COMES NATURALLY #61
Spectator Magazine - July 25, 1997
(c) David Steinberg. All rights reserved.
Humane Views of Prostitution Come to Broadway and Television News; S/M Chic Takes a New Turn
A New Prostitution Musical Comes to Broadway
I was just in New York for a week, and while I was there I went to see The Life, the latest in what seems to be a grand tradition of Broadway musicals about street prostitution. I don't really know all the details about the previous shows with prostitute heroines -- shows like The World of Suzie Wong and Never on Sunday -- but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at much of what The Life had to say about the world of street prostitution, and glad to think of its point of view being energetically and entertainingly offered up to some 7000 people a week paying $80 a pop at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
Critics have been quick to dismiss The Life as one more cliche' d serving up of the prostitute-as-heroine fairy tale, and to some extent they're right. We're talking Broadway musical here, not gritty drama verite', so the play is all about showy pizzazz and sexy costume rather than subtle nuance and complex character development. You've got your well-intentioned, ethically impeccable lead woman who's only whoring for the moment, to get herself and her boyfriend (not yet a pimp) through a time of financial difficulty. You've got your bevy of tough, streetwise hookers with generally appealing taking-care-of-number-one and taking-care--of-business attitude. You've got your strutting, manipulative pimps with their various degrees of misogynistic nastiness. You've got your sweet ingenue who hits the New York streets straight off a bus from the midwest, a Little Red Riding Hood ripe to be plucked from the vine by the various Big Bad Wolves. All the fixings of the standard prostitution soap-operatic melodrama.
But inside this basic construct there happens to also be a surprising amount of gutsy, sympathetic representation of prostitution as (more or less) one more difficult job in a difficult world, with an underlying unromantic, matter-of-fact message running something like "why doesn't the world just get over itself and leave everyone alone to get on with their lives."
Many of the songs in the show's long first act are in fact nothing less than anthems sounding the basic themes the prostitute rights movement has been trying to publicize for some time. "My Body," the song played to millions nationwide during the Tony Awards show in June (The Life led the pack with 12 Tony nominations), enthusiastically makes the basic case that what a woman does with her body -- including trading sex for money -- is nobody's business but her own. "Why Don't They Leave Us Alone" argues that the cat-and-mouse game of police chasing after and harassing prostitutes accomplishes nothing more than making the lives of prostitutes miserable and driving them into greater dependency on pimps. "You Can't Get to Heaven" makes fun of street evangelists trying to save fallen women from the "degrading" world of prostitution. "The Oldest Profession" offers a sympathetic, unglorified view of prostitution as difficult, tiring, repetitious and occasionally dangerous work -- a hard way to make a living, no more, no less.
Beyond the messages of the individual songs, The Life paints a picture of a strong, if fractious, sisterhood of women, despised and rejected by proper society, helping each other through hard times with police, pimps, and clients. Unfortunately, the themes established during the first act are largely ignored during the second -- a truly simple-minded melodrama in which the heroine, despite valiant attempts at standing up for herself, is jilted by her boyfriend for the blonde ingenue, and then progressively degraded by the abusive, all-powerful king of the big time pimps, until she miraculously escapes the clutches of both the man and the life (with the help of a self-sacrificing sister in revolt) in the nick of time. But at least up until the intermission, a more thoughtful, non-moralistic, and essentially respectful picture gets to be painted.
The Life has been running for three months, and has become well established as one of Broadway's current hit shows. It's grossing a more-than-respectable $350,000 a week, and selling over 80% of available seats, which means that some 7000 people a week are hearing and seeing what the show has to say. And the show received a big boost early in June when Lillias White (hard-working whore, Sonja) and Chuck Cooper (nasty big-boss pimp, Memphis) won Tony Awards for Best Featured Actor and Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
Fortunately, the energy and spark of the cast is a real plus, and even highly critical Ben Brantley of the New York Times admires what he calls "a raw, self-delighted vitality that compels attention." Judging from the performance I saw, tourists and Manhattanites alike are quite attentive indeed -- hooting encouragement when the women proclaim their right to do with their bodies as they please, laughing in friendly amazement when Sonja calculates that she has had sex with 15,000 men over the years, and applauding like partisans at a decriminalization rally when hookers and pimps together call for the police to leave them alone.
Of course one popular musical is not going to miraculously change the people's general perception of prostitutes and prostitution, or persuade the American mainstream that this issue needs to be addressed in a more realistic and humane way than harassing street whores and locking them up from time to time. Still, thinking back to the 1960's, when teenage gangs were as stereotyped, demonized, and dehumanized in the public's perception as prostitution is today, the popularity and winning human sympathy of West Side Story -- for all that musical's undeniable romance and idealization -- really did help mainstream, middle-class Americans think of youth gangs as a social issue needing to be addressed in social terms, rather than as a moral issue needing to be dealt with simply by judicial punishment. The basic stance of The Life about street prostitution is, all in all, quite similar to West Side Story's take on street gangs, complete with its challenge to middle-class arrogance and pretentious propriety. Perhaps, in a smaller way, it will have a similar effect on the public.
20/20 Strikes a Blow for Decriminalization
A more realistic and journalistic step forward in changing public attitudes toward prostitution is evidenced in the "Sex for Sale" segment of ABC's news magazine, 20/20 on June 27th. Produced for 20/20 by Mark Golden, who seems to have known exactly what he wanted to say and how to say it, and featuring 20/20 correspondent John Stossel, the show featured a long list of articulate prostitute rights activists and all but endorsed decriminalization of prostitution as an effective alternative to the classic approach of judicial punishment.
Touted as "a provocative report that could change your mind about 'sex
for sale,'" 20/20 offered an unusually straightforward opportunity for
advocates of decriminalization to present their case, including Norma
Jean Almodovar (organizer of the recent International Congress on
Prostitution and leading figure in COYOTE's Los Angeles chapter), former
San Jose Chief of Police Joe McNamara, San Francisco District Attorney
Terence Hallinan, brothel owners Jillian Bradley and Dennis Hoff,
outspoken client advocates Hugh Loebner and Joe Lavezzo, and San
Francisco COYOTE activists Veronica Monet and Carol Leigh. The role of
token spokesperson for the classic
punishment/morality/degradation/decline of civilized society case was, appropriately enough, handed to Utah's conservative Republican Senator Orrin Hatch.
Prostitution "denigrates marriage," Hatch predictably asserted. "It denigrates courtship. It denigrates families. It denigrates young women. There are things in this life that are right to do and there are things that are wrong to do. A good society is one that stands for moral principles."
Ah, yes. But as correspondent John Stossel immediately pointed out, "increasingly another viewpoint is being heard. Prostitutes are saying what they do with their bodies is none of our business." It's a line straight out of "My Body," the theme song from The Life.
Veronica Monet presents the basic case of a woman's right to do with her body as she chooses, as long as she isn't hurting anyone. "If I can have the right to have an abortion... I can have the right [to make sexual decisions] about my body," including what Stossel describes as "the right to exploit [her] body for monetary gain." As Stossel pointedly notes, "Football players do it. Boxers do it. Why can't a prostitute?"
Answering the argument from feminists (and from Orrin Hatch) that prostitution is degrading to women, Norma Jean Almodovar notes that not very many women "would choose to scrub toilets for a living. Nevertheless, because a lot of people might think that's degrading we don't put them in jail."
The San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution's recommendation for decriminalization is noted as an example of prostitutes getting "some support in surprising places." District Attorney Hallinan and former Police Chief McNamara add the legitimacy of the criminal justice establishment to the case, arguing that the criminalization of prostitution creates more problems than it solves. "What we're doing now," says McNamara, "is worse than prostitution. It drives up the profits. It drives up the potential for corruption. It invites violence.... We can never stop this. It's a consensual transaction between two people. It's not a crime like robbery or stealing or assault or rape. We're diverting a lot of resources going through the motions of trying to almost fool the public into thinking that we're doing something about these problems when, in fact, we're not."
Turning to the issues of violence and drugs so often associated with prostitution, Stossel assigns responsibility for these problems not to prostitution itself but to its criminalization, "because the law drives prostitution underground, into the criminal world, where everyone's hiding from the police.... Such problems occur much less often where sex for money is legal." Legalized prostitution in Nevada and Holland are presented as positive alternatives that "eliminates the exploitation of the ladies" and promotes safe sex as well. "Here we see a doctor," says one prostitute at Dennis Hoff's Bunny Ranch. "Out there, who knows who has what and if they're really using safe sex."
Of course there are the familiarly seedy shots of street prostitutes in skimpy clothing soliciting guys in cars. But 20/20 points out that, even by police estimates, street prostitution constitutes only a small percentage of the larger "sex for sale" picture and pays attention to indoor prostitution as well. Camera crew and audience are taken on a tour of a distinctly pleasant, upscale "five-story multilelvel townhouse" in a well-to-do neighborhood owned by cheerful and unapologetic Jillian Bradley. The receptionist at the door is Bradley's daughter. What could be more wholesome?
When Stossel, playing devil's advocate, accuses Bradley of "contributing to the decline of America" by selling sex, Bradley pauses a moment before smiling and answering quietly, "that's ridiculous. Sex has been around forever and prostitution has been around forever." And when Hatch himself asserts that "if something is made legal it means society has basically approved of it," Stossel pulls him up short, noting curtly that "we allow smoking cigarettes. We don't approve of that."
"Let's give women their sexuality any way they want it," says Veronica Monet. "If people want to exchange money, housing, marriage licenses, wedding rings... fine. As long as two consenting adults have decided, 'This works great for me.'"
The segment concludes with Stossel and 20/20 host Hugh Downs summarizing the issue in heart-to-heart conversation. "You want strong laws against crimes that hurt people," Stossel says, "murder, assault robbery. But these are people who willingly do this."
"Are consensual crimes really crimes [at all]?" Downs wonders.
"And are laws against them causing more harm than good," Stossel adds. "Just because we don't like something doesn't mean we can make it go away with a law."
"No," Downs concludes, "I think that's been proved many times."
A Coffee Shop Called Nouvelle Justine
While prostitution struggles to free itself from decades of social stigma, s/m (or at least the accouterments of s/m) continues to become nothing less than positively chic. How else can we explain the appearance in New York of a new, all day, every day s/m coffeehouse, would you believe, with the appropriately trendy name Nouvelle Justine. Here the titillated tourist can sip sweets and flavored coffees while being treated to the sight of faux dominatrices prancing around in fashionable leather and latex while doing such campy things as slapping tables with their whips and issuing commands out of the blue -- orders like, "You will behave!!"
Oh, my, my, my. Nouvelle Justine indeed! The affect, it turns out, is strictly for show. Asked if she was really into s/m, one of the whipbrandishing leatherettes replied, "Oh, no, not at all. I'm just an actress."
The cafe', not surprisingly, is taking a good deal of heat, both from feminists who object to the large sign featuring a bound and trussed woman on the sidewalk out front, and from people who really are into s/m and who don't appreciate the trappings of their sexual subculture being appropriated and trivialized by outsiders in the name of attracting suburban cash. When one of the wandering actresses whipped the table of a noted domina checking out the scene, and insisted that she behave, she found herself face to face with an angry woman used to calling the shots in no uncertain terms. "You don't know who you are talking to," she was informed in a voice cold as ice. Did the upbraiding pull this wandering bit of house scenery out of her role? Not at all, I am told. She just went on to the next table and did the same thing all over again.
I certainly have nothing kind to say about culture vultures out to make a buck off the latest kinky sexual trend. Still, it's a chuckle that in the space of a few short years s/m, which recently enough seemed slated to become the new designated perversion onto which proper society could pour all its venom and loathing, has now become the sexual kink of choice among the hipper-than-thou. Not that dressing up in leather and latex or sipping cappuccinos in the presence of fake dominas really says anything about people understanding, accepting, or appreciating the complexities of s/m, but methinks that even the most superficial of these social-sexual trends does tend to undermine attempts to associate s/m with the distaste of the gutter.
And while relatively few people may be investigating the nuances of profound dominance and submission, or the ecstasies of intense endorphinated pain, I also suspect that lots of people have come to include a little spanking and bondage in their otherwise vanilla sex play, and that those people who feel drawn to deeper investigation of the s/m mysteries are a whole lot less inclined to think of themselves as pathological perverts than they would have four or five years ago.
It would seem that even mainstream crossword puzzlers need to be in the know about s/m these days. "Part of the curriculum at Texas S&M" reads one of the theme clues from Merl Reagle's recent "Something's Backed Up" puzzle in the Examiner magazine section. "Flog courses" (a pun on "golf courses") is the correct answer. Right up there with "Mary Yak Cosmetics" ("Most popular makeup in Tibet").
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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