Prostitution: pop culture vs historical reality

‘Prostitution from the female viewpoint’?

By Virginia Brown

TV entertainment that focuses on the lives of prostitutes has not, until recently, been an evening viewing option, in Australia or many other countries. When first shown in the UK, the half-hour per episode drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl was an audience-booster for commercial channel ITV2 and it has since been picked up by TV networks in at least 14 countries, including Australia’s Nine Network, which has screened it recently in a late-evening timeslot.

Based on the Belle de Jour blog by a former “high-class call girl”, the professed aim of Secret Diary is the portrayal of a “cosmopolitan” prostitute who chose her work “freely” and likes it. Producer Chrissy Skins says the show, with its writers all being women, is “prostitution from the female viewpoint”.

Lead actor Billie Piper and series creator Lucy Prebble have countered allegations that the show glamorises prostitution, suggesting that such criticisms stem from prudishness. “There is so much sexual liberation, but the minute a woman lies on her back and takes cash for it, that changes everything”, Piper complained in a British Guardian interview. Prebble claims that the existence of a “sliver [of women who don’t feel oppressed] at the top of an industry that’s full of violence, drugs and exploitation” is justification enough for the show. Prebble told UK writer and filmmaker Andy Conway that she is answering those women’s requests not to “portray us as victims”, adding: “And then you go away and try to do them some justice, and another group of women (and men) who work for The Guardian decide you’re betraying your sisterhood. Well, you know, fuck off, really.”

Prebble, Skins and Piper are quick to acknowledge in interviews that the reality of life for most prostitutes is different from that of Secret Diary’s protagonist Belle/Hannah, and seem adamant that they wouldn’t want young women viewers to be persuaded by the show to take up prostitution. Given these protestations, you might expect that the show would allude in some way to unhappy women in prostitution, and other unsavoury aspects of the industry.

It does not. It begins with Piper’s character’s voice-over that she loves London and is “very high class, which means I charge by the hour and I charge a lot”. The show’s first season is full of scenes in expensive London hotels and clients who Hannah looks forward to seeing. The show reflects producer Skins’ view that she doesn’t have “a particular moral stance on prostitution, unless of course it’s against someone’s will. It’s always going to be there …”

Secret Diary gives no inkling that female murder victims are disproportionately prostituted women, nor that women in brothel, escort and street-based work all experience a higher rate of violence than the overall female population. Hannah’s main problem seems to be the difficulties created by keeping her occupation secret from her friends and family — a real concern for many prostitutes. In Sex workers and sexual assault in Australia, published last year by the federal government’s Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Dr Antonia Quadara points out the negative consequences to prostitutes of the social stigma of their work — with “family relationships, custody of their children, relations with police, ‘straight’ job applications, and credit card or loan applications” all being affected.

Public contempt for those engaged in prostitution (as well as laws criminalising their activities) is known to make them less likely to speak out when sexually assaulted, leaving perpetrators of such assaults free to continue offending. Violence towards prostitutes is not simplistically the consequence of misogynistic clients, however, but stems from more broadly-held attitudes by men towards prostitutes and all women.

Quadara notes that where the views of clients have been studied (which is very limited), they have not been found to “support violence against sex workers … or accept rape myths more than the general male population”. A Sydney study of brothel workers found that they were more likely to be attacked outside of work than the other studied groups, women students and health workers. (Research shows that this does not mean that women’s workplaces are safe, whether in prostitution or not, particularly not when working in an isolated way with clients.)

Other studies have confirmed similar findings. As with other victims of sexual assault, the brothel workers were most likely to be attacked by non-clients they knew. Other perpetrators of sexual assault against brothel workers included police, taxi drivers and “strangers who may specifically target sex workers”. This reality is a far cry from the deliberately aimed-at Sex And The City vibe attempted by Secret Diary’s creators.

Satisfaction, the Showtime Pay TV drama about workers in a Melbourne brothel, is another profitable show depicting prostitutes who mostly enjoy their work. Not surprisingly, the actors in the show do not view prostitution as inherently oppressive. “I see it as a valid profession that provides a service to people who need it”, Bojana Novakovic, portrayer of youngest brothel worker Tippi, told the January 31 Australian.

The Secret Diary and Satisfaction writers’ understanding of social oppression is marked by individual subjectivity: if someone doesn’t feel personally oppressed, then they aren’t. By contrast, a scientific, i.e., Marxist, understanding of social oppression is that it is an objective social relation of inequality in which social group — one social class, gender, race, nation, etc — enjoys material conditions of life that are systematically denied to the members of a different class, gender race, nation, etc. The root source of all forms of social oppression is the division of society into different social classes — large groups of people occupying different places in a historically evolved system of social production in which one such group is able, because of its ownership of the decisive means of production of life’s necessities, to exploit (live off) the labour of the direct producers.

Prostitution is not about liberated female sexual activity, but about women seeking to “make a living” by renting their bodies to men with money for these men’s sexual pleasure. The gender gap in the average pay packets of men and women, and the sexist imposition of many social/domestic welfare tasks onto women (both being problems for women but profit-enhancing for capitalists), increase the likelihood that women will enter prostitution for higher pay and more flexible hours than they would otherwise have access to.

The recent increase in those claiming that seeing prostitution as “just another form of work” that is neither specifically oppressive of women, nor a consequence of the systematic social inequality between women and men ignores the fundamental dynamics of prostitution. Prostitution is only possible in a society in which there is a general disparity between the wealth and incomes of men and women, and in which women’s bodies are treated as commodities (articles for sale). Prostitution as an industry is based on women’s bodies being available for hire by men. The existence of male prostitutes and a few female clients does not change this basis of the industry.

The idea that “prostitution has always existed” (as Skins maintains) hides the fact that it owes its origin and survival to the division of human societies into different social classes, rather than being a timeless constant. Of the 150,000 years in which modern humans have existed, class-divided societies have only existed for at most 6000 years. Archaeological evidence indicates that prostitution arose only after pre-class, gender-egalitarian society organised around women-controlled hoe agriculture and male-controlled herding was superseded by male-controlled animal-drawn plough agriculture. Where this occurred, societies fragmented into separate family units, with individual women becoming economically dependent upon individual male property-owning (land, animals, tools) “bread-winners” — their father and then their husband. This also entailed women’s sexuality being subordinate to the need of individual male property holders to establish “legitimate” male heirs to their private property.

Marx’s life-long political partner Fredrick Engels, in his groundbreaking 1884 book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, demonstrated that prostitution arose as a result of the inequality of property between men and women in class-divided societies, such as slave-based ancient Greece and Rome: “With the rise of the inequality of property … waged labour appears sporadically side by side with slave labour, and at the same time, as its necessary correlate, the professional prostitution of free women side by side with the forced surrender of female slaves.”

Prostitution, Engels explained arose as the “shadow” of monogamous marriage: “Monogamy arose from the concentration of larger wealth in the hands of a single individual — a man — and from the need to bequeath this wealth to the children of that man and no other. For this purpose the monogamy of the woman was required, not that of the man, so this monogamy of the woman did not in any way interfere with open or concealed polygamy of the man … In the modern world, monogamy and prostitution are indeed opposites, but inseparable opposites, poles of the same order of society.”

Based on a version first published in Direct Action Issue 10: April 2009

Copyright © Virginia Brown November 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article  URL: is included.


Reclaim the Night confronts CHOGM

Virginia Brown
Reclaim the Night Collective*, Perth

We’re expecting a great, egalitarian festival-forum of nations headed by a woman in Perth in October, so this must mean women have equality, right?

The official publicity about the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) gives no hint of the violent anti-women dynamics of the nations of the so-called Commonwealth. This alliance bills itself as a mutually-beneficial partnership of democracies. And CHOGM, the Australian government assures us, “will provide an opportunity for Commonwealth leaders to meet in Australia to discuss world issues relevant to building a strong and secure future for all”.

The question is, given the track record of these leaders – why should we abandon women’s rights to them? And what are the facts of how this British-Empire-descended alliance works for women?

Although 40% of the global workforce, women receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the world’s property. The Sept 18 Wall Street Journal noted that this is despite women accounting “for more than half the world’s university students, and 60 countries have more young women than men in universities”. Globally, one in three women has been sexually assaulted or beaten.

These problems are also part of the Commonwealth; major disparities exist between levels of gender equality and measures of absolute rights for women in its nations.

New Vision reported in 2007 that: “In real terms, women in the richest [Commonwealth] member state earn 70 times more than women in the poorest member state. An average Australian woman can expect to earn about $25,000 (sh42.5m) a year. In comparison, her counterpart in Sierra Leone has an average income of only $353 (sh600,000) and in Mozambique $482 (sh820,000).”

In the 2010 Global Gender Gap Index rankings (assessing countries’ equality between men and women in various measures, with first place representing the highest overall equality), South Africa scored at 10th place, in comparison with the much lower rankings of Mozambique (22nd), Australia (23rd) and Singapore (56th). These rankings reflect the poor participation of richer countries on some measures of gender equality. For instance, in Kenya and Mozambique, women earn an average of four-fifths of men’s income, lower in absolute terms than the average income of women in Australia and New Zealand, but a higher percentage of men’s earnings.

In Australia, 93% of perpetrators of sexual assault are male (National Crime and Safety Survey, 2002). More than four out of five victims of sexual assault are women and girls. However, a 2004 Victorian report found that prosecution results from only 1 in 6 reports to police of rape, and less than 1 in 7 reports of incest or sexual penetration of a child.

The United Kingdom, at least the symbolic leader of the Commonwealth, has one of the worst records for repression of women. In May this year, its Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke sparked calls for his resignation with his claims that not all rapes are “serious”. In a nation where the conviction rate for reported rape is 6.5% despite false rape reports being very rare, and an estimated 95% of rapes are unreported, this reinforces the message that women should not bother reporting rape. The UK is increasingly upping the ante by jailing some women whose reported rapes did not result in a conviction.

Slashing anti-violence services

With a combined gross domestic product of US$10.6 trillion (three-quarters of this spread between its wealthiest nations; India, the UK, Canada and Australia), the Commonwealth members spend a tiny percentage on anti-misogynist violence services, and treat that as too much.

In Australia, an Australian Institute of Health and Welfare survey released in June found that women still comprise 62% of clients accessing government-funded homelessness services, with domestic violence being a particularly strong reason for this. Despite it also finding that that increasing numbers of Victorian women are sleeping in their cars and accessing other homelessness services, the Federal government has scrapped funding for a successful personal alarm system in Victoria.

Federal funding cuts in this year’s budget to anti-misogynist violence services have meant the reduction in operating hours and services of the Women’s Legal Service (Qld) as of October, and the slashing by 12.1 million over 5 years of funding for anti-domestic violence services in regional, remote and rural communities.

In New Zealand, government ‘reprioritisation’ of funding (a cut of $800,000) has meant “an effective cut for services such as Women’s Refuge, Te Rito Family Violence Coordinators, and advocacy services for children who witness family violence”, according to the Green Party, despite the Feb 22 earthquake having exacerbated the demands for these services. 2010 had already seen an 11% increase in crisis calls made to the Women’s Refuge, and more than double the number of calls made by the Refuge to family violence victims seen by police than in 2007.

Clearly, the violent repression of women extends also to government attacks on anti-violence services.

These figures are stark, but when do we ever hear about these cosy meetings and collaborations between Commonwealth governments being guided by concerns about the women’s rights violations endemic to them all?

The ‘Commonwealth’ arose on the colonisation and oppression of millions, indigenous women in particular, who have faced mass rape as a tool of colonialism. The brutalities of the British Empire have morphed into the brutalities of the Commonwealth’s late capitalism. In Canada, where First Nations women comprise less than 4% of the population, the figure of about 600 murdered and gone missing over the last three decades has seen little official resourcing into these killings. The Native Women’s Association of Canada found more than two-thirds of those to be murder cases, and believes that due to the absence of a national database of missing persons and inconsistent police records, the real numbers could be much higher. These women have not only been victims of misogynist and sexual violence, but also of a racist system which sees this disproportionate victimisation as unworthy of attention. Nearly half the homicides of First Nations women are unsolved, in contrast to the overall homicide clearance rate of 84%. The British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry – finally initiated last year but criticised for being unwilling to meet with the women’s families or those who have had “close calls” – was told that police in that area stop cars to investigate illegal fishing, but not missing Aboriginal women.

Australia’s legacy of European colonisation and dispossession is no less stark for Indigenous women. The 2007 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage: Key Indicators report found that: “In 2004-05, in [Qld, WA, SA and the NT], Indigenous females were 44 times as likely to be hospitalised for assault as non-Indigenous females.” A report by the Australian Institute of Criminology’s Jenny Mouzos in 1999 found that the homicide rate for non-Indigenous women was 1.1 per 100 000, whereas the rate for Indigenous women was 11.7 per 100 000.

Attempts to buy feminists off

In an attempt to distract attention from these issues and promote the Commonwealth as a positive agent of change, the CHOGM website is advertising an Empowering Women to Lead dinner with “limited places” for the day before CHOGM, with Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce and other government and business leaders.

These sorts of meetings distract attention from the systemic nature of women’s oppression by suggesting that women ‘leading’ within the parameters of the system (and whose political activity has not improved women’s rights) can substitute for systemic change, and function to coopt opposition amongst women. But there is resistance to being bought off this way. Earlier this year Denise Marshall, head of a leading UK women’s service, returned the OBE she received in 2007 for services to disadvantaged women, publicly stating that the government’s cuts to organisations such as hers, which assists women trafficked into prostitution or victims of violence, will leave many unable to function. And more significantly, although women’s rights struggles in the Commonwealth are mainly at a much lower point than they were several decades ago, opposition to misogynist violence and victim-blaming continues to be one of several issues mobilising supporters of women’s rights, whether via ‘Slutwalks’ or Reclaim the Night.

This year, Reclaim the Night (RTN), an annual march by women on the last Friday in October to assert women’s right go freely without fear of rape or violence, will coincide with the opening day of CHOGM, October 28.

Given the promotional circus around CHOGM that is designed to disarm activist groups and disguise the Commonwealth’s support of powerful elites at the expense of the oppressed, Perth’s RTN Organising Collective is making opposition to CHOGM one of its central points this year. The Collective is also supporting the United March on CHOGM to take place at 10am on that morning and initiated cross-promotion of the two events, to broaden the support for the two important protests’ issues.

The RTN Collective made a conscious decision to continue educating ourselves about CHOGM’s role in the lead-up to Oct 28, and this has been very useful in developing our collective understanding of how the Commonwealth fits into current imperialism.

Today, its powerful elite reinforce vast inequalities between the rich and poor around the world, using women’s oppression, racism and warmongering to pursue their aims. The riches achieved by directly oppressing the former colonies are now used to continue extracting wealth via other means, including by empowering conservative, anti-women governments that are willing allies to imperialist nations wanting to increase their dominance of markets and resources or defeat progressive movements that post a threat to their interests.

The oppressive relations which trample over women’s rights for the benefit of big business receive support from the governmental heads attending CHOGM. In the cases of the Prime Ministers of the UK and Australia, this support is imperialist, acting in the interests of a handful of powerful families and corporations around the globe to wage brutal war and occupation on Iraq and Afghanistan to attain oil and profits, elevating misogynist sectors and assaulting women’s freedoms and living standards in those countries, as deemed useful. The ‘family code’ of the current Afghanistan regime sanctions spousal rape and child marriage.

It is for all these reasons that it is crucial to build events specific to women’s rights, as well as promote solidarity between groups campaigning around other sorts of oppression.

What does it mean when the vast inequalities of global wealth distribution mean women hold 1% of the world’s wealth, but even detailed critiques by activists targetting these powerful elites make no mention of this? Activism on the fronts of climate justice, opposition to war, racism and homelessness is disproportionately necessary to women. But action on these fronts alone does not address the many specific forms of oppression women face, nor advance consciousness about women’s oppression. Nor does it combat the sexism that has resulted from decades of demobilised feminist activism. It is common for feminists to be treated as though their activism is motivated by wanting women to be the oppressors. Feminists encounter sexist bullying from people who think their activism is bigoted and have no notion of the scope of women’s oppression.

Winning women’s rights requires the building of a conscious movement aimed at liberating women.

Reclaim the Night Perth: Oct 28, 5pm Cultural Centre, Northbridge. Bands, protest and march to the CBD. Supportive men encouraged to line the march route and assist with publicity.

* The Reclaim the Night Collective has members with different political ideas and approaches – this article was written by just one of us, although benefitting from the ideas of all. We unite in opposing the forces represented by the ‘Commonwealth’ and in demanding:

End violence against women!
No to rape and sexual harassment!
No to CHOGM:
Cease funding war and exploitation
stop the cuts to women’s refuges,
increase funding to women’s refuges and rape crisis services!

Additional useful reference on violence towards women in Australia:
Mouzos, J., and Makkai, T. Findings from the Australian Component of the International Violence Against Women Survey (IVAWS). Published by Australian Institute of Criminology.

Copyright © Virginia Brown October 2011. Feel free to repost for non-profit purposes and without alteration so long as this article URL: is included.