Australian Institute of Criminology

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Working girls : prostitutes, their life and social control


If prostitution is the "oldest profession" (which is probably far from true), then it is also the oldest social debate. Legislators, theologians, philosophers, municipalities, police, criminologists, psychiatrists and social scientists have debated the proper place of prostitution in society for centuries. Some have argued that it is anti-social and should be eradicated; others that it has an essential role in society. Then there are those who have maintained that it will persist in society regardless of the opinions of authorities and ideologists, and therefore should be controlled or regulated by law.

Much of the problem with this on-going debate has been the lack of substantial evidence either way, which has opened the path for such speculation and prejudicial convictions. Supposition and predilection on prostitution has produced a mountain of mythology on the subject, and, in turn, this mountain has proven to be an effective barrier to realistic appraisals and irrefutable theories. What is even more alarming is the morass of myths, morality and misogyny that permeate the subject, which has arisen partly due to the chauvinism of the intelligentsia in the past, and partly due to the titillations of sensationalist journalism, movie screen imagery and other misinformation from the media at large. It is as though each generation of the populace is confronted by prostitution as two alien and hostile cultures. As one prostitute told me in disgust over a newspaper story: "It is like we are strange nocturnal animals that crawl out of the sewers at night."

The major cause of this deplorable situation of ignorance and bias has been too little objective analysis and empirical investigation from scholars, and a lack of public contact. Too many people have had too much to say on a subject they are much too ignorant about. It would be unthinkable for a serious political scholar to write about the machinations of government without ever having sat in a parliamentary session or spoken to politicians for opposing parties. The same principle of observation and objective analysis applies to writers on prostitution. Of course, the blind prejudices of extreme moralists who have never spoken to a prostitute will continue to exist, but these will no longer have the support of scientists, journalists or jurists who have done their homework well, and, ultimately they will also not gain credence from any well-informed public.

Some readers may be sceptical about changes to public thought which has been too indoctrinated by prejudicial views of ancient and modem ideologists. But, since the sixties, literature on the subject of prostitution has had a more positive approach, with participant observers, empiricists and prostitutes themselves beginning to dominate recent writings. Highly inflammatory news items about prostitutes no longer have the public credence that they once did, as a more critical audience, which is better informed, makes more appropriate value judgements.

This book is an addition to this growing literature on prostitution from an objective and well-informed position. It has an empirical approach, with the insights of a participant observer, as well as the interior perspectives of prostitutes themselves. It reflects my public support of prostitutes over the years from the position of a subjective radicalism. I have argued for a decade now that prostitutes and their industry are among the most maligned and misunderstood segments in our society, despite having once shared with the rest of society an opinion of prostitutes as women with high sexual motivations and criminal minds. In 1980, however, on joining the Crisis Team of volunteer welfare workers at Kings Cross' Wayside Chapel, I came face to face with these "denizens of degradation" for the first time. None of them struck me as representative of the image I had of prostitutes as loudmouths, untrustworthy over-painted tarts. They seemed so ordinary. Soon after, residents of Darlinghurst were mobilising against the street prostitutes in their area. They were telling newspapers the kinds of things I once believed prostitutes were capable of. Through my daily contact with these same women, I realised that neither the residents nor the journalists were telling the truth, because the women in their stories were nothing like the women I had come to know and like. It was this misrepresentation that prompted me to begin a public campaign of counteracting the myths and malignant stories that often provided moral and political opportunists with "evidence".

My associations with prostitutes cover two distinct periods. The first was contact with street prostitutes of Kings Cross and Darlinghurst and the women in the little East Sydney brothels. Most streetwalkers were heroin addicts and many of the brothel workers had criminal connections. But, I soon learned that these women were also mothers who cared much for their children, that they did not come from broken homes nor a background of juvenile delinquency, and most of them did not pursue promiscuous lifestyles outside of prostitution. I was so impressed by this reversal of the public profile of these women that I wrote my first book on the subject, Being A Prostitute, published in 1985.

Five years ago I entered my second period of association. The women this time worked in parlours (bordellos, up-market brothels) and in private (call-girls) flats across the Sydney metropolitan area and in Canberra, Wollongong and Newcastle. Many of them, I discovered, had worked, or were still working, as office secretaries, as nurses, as air stewardesses, and in public relations. Others were students working to pay their way through college or university. Many had also worked in factories or as waitresses, barmaids or shop-assistants. A great number of them were single mothers, and about half had bourgeois backgrounds. Once again they failed to meet the stereotype. Rather than ice-cool dames with particular misanthropy, they were often warm, generous, sensitive women with quite ordinary suburban lives beyond prostitution. Once again I was compelled to write about them, and this book is the outcome. This book has three objectives:

  1. To demonstrate empirically that prostitutes are basically ordinary women with only their occupation distinguishing them from others.
  2. To bring to the general public a balanced, well-informed view of prostitution, shed of its tawdry reputation.
  3. To convince legislators to adopt a more practical method of dealing with prostitution.

The Macquarie Dictionary has two definitions of the word "prostitute":

  1. a person, esp. a woman, who engages in sexual intercourse for money as a livelihood.
  2. one who debases himself or allows his talents to be used in an unworthy way.

The first definition is more appropriate to the meaning of "prostitute" expressed throughout this book. The semantics in the book have been expanded to incorporate the words "sex workers/sex work", "sex industry" and "commercial sex" as alternative terms bearing the same meaning in order to avoid word tedium and too much repetition.

The first chapter of the book introduces the reader to the subject of prostitution by taking a number of perspectives, and raising the issue (tirelessly so in the literature, I'm afraid) of prostitution either as legitimate work or activity, or as an immoral and basically antisocial pastime. From four perspectives - that of the prostitute, the moralist, the scientist, and the jurist-a history and discussion of prostitution as work, immorality, a subject for study, and a legal entity is examined, drawing certain conclusions and endeavouring to determine from the evidence whether in fact the prostitute should be regarded as a "sex worker" or as a "scarlet woman".

Chapter Two explores the law on prostitution across Australia. It begins with an historical outline bringing us to the present situation in Australian jurisdictions; and then discusses in detail the implications and effects of the three major legislative trends: criminalisation (in all but two state/territorial jurisdictions), legalisation in Victoria, and decriminalisation in New South Wales.

In Chapter Three a sample of Sydney prostitutes is compared with two high-status groups of women-health workers and university students-with a view to determining the extent of difference between them, especially in their demographic and class perceptions, their familial and other social relations, and their early sexual experiences. Findings here should indicate to what degree, if any, prostitutes are socially, psychologically, and sexually different to other women, and how these might be seen as predisposing them for sex work.

In Chapter Four the working lives of the prostitute sample and other prostitutes are scrutinised and compared to earlier studies of Sydney prostitutes, and sex workers in America. Descriptions of workplaces and problems that arise, the nature of sex work, and the men in the business are offered for analysis, and the reasons prostitutes give for entering the business are examined in relation to the popular view. Also, the more positive features of the work, such as high income, short or flexible hours, and advantages expressed by the workers themselves are juxtaposed with the negative features of violence, contagion, arrest and drug addiction in an effort to arrive at a full and realistic appraisal of the commercial sex industry.

The final chapter serves as a summary and conclusion based on the evidence at hand throughout the book. It especially attempts a satisfactory discourse on decriminalisation, the politicisation of prostitutes and concord between feminists and prostitutes through an ideological integration. It asks the final question: will prostitution survive with increasing sexual liberation in society, or will it change direction in a major reconstruction of the industry? Is saleable sex really necessary, after all?

This treatise is another addition to a very much overburdened literature (of some 6,000 or more publications) on the subject of prostitution. But, it is an important addition in two major aspects. Firstly, it adds to a small but growing number of books that are reversing misconceived attitudes on prostitutes/prostitution. Secondly, it attempts a solution to an age-old debate with some practical concessional formulae. This book may not be the last word on prostitution, but I sincerely hope it will be pivotal.