We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

One of the world's oldest professions · 11 December 06

Dear Fanny,

Although in Barbara Bergmann’s review of The Purchase of Intimacy by Viviana A Zelizer (Women’s Review of Books, 25:6, Nov/Dec 2006: 32-33), Bergmann mentions the equation Zelizer makes between "wives and prostitutes" only in passing, since a friend brought the topic up in a letter to me, I thought I’d write about the way prostitutes are treated and something of why women become prostitutes. This subject matter connects to female vaginal mutilation and modern non-marriage.

I had cross-posted to WWTTA a description of a demonstration occurring in front a women’s library. A new stance towards prostitution had been promulgated by a group belonging to this library (as researchers I presume), which stance someone on H-HistSex argued showed a dismissal of prostitutes, a determination to distinguish them ontologically from other women, to anathematize and then either erase or scapegoat them. Self-evidently this would not help what I’d call this peculiarly exploited and vulnerable women at all. The individual who posted on H-HistSex argued (in a way analogous to Zelizer and Bergmann) that prostitutes experience the worst of a continuum of unjust, cruel and ironical behaviors towards women across the earth.

My friend told me about murders of prostitutes that had occurred in her area, 3 young women abducted, killed after whatever was done to them was done, and their bodies thrown in river dumping ground. The young women had been drug addicts. The realities of drug addiction are so complex: I had a friend, now dead, once a fellow adjunct whose son was probably murdered by the police. It appears that as is common the police themselves were involved in drug-running and her son had gotten involved with a group of either drug-runners or addicts, and been killed in a quarrel. It was claimed he had committed suicide. My adjunct friend did all she could to bring the truth to light, but never managed to get anyone to agree to testify on her son’s behalf. She was deeply depressed, and died when a car ran over her while she was walking on a sidewalk with her dog. I know it sounds comical, but actually is not. Her daughter’s marriage had broken up and she had ended up as the boy’s main caregiver and was trying to bring up a grandson on an adjunct’s salary1. US police are often corrupt and (like the English officer in Trollope’s Macdermots of Ballycloran) involved in the very crimes they are supposed to police.

One "solution" to the problems prostitutes encounter in their daily would which could lead to a bettering of their condition, decent behavior towards them, would be to legalize prostitution. Theoretically they might then have recourse to law when they are hurt, for health care (as working people). Like women who for centuries were as a matter of course regularly beaten by husbands or fathers or (if they were young) any older relative, when the first laws were passed and open court cases in the 1880s and 90s, that meant that less women could be beaten because you were shaming people, and also that it was less acceptable to beat them.

The obstacle experience shows us here is records demonstrate when prostitution is legalized, their actual individual condition doesn’t improve. If anything they are yet more susceptible to the power of their masters (pimps, madams, creditors) because some of these use the law to find them and imprison them; and the police are deeply unsympathetic. In England the movement to help prostitutes ended in laws which demanded they produce evidence they were not transmitting disease, laws which required they allow their bodies to be inspected, and no laws to protect their health or help them.

In the powerful movie, Monster, written and directed by Patty Jenkins, starring Charlize Theron, the heroine-whore when picked up by police is forced to perform fellatio on them & other humiliating obeissances. Or they will throw her in prison. Or beat her up.

To make prostitution illegal doesn’t help because unlike chattel slavery (which once outlawed was dropped and exists now only in small pockets in tribal Africa), making it illegal doesn’t stop it. It was illegal in the 19th century in Europe and huge numbers of women were prostitutes. Perhaps it grows more because there is less surveillance.

I disbelieve women who write positively about prostitution. The woman from H-HistSex wanted others to believe prostitution was a freely-chosen profession, and to regard prostitutes as strong women. People who argue this way think they are getting respect for prostitutes as non-victims. It’s patently not so: prostitution is not a freely-chosen profession (few professions are). All the public talk is as ever just superficial talk. As Fay Weldon say sin her book on Jane Austen, people will say (and write) anything.

My view is such work is dangerous and vile. From the point of view of status, prostitutes are regarded and treated as animals, not much above chattel slaves. They are not literally owned and that’s no small thing. It matters that once you can get out of a concentration or slave labor camp and get far away you are not liable to be brought back like an animal; you have not lost caste altogether. But that distinction is the only one they have that gives them any hope—hope for what, why to get out of serving someone else’s body as he or she pleases.

I speak as someone who for a very brief time was considered a "tramp" or "slut" and memories of the way I was treated and talked to (I was age 12/3 – 14/5).

Prostitution like marriage continues because societies are set up to allow and even encourage these behaviors and institutions. Societies do not punish the men who go to prostitutes for sex; in fact, it’s considered okay (if in some places publicly shameful) to go to prostitutes for sex. Women and younger girls resort to this because they need the money and find other work worse; they are coerced into it by parents and relatives or find themselves in family systems and cliques which lead them to it; they have no access to the private property system through their connections to get them any better way of surviving. Once they are in the quagmire, they find it difficult if not impossible to get out. No one will help them. The person on H-HistSex was arguing that the stance of these researchers will reinforce the indifference of those with the knowledge and some power to help them. Those who they serve will do all they can to keep these women in servitude to them (just as the family in Anne Seierstadt’s Bookseller of Kabul do all they can to keep the relatively powerless and abused women in the family in servitude to the others).

I say that prostitution is just one of the oldest professions. Let’s not forget pest warriors and their captains who have been around just as long.


1 I’ve been teaching at the university I’m now at since 1989 and since then 5 adjuncts have died. Not one tenured person or tenure-track; a few tenured people have retired and the news is they are living the good life (doing scholarship, living on a good pension in a comfortable home). Perhaps a couple of full-time non-tenure track people have moved to tenure-track jobs elsewhere; a couple of adjuncts have been promoted to non-tenure track instructor jobs or moved to better jobs (full-time tenure or non-tenure track) elsewhere. I’ve read in medical books and in more than one article in the New York Review of Books on psychology and sociology that stress kills, especially if you are put in a lower position than the others around you. (One of the most painful experiences people have is to experience a drop in status before other people.) Two of these adjuncts were obese (a male poet who weighed over 300 and a woman with a bad heart who weighed nearly 400 pounds). One was a youngish woman (28) who may have died of being an adjunct as she was frightened by the scolding and cold harassing behavior of a tenured individual at the time towards her when she asked for time off during the term and so carried on teaching; since she had no insurance and was afraid to go to the hospital for fear of incurring a large bill, she went to the doctor when she was near death. I was told she died in the hospital. At least she didn’t have to be hounded for the bill. I am aware if anyone reads this note he or she might despise this anxious uninsured young woman as weak or timid and say what caused her to end an adjunct also caused her death. I don’t. I say systems which punish people for not have social cunning, being bullies, having the right connections, are vicious. My friend, as I said, was walking her dog and on the sidewalk when a car ran over her. Her justified depression got in the way of her alertness. The fifth person died young of cancer.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. This morning I thought how the basis of human relationships does seem to be this negotiation between the stronger and the weaker. So a woman who manages marriage may be someone who would not give up sex without this status; a woman who is a prostitute gets a minimum wage with no guarantee of even physical safety in exchange for sex.

    This seems to be the idea animating an 18th century Scottish philospher who wrote about women’s position across the ages (Millar); and it seems that Bergmann in her forthcoming book, The Deline of Marriage and What to Do About It makes this candid insight the center of her expose and argument.

    chava    Dec 12, 11:16am    #
  2. Jim sent me the following which he retrieved from a blog:

    "In the 5 years I observed vice in Maquis Park, there was only 1 fatality for a prostitute who was managed by a pimp. In contrast, 13 self-employed prostitutes died during the night hours at work. Of these, 10 died at the hands of either an abusive john, a spouse or partner jealous of their work, or a pimp trying to clear them away from a spot: the other 3 died of drug overdoses, although they too may have been dealing with some type of harassment.

    Sex workers with pimps can earn more money, and their work is more steady.

    It’s from: Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh, Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor.

    chava    Dec 22, 8:39pm    #

commenting closed for this article