“It’s not like Pretty woman, you know,” say the abolitionists whenever the issue of sex work (“prostitution”) comes up. They use this one-liner to justify criminalizing sexwork and pushing the Swedish or end demand model (which makes paying for any kind of sexual services a crime) on the rest of the country. At other times, a more 21st-century version of the old gem is used: “It’s not all Belle de Jour”.
But first…THINGS ABOLITIONISTS MISS
1) “It’s not all Pretty Woman” is only a valid and relevant argument if Pretty Woman was designed as a documentary to speak for sex workers. It is meant to be fiction. We all know Hollywood gets it wrong, especially with regard to marginalized groups; they do this all the time.
2) “It’s not all Belle de Jour” also makes no sense; the books do not claim to speak for all sex workers; the blog called itself “Diary of a call girl” – i.e. the diary of a specific individual; the books were called the “intimate adventures” of a call girl; again, a single individual. They were not academic articles or textbooks. Why do abolitionists persevere in thinking that Belle was speaking for anyone other than herself? And with lots of sex worker and sex activists out there, they choose Belle to focus on – feminism, or jealousy because the others aren’t famous? Hmmm…
3) You can’t call a real story unrealistic
4) Pretty Woman represents a street sex worker, not the majority of sex workers
5) Abolitionists and the feminists who side with them use criticism of Pretty Woman and Belle de Jour interchangeably, not realising that they’re not the same or even similar things, and it’s not ethical or logical to think of them as similar. To elaborate: when you say you hate a film, that’s OK. You’re criticizing the scriptwriters, actors, director, producer – everyone and every thing that holds a movie together. (Note that feminists use the title oof the film when they criticise it). But when you say you hate a memoir, you’re saying something againsst the person – not the author (because its not fiction) but the person (because it’s a memoir). Saying a film script isn’t realistic doesn’t hurt anyone; films exist to make big bucks for the studio and they’re multi-person projects as well as completely fictitious. But saying a memoir isn’t realistic is different. (Note that the so-called feminists don’t use the book’s or TV series’ name here, they use the writer’s name). And these two cultural phenomena are totally different: one’s a multi-million dollar project started by studio execs, made by celebrities and created as fiction. The other is the un-funded true story of a year-and-a-bit in the life of a migrant student, as told in her own words.
Am I suggesting the feminists shouldn’t criticise the blog, books or TV series?
YES. No. I mean, we dish it to them, too; and free speech for one and all, right? I’m just suggesting that they see Pretty Woman and Secret Diary of A London Call Girl as separate, very different entities, and think more carefully about which of the two to criticise in any argument, and what point they’re trying to make by bringing it up.
6) The other Belle de Jour book and film, which Brooke Magnanti named herself after. (“It’s not all Belle de Jour! I mean the first Belle de Jour!”)
What they allege – with no evidence – is that Pretty Woman is not an accurate portrayal of sex workers (or, in their lingo, ‘prostituted women’). And actually I agree – but for the opposite reasons. The character in Pretty Woman is a street sex worker. Street workers make up only about 10% of sex workers in the UK, so the film is not relevant to the UK sex industry (and it was made in the USA, not UK). I’d heard all about how the movie unrealistically glamourises sex work, so when I watched it on TV I got a shock. It seemed as if the film had been written and performed to stigmatise sex workers and the sex industry.
And far from glamourising prostitution, the film actually stigmatises and stereotypes sex workers. Vivian dresses in a revealing outfit, has never seen an elevator or been inside a nice hotel, is awed by the size of a small room, is emotional, is unable to even shop for a dress without the help of others, and charges $300 per hour yet is stupid enough to stay an entire week for $3,000 which really would only be the price for 10 hours. I mean, yeah, I get it that if you use more of a service or buy in bulk you get discounts – but that discount seems a bit much.
Vivian also feels upset that her client told his friend she is a sex worker, and decides to leave without taking the payment for the services she has sold. This is stereotyping sex workers as ashamed of their careers, as if all sex workers are slut-shamers and furthermore have internalised that slut-shaming and turned it on themselves.
Vivian is portrayed as uneducated; her friend appears to be struggling with money.
Vivian then falls in love with Edward (after only knowing him for a few days). She decides to leave the sex industry (suggesting sex workers are unhappy and want to leave.)
This quote from Wikipedia says it all:
His leaping from the white limousine, and then climbing the outside ladder and steps, is a visual urban metaphor for the knight on white horse rescuing the “princess” from the tower, a childhood fantasy Vivian told him about. The film ends as the two of them kiss on the fire escape.
The whore has redeemed herself by love and monogamy with the kind of alpha male that would return in two decades’ time in the form of Christian Grey.
Conclusion: Not happy hooker! Instead, its a radfem’s wet dream, and pure hollywood from start to finish.
BELLE DE JOUR
I’ve only read a bit of the first book, but it’s obvious that this is more than antis have read, so that’s why I feel qualified enough to comment on it. I will also be using stuff like logic and actual reference to the text instead of huge sweeping statements about Pornstitution or Moral Decay or the State of The Country Today And Why Feminism No Not Your Feminism But My Slut Bashing Feminism Is The One True Way.
There is nothing “glamourising” about the book. In fact, sex bloggers right here on WordPress glamourise sex far more than Belle ever did. Her books are not explicit; they cover many aspects of her life including relationships with family, friends and The Boy. The whole point of the award-winning blog was that the sex work narrative got entangled with everything else – and maybe that’s one reason why the blog/books were successful. A description of one sexual act after another with no exploration of relationships and emotions may not be destined for success except as erotica or porn. I was surprised at the lack of explicit detail in the book, that summer day in 2011 or 2010. I remember reading “..and a bit of (very light) torture” and being slightly irritated with the author (who I only knew as ‘Belle’, unaware her identity had been revealed a year earlier), like, ‘I want the juicy juicy details!!!’
Does Belle de Jour glamourise sex work as much as E.L. James glamourises monogamy or marriage? Brand-names and helicopters don’t feature in Belle’s work. Or, for that matter, does it glamourise sex work as much as James Bond glamourises spying (and murdering)?
When you consider other published memoirs such as Sarah K’s BDSM memoir or the sex blogging of Zoe Margolis, the “glamourising” charge becomes even more problematic.
I’m no literary critic, but I’d say that the theme of Belle de Jour is one person trying to live her life; it has been said that recurring themes are loneliness, self-sufficiency and independence, though personally I’m unconvinced about the loneliness. But this blog – the Diary category – probably ‘glamourises’ sex work even more. I write in a sexually explicit way, being careful not to omit a single detail. Recurring themes are thrills, experience and sexual fantasy. The joy experienced by selling sex is repeatedly stated. My blog is not only memoir, but also (arguably) sex blogging – something Belle de Jour (arguably) never was explicit enough to be.
So why is it okay for sex bloggers to glamourise sex? Because they’re glamourising unpaid sex?
Antis feel sorry for me, and annoy me but they don’t say I’m glamourising prostitution…which may prove that instead of being about feminism or morality, they discredit people based on good old fashioned envy of fame and (in this case, percieved) material wealth.
The TV series was about a sex worker quitting sex work but finding out that it’s not as easy as it seems (this was the series’ tagline) – again, stereotyping sex workers as not enjoying their job. How is this glamourising? It is clearly showing the sex industry in a negative light, and the sex worker as having little agency and control over her own life and being unable to exit the industry.
Another criticism abolitionists and radfems make of the Belle books is that they’re unrealistic. But “Belle” was a real person who had really worked as a sex worker – her testimony is as real as the stories of the few prostitution survivors who are used by abolitionists to speak for their cause.
Abolitionists also haven’t figured out the main difference between Vivian and Belle: one isn’t real, the other is a real person deserving of respect like all human beings. There’s a reason why, when Belle had full editorial control (her blog) sex work was not portrayed negatively (or at least not more so than many other jobs) but in the TV series and in Pretty Woman it was portrayed as an industry the sex worker wanted to leave.
Conclusion: Belle de Jour is realistic because it is a memoir and you don’t get any more realistic than that. It has equal legitimacy with, (and represents the experiences of sexworkers much more closely than) the stories of the women who call themselves survivors. It does not glamourise sex work; it only tells a true story and is less glamourising of sex work than sex bloggers are of sex.