A Review of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores
edited by Gail Pheterson, Preface by Margo St. James
Seattle, WA: The Seal Press
Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
To my mind, the least comprehensible position espoused by some prominent modern feminists even less comprehensible than the unfounded and undocumented belief that watching a movie of people making love leads men to violent careers as rapists is the one that separates female sex workers from other women. One specific fringe of feminism seems to hold that women who hook, strip, do erotic massage, or provide escort services for money or barter have somehow, by virtue of their trades or the psychology that led them to ply those trades, abdicated their rights not only to proper feminism but also to their entire experience of living in their gender. or example, in her engaging, upbeat autobiography, Working: My Life as a Prostitute, Dolores French tells how she was excluded from a conference on female sexual slavery because "the leader of the conference ... felt that prostitutes were too brainwashed and oppressed to represent themselves, that we were all slaves to our pimps."
Without question, some prostitutes get into the life involuntarily, some do not like it, and some are abused under a pimp's or a madam's or even a lover's thumb. On the other hand, some choose it very willingly, some are happy with it, and some are in far more control of their own material destinies than they could be working any other job.
My unanswered question about the leader of the conference French could not attend is, what body parts did she rent or sell in order to pay her mortgage: her typing fingers? her telephone voice? her muscular back good for lifting? the convoluted brain with which she thinks? What is the problem so many otherwise sane people have when it comes to the subject of sex? With the possible exceptions of people born exempt from toil because of the silver utensils in their orifices, everybody is some sort of whore. Sex prostitution lays claim to being the world's oldest profession, so perhaps it just got first dibs on using the most straightforward occupational term.Unfortunately, that left a lot of politicians, preachers, journalists, and other panderers to popular mores with the notion that they were somehow holier than hookers. As a consequence, sex workers have been systematically excluded from some of the privileges and rights of ordinary social commerce in nearly every so-called civilized nation.
For instance, in many modern countries passports and visas are withheld from prostitutes, or specially marked to identify their bearers as whores. Frequently whores cannot get health insurance or normal health care. When they need police assistance they may very well receive police abuse instead. And their families, friends, and lovers are made criminals statutory pimps simply by association. These problems have nothing to do with whether a woman chose her career or not. They have only to do with people's humanity or inhumanity to other people.
Bohemian artists and intellectuals, like members of other social subcultures, have long been in on the secret, but until 1973 it was pretty much underground knowledge that prostitutes were human beings like other human beings. In that year Margo St. James officially formed the first prostitutes guild, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) on the heels of a one-year-old feminist forerunner called WHO (Whores, Housewives, and Others i.e., lesbians). For several years COYOTE, which began in Marin County and had offices in San Francisco, was a highly visible presence in the United States. But after the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city's political climate chilled a bit, and St. James, by that time a licensed Private Investigator, spread her net more widely, organizing from Europe and moving eventually to France where she now lives.
With the assistance of other sympathetic people, hookers of both sexes began to assert that they were people with wants and needs and rights and responsibilities of their own. Pricilla Alexander helped form the Prostitutes Rights committee for the National Organization of Women (NOW) in 1982, and subsequently became co-director, with Gloria Lockett, of both the California Prostitutes' Education Project (CAL-PEP) and the National Task Force on Prostitution. Dolores French formed an Atlanta counterpart to COYOTE she called HIRE (Hooking Is Real Employment), and was appointed to the Mayor's Task Force on Prostitution in her city.
In England, Helen Buckingham founded PLAN (Prostitution Laws Are Nonsense), while in Brazil Gabriela Silva Leite led Rede de Prostitutas (Network of Prostitutes), and in Europe Frau Eva founded Verbandes der Prostituierten Osterreiches (Association of Austrian Prostitutes). In Israel, India, Italy, and Switzerland, in France, Germany, Surinam, and Thailand, in the Philippines, Greece, Indonesia, and Spain, in Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, and Ecuador, certainly in the United States and especially in the Netherlands, where De Rode Draad and De Roze Draad (The Red Thread, for prostitutes, and The Pink Thread, for all women) are very much above ground, whores and other sex workers organized and stood together to insist that their rights and their humanity be recognized.
By 1985 the First World Whores' Congress was held in Amsterdam; the Second World Whores' Congress met in Brussels in 1986. Founders, representatives, and members of prostitutes rights organizations from all over the world attended those conferences, and it is their words that make up this remarkable book. St. James, who was a conference participant, also contributes a preface that outlines her activities in support of the international prostitutes' movement as it strove for self-definition and self-organization. Editor Pheterson provides an introductory essay called "Not Repeating History," which amounts to a brief political history of the movement. She examines some of the ways prostitutes have been repressed and exploited over the years, explores the nature of alliances between female prostitutes and other women, and includes a painful section on the schism that developed between the prostitutes' rights movement and feminist theorist Kathleen Barry.
Barry had an early association with St. James, but later became the person who kept Dolores French out of the conference on female slavery, as she moved from solidarity with the whores to the most short-sighted kind of separatism not just dividing women from men, which is stupid enough, but dividing women from other women on the basis of occupation. Pheterson objects to Barry's position not only because her experience suggests many women choose and enjoy sex work, but also because for many women who would prefer another kind of livelihood, all other doors are closed. As St. James says, "A blow job is better than no job. In trying to stop abuses in prostitution, one should not try to put the women out of work...."
About two-thirds of this book is comprised of excerpts from panels and group discussions offered at the two World Congresses. Pheterson introduces each major section, then lets the whores or their documents speak for themselves. The "World Charter for Prostitutes' Rights" is included entire, as is the "Statement on Prostitution and Feminism" from the International Committee on Prostitutes' Rights. In a chapter called "Human Rights: Simple Human Respect,'" Gloria Lockett, a black prostitute, speaks vehemently about race discrimination in American prostitution. When she and six white women were busted together she was the only one, she says, accused of pimping for the others. And after she won her case in court (as many American prostitutes do who can afford the time and money a legal battle demands) the police told her they would come back to get her and they did. As a consequence she lost
a Rolls Royce automobile, a three hundred and fifty thousand dollar home, a condominium, several other apartment buildings.... They don't want women to think, they don't want women to like what they are doing.... none of us were IV drug-users ... none of us were dependent on anybody but ourselves to make our living and we liked what we were doing and we did it without robbing people and taking advantage of people.
Elsewhere in the chapter attorney Tatiana Cordero explains that in Ecuador prostitution is legal, but
pimps in my country are the police. Every night the police go to the street where the women are working and they always arrest the same women. They try to extort money from them and they try to get "favors" from the women (which indeed is rape); when the women refuse them they are put in jail.
Margo St. James reminds the people present that although the 1986 conference is being held in free, democratic Brussels,
Several Belgian prostitutes told us that they are afraid to come to the congress, afraid to be visible. They license the women who work in the cafes [in Belgium] (as "nightlife workers"). In certain cities ... they make the women get ID cards with "artist" stamped on as a euphemism for "whore." They also fingerprint the women, take mug shots of them and clip their passports not everywhere or all the time, but it's a great threat.
And on the other side of the coin Jean D'Cunha, a researcher active in the decriminalization movement, reads from an interview with an Indian woman who had been sold into prostitution against her will. The woman, named Asha, was then kept imprisoned in the brothel, and when she objected to what was being done to her she was beaten and gang-raped into submission. "My work is tiring and disgusting," she says.
I have to entertain clients even when I'm worried, upset, exhausted and ill.... I cannot reject a client even if he is diseased or if I am repelled by him. The gharwalli beats me up if I do not give into every demand of the client. Our clients do not use any contraceptive devices, nor are they examined. It is because of this that I have contracted VD. I am also anaemic and have suffered from TB.... I'll never go back to my family. They will never accept me. I'll remain in this business. God, I know, will help me.
There are several chapters on health issues, including a terse "Update on HIV Infection and Prostitute Women" by Laurel Hall, Health Education Coordinator of the International Committee on Prostitutes' Rights, which restates what most sex workers and health professionals know, but few politicians seem to want to understand: that prostitutes who do not use IV drugs are a notoriously low-risk group of people for HIV infection. And there are two back-to-back chapters on feminism and prostitution. The first of these, called "Crunch Point," is about pornography, violence, and women's alliances. In the second, "The Big Divide," visiting feminists from outside the sex workers' ranks, offer their responses to the Second World Whores' Congress.
"You can't have so many women oppressed and stigmatized in the world and then expect that anyone who is not a sex worker is free," says one converted feminist. "I see this as a service that is being provided solely by women for men," says another who remains more or less in Kathleen Barry's court, "and even if it's provided by men, it's usually provided for men.... I have a feeling that, just like marriage, prostitution is an institution that was invented by men for men. Therefore, I have a lot of trouble with it." Say others, "One of the touching things at the congress was to see how high the prostitutes were about being able to come into the open, how happy they were just to be recognized." "I LOVED the total disrespect for any, ANY of the established values." "Even among the staff of the European Parliament, lesbians were the most vocal supporters of the whores' congress." "I have a little barrier that I put up with prostitutes. I am afraid about how I appear to them. I mean I'm afraid that they will put me down or automatically assume that I'm going to judge and think I'm superior to them." And finally,
With whores, I felt free. There always seemed to be a lot of energy and honesty in their presence.... In the political work ... I've never been so moved and I've never felt so close to what I love and what I hate. Somehow, I think a part of feeling moved must have to do just with what it's like for people to come through such heavy isolation, that ... gives me a really satisfying feeling [as] if I can ... break through my own isolation. But also, I think there's the sadness of the separation that's been there for so long, the separation from women who are prostitutes but also the separations in my own life. There's a correctness in most circles that's not very much fun and that's such a shame really, because there's so much laughing in breaking through barriers.
Much of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores is linear and informative, like the expository documentary it is. But the last third of this book goes beyond academic interest and enters into a universe of fascinating narrative. These hundred pages are made up of specific essays on migrants and prostitution, including pieces on prostitution chosen as an alternative to poverty, forced prostitution, and prostitution that fits within a sort of tribal framework in some specific parts of the globe.
In a startling collection of research data about sexual service, migration, and repression in several African societies (Nigeria, 1915; Kenya, 1948 and 1960; Zimbabwe, Gabon, Zambia, Tanzania, Mozambique, and elsewhere in the 1970s and 1980s) called "I'm the Meat, I'm the Knife," Italian anthropology professor Paola Tabet observes that
Many women leave their villages because they are widowed, divorced, or repudiated and have to find some way to survive. Others go away because their husband doesn't provide for them. They migrate to escape an intolerable marriage, to avoid getting beaten by a husband or being forced into another marriage, to get out of the control of their families, and/or to get economic autonomy.
There are places such as Ethiopia where "a man can contract a temporary marriage' with a woman to whom he pays a salary for her conjugal services." This arrangement is legal, where prostitution is not. In Hathare, in Kenya, commercial sex transactions may last from a "Quick Service" of 20 minutes to a "Town Marriage" of many years. Among the Ashanti of Ghana men provide women with "chop money" for food and other necessities of life in exchange for access to sex. However it is delineated and denominated, whether it takes place inside or outside marriage, "The economic transaction is central to the relation between the sexes and to the sexual relation itself." In other words, among contemporary humans heterosexual sex is generally contracted women's work for which the contracting man somehow pays.
In the societies Tabet writes about, money and gifts "are not only a sign of men's power but also a way to measure eroticism." In these tribal circumstances marriage is, and can readily be seen as, traffic in women as property. For the most part this approach to the sacred vows may offend or titillate our western sensibilities, depending in part on our own gender. It may at least affect our somewhat hypocritical claim that we sophisticates behave differently. On the other hand, these tribal customs make very clear to women the nature of their place and worth in terms of the prevailing male power structure. Then, many who do not like it can simply leave, and, since they know that what they can offer in the marketplace is sex, they can set themselves up as prostitutes in the cities.
One woman Tabet interviewed, whose mother and two children were totally dependent on her, said, "I have my own house now. I'm independent. I'm not under anybody's orders. What I earn is for me.... [But with all my dependents,] Even the soap I have to buy; food, it's me; their rent, it's me. I'm the meat, I'm the knife."
I would be happy to quote this last third of A Vindication of the Rights of Whores from start to finish. The articles about migrant prostitutes in the Netherlands and in Northeast Italy, and those on prostitution in Kenya and Indonesia repeat, in various ways, the candor of Tabet's piece.
They also remind us why prostitution is a deeply serious feminist issue, and why feminism is important to everyone who would be free, including men. If, as John Lennon-Yoko Ono wrote, "woman is nigger of the world," then as Tabet writes now, "By entering relations of explicit sexual-economic exchange, women transgress the basic rules of their societies concerning the property of women's persons."
In that transgression lies an assertion of freedom that begins as a personal statement but can easily become or be seen as a cry for freedom for all women, and in time, perhaps, for all people.
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