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Pretty Woman and Belle de Jour: Are they happy hooker myths or the complete opposite?

“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!”)

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PRETTY WOMAN

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.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Film, Literature, Sex work

 

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The Piano Teacher: Stigmatising BDSM

Michele Haneke’s Piano Teacher (2001) is a French erotic drama about – to paraphrase the blurb on the DVD cover – “a repressed woman in her late thirties”, Erika Kohut (Isabelle Huppert) who lives with her tyrannical mother. The plot follows her relationship with her handsome student, Walter Klemmer (Benoit Magimel) and how her “claustrophobic” world shatters as she gives free reign to previously inhibited desires.

This film has nothing positive to say about BDSM, which is surprising since its protagonist is into BDSM. Judging by the blurb, you could be forgiven for thinking that the film was a statement about the acceptability of BDSM, since it has an educated, successful protagonist contrasting a vanilla and domineering mother, and the entire plot centres on the unleashing of BDSM desires.

Nothing could be further than the truth. The movie actually manages to stigmatise BDSM even more than E. L. James has done (by linking BDSM to childhood abuse and having an abusive, possessive hero and an idiotic passive heroine).

Here is a list of why this movie sucks, because it is so bad that I can’t write it out properly:

Childhood abuse/current emotional abuse raises its ugly head as the possible cause of BDSM desires, as Erika’s mother is abusive

BDSM is conflated with self-harm as Erika cuts her genitals deeply for no apparent reason and derives no sexual satisfaction. There is a lot of blood. Even I, who wants my labia pierced in a BDSM context and has attempted to drink Roland’s blood, was disturbed by this scene, as it smacks of self-harm and not play.

Walter is the pursuer and is sexually aggressive, even jumping up and leaning over a stall door in a public toilet to watch Erika (his professor) using the toilet. Erika is passive to his advances – reminiscent of stereotyped gender roles and the double standard.

Erika has incestuous desires towards her mother and attacks her sexually; this is untypical of the BDSM community.

Erika is not independent; she still lives with her mother in a small rented flat. Again this is untypical of BDSM-ers and, considering a professor’s salary, is unrealistic.

Walter is disgusted upon knowing his girlfriend is kinky. This isn’t realistic and is hurtful, yet Erika just takes his disgust and does not call him on it. Hardly the behaviour of a professional.

Erika deliberately injures her pupil’s hand permanently by putting smashed glass in her coat pocket, then pretends to commiserate with the pupil’s mother. BDSM is confused with psychopathic tendencies and criminal behaviour.

Erika displays hypocrisy by blaming her pupils for looking at porn, as it is degrading to women, but then she watches porn herself.

Erika self-harms with a knife in public.

When Erika finally gets what she wants – a rape fantasy which initially angered and disgusted Walter – it doesn’t turn out to be as good as she thought it would be, and she is upset by it. This is the end of the film. This is a very negative portrayal of BDSM, and an explicit suggestion that BDSM is dangerous and emotionally damaging. It could also be taken as a dim view of female sexual expressiveness, as realised desire turns out to be traumatic for the woman but satisfying for the man.

In sum, the protagonists are a psychotic criminal with a history of abuse and repressed desires (Erika) and a sexually aggressive person (Walter), both of them in need of treatment to ensure they do not cause any risks to those around them. This is not representative of BDSM. The entire film portrays both BDSM and female sexuality as perverted, dangerous, criminal and destructive – or perhaps the implicit message is that only a disturbed, traumatised individual would like BDSM, or assert her sexuality?

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2012 in Film

 

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Moulin Rouge!: Smashing the ‘happy hooker’/sex slave dichotomy

Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 movie about naive young Christian (Ewan MacGregor) falling in love with Moulin Rouge dancer and sex worker Satine (Nicole Kidman) tells a nuanced story of love and sex work.

The Moulin Rouge nightclub and brothel is owned by Harold Zidler. The movie follows Christian as he writes a play that is to be performed there and pursues Satine, finally recieving reprocity and having to keep their love a secret from the jealous Duke who wants to marry Satine. All of the characters’ success and happiness (and, for Zidler, his livelihood) depends on Satine keeping the violent Duke happy by ceasing her sex work. This is reminiscent of the great cultural burdens of honour that women historically carried/still carry in some communities; if they lost their virginity it was a betrayal and tragedy to their families.

Although Satine is what we in 21st-century Britain would think of as more of a ‘sex slave’ since there was no welfare state in her time (so if she didn’t do sex work she would starve), she is portrayed as enjoying her work and as having agency. She is capable of building healthy relationships – friendships with the other characters and being in love with Christian. Satine can recognise unhealthy or abusive relationships (the Duke’s possessiveness and, in a sense, Harold Zidler for using her for business).

Best of all, when Satine becomes the victim of attempted rape, this is not portrayed as an inherent risk of sex work or as Satine’s ‘fault’ for being a sex worker. Instead, the Duke’s abusive, insecure, violent character is to blame.

Of the two men interested in Satine, the one with the rescuer mentality (a desire to ‘rescue’ sex workers from their work) is the evil abusive character. Christian, while struggling with jealousy, seems jealous only of the Duke and diesn’t go as far as demanding Satine stop doing sex work, as the Duke does by requiring a contract from Zidler that “binds Satine to me”.

None of the characters are stereotypes. Zidler is both the unscrupulous pimp and the concerned father-figure; Christian is a respectful, loving boyfriend but still toys with jealousy. And Satine says that she must do sex work to survive – “A girl has got to eat/Or she’ll end up on the street” and that she has ambitions beyond the sex industry (to be an actress, the next Sara Bernhardt) but, at the same time, she obviously enjoys her work and is capable of manipulating clients (such as using love, sex or charm to get the Duke to invest in the play). This portrayal seems quite odd to some participants in the current sex work discourse; how can one want to exit sex work, yet enjoy it, be proud of it and not want to escape the industry to a life of luxury by marrying the Duke? Significantly, Satine does not realise her dream of “flying away” and “leav[ing] all this to yesterday” but instead dies in the Moulin Rouge.

The Duke’s possessiveness, Christian’s love, Zidler’s business plans and Satine’s ambitions were really just dreams all along – Satine had tuberculosis and would never have lived long enough for any of this to be realised. All that was real was their love and her sex work.

A good point in the film is when Satine talks of escaping the Duke and the Moulin Rouge with Christian; however Christian isn’t rescuing her, she is choosing her destiny and wants to depart with Christian as equals.

Satine also only began to have wishes of exiting prostitution when she was told of an opportunity the Duke was affording her to become a celebrity, and this feeling only intensified when she fell in love and her relationship with Christian became her priority. So, without these two men entering her life, Satine would have remained happy to be a sex worker.

In addition, Satine is a well-rounded character who has a talent for acting and enjoys socialising – she isn’t a cardboart-cutout prostitute.

Sex work is not portrayed as either degrading or empowering in the film. It seems to be just another job, seen alongside the other characters’ jobs of acting, singing, dancing, writing and the arts – ( indeed, even interchangeable with the arts, as the sex workers dance in the Moulin Rouge and act in the play, and the actors (and writer) date and form friendships with the sex workers. The play itself is about a sex worker, and Christian’s novel, which narrates the film, is about the Moulin Rouge; Satine’s ambition is to act.)) All of these professions are shown as falling under the Bohemian Revolution spirit of Truth, Beauty, Freedom and Love. The Duke, who stops Satine’s sex work, is the one character who is opposed to these ideals – “I don’t care about your ridiculous dogma!”.

In general, Moulin Rouge! does not fall prey to either side of the happy hooker/sex slave dichotomy, but embraces the good and the bad of sex work without demonising, glamorising or dramatising it; it’s just another way to make money in a corrupt and unequal society.

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2012 in Film, Sex work

 

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The fun begins…

Roland drove us to his company, Luxor, in the central Scotland region. The entire building was empty. We were in an office and he joked about making me his secretary, a position that he and his partner were looking to fill. He asked me if I can draw up contracts because maybe I could actually apply. I told him that it was two years ago that I’d studied contract law so I might have forgotten lots of it so might not be right for the job. I said it’d be cool if I was his secretary, and it’d be more convenient for doing the film; I’d just do a lot of overtime. Or I could be a cleaner or something if I wasn’t qualified enough to be a secretary. “And having sex with employees isn’t illegal,” I added.

He chuckled. “It is, actually. And it’d look bad for me; I’d be taking advantage of the poor secretary.”

He took me into another office, set up his camcorder and I gave him the dog brush I’d brought. He liked how hard it was. He had his ‘slut’ paddle from last time, and then he reached over to the desk and drew forth a cane; it was really long and I thought it would really hurt. I tried it out, swishing it through the air a few times. It felt great; it really called to my domme side.

“You like that, don’t you?” he grinned. He made me kneel on the carpet with my front resting on a grey sofa next to a desk. this is where the fun began 😀

 

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Selling virginity: an attempt at documenting the experience

I started this blog because I am selling my virginity, and I wanted to document this wonderful adventure I’m having – not out of vanity or celebration, but as an accurate portrayal of our society at this precise moment – the human experience of pleasure, ideas, our social world, which led to this exquisite transaction and which will ultimately shape it – whether we are aware of it or not.

Obviously, all names will be changed. This is my first attempt at blogging so I cannot promise you an earth-shatteringly good blog which will blow your mind/provide a startling social commentary/whatever. All I can deliver is the truth; or rather the truth from my point of view, as I see it.

I hope you enjoy reading what I write – whether it amuses, entertains or surprises you.

 

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