Long before the economic recession, a commercial sex worker had told me, “Sister, we get food and shelter here, but isn't money important too?" She had been ‘saved’ and was in a remote village but she had got accustomed to the power of money.
The concept of prostitution – an extreme form of selling – thrives on lust and boredom. However, the subscript is based on acute economic need where the financial position decides how much and when. At the time when I was with a NGO working in the red-light area, I observed that cabbies and cops were the role models for the children of sex workers. It is no co-incidence that while one brought the clients, the other was the protector against the law he was protecting. Neither did it for free and got a cut.
Since the economic meltdown has depleted business, some brothels in Berlin are giving patrons a discount of five euros if they use public transport or bicycles.
Such freebies have often been offered but organised sex, like any other trade, is going through a slow phase. While the broad dynamics are different in cultures, a research study on prostitution in Chicago has shown that business went up on holidays and the amount charged varied according to race – Blacks paid less than Whites and Hispanics. Three per cent of the work was dedicated to police officers to avoid arrests. A pimp could ensure they earned more than if they walked the streets on their own.
Japanese society that mastered the art of subtlety and made geishas into icons has been forced to bow down to its worst recession since World War II. Gentlemen’s clubs where the surreptitious found sustenance have now become acceptable places to socialise. Interestingly, it is because hostesses who were earlier considered loose are now seen as hard-working people on their way to successful careers. TV shows and even the Parliament, where a former hostess is a member seeking re-election, are making this possible.
The downside is that since even the less fancy clubs and girls manage to earn more than other temporary positions, this could lead to a permanent place in the profession with the possibility of exploitation. Reports have already suggested that they could get sucked into an underground sex industry. However, if they are ready for it, they may end up with greater bargaining power as they come from the more sophisticated hostessing field.
Clark Gable had a number of conquered women in his list but it is said that, conscious of his limitations, he preferred prostitutes. “Because they go away and keep their mouths shut.” This is a quick-fix transaction much like any enterprise where loyalty has a lot to do with keeping your mouth shut. Even if the trade is not a traditional one, many such deals amount to that when the body is bartered for money.
One can imagine that with slack business issues of race and status will come into play more sharply. Sexual favours have been great levellers, yet subtle demarcations prevail, especially in the entertainment industry. Elsie Manners was only 17 when she approached the famous vaudevillian Fred Karno for a role. He asked her if she wanted a two-pound a week job or a four-pound one. Naturally, she chose the latter. Promptly, he asked her to strip and “get on the couch and we’ll see if you’re worth four quid.” Economic viability has always been of prime importance.
Hugh Hefner is to a large extent responsible for the ‘sexual revolution’. Free sex and flower power had quite different connotations; Hefner promoted ‘Playboy’ as something that made indulgence seem not like rebellion but an urbane culture of erotica. In that, he elevated it to a luxury. Sure, anyone could look at the photographs, but to be part of the inner circle you needed money and style. The bunnies and mates became symbols.
It is unlikely, though, for a streetwalker to be transformed into a Pretty Woman today merely on the string of her dental floss. If she does manage to be a transient arm candy, then it will be at the mercy of Amex.
(c) Farzana Versey
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This is my column in Covert, September 1-15