she (Jody) is.

            I’m not sure if Jody Williams and Melissa Farley patched things up and that’s their business, but either way, this shows how Melissa Farley’s attitude is very contradictory and hypcritical when it comes to madams: That madams are female pimps who sexually exploit women, unless they’re praising her and her agenda. This is disgusting beyond words and very ungenuine. So, the next time you refer to madams as pimps, be sure to think about this.

            I’m going to post this message on other blogs because it’s important for people to read and be aware of.

          3. Maggie McNeill

            No, you have a low opinion of WOMEN. You believe that we are unable to compete with men on a level playing field, and that all male/female sexual interaction is inherently exploitative. This sort of thinking is not only quaintly 19th-century, it ignores reality and demeans both women and men.

  3. Thaddeus Blanchette

    Now that’s reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeally interesting, Stella.

    A group of four freshman students of mine, on their own initiative, invited two sex workers to come in and talk to our “health in the community” class today. The two women were not part of the politically active sex-workers’ movement: just everyday pros, making a living selling sex in Rio de Janeiro.

    The women were driven two hours to the class by one of the students’ moms and, when I asked them whjy they came (because normally sex workers avoid putting themselves in positions where ignorant people ask them incredibly stupid shit), they both said: “We did it because we feel it’s important your students know what our lives and working conditions are like, that they see us as human beings and not as pimps’ puppets”.

    So I’m wondering what your explanation for these women (and the hundreds of others I’ve met who are just like them) is? Are they so beaten and enslaved that they volunteer to go 150 kilometers (driven by someone’s mom, for Pete’s sake) to talk to school kids about their lives out of sheer “Stockholm Syndrome” internalization of their oppression?

    I am really, sincerely curious how you justify not listening to what these women are saying. I mean, seeing as how you’re such a self-proclaimed feminist and all…

  4. Emily

    Yes, how dare someone talk about a negative experience in prostitution on a blog which focuses on how everyone has different experiences in the field (sarcasm).

    Stella thank you for sharing your story and your views.
    Thaddeus Blanchette, your being amazingly rude. Did YOU read what the Stella said?
    “I very much support the Swedish model of legislation for prostitution: where it’s a crime to be a pimp or a John, but it’s never a crime to be a prostitute. If only this had been law in the USA during the time I was prostituted. What might have been. And what might have been for my prostituted sisters.”

    She’s NOT against prostitution. She’s for prostitution that respects the rights of prostitutes to be treated like human beings. At least that’s what I understood from the post.

    1. laura agustin Post author

      It’s fine with me that people mention negative, positive and in-between experiences selling sex. As you have realised, I think it’s pointless to fight over any single position being more ‘right’ than other ones, since there are too many people involved in too many different situations and jobs to generalise.

      I am sure Stella is opposed to prostitution, however, even if she doesn’t want prostitutes or sex workers to be penalised. Everyone she has quoted wants to abolish prostitution, and all her comments reflect the belief that the existence of commercial sex is the problem.

  5. Maxine Doogan

    Sounds like there’s confusion about how the sex industry intersects with the exploitation of capitalism. Anybody want to take this topic on andwrite an article with me about it?

  6. Stella Marr

    Ms. Augustin, you wrote:

    Why does using the phrase ‘interesting ambiguities’ show I am ‘privileged’, whatever you mean by that? Do you think that people with less education than I necessarily see things in black and white? That seems a quite disrespectful stereotype.

    Actually, I don’t think of you as educated and I’m not referring to your world view. I’m referring to the fact that you see the prostitution as a kind of entertainment.

    But only someone who’s both privileged and entitled would think my post was referring to their level of education.

    You seem quite impressed with your own intellect. I challenge you to a public live debate. In person, not online. Should make for some interesting ambiguities.

    Love and kisses,


  7. Jill Brenneman

    As a trafficking survivor who was an anti and abandoned the ideology due to it’s toxicity and also due to huge ethical breaches and became a sex worker rights/harm reduction advocate, I am more than happy to debate you publicly in pretty much any forum.

  8. Jody Williams

    When people want to talk about me – I wish they would please at least attempt to get it right. When “Vegas Vixen” was talking about my experience with Melissa Farley, she got a few facts wrong. I was not upset that “anti-trafficking programs were getting more money than we were”. What I was upset about what some anti-trafficking programs pretending to be doing the work we’ve been doing for free for decades and monetizing it and also leading people to believe they were the ones doing the work in order to solicit donations. It’s fraud and that is distressing. For example, I was holding Sex Workers Anonymous meetings for free in the Las Vegas Salvation Army and Westcare for years here (Westcare is a drug treatment center). Suddenly in 2003, we were told we could no longer hold our meetings there. Since we were successful – I wondered why. Especially with no other group offering any alternatives. Then I discovered that these programs had written grant applications to the federal government asking for money with the claim that “nothing existed” and then asking for money to hire and train people to do what we had been doing for years (we moved to Nevada in 1996 and I started holding the meetings from ’96 until ’03 without asking for a dime from anyone). They received the money and then didn’t do anything to help these men and women who were trying to recover from the sex industry with it. That’s distressing. What’s even more distressing is that Melissa Farley did write up a report about what was happening in Nevada with respect to the connections between trafficking and the legal brothels here. It makes a unique situation and one so unique I had to move here to help these victims because the system is so intertwined within the political and legal as well as the culture here – the victims there are receiving no help at all except through our group currently. After doing some rescues of women out of the brothels where it’s illegal for them to leave on foot so they have to be picked up by either us or their pimp – so if they want to get to help they have to be picked up by us – and finding that the arm of the traffickers is so long here that most of these victims have to be relocated out of state to get help and be safe – when Melissa Farley wanted to do a report on trafficking with the brothels here she had to come to us to talk to some of these women. The report Melissa prepared was published in September of 2009. However, in November of 2009, this same report word for word had been taken and our names removed, and Shared Hopes’ name inserted. They then backdated the report to August and then released it as their report. Then they went around from church to church here in Nevada with stories about our work representing it to be theirs. They asked for donations to help Nevada victims and had me banned from the premises so I couldn’t tell the audience any of the truth or counter anything. After they raised over $1,000,000 in money people thought was going to help Nevada victims – they left. When I called to ask for help for Nevada victims from the money they raised – they said they “don’t provide direct services to domestic victims” and hung up on me. Yes things like that distress me. Especially when I now try and get plane fare for an adult trafficking victim home and find that people are telling me “they gave” to these other groups who swept through town and therefore they think the victims are now being cared for. They aren’t. If you walk up to the average citizen here in Nevada – they will tell you they have either given money to support to what they think are groups helping Nevada victims. They aren’t doing a thing to help these victims in reality. However, our hotline is ringing and we’re providing them real help – but we’re also being handed the tab. That’s not right. The Salvation Army for example here in Vegas has received over $30,000 from the federal government. When I call them to help find emergency housing for a victim here – I get blown off. Again, I’m doing the work and being handed the bill while other people are walking off with the money. It’s not right. These people also know I can’t make any specific complaints without violating these victims identities. When I have gone to some of the pro-sex worker groups to try and get help – they shun me for what these other groups have done which also isn’t fair or right either.


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