When the topic is selling sex outdoors, mainstream media stick to the same photos over and over. Generally now posed, the shots show young female bodies chopped off at the head or feet or waist, standing in dark city streets. I don’t need to give an example because you’ve instantly visualised what I’m talking about. So when I posted an item on facebook from The Local that carried this photo with pink and green chairs, many people sounded surprised.
If you don’t bring a chair, sometimes there’s a kerb to sit on. If there’s not, you might lean on metal barriers. But chairs of all portable types are common along highways in Cataluña, despite longtime attempts by local communities and police to stop the whole activity. Gavà, Castelldefels, Viladecans, Les Filipines – not far from the beach or downtown Barcelona. Places where traffic slows down, where there’s a place to pull over.
These are workplaces to which workers bring staple items: a rucksack with food, makeup, clothes, towels. A parasol, wastebasket, extra plastic bags. A book to read, a thermos of coffee, sunscreen. I mention all this because anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns focus exclusively on the question of choice: whether any of these women really knew what selling sex would be like when they came to these highways from Rumania, Bulgaria or anywhere else. Whether they can be granted any agency at all, whether prostitution carries a transcendent meaning for feminism. Abstract questions rather than everyday culture in which individuals experience their own workaday lives. Looked at from this other viewpoint, it’s clear women treat these sites as workplaces, and that’s whether the person coming to pick them up after their shift is a friend or some kind of controller.
This isn’t a merely ethnographic value to be pooh-poohed by hard-hitting ideologues. To know about sex work you need to do more than think in the abstract. You need to look at what there is to look at, listen to the music and read more than tweets and policy-papers. Observing the workplace, even if you feel appalled that it’s out on a highway in the hot sun, allows you to see that the women are not only waiting passively as if with a whip over their heads but exercising small choices about their comfort.
The most ethereal of these pictures come from Txema Salvans, whose project The Waiting Game shows many more shots of sex workers along these highways.
Some of the chairs are not so portable after all, but I really like the empire-style fringed one above. The pictures also show that some workplaces are shared – and some chairs.
I’ve written about sexwork-places in Spain many times before, including:
In 1995, my friend’s 17-year-old daughter Ermina was looking for work in Santiago, Chile. The obvious job available to her was posing in a short skirt beside cars or washing machines in public showrooms – standard promotional technique to this day. What made her hesitate? Girls who took those jobs in Santiago were assumed to be loose – no better than they should be. She might ruin her reputation whether she went on to do more than pose or not. There were also jobs in coffee bars, but they carried an even graver stigma. But Ermina didn’t want to follow in the footsteps of her mother and aunt, who had both migrated to Madrid to work as live-in maids. This was the kind of story I ran into everywhere in Latin America amongst poorer people back in the 90s, and is why I ended up writing Sex at the Margins.
Recently jobs like these have been in the news in the context of the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment but they also appear in long-running campaigns against prostitution and trafficking. All objections are increasingly positioned as evidence of Gender Inequality. I thought about writing this post after an event called the Presidents Club got undercoverage – a Financial Times reporter got a job as hostess. Scandal was provoked by revelations of the conditions of work for hostesses – conditions that have been conventional for aeons and most people know about. For those interested in labour rights, reports of low pay and a requirement to sign non-disclosure contracts stood out. For those who felt scandalised, it was having to wear skimpy frocks and accept being groped.
These jobs are widespread, because sexism is everywhere, because women without a lot of education and training have few options for work and because some women like hostess or modeling-type jobs better than whatever others are available. I understand why successful middle-class women denounce the existence of this work. I know this is objectification of women’s bodies and appearance, you don’t have to tell me. But what does it mean to call for their abolition except fewer jobs for women? And although the denouncers are appalled, many other women like or don’t much mind this way of making money.
The Presidents Club got much publicity because it’s an event for elite men. A class issue, as though those men ought to be better than others? Consider what happened ‘lower down’ the culture hierarchy.
The men drive the cars, they make the cars, they fix the cars and the women handed out drinks, refreshed the buffet… The grid girls would be led out, a bit like prize cattle, just before the race and stand on the grid where the cars are, with an umbrella or a number of which position the car was in. They would have their bottoms pinched by the mechanics, there would be photographers sat on the floor behind them, taking pictures of their bums, or up their skirts. They had to giggle and pretend that was OK. – broadcaster Beverley Turner
So the inevitable has happened, F1 gridgirls have been banned. Ridiculous that women who say they are “fighting for women’s rights” are saying what others should and shouldn’t do, stopping us from doing a job we love and are proud to do. PC gone mad 😡 #Gridgirls
Note the numbers for that tweet – and it wasn’t the only one, and Cooper wasn’t the only tweeter.
In the world of competitive darts, before this trend reports could say ‘stunning walk-on girls provide some much-needed glamour… The lovely ladies have the important job… to provide a key element to the festive entertainment.’
But now the Professional Darts Corporation announced it would end using walk-on girls who accompany players to the stage and hold up score cards. Announcing a protest in Birmingham, the owner of Dream Street Models and Events said, “If they’re banning us at F1 and darts, what’s next? Where’s it going to stop? Will it be boxing, Superbikes, the stands at NEC shows? Most of my models do promotional work, for some it’s a part-time job, but for others it’s their full-time living.”
The Women’s Sport Trust said: “We applaud the Professional Darts Corporation moving with the times and deciding to no longer use walk-on girls. Motor racing, boxing and cycling . . . your move.”
In parts of Asia beer girls (or promotion girls) are paid low wages to jolly male customers into ordering a particular brand of beer. Surviving from tips and working long into the night, they too have been named as improperly exploited by a funder.
The mostly young drink promoters are paid low wages — and work for tips, largely from groups of intoxicated men — to push certain beers in bars. Global Fund announced on Thursday in a statement that it was suspending its partnership with Heineken “based on recent reports of the company’s use of female beer promoters in ways that expose them to sexual exploitation and health risks”.
Exposed by hanging around drinking men and possibly having sex with them possibly for money that lifts them from survival-mode? A lot of women consider this a desirable job. Do you want to add ‘are forced to’ consider it desirable? Ok, but desire counts – don’t tell me you Know Better than they how they should feel and act.
Then there was MIPIM, an annual conference for property people that draws sex workers, an unremarkable fact that contributed to demands for more equality for female delegates at the conference.
Tamsie Thomson, the director of the London festival of architecture, said the Presidents Club scandal had “just scratched the surface of the discrimination and harassment that women and other minorities are routinely subjected to in our industry”. Thomson launched the “the elephant in the room” campaign to encourage women and others to challenge any inappropriate or uncomfortable behaviour and distributed pink elephant badges to raise awareness.
The event and sector are obviously mired in sexist practices, including holding events where only male delegates feel fully welcome. But there’s a disquieting tendency to imply that the fact sex workers might be there somewhere is evidence of Something Being Very Wrong. “What other industry on the face of the earth in 2018 needs to remind businessmen that they can’t bring prostitutes to an industry conference,” asked Jane, a 29-year-old delegate from Manchester. “That alone tells you how backward property is.” Do they imagine that getting rid of sex workers helps fix inequality problems? This leap to pointing at prostitution smacks of scapegoating.
As I lamented in The New Abolitionist Model, banning badly paid jobs because they are objectifying and sexist punishes women in contexts where they haven’t got many options.
Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is not sex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.
Surely it’s obvious that more kinds of work for better pay need to exist before jobs women prefer are prohibited, even with the disadvantages they entail. There’s where this kind of feminist needs to put her energy, and that goes for richer and poorer countries alike.
Footnote: Nowadays the Santiago coffee bars are called cafés con piernas, cafes with legs, and (of course) are now named as sites of sex exploitation. The photo at the top shows one example.
And, in case anyone thought this phenomenon is always gender-specific, see this photo by Bill Kobrin of the Art Students League Dream Ball, New York, 1953. Yes – the 1950s.
I’m always on the lookout for guided walks where I’ll be shown sites and hear histories not in the Establishment’s textbooks. Black History Walks showed me this plaque located in Bloomsbury on a wall where passerbys are unlikely to notice it.
Mary Prince was a slave born in Bermuda about 1788. Sold to several masters on different islands, she was brought to England in 1828 and a few years later dictated her story for publication. She was a migrant woman. You can read about Prince on many websites, one of which marvellously refers to Mary Prince’s Journeys.
The original 1831 edition of The History of Mary Prince had what we’d now call a title page as cover, according to the British Library. Later editions used and continue to use images, however.
Victimising imagery is standard fare in anti-trafficking campaigning as it is in most Third-World ‘Aid’ advertising. The theory is that feeling their heart-strings tugged loosens viewers’ holds on their wallets. The most-used images show girls cowering, hiding their faces, chained in dark places, crying. I collected a lot of the more horrible ones in an album. The victimisation of migrating women was my earliest question and complaint about how the mainstream was talking about them, and I published Forget Victimisation in 2003. (If you go to this link note the photo I used there.)
There are no photos of Prince from her lifetime, so what are the pictures used on covers of later editions of the book?
Penguin Books presently use this: a recognisable icon of anti-slavery history – the original Abolitionism. Slave is made to equal pitiable helpless shackled person in a pleading position. Pleading for help, for someone outside herself to free her. It’s a particularly inappropriate image to use for Mary Prince, whose agency can be in no doubt. Penguin should stop using it.
It’s not as sensationalistic as the image below, but it gets the message across that white people were needed to save black slaves. That slaves were passively waiting for liberation, rather than resisting in myriad ways, subverting the status quo, helping each other. Just the way present-day Rescue Industry campaigns obliterate the agency of migrants who pay smugglers to travel and get into trouble and then try to get themselves out of it.
You’d never guess that enslaved women like Prince existed. You’d never guess she negotiated several families and masters, got married, travelled, campaigned, authored a book. But she did.
On the bright side, the Bloomsbury plaque doesn’t even use the word slave. Now if it could just be placed somewhere a bit more noticeable. . .
I was glad to be able to participate in the Strike4Decrim events on the evening of 8 March – International Women’s Day. In general I’m no fan of official ‘days’ to celebrate supposedly coherent groups: mothers, fathers, women. Inevitably the differences get smoothed out and mainstreamed, many feel excluded and some feel seriously annoyed. General ‘women’s gatherings had taken place earlier in the day in a straighter part of town, but although Soho is getting blander all the time, a little kinkiness remains.
Here’s me talking for five minutes at the start, before we marched. The photos are by Alexander Schulenburg, who approached me to say he liked my talk and later tweeted on the event. I also ran into sex workers met in other countries and other years and some I worked with as far back as 2005. I appreciate being reminded of the continuity and feeling surrounded (notes of my talk at the bottom).
Why call it a strike? The word is meant to recentre women’s work, specially invisible things like ‘caring’ and reproductive labour. The intention was to expand the concept of strike and ‘use tactics and perspectives that think about how we struggle at the point of production and reproduction’. By including a sex workers’ rights event on the day, what gets counted as a feminist issue was expanded. I was glad to be there, given lamentable histories of leaving sex workers out.
My notes for the five minutes
Rights movement stronger now – multiple groups but we work together better than we used to
Regular folks seem to understand the idea of labour rights better
But the hostility of the Establishment hasn’t improved – folks who work in government, whether politicians or Home Office
They pay too much attention to anti-prostitution activists, radical feminists
The other day a few former sex workers won a case in the High Court to remove the requirement to tell employers about past soliciting convictions. Good, right?
Problem is they won on the basis that they were coerced victims.
The judge said it was ‘greatly to their credit they had succeeded in removing themselves from prostitution’
Casual dispensing of morality by a male judge
If you want to know what patriarchy is – it’s this!
If you want to know what infantilisation is – it’s this: talking about women as wayward children to be patted on the head if they do as they’re told
It appears that to benefit from this small bit of decriminalisation you must repent of your sin of being a prostitute, otherwise you keep those convictions on your record
even though it is legal to sell sex in this country
The selling of sex is still firmly framed as a social evil in laws and regulations
Great distance between that and ideas about human rights, workers’ rights
Migrants, even if their presence is legal, are most likely to be called victims of trafficking if they come to police attention and are lucky if not deported
The kinds of freedoms and treatment most women take for granted are not granted to sex workers
Gatherings like this one are important – so we can see each other outside in the street caring about the same things
To me this fits the idea of ‘strike’
A combination of titillation and outrage characterise public rhetoric about commercial sex, along with a tone of moral indignation suited to crusaders. A policeman in Cornwall has just warned that paying for sex with an ‘unconsenting’ woman is rape. Poor dullard, as an agent of the law surely he knows that muddling legal terms isn’t good for his job? In UK law paying for sex with a ‘trafficked’ person is prohibited, not defined as ‘rape’. But then think how much easier everything will be when there’s no bothersome distinction to make between trafficking and rape. A single meme to denounce all.
Early on in my studies, when I first was invited to talk to groups, I learned quickly how the temperature went up although I wasn’t saying anything graphic or violent. I thought I was simply recounting how poorer women often decide to take risks to travel via smugglers to rich countries, some of them to work as maids, others to sell sex, many to try both. I thought I was telling good news about curious, determined, brave women.
But those reasonable stories, told in an ordinary tone, caused commotion. Some listeners seemed to feel I’d slapped them, asking Do you think everything is okay? What do you want us to do, not care, not try to help? So I saw there were two problems: First, my tone and emphasis seemed to accept the dire straits some women are in, and, second, my suggestion that trying to make women stay home did them no favours was highly unwelcome.
My tone is key to being able to study in a clear-headed way, plus it is genuinely how I feel. I wasn’t going to take up an indignant, judgmental stance. But I wanted to draw listeners in better, so I tried harder to put myself in the shoes of middle-class audiences, to understand their distress more. To frame my talks with something more familiar to them, some way for it not to sound as though acceptance of reality gets us all off the hook of giving a damn about other’s problems. I got a little better at it.
But I wouldn’t be able to continue commenting unless I felt a sort of calm about it all, a sense of belonging to the great stream of history. Not Progress but a long chain of events surrounding the exchange of sex for money.
In this context I was happy to receive the following email:
I wanted to tell you how much I liked your book The Three Headed Dog. It’s well written and honest. I enjoy your website and think you make a lot of sense.
I used to live in Holland and did from time to time have fun with a sex worker. The house was in a quiet suburb. The locals had no problem with the it. Indeed it was next door to a cafe where kids and adults would eat.
I got to know a few of the women who worked there. None were abused or forced into sex work. Some didn’t like the work, others did. They all were doing it for the money. Strong women not victims.
One lady became my regular. I would enter and be greeted by the Madam who would either ask for her or she would spot me and come over. I would play for her and then to a private room for an hour of fun.
So it’s not the world painted by some people. Thanks once again for your efforts.
The tone is cool and declarative: This is how it was. No rhetoric, few adjectives, no great claims. Just the experience a lot of people have when left alone out of the limelight where politicians and crusaders roar, sex workers and clients alike. Thanks to this anonymous client who wrote to me.
In The Three-Headed Dog, Félix’s partner Marcelo goes in for a bit of bombast about a migrant sex worker who’s started coming to the bar.
‘Yes I know other prostitutes drink at the Dog. But they aren’t coal-black Nigerians in white satin corsets and giant hairdos. They aren’t advertising it like she is.’
Leila finds Marcelo’s conformism intolerable, but I find him restful. A sort of psychological Rotarian who follows predictable lines of opinion, always quoting from the same sources in mainstream newspapers. He even once asked why I never got a job with the police so I could be a Good Guy going after the Bad. I pay no attention.
And I knew he was ashamed even before I replied, because he has limits. ‘Give over, Marcelo. Everyone can wear what they like here, it’s a neighbourhood tavern, not the opera house. She wears a coat over the corset, for God’s sake, but if she ever takes it off I’m not throwing her out, I’m telling you right now. Maybe I’ll wear my own corset here some day – it’s red.’
A drinker who was listening said, ‘Hey, I know which opera it is – La Traviata. You know, where the courtesan falls on the floor crying about her sin.’
The Three-Headed Dog is noir fiction, a novel set in Spain, with undocumented migrants as protagonists. Including sex workers who are coping – imagine that. The detective is a now-regularised migrant as well. It’s the first in a series, prepare for more non-scandalous treatment of underground lives. Readable on any device, no kindle required.