Rae Story discusses the effect of the digital age on sex work and the seductive cultural appeal of prostitution becoming a middle class occupation
Prostitutes have historically been perceived as belonging in some fashion to a mythic bohemian underclass. They are differentiated from more easily delineated social rungs (working, middle, upper) as romanticised degenerates; the children of the working class who reject the conservative values of the oppressive bourgeoisie. Unlike the upper classes, they have no socioeconomic foundation to protect them from the instability or impulsivity of their occupations, akin to the poets and inebriates of their imagined acquaintance.
Subversive, aberrant and darkly romantic, they are outside of general norms and obscured through middle class sentiment. Libertine tales of louche and sadistic encounters with prostitutes in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, beatific depictions during the Belle Ėpoque by de Toulouse-Lautrec, tales of wealthy, ever-outsider courtesans, such as Cora Pearl; a veritable miscellany of prostitutional Bohemia that coalesces in the cultural imagination to form a particular brand of double edged sword.
Cora in particular inspires fascination. A poor British girl who runs away to Paris and obtains gargantuan wealth due to her almost otherworldly attractiveness to noblemen. Never acceptable in society to noble women, the stories of her serving herself on a gold platter, covered in exotic fruits, at a dinner party and drenching herself in silks are fettered by her fall from grace (due to controversy and gambling) and her dying in humble surrounds; the paragonic tale of bohemian prostitution.
Indeed, remnants of this approach remain: a recent documentary by Rupert Everett, Love for Sale, remonstrated heavily on his romantic view of prostitution as something bohemian, both glamorous and grotesque. However, raffish Rupert ultimately suggests that we should consider making prostitution “a part of the system”.
Prostitution has undergone something of a re-conceptualisation in the political sphere. In some circles, it is the done thing to discuss prostitution as a business and to refer to those who work in this business as “sex workers”: in my mind, highlighting such occupational specificity re-calibrates the activity as belonging to the bourgeois strata. Arguably, there is a new unwillingness to discuss socioeconomic inequities within prostitution from a socialist perspective, or gendered inequalities within prostitution from a more traditionally feminist perspective, in order to fulfil the aim of its civilising gentrification. This is because the middle classing of the sex industry relates to a phenomenon that views most people as now essentially liberated and comfortable, as a direct result of capitalism. As John Prescott of New Labour fame once said: “We are all middle class now.”
Certainly, some markers of ‘middle classness’ are rooted in cultural affectation; being middle class may seem less a case of how much a person earns, but how they present themselves, how they speak, what newspaper they read or what music they listen to. Added to a general ability to cultivate oneself is a university education, achieved by many more people in recent decades. Increasing access to a middle class lifestyle and, perhaps more importantly, a middle class identity has been key to political shifts since the 1980s.
However, these shifts could be viewed as largely superficial. State school pupils may do as well or even better than fee-paying school pupils at university, but often don’t do as well in the nepotistic jobs market. Women may outperform men academically but they still suffer a gendered pay gap once they get over the age of 30. A discourse surrounding the financial and social instability of young people has gathered numerous voices; the ability to obtain a smart phone on credit, read The Guardian and buy ‘middle class’ produce at competitive supermarkets has not made up for the paucity of long term, well paid jobs, social housing or attainable mortgages.
One can understand why the idea of a reconstruction of prostitution as a “job like any other” would have been attractive to me as former sex worker. And not ‘just’ a job, a particularly decent job, especially in the current climate, due to its perceived high remuneration. It was something ‘sensible’ women did. However, not any kind of prostitution, but the “independent escort” kind: a demographic of workers enabled by the creation and subsequent democratisation of modern communication technologies. I had worked for several years in small, local brothels and escort agencies (having mostly avoided those larger, 24-hour inner city places) and had become deeply dissatisfied with the lack of control I had over which punters I saw, for how long and for how much.
By then, independent escorts were already an established feature of the global online landscape. I looked upon them with a degree of foolhardy appreciation. More often than not, these women charged higher prices to coincide with their presumed ‘elite’ status and used their websites as platforms to demonstrate why this should be the case. Affectations of middle classness were often essential, with escorts advertising their university education, their refined etiquette, their cultivation and travel history, as well as their ennobled designer attire. Former pornstars and models also used their status as a lure, ironically often to formulate the perception of a higher status than the average working girl. However, as the democratisation of internet platforms and the access to decent cheap or free photography steamrolled on, more of these ‘elite’ websites and ‘elite’ escorts popped up like molehills.
I took on a fairly unremarkable apartment, resplendent with cheap and shoddy modern interiors designed to imitate urban sophistication. From there I cultivated a zealous website, propped up by burnished photographs of me bent like a coat hanger, accompanied by affirmations of my enjoyment of “fine living” and “fine gentlemen”. I detailed my university education, my love of books by masculinist authors such as Will Self, my taste for complex French reds over alcopops – anything that would affirm a middle class prostitute identity, to appeal to those punters who desired to have their paying for sex activities vindicated. As Rachel Moran recalls about her time in the industry – to paraphrase – the ladder rungs of prostitution were an easy climb up (and down) and the membranes of the different sectors were permeable. One could easily go from being a street walker or a brothel worker to being an escort if one had the sufficient desire. Indeed, even as a person of relative humility, I was able to send myself up with such grandiloquence due to my thirst to escape from the humble sleaze of the brothel world. Though indeed, the practical experience of working as an independent was an improvement, in the specific sense that I needed to see fewer punters to make the same money, my enthusiasm for this changing culture was short-lived.
So my new engagement did result in a slight improvement in my material comfort and an added assumption that the industry was becoming civilised and that it was good for us working girls. It was a part of displacement of the underground sex trade (behind closed doors, in bordellos, sneaking into cars), as a culture not available to the ordinary voyeur or the gossipping class, into an online image and set of depictions available to be readily purloined by casual surfers or extracted for documentaries and newspaper articles. Propping up TV debates or giving illustration to various confessional potboilers, which soon found themselves stacked up in the chicken baskets littering charity shops and bargain book basements. What was considered “interesting” (to use the term loosely) for modern media, was the sex trade’s coded circumspection. But how many times (and I appreciate the other irony here) can it be expounded, unmasked, explained or developed, before what was fundamentally interesting about it was diluted?
The internet may have begun as frontier for new autonomies, but it was quickly tamed by big business. The sex industry was no different; the brothels began to struggle to get women to work for them (a loss not mourned by I) as many sex workers migrated, and sophisticated new directories saw a way to exploit these women’s new-found wishes for elevation and independence. The independent websites themselves became less important and often unable to compete with the large directories in the ranks. These often huge multimedia platforms became like social media sites: places you had to be in order to make a crust. In the UK one website in particular has a near monopoly on the business. Bye bye local, Marlboro-smoking Madame, hello Internet Behemoth.
In order to compete in this new virulent environment, exposition became a necessity for many. Against the new cacophony of like-structured profiles, workers had to start pushing themselves to stand out from the crowd. We needed to post endless photographs of ourselves, write blogs, conduct web-cam sessions or phone chat to bloat out our brand. Heck, some women even began to sell print photographs, calenders and other merchandise. As pornstars often worked as escorts so too did it work in reverse; friends I knew who had previously panicked if they were seen walking into a brothel began posting short porn clips of themselves to earn extra cash and to encourage punters.
Indeed, forums grew in popularity wherein the punters would engage in discussions about women they had encountered in person or seen online, forensically adjudicating on their merit. I don’t know a single woman in the business who hasn’t been ripped apart by these online wolves, for being too fat, too old, too ugly, too expensive or too tame. Added to which, reports of file sharing amongst punters of women’s pay per view photographs and videos, as well as addresses and personal information, began to circulate. It started to seem like our desire for improvement to our circumstances and our status was coming at a cost. As I argued in a co-authored article for the Graduate Journal of Social Science:
Indeed, because of the proliferation of the internet, and its utilisation as a tool for sex entertainment practises, there is a great deal of cross fertilisation in the daily lives of the workers. So commercial porn performers may supplement their incomes with escort work (using their status as a ‘draw’ and an opportunity to charge higher fees), escort workers may sell home video clips and photographs, massage parlour workers can moonlight as phone chat providers, and so on. The ‘High Class/Low Class’ dichotomy may in fact be an archaic concept that does not fit into the current context, wherein the price charged for a sex act has more to do with visibility rather than mystery, and pornographic availability rather than exclusivity, within the wider topography of a burgeoning digital arena.
Older women I met who had been in the sex industry for decades, quietly mourned the days when they had to give much less of themselves away, when it was understood that to have sex for money was something most people would rather not do. When having to kiss and cuddle or offer pornstar-style acrobatics would be considered ridiculous; when you let the punter get only as close as needed to get the job done.
Of course in my naivety, I had convinced myself that being a ‘prostitute what kisses’ was of benefit to me, because it improved my own superficial self-image. When I hear women in the business indulge themselves by saying they don’t just offer sex but intimacy and companionship I am reminded of my former delusions. It isn’t of course possible to buy intimacy, and I’m not convinced that many punters are even looking for it. However, what kind of contortion of the intellect is required to believe it is empowering to have to offer someone more of yourself? Women already conduct the majority of the world’s unpaid labour and are less likely to have access to wealth and power.
I can understand that we would be convinced that a liberation for sex industry women could come in the form of being freed from having to hide ourselves or cover up violences against us, but how did this basic principle get convoluted and deformed into a cultural zeitgeist, wherein we have to expose ourselves for the consumption, gratification and arbitration of the still relatively hidden punter (and indeed the wider culture)? How is it empowering to have to offer more up-close and personal services? To have to show more photographs and images of our even more primped, preened and modified bodies? To be more willing, more gratifying, more available? Often for not even much more money?
The internet sex industry has become the paragon of the idea of an idealised femininity as a sexual locality: a homing ground for masculine gratification, distorted to look like female empowerment though exposure, manufacture and branding. The internet has become a realm wherein individual workers could persuade punters of their own specific brand, manufacturing their image to appeal to what they imagine to be their own audience. In this way, it is not pornography that is the theory of prostitution, but pop music.
Towards the end of my work in prostitution I was thoroughly exhausted. The brothel work had been brutal on my body, but the independent escort work exhausted my spirit. Whereas once I just ran the gamut of garden variety sexual activities with, at best, a distant smile and a good day to you, now I had been obsessing over my appearance, my apartment, my advertising and my image. Lying to punters about my background, my views and my habits in order to demonstrate a pleasing personhood for the paying male ego. Many punters cared little for my performativity; what matter to them was my sexual availability and flexibility. However the Richard Gere punters who did care, did so because it alleviated their own moral dissonance stemming from the fact that the only thing they really knew about me was that I needed money and was seemingly willing to have sex for it. I told them that I was from a middle class background, from a happy, but conservative, home and encouraged into escorting due to my ravenous sexual appetite. In truth I am from a working-class background, a disadvantaged area and grew up dependent on my single mother’s benefits or low wage labour – oddly enough, not unlike a great many of the other escorts I encountered over the years.
As Rachel Moran describes:
An understood street rule had always been that the encounter was over when the client climaxed, but now we found ourselves alone in rooms with men who were paying by the hour and wanted every minute of their money’s worth.
In front of our clients, we didn’t drink heavily, smoke, do drugs, swear, speak coarsely (other than at appropriate sexual moments), argue, have opinions or refuse to gratify. In truth most of the woman I knew had problems with drink, drugs, eating disorders, mental health problems and anger issues. Now we weren’t beaten by punters, or raped (although it does happen), but our esteem and self assurance was as paper thin as our digital platforms. A friend, who similarly has left the business due to exhaustion, jokingly calls us “The Stepford Whores”. I called the culture the “Whoreburbia”. In our imaginations we had left the backwaters of the bohemian underclass, and joined the ranks of respectable urbanites, garnering a lifestyle as attractive businesswomen and virulent consumers, all the while having to apply greater levels of emotional labour in our tasks, and spend more of our money on our physical construction.
It was the newly middle class way, only our middle classness was shallow; we didn’t own houses or earn an annual wage, replete with benefits and extra pension. We didn’t have economic stability or anything to fall back on should we fall sick. I didn’t often (perhaps ever) encounter anyone who managed to save more than a few thousand pounds (at best) as most of us struggled to work the long hours required to make large sums, and some even struggled to get the steady custom needed due to increased competition. The structure of the business was no longer decided by the pimps and purveyors, but the online directories and website hosts that communicated our wares.
However, by the hour we performed our happiness: empowered, sexy and comfortable in our roles as sponges for immediate male satisfaction, whilst pushing our maladies and distresses down the sides of the sofa. Women I knew over the years developed new psychological or emotional complaints and addictions, or predispositions that had already been seeded began to fully develop. Just like those women detailed by Betty Friedan, who were isolated housewives secretly quaffing vodka and pills to deal with their controlled misery. In each of our separate apartments, the “middle class escorts” I knew were just like those housewives, only now it was more than one husband we served to keep a roof over our heads.
[Images are all from Ancient Greek ceramics, featuring “red figure” (to modern eyes, yellowy orange figures on a black background) images of hetaerai. In Ancient Athens, the hetaerai were high class prostitutes or courtesans, as distinct from lower class pornai or brothel workers. The hetaerai were supposed to be highly educated and accomplished as musicians, dancers etc., and were arguably mythologised within the culture much as “high class escorts” are in modern Britain. These ceramics were produced for use at parties, and were souvenirs for the men who used the services of the hetaerai – perhaps a little like the calendars or pay-per-view clips described in the article. Often such ceramics feature pornographic images, but these examples are perhaps more revealing.
The first image features a standing female figure holding the head of reclining male figure, as if helping him to vomit. This object is in the Vatican Museum, the photograph was taken by Sebastià Giralt and is used under a Creative Commons License.
The second image features a female figure walking towards a reclining male figure who is holding his hand out in a “stop” gesture. The third image features a standing female figure who may be about to undress while a seated man – whose boniness, baldness and walking stick suggest old age – beckons to her. Both these images illustrate objects in the British Museum, London, can be seen on Wikimedia (here and here) and are in the public domain.
The forth image is of an urn on which an illustration depcicts a seated female figure receiving a purse, perhaps in payment, from a standing man. It is in the National Archeology Museum, Anthens, the image was found on Wikimedia and is in the public domain.]