New TBS writer Persephone Fraser enters the discussion, elucidating how the ‘oldest trade’ colours the perception of all women who surround it.
Where I worked for the last three years, a bar in Brisbane’s infamously unattractive Fortitude Valley, was a block from a strip of uninviting and inexpensive strip clubs. At the end of our short street was one with some Candy related name, known for it’s $5 lap dances where, as people more or less comically retold, you could actually touch them. The nearest cab rank to us was in front of this establishment, where small groups of overweight and unsuccessful middle-aged men headed after asking for their change in $5s. When I was a few years younger (and more importantly, before I’d been to one of these establishments), I subscribed vaguely to the idea that we each own our bodies, that those involved were empowered by the ability to charge for the asset or at least that it didn’t affect me what they did with their bodies, time and money.
In a very real sense, though, it does. The effect is not just on that corner of the Valley past a certain hour, but I’ll start there.
Getting a cab outside of this strip late at night or early in the morning meant cabbies frequently gave me spurious looks when I said I’d been working. I thought at first, as a modern empowered individual with an open mind, that whether this guy thought I worked on this strip or on the adjacent one seemed unimportant. But the way their manner would consistently change, the way they would speak to me and look at me went to show that it does. They weren’t uproarious, they didn’t say hateful things, but their behaviour would consistently show an absolute void of respect, and frequently disgust. It can be seen – in the way the people I worked with and I looked at the girls smoking outside that strip joint; the way they swore across at us; the way people crossed the street to pass them; the way men yelled at them or the way the guy in the convenience store wouldn’t make eye contact or small talk with them – that it’s divisive.
It becomes clear when I get into a cab and am treated like the women who work on this strip instead of at the other end that it is not possible to cleanly segment what is okay there and what is okay everywhere else. It seems in the behaviour I repeatedly observed that it doesn’t seem possible for guys to go to a strip joint for laughs, buy their friends lap dances, and respect their female friends, partners or people just trying to walk down the street. Even if they could cleanly divide what’s for sale and what’s not (which becomes seriously spurious for them with a few drinks and anyone on shift), there is a more subtle effect in their relationships and brushes with all women.
My argument is this: these women are seriously disrespected whilst smoking outside and getting home just as much as while working inside, because sex is a fundamental factor of gender relations (perhaps unfortunately) and the bastardisation or commodification of that gender relationship, and the strict separation of sex and affection from love, fosters contempt and disrespect that impacts the patron in question, inadvertently the friends they associate with, coworkers, children and partners, and in turn those behaviours and attitudes affect those who work in the sex industry, bystanders as well as women they come into contact with, souring the relationship from the other end by the creation of a norm, of particular expectations of those involved, making it normal for women to be treated like property that can be bought in drinks or tips or specifically priced services, which solidifies disrespectful and unequal gender relations. The lack of respect, even spite, that you see cabbies, passers by and patrons alike throw at strippers (being the most public of the sex industries) is a reflection of the offensive that is taken to selling something that is held sacred by our society.
At this point, the common argument arises that it is the oldest trade, that concubines existed in the oldest of our records of civilisations and thus must be a) acceptable and b) eternal. This is an obviously flawed argument, not least of all because slavery too has been recorded in these societies, and, because many great things we have now, like medicine, the internet and human rights, didn’t exist then; so perhaps improvements can be made. It is also important to note that just because something has been, doesn’t mean it should. Mill’s notion of owning yourself but only to the extent of (and because of it) not being able to sell oneself is my point. Our bodies and our rights were not recovered so as to be resold, and just as a lack of civil rights infected race relations, so the sex industry (despite its proclaimed purpose of empowering and protecting) sours gender relations.
The reason it existed then, though, is presumably the reason it exists now. When you’ve nothing else to trade, you trade your body. If you’re born into a situation where you’re taught that such is acceptable, your place or your value. There are jobs in here, be they waiting tables or selling mass-produced T-shirts, even for those most disadvantaged in our communities; it’s just that selling your body is better reimbursed. What facilitates that decision though is an underlying acceptance of the validity of selling your body if the price is high enough.
The crossroads you come to when you decide that the sex industry is doing a great deal of societal damage, but that an unregulated industry is dangerous and equally poisonous, is: how do you change attitudes so that there is no longer supply or demand for that kind of work?