Waking up to the working girls

Are we finally developing a mature attitude to prostitution in the UK?.

The news reports about the victims of the Ipswich serial killer have all been kind about the women and supportive of their friends and family, with no exceptions that I have seen. [Since posting this I had a conversation with a friend who pointed out that this may say more about what I read than about what is written. I hate it when reality spoils a good theory like that. AB]

The police spokesman calls them “working girls” which is friendly and not disrespectful.

The local paper has set up a condolence website. Ok, local papers do this sort of thing to generate readers or website hits but, even so, I found it is notable that the paper responded by giving the women who work in the town’s red light district the chance to ‘pay their respects’ to each of the dead women rather than by getting hypocritical and prurient about the very existence of a red light district in a town like Ipswich.

The women’s families speak of their daughters with love and pride as well as grief. They use words like “sad” and “difficult” not “shame”. I am not a fan of the victim culture, but perhaps acknowledging that drug addiction creates victims, and that drug addicts lead lives that are nasty, difficult and impoverished, are steps towards accepting that we will only solve this problem when we stop viewing it as an individual’s moral failure.

There is a matter-of-factness about the reporting of the Ipswich murders, a lack of knowingness, almost a lack of prurience, which feels different from the way in which newspapers and other media used to write about prostitutes.

What I remember about the Yorkshire Ripper case was the sense that “respectable women” and “innocent students” lived in fear in case he mistook them for prostitutes. There was, as I remember, a sense that the students he killed were more innocent, and therefore more victimised, than the prostitutes.

If this story does show that we have more respect for prostitutes, then where has this come from? Cynthia Payne and Christine Keeler were not treated with respect. They were not drug addicts of course, and so they did not get any sympathy there. They were treated with rather sarcastic contempt so far as I can remember.

Is it just that there have been so many prostitution-related scandals over the last 10 years that we are saddened rather than shocked when the Director of Public Prosecutions is picked up near Kings Cross or when a candidate for the Lib-Dem leadership turns out to have an on-going relationship with a rent-boy. Are we Brits developing a gallic maturity about such things?

Is it because prostitution is no longer a silenced profession? Educated and thoughtful women like Compartments and a London Ebony Escort blog about their work. We find out what they think and feel about the work they do and about how it affects their lives. They do it in ways which force us to acknowledge that they are not morally bankrupt or shameful or fallen or lost or any of the other things that the good people of the 1850s and 1950s would have us believe. Others, like Belle de Jour are almost glamourising the life. It is writing about prostitiution, but it is not pornography.

Then of course wherever we are on the Internet we are only two clicks away from actual pornography, or indeed live sex on webcams. Perhaps we are just less sexually frustrated and so less prurient. I am not entirely convinced by that line of thought, but men writing about prostitutes and brothels in the 60s and 70s, and even in the 80s or 90s, wanted us to admire them for being men of the world. The subtext seemed to be, “aren’t I a bit of a dog?”

I don’t think they could get away with that now. These days we’ve watched documentaries on Channel 4 and Channel 5 showing porn films being made and we’ve watched Louis Theroux squirm with embarrassment in a brothel in Texas. These days the colonel’s lady has a much clearer idea of what is involved in Judy O’Grady’s life.

This is all very putative, incomplete and un-researched. The shift in attitude may be something I’ve imagined. But if there is a shift in attitude, then it is something we should welcome.

As you know, I rant and rage about the dangers of our surveillance society, but the one thing I am deeply glad about is that any killer as prolific as this one will, with absolute certainty, be caught.

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5 responses to “Waking up to the working girls

  1. I haven’t read very much on this subject as yet but have heard quite a bit on BBC radio. At one point I was shouting at the newsreader as she repeated, for the umpteenth time, that ‘naked bodies’ had been found.
    That these women are dead is surely the main point and labouring the fact of their nakedness seemed unnecessarily prurient.
    I know that finding the missing clothing is of great importance, forensically, but even in death these women deserve dignity; something which, despite changing mores, they had little enough of in life.

    Like you, I’m glad that the media are affording coverage to show that these women were loved and valued by their friends and families. The great sadness is that drug addiction seems to have been so relevant.

  2. You are right of course. I just kept on thinking how cold they must be, which is foolish.

    Thank you for reading and thank you for commenting.

    Aphra

  3. For the first couple of days the radio 4 news was calling them murdered prostitutes. Fairly rapidly, various women’s groups kicked up about this – there ws an interesting bout of navel gazing on the Today program about the reporting, and on the next bulletin I heard they were being refered to as murdered young women. I think the initial media reports fell back on old modes but the public quickly called them on it, pointing out it was distasteful and disrespectful. A positive change then.

    I do wish that we hadn’t yet been told so much about the arrested men though – as far as I’ve heard up to now they haven’t even been charged and yet we’ve seen names, pictures, heard interviews… If they are released without charges their lives are ruined.

  4. Hmmmm. I don’t know if people’s attitudes to sex workers/prostitutes/workings girls (whatever you want to call them) have changed all that much. I am actually a former call girl (I’m still involved in the sex industry – this time as an erotic masseuse) and many people whom I tell about this often think that I’m fucked up or lacking in self-esteem. It never occurs to them that I might just be sexually adventurous! When I first told my therapist about my involvement in the sex industry, she reacted by asking me what had been “going on at home” when I decided to start work. When I asked her what she meant by this, she said that around 60% of sex workers had been sexually abused. This annoyed me considerably, as I never was and I also resented being made out to be a poor, little victim.

  5. Kelli, Radio 4 has been doing rather a lot of navel-gazing on this one. Woman’s Hour spent a lot of time discussing attitudes to prostitutes.

    Hi Séverine and welcome to my blog. I guess that recognising that a lot of sex workers have been the victims of abuse is better than labelling all sex workers as morally and spiritually damned. But you are right, it is not really good enough to assume that everyone who does sex work does so because of abuse or low self esteem.

    I think the term “sex worker” is a good one because it validates other distinctions. The old so-called joke is wrong. That’s the one about the man who asked the duchess if she would sleep with a man for a million dollars and got the response “that would depend on how good looking he was”. He then asked her if she would sleep with him for a fiver. She said “No! What do you take me for!” and he – oh so cleverly replied – “we’ve already established that, all we are doing is negotiating the price”.

    It is helpful that there are distinctions between courtesans, call girls, escorts, and street prostitutes, not to mention other parts of the sex industry like erotic massage, lap dancing, pole dancing, stripping, and so on. And I think that recognising these differences is part of learning to treat those involved as individuals, with needs and rights.

    Ach, what do I know? I just think too much. Thanks for dropping by and posting.

    All the best

    Aphra.

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