London Review of Books: Selma James response to Rosemary Dinnage

Vol. 2 No. 23 · 4 December 1980

SIR: Rosemary Dinnage in her review of Prostitutes: Our Life (LRB, 18 September) does not escape society’s puritanism. Thus she confuses prostitution with prostitutes, and morality with the law. Despite compassion and a great effort to be balanced, she cannot hide her disgust and her distance from women who are not so different from the rest of us.

The English Collective of Prostitutes is at pains to explain in their Introduction to the book that ‘we are not our work.’ A woman from the Salvation Army, attending Baroness Joan Vickers’ debate on prostitution in 1977, declared: ‘We hate the sin but love the sinner.’ Slavery is disgusting, but are slaves? The truths they tell most certainly are but that is not an argument for romantic lies, prostitutes describe men with their pants down, and the view is not necessarily elevating. Because it is not some women in the book are turned off men. But Ms Dinnage must be aware that women not in the book and not on the game are increasingly critical of men sexually as they are able to make their way independently of them financially. There are more single mothers, more women taking lovers and refusing marriage, more women publicly lesbian. While prostitutes are charging, ‘good women’, like nurses, are supposed to be ‘putting up with strangers’ disgusting bodies … happily … for low pay’. But they’re not; not happily putting up with low pay in any job. That’s why there are so many nurses and ex-nurses on the game. Prostitution is a profession which attracts all kinds of women, including women who are not willing to wait for equal pay.

If we wind ourselves into moral knots we sidestep the obvious: that in general women sell and men buy because women have less money than men. This is the basic formula for the degradation of both sexes. What then are we to do with a society where it is expected that women will be at the sexual (and other) service of men; where men and women are locked into a power relation the key to which is money?

Prostitutes: Our Life begins here and exposes a sexuality which is shaped by finances and disparity of power. It also exposes the laws which protect this sexuality and in the name of morality attack the women who are expected but who refuse to be its passive victims. It’s true that women who rent their bodies to give their children a better start in life may end up by losing custody of those children. But surely the laws that make that happen are to be assailed, not the mother’s efforts!

Elsewhere the English Collective of Prostitutes has written: ‘If going on the game is violence in itself, it’s also a fight against violence, the violence of poverty.’ The prostitutes in the book don’t claim that ‘much larger allowances for single women with children’ or ‘better pay for women’ by themselves will end prostitution, but they will most certainly increase options.

Prostitution will end when we can all give everything away out of love and plenty. Meanwhile, let’s get the laws off our backs; they frame the morality which judges and divides us. Once the barriers begin to fall, we can find out what we have in common. For those of us not prostitutes, that will mean a long hard look at our own lives in all the places we live them – down a mine, in an army, in a typing-pool, at the writing-desk or in a bed.

Selma James
English Collective of Prostitutes

Vile Bodies
Rosemary Dinnage

Prostitutes: Our Life edited by Claude Jaget, translated by Anna Furse, Suize Fleming and Ruth Hall
Falling Wall Press, 221 pp, £8.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 905046 12 9

Prostitution is not going to disappear for a long time, says one of the six women who tells her story here, so it is time people accepted prostitutes. ‘They could at least be ready to look them in the face and acknowledge them,’ she says; and so say the other five, and the heads of the prostitutes’ collectives who have contributed chapters, and the male journalist who edits the book; fair play, both legally and socially, is what they ask for, for working women who have simply struck a private bargain with another individual. How could one disagree? But the looking in the face, the sorting out of disgust, sympathy, blame, envy, is horribly difficult. The book’s spokespeople are clear where the blame lies (in male-dominated society), and what the remedy is (much larger allowances for single women with children); the women who tape-recorded their stories seem more muddled and honest.

The two deeply emotive things involved are money and bodily integrity. Prostitution is one of those things, like payment for psychotherapy or breach of promise, where the money involved seems to become meaningless, both too much and too little. Getting paid, for 15 minutes of passivity, what it takes hours of book-reviewing or concrete-mixing to earn, is obviously ridiculously too much. For losing social acceptance, sexual choice and physical safety it is obviously ridiculously too little. Putting up with strangers’ disgusting bodies is what nurses happily do for low pay; but then, there is no question of monotonously dealing in just what seems most private, fruitful, of their own:

We worked on vaseline. That means we smeared ourselves with loads of vaseline and then afterwards got the sperm out. I only had time to wash after every four or five clients. While the guy was washing I’d go to the top of the banisters and shout, ‘Coming down.’ The boss downstairs, she’d answer, ‘Coming up.’ And the next client would be getting ready to come up while the other one was still washing.

It really isn’t simple.

The six stories here are of course too few to explain the whole scene (there are no male prostitutes among them; no casual part-timers; no choosy and successful call-girls), but’ are vividly informative. This is what I have learned from them. First, how it all starts: usually little by little, not difficult to imagine (‘each time I realised that it was really impossible to stop. Yet it wasn’t because I didn’t want to. I did, from the start’). Only one out of the six set out with any deliberation; the pattern described is from casual jobs, to bar hostessing or ‘doing a favour’ to plain prostitution. Money and habit are crucial (‘there’s no mystery – if it weren’t for the money, then I’d rather be doing any job than this one’). Even if Margaret Valentino and Mavis Johnson of the English Collective of Prostitutes are right that better pay for women is the heart of the matter, it is unlikely that there will never be anyone willing to earn even more and finding the bargain worthwhile (‘I tried taking a job … clocking in at eight in the morning, going out to lunch, one month off in the summer, waiting all week for Sunday to come – I tried it and I couldn’t do it’).