WHAT'S A NICE GIRL LIKE YOU DOING IN A BOOK LIKE THIS?
A Review of Working: My Life as a Prostitute
by Dolores French, with Linda Lee
New York: Dutton
Review Copyright © 1988 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
Working is a wonderful autobiography, embodying a brief course in how to be a hooker within dozens of entertaining vignettes about The Life. From her first trick as an aging Atlanta courtesan's stand-in through her seven-minute solutions in the brothels of Saint Croix; from the sidewalks of San Juan to Sydney Biddle Barrows' chic New York escort service Cachet, Dolores French makes her way with such pleasure and humor that as I read her book I wanted to become a prostitute myself.
Not that French makes the work sound easy. There are the omnipresent Keystone-like cops and dicks, finagling to pin a bust on her. There are johns who beat her, cheat her, and try try, mind you to give her incurable diseases. And when at last she becomes a politically active spokesperson for women's rights she is 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."
French who seems neither brainwashed nor oppressed, and who does not report ever having had a pimp portrays prostitution as a reasonable, legitimate way for a modern woman to turn a buck. Dignifying her profession is part of her mission in this book, and part of her power as well. She has put in her time on the streets and in cheap bordellos, and she also shows herself to be a decent businesswoman: when she works her own way the money is good; she owns a nice house, drives a Cadillac, and sports enough precious stones and metals to complement what sounds like a lavish wardrobe. Yet prostitution is more than just a good racket for French: it is a humanitarian kind of calling, like being a social worker or a psychotherapist. "It seemed to me that absolutely anyone could be turned on by absolutely anything," she says, "and it also seemed to me that part of my job was to respond to these people with understanding and compassion."
From the start she gives the lie to conventional preconceptions about what makes women become whores. She turned her first trick on a lark at the age of 27, and became a full-time hooker chiefly because she liked the work. Some years later, when she appeared on the Phil Donahue show to talk about her profession, she was the only one of four prostitutes who refused to be hidden behind a screen or to have her voice electronically disguised. After the show her mother said, "This isn't something that you have to do. You could come to us for money." Writes French,
I tried to explain to her that I wasn't doing it for the money. I was doing it because I believed in it, because I didn't think it was dirty or shameful but instead something noble and helpful. I was improving the quality of my clients' lives. I had the opportunity to renew people's self-esteem. I was improving the quality of prostitutes' lives, by fighting for their rights.
A woman with her intelligence and messianic fervor could not be ignored forever. French was asked to help organize the Atlanta sex trade workers' guild that corresponds to COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), eventually called HIRE (Hooking is Real Employment). The "simple political creed" espoused by the women who approached her sounds very much like French's own position:
that a woman has a right to sell sexual services just as much as she has a right to sell her brains to a law firm when she works as a lawyer, or to sell her creative work to a museum when she works as an artist, or to sell her image to a photographer when she works as a model or to sell her body when she works as a ballerina. Since most people can have sex without going to jail, there [is] no reason except old-fashioned prudery to make sex for money illegal.
In addition to being founder and president of HIRE, French has served on Mayor Andrew Young's Task Force on Prostitution in Atlanta, and has been a consultant to the Centers for Disease Control's study on prostitution and AIDS. She reports herself happily married to the vice-president of the Georgia Civil Liberties Union, Michael Hauptman, of whom she writes,
When he was hired as general counsel for AID Atlanta, a service agency for people with AIDS ... some people there expressed shock that he was married to me. He lives with it and I live with him being a defense attorney. In fact, as he says, our jobs are quite similar: we both free-lance, we both get paid in advance, we both try to get our clients off.
Capping a successful career, Dolores French's book is slick and handsome, ably written with the aid of an established writer, and published by a venerable, mainstream New York company. Over the years a number of other women working in the sex trades have written about their experiences and been equally well presented in print, including Polly Adler in A House is Not a Home; Sally Stanford in Lady of the House; Xaviera Hollander in The Happy Hooker; and Lauri Lewin in Naked is the Best Disguise.
Reading such women's accounts I have been struck that most of the authors who become celebrated for their efforts are, like French, white, straight, middle-class, and victims of neither childhood abuse nor neglect; each can more or less lay claim to having been raised, as French says she was, "to be a good girl." But then, when I read small press books such as the Sex Work anthology edited by Frédérique Delacoste and Pricilla Alexander (Cleis Press, 1987), or Good Girls/Bad Girls, edited by Laurie Bell (Seal Press, 1987), I find there are also lots of black hookers, lesbian hookers, and even occasional impoverished hookers who do not always have the good time French has but sell fucks anyway to feed their children or to buy junk.
French is an articulate, courageous spokesperson who has put herself on the line to provide some perspectives on a working woman's life. There are other perspectives that need attention as well, but perhaps as a society we still only have the gumption to listen to the hookers who seem most like "us" whoever we imagine we may be. French reports that some whores she met at a convention in Holland were intrigued by American prostitution laws, and wanted to know who was protected by them and who benefited from them.
Well, I said, it wasn't the prostitutes and it wasn't the customers. I said, "I'm sure you remember history, and how a lot of religious fanatics moved to the States in order to be free to practice their own religion. As a result," I said, "the prostitution laws were influenced by a bunch of religious fanatics, trying to preserve monogamy and virginity by not allowing people to be paid for sex."
"But doesn't the American government realize that they could make a lot of money by registering and taxing prostitutes?" one Dutch hooker wanted to know.
"Well, politicians, police officers, bail bondsmen, and attorneys all make money off fighting prostitution or defending prostitutes, and those are the people who make the laws."
I would like to think the people who make the laws will really benefit from French's book, not by securing their entrenched beliefs, but by expanding their horizons and deepening their perspectives. I would also like to think that they will not be the only people who will benefit from Working, but that everyone involved in the sex trades service providers, service users, observers and other indirect beneficiaries will likewise gain from it, and that their gains will not just be "a lot of money," but will also be measured in freedom, understanding, and compassion. That's what French says working is all about.
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.