'Prostitution from the female viewpoint'?

By Virginia Brown

TV entertainment that focuses on the lives of prostitutes has not, until recently, been an evening viewing option, in Australia or many other countries. When first shown in the UK, the half-hour per episode drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl was an audience-booster for commercial channel ITV2 and it has since been picked up by TV networks in at least 14 countries, including Australia’s Nine Network, which has screened it recently in a late-evening timeslot.

Based on the Belle de Jour blog by a former “high-class call girl”, the professed aim of Secret Diary is the portrayal of a “cosmopolitan” prostitute who chose her work “freely” and likes it. Producer Chrissy Skins says the show, with its writers all being women, is “prostitution from the female viewpoint”.

Lead actor Billie Piper and series creator Lucy Prebble have countered allegations that the show glamorises prostitution, suggesting that such criticisms stem from prudishness. “There is so much sexual liberation, but the minute a woman lies on her back and takes cash for it, that changes everything”, Piper complained in a British Guardian interview. Prebble claims that the existence of a “sliver [of women who don’t feel oppressed] at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation” is justification enough for the show. Prebble told UK writer and filmmaker Andy Conway that she is answering those women’s requests not to “portray us as victims”, adding: “And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.”

Prebble, Skins and Piper are quick to acknowledge in interviews that the reality of life for most prostitutes is different from that of Secret Diary’s protagonist Belle/Hannah, and seem adamant that they wouldn’t want young women viewers to be persuaded by the show to take up prostitution. Given these protestations, you might expect that the show would allude in some way to unhappy prostitutes and other unsavoury aspects of the industry.

It does not. It begins with Piper’s character’s voice-over that she loves London and is “very high class, which means I charge by the hour and I charge a lot”. The show’s first season is full of scenes in expensive London hotels and clients who Hannah looks forward to seeing. The show reflects producer Skins’ view that she doesn’t have “a particular moral stance on prostitution, unless of course it’s against someone’s will. It’s always going to be there ...”

Secret Diary gives no inkling that female murder victims are disproportionately prostitutes, nor that brothel, escort and street-based prostitutes all experience a higher rate of violence than the overall female population. Hannah’s main problem seems to be the difficulties created by keeping her occupation secret from her friends and family — a real concern for many prostitutes. In Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia, published last year by the federal government’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Dr Antonia Quadara points out the negative consequences to prostitutes of the social stigma of their work — with “family relationships, custody of their children, relations with police, ‘straight’ job applications, and credit card or loan applications” all being affected.

Public contempt for those engaged in prostitution (as well as laws criminalising their activities) is known to make them less likely to speak out when sexually assaulted, leaving perpetrators of such assaults free to continue offending. Violence towards prostitutes is not simplistically the consequence of misogynistic clients, however, but stems from more broadly-held attitudes by men towards prostitutes and all women.

Quadara notes that where the views of clients have been studied (which is very limited), they have not been found to “support violence against sex workers ... or accept rape myths more than the general male population”. A Sydney study of brothel workers found that they were more likely to be attacked outside of work than the other studied groups, women students and health workers. (Research shows that this does not mean prostitutes’ workplaces, or other women’s, are safe, particularly not when working in an isolated way with clients.)

Other studies have confirmed similar findings. As with other victims of sexual assault, the brothel workers were most likely to be attacked by non-clients they knew. Other perpetrators of sexual assault against brothel workers included police, taxi drivers and “strangers who may specifically target sex workers”. This reality is a far cry from the deliberately aimed-at Sex And The City vibe attempted by Secret Diary’s creators.

Satisfaction, the Showtime Pay TV drama about workers in a Melbourne brothel, is another profitable show depicting prostitutes who mostly enjoy their work. Not surprisingly, the actors in the show do not view prostitution as inherently oppressive. “I see it as a valid profession that provides a service to people who need it”, Bojana Novakovic, portrayer of youngest brothel worker Tippi, told the January 31 Australian.

The Secret Diary and Satisfaction writers’ understanding of social oppression is marked by individual subjectivity: if someone doesn’t feel personally oppressed, then they aren’t. By contrast, a scientific, i.e., Marxist, understanding of social oppression is that it is an objective social relation of inequality in which social group — one social class, gender, race, nation, etc — enjoys material conditions of life that are systematically denied to the members of a different class, gender race, nation, etc. The root source of all forms of social oppression is the division of society into different social classes — large groups of people occupying different places in a historically evolved system of social production in which one such group is able, because of its ownership of the decisive means of production of life’s necessities, to exploit (live off) the labour of the direct producers.

Prostitution is not about liberated female sexual activity, but about women seeking to “make a living” by renting their bodies to men with money for these men’s sexual pleasure. The gender gap in the average pay packets of men and women, and the sexist imposition of many social/domestic welfare tasks onto women (both being problems for women but profit-enhancing for capitalists), increase the likelihood that women will enter prostitution for higher pay and more flexible hours than they would otherwise have access to.

The recent increase in those claiming that seeing prostitution as “just another form of work” that is neither specifically oppressive of women, nor a consequence of the systematic social inequality between women and men ignores the fundamental dynamics of prostitution. Prostitution is only possible in a society in which there is a general disparity between the wealth and incomes of men and women, and in which women’s bodies are treated as commodities (articles for sale). Prostitution as an industry is based on women’s bodies being available for hire by men. The existence of male prostitutes and a few female clients does not change this basis of the industry.

The idea that “prostitution has always existed” (as Skins maintains) hides the fact that it owes its origin and survival to the division of human societies into different social classes, rather than being a timeless constant. Of the 150,000 years in which modern humans have existed, class-divided societies have only existed for at most 6000 years. Archaeological evidence indicates that prostitution arose only after pre-class, gender-egalitarian society organised around women-controlled hoe agriculture and male-controlled herding was superseded by male-controlled animal-drawn plough agriculture. Where this occurred, societies fragmented into separate family units, with individual women becoming economically dependent upon individual male property-owning (land, animals, tools) “bread-winners” — their father and then their husband. This also entailed women’s sexuality being subordinate to the need of individual male property holders to establish “legitimate” male heirs to their private property.

Marx’s life-long political partner Fredrick Engels, in his groundbreaking 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, demonstrated that prostitution arose as a result of the inequality of property between men and women in class-divided societies, such as slave-based ancient Greece and Rome: “With the rise of the inequality of property ... waged labour appears sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of female slaves.”

Prostitution, Engels explained arose as the “shadow” of monogamous marriage: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of larger wealth in the hands of a single individual — a man — and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other. For this purpose the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy of the man ... In the modern world, monogamy and prostitution are indeed opposites, but inseparable opposites, poles of the same order of society.”