The Contexts of Marketed Sex
- A Further Note
This short essay is meant to be read in conjunction with my paper on Sexuality, the Market and Mental Health which appears elsewhere on this web site. It is stimulated by seeing the film, The Escort recently (and a fading memory also of the film, Boogie Nights). The Escort, scripted by Hanif Khureishi, is about a middle aged French professor (played by Daniel Auteil) in a mid life crisis who comes to London and happens to fall in with the Escort (Gigolo and Call Girl) business whose chief customers are wealthy women (and men) in London moneyed society. He becomes a Gigolo and the film portrays his experiences and personal path. Boogy Nights is about the pornography milieu, a fringe activity and social circle at the edge of Hollywood moneyed society. The film portrays the life of a porn star, loosely based on a real life character called John Holmes. In both films the principle characters eventually develop a major life crisis in which their lives spiral out of control - followed by a kind of recovery. There is then a suggestion that they go back again into the life style that has led to their crisis. The question is left open whether they are any wiser or not - or whether things will be different or not the second time round.
What comes over from seeing both films is how much the debate about marketed sexual services have to be seen as part of a total life style - within a social network, with associated personal relationships, with habits in that network and the values of that network. It puts the phenomena of prostitution and pornography in real life contexts and reminds us that we have to bear in mind those total contexts to understand the psychological effects on people.
To take one obvious example which both films have in common - the social miliueu in which the sex workers operate in both of these films is one in which drug use is very common. You could say in the case of both films that the message is as much about the dangers of cocaine use as traded sex - but that would be to misread the point. For the point is that the sex workers mix in a money world where the life styles is, to a degree, part of a package. What derails the chief character in the Escort is that he is naive - it is all very new to him and he takes on board the whole lifestyle and its values. There is a hint that, at the beginning, that he is open minded and non-judgement in his attitude - but this is something that leads to his own undoing. He tries cocaine in a moment when he is off his guard; he buys into the luxury lifestyle and gets a flat with a large rent; he has an affair with a sex worker, whose work does not easily permit the interruptions brought about by their relationship. Before he knows it, to hold his chosen lifestyle together, he needs big money regularly. It is at this point that his attitude to women as his "clients" becomes destructively manipulative, rapacious and ill judged. The resulting havoc, of emotional destruction and self destruction, then follows almost inevitably, step by step.
It is interesting then to compare this principle character with the life course of the person who introduces him to the escort business. The film implies that this street wise character remains relatively unscathed emotionally and, presumably wise enough not to hurt his customers. In the film he is shown as owning and working in his own catering business - which gives him another source of income. He appears to take or leaves his customers to his own convenience, he doesn't dabble with drugs, or mix with drug dealers on point of principle, and he keeps a strong sense of the difference between his own feelings and what happens in his sex work. This character should not be idealised above all because he seems to me to have been written as a character, in this way, to be largely non vulnerable. One wonders how many people like this there are in the escort business but it seems possible that people like this could exist. There's clearly a message here: that it's not traded sex per se that is the problem but the contexts of vulnerability in which it arises: things which include poverty but also the naivety, desire for the luxury lifestyle, the drug and hence money addiction. You could say that had the French character followed this character's advice he might not have gone off the rails.
Above all it is money addiction, and everything that creates it, that leads sex workers in the grip of this addiction, to push everything else to take second place to cash. Truthfulness and a concern for other people's feelings disappears. The practicalities of other people's lifestyles, values and welfare are trampled on if money is at stake. It is at this point that the message becomes especially grim and the love of money is, indeed, seen to be the root of all evil. The havoc in relationships that arises out of the cash driven insincerity, as well the clash between business and private lives that occur, lead the person concerned into violence until they are, in effect, expelled from their social network. They "fall".
Although in a different way, a similar message comes over out of 'Boogie Nights'. Here again the chief character becomes cocaine addicted, arrogant and loses his ability to get on with people and "falls". Wild criminal acts follow that go desperately wrong to try to retrieve positions. Here again the crisis in a social network is eventually weathered although not until extreme violence has occurred - and the fall of the most unsavoury and abusive characters, including to jail.
The films do not judge. They portray. They allow us to draw our own conclusions. My conclusion is that authentic and sincere emotional relationships seem to be possible in this milieue - a conclusion also to be drawn from watching another of Khureish's films 'My Son the Fanantic', where a Muslim taxi driver falls mutually in love with someone who he knows to be a prostitute. Real life defies conventional textbook statements of how things are. Even where one would expect to find only cynicism, exploitation and abuse, nonetheless love appears. (As I have mentioned in the other essay it came as a great surprise to me to hear on Satellite TV Germany's most famous porn star and public celebrity, Dolly Buster, talk about Buddhism.)
However, the social milieues in which money is in plentiful supply, and in which people develop life styles based on the squandering and display of money, clearly have a very strong tendency towards corrosive effects on peoples sincerity. It hazards their ability to tell the truth, and read the truth, about each other's feelings. Films have the ability to look behind the immediate image, and the beyond the immediate traded act itself, to the longer view at the total lifestyle. What the films suggest is that the personal crises are not accidental but are intrinsic to how difficult people find it to manage the predominant life style package that tends to go with traded sex. The contextualisation is most important to our understanding. Indeed, if one looks behind the pornographic images of people's bodies on Internet or in magazines, one often does see that they are taking place in extremely luxurious environments. However the glamour is shallow. Again one must beware of simplification. But the beautiful people often turn out to be small minded and vicious - when he tries to relate to a customer as an equal, the Gigolo discovers one of his women patrons, who uses him as a pawn in her conflict with her husband, regards him as with utter contempt, as merchandise, as the lowest of her social inferiors.
Traded sex must be seen in contexts. As I was writing this I picked up a copy of the German news magazine, Der Spiegel. In it there is a description of prostitution in the Balkans which tells of an utterly different cntext and one that is far more grim. With 50,000 Kfor soldiers in Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia and 7,000 workers from UN and other Aid Organisations there is a lot of money looking for sex and prostitution is booming. The Spiegel article describes how in villages like Vrutok one in 4 villagers are prostitutes, in Velesta, one in three. Women are also being brought in from much further afield - for example organised criminals can buy a woman for 1000 DMarks. Pimps pay four or five times as much on the spot. Taking into account the going rate to bribe the police (20% of the takings) the pimps can get their money back in 4 to 6 weeks. Probably 20% of these prostitutes are under age - i.e. they are still children. The German Green Party, as so often it seems to me, are being most realistic about the situation. They call for the creation of official bordellos - not for the morale of the troops but in order to protect the position of women. In general, the German Greens have a position that it is better to recognise and legalise, in order to protect, rather than ignore the situation - a position which I think is right. Only in this context also would want stand any chance of getting to grips with child prostitution. The German CDU and SPD are not of the same view. And I would guess that in the UK the British MoD would avoid like the plague ever admitting an issue like this exists at all.
I go off at a tangent like this to draw attention to the same point. The situation in the Balkans is different again. It is not comparable with well paid porno stars working in French chateaux or in the champagne and cocaine parties of London or Hollywood money. It is not the same as many of the aspects of the German sex business as described in my other article. The specific context in the Balkans is one in which traded sex takes place across an even bigger gulf of wealth/power and poverty/vulnerability. The effects are likely to be that much the more destructive. In all cases the argument is not about traded sex as an isolated issue. Such debates end up stigmatising sex workers. They do not recognise the biological inevitability of sexual feelings, including by men (and women) who are away from home a long time. The issue of traded sex needs to be put back into contexts. People who work in the field of sexual health and disease control have always recognised that they cannot be judgemental if they are going to do their jobs and minimise the risk of the spread of venereal diseases, HIV etc. The same goes for being able to reach out to sex workers with the ideas that might help them minimise the damaging emotional effects on themselves, rescue self esteem where possible, and rebuild communities turned inside out - because traded sex is the only option in areas otherwise devastated by war, economic and ecological collapse. This will remain connected to a need for concerned citizens everywhere to do what we can about the terrible gulfs of inequality and power and the terrifying effects of money addiction in a global society.
© BRIAN DAVEY