Saturday, May 19, 2007
Sexual Repression and Whorish Histories
The Victorian era was a peak time for sex work...there were so many sex workers in London under the reign of Queen Victoria - apparently more than ever before or since. There are three key reasons for this:
1. The first being economic - with the Industrial Revolution, record numbers of people left rural areas (where they had traditionally lived as peasants, working the land of the local land owner) and moved to cities for work - such a dramatic change to an economic system, from a largely agricultural to largely urban economy will cause havoc - urban crowding, slums, unemployment and dramatic poverty. Add to this that women's wages at that time in most conventional forms of 'women's work' (i.e. working as a seamstress or in a laundry) was not enough to survive on in most cases... and there you have it: the perfect conditions for an explosion of sex work are created
2. The second was notions of female purity... sex made you damaged goods, and often even working class women had presure put upon them to be chaste (who were up until this time considered fundamentally immoral, however the recent woman-led moral crusades - who also focused on 'white slavery' and alcohol temperance).. so for women who had popped their cherry, the most conventional means of economic support (wedlock) was not always an option, so 'on the game' it was. Another aspect of this was the hideous amounts of homophobia, which meant that for men looking for same sex action, male sex workers were the safest option (except maybe, in the case of the Oscar Wilde sodomy case, when rent boys gave evidence against him).
3. And then there is the second chastity related reason... the popular wisdom of the time made quite clear that women didn't like sex, that male sex drive victimised women into putting out, even when they don't want to (hello Sheila Jeffreys, Andrea Dworkin, et al). There were books available at the time that suggested that a decent husband wouldn't expect sex more than about every 6 months from his lady wife, and advised on things to do to quell the urge to ask more often.... Middle and upper class men sometimes began affairs with the household servants, or other working class women, sometimes setting them up as mistresses in separate establishments - if those men didn't adequately provide for their mistresses... well you get the picture. Either way, affluent guys either went to see sex workers straight away, or 'ruined' someone who then became a sex worker later.
I'm not being bitter about men here (or in anyway suggesting sex workers are victims - making lemonade out of the lemons of sexism and classism is to me the act of the capable and empowered), just pointing out that class and gender discrimination, tough economic times and sexual repression create the conditions for an increase in the numbers of sex workers.
(For more on Victorian Era sex work - may I recommend my favourite all-time sex work book? Whores In History by Nikki Roberts. Also Victorian 'porn' such as Fanny Hill and My Secret Life for 'local colour')
Conversely, the sex industry has been a harder place to be since the late 60s. The introduction of the contraceptive pill was certainly catastrophic for business. Such a reliable, non intrusive, self-directed contraceptive method meant women, for the first time, where able to have penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex all the time without running the huge risk of pregnancy. When wives and girlfriends - or even women not romantically entwined are putting out for free in such large numbers, there is less of an overwhelming need for sex workers.
A later impact was the AIDS pandemic... which I believe has been affecting the amount of people paying for sex for over 20 years now, as well as increasing stigmatisation against sex workers - we aren't just mercenary bitches and loose immoral sluts anymore, we are also vectors of disease. This despite the fact that there has never been a reported HIV transmission in a sex work context in Australia to date, that in many high incidence regions for HIV, sex workers demonstrate higher levels of sexual health than the general population, and that most HIV positive women in the world contracted HIV from their husbands (often their only sexual partner).
Other local impacts have been the removal of fringe benefits, and the introduction of poker machines and the impact of the GST on small businesses).
I do hope y'all will forgive what I hope wasn't too much of a tedious journey back through the mists of time. My personal life-long obsession with digging around in history, mythology, literature and the cultural mores of specific periods of time is lead by my desire to know: how we got to this place, how did we start worshipping a god who seems obsessed with our sex lives and punishing us, how 10,000 years of patriarchal oppression happened, how queers and whores and women and people of colour got to be on the bottom of the heap. So, all of that history was background to what I'm actually thinking about..
My life's work (sorry if that sounds too arrogant) has been about doing what I can to dismantle sex negativity, or erotophobia. As sex negativity is the basis of homophobia and sex worker phobia, it makes sense that this will be really important stuff for me. Sex between people of 'opposite' sexes within the context of ongoing relationships, has at least the potential for procreation to justify it. The scary aspect of aiming to dismantle a system of erotophobia is - it's probably bad for business.
Barriers put in place to people fucking as they please (such as fear of conception, homophobia and the social consequences for women of extra-marital sex [see the whore stigma]) motivates more (mainly) men to access the services of professionals. So, while a key motivation for me in my sex work has been to affirm the importance of pleasure, and crusade for sex positivity - am I simply putting myself out of business, or at least making it harder for the next generation of whores?
I've spoken about this with Decriminalise Debby, who raised Patrick Califia's article Whoring In Utopia - which argues that in a utopian future world - with no racism, classism, sexism, homophobia or sex negativity would still need whores - just possibly different whores, for different ways of whoring. That people might be far more likely to give their partners a session with a sex worker for a gift, with this being less stigmatised (I also imagine in utopia there is greater support for relationship structures outside of monogamy), that clients may not be almost exclusively str8 men, and that sexual skill might be seen as so valuable, that being properly 'initiated' and trained up to be a good sexual partner by a sex worker at the beginning of your sexual life would be seen as vital if you wanted to ever get a date, from that point onwards.
All I can say is I hope so... sex work has allowed me to be choosey about what other kinds of work I do, so that I don't have to work for evil multinationals who cut down rain forests or exploit 'third world' labour, or simply do mindnumbly dull work. I love that sex work allows me to constantly make not just a living, but also very good karma for myself by providing relaxation, pleasure and orgasms for others. I'd hate for this option to not be there for others.