Songwriters seem to love sex workers, no matter how little they may actually know about us. And on a superficial level, we seem like pretty good song material. We’re sexual, illegal, naughty, and easy to desire and pity at the same time. You want to protect us from the dirty men who pay us for sex, yet you secretly still kind of want it for yourself (see “Roxanne,” below).
Hookers provide instant layers of emotional complexity. Throw one in your song, and viola: an edgy, sexy hit single, depressing and tantalizing all at once. (If you find the hooker-heroine of your song isn’t pitiful enough, just add drugs and that should balance things out.) Charlotte and I sifted through some sex worker songs and rated them, 1-10 based on how obnoxious or pleasing they are to hear if you’re an actual sex worker.
We’d love to hear from readers too, on what songs make you smile or cringe. Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Private Dancer — Tina Turner
It starts with a heavy-hearted sigh and it’s all downhill from there. Our nameless private dancer has dreams—dreams, I tell you! She wants to be rich and have a nice house, and she also wants a family. Instead, she’s dancing with random guys who make her feel completely hollow. I’ve written before about listening to this song with a client who’s a Tina fanatic; it was he who pointed out to me that the clients in the song are explicitly dehumanized. (“You don’t think of them as human/You don’t think of them at all.”)
Is she a taxi dancer? A stripper? A stripper who offers extras? The line “I do what you want me to do,” makes me think it’s not all “shimmy”ing and doing the twist. Plus “all the men come in these places”? You can’t tell me that’s not some crude double entendre. Though her exact job description may be ambiguous, one thing is for sure: Lady hates her job and we’re supposed to understand that it’s uniquely soul-crushing in a way a lifetime meaningless desk work is not. Pluses? It’s sung from the viewpoint of the sex worker instead of about her, which is nice. Minuses? It caters to every cliche about sex work except the omnipresence of violence. Score: 5/10, Charlotte
Killer Queen — Queen
Killer Queen is the kind of hooker I want to be when I grow up: elegant, pretentious, savvy and sexy as hell. I loved the song even before I realized it was explicitly about sex work, imagining the title character as just a heartbreaking hottie with some seriously refined manipulation skills. Then I saw this 1974 interview with Freddie Mercury by NME, in which he spells it all out: “It’s about a high-class call girl. I’m trying to say that classy people can be whores as well. That’s what the song is about, though I’d prefer people to put their interpretation upon it – to read into it what they like.”
“Well-versed in etiquette,” “extraordinarily nice,” and “playful as a pussycat,” Killer Queen apparently has a lot going for her, and is a far cry from the depressed streetwalker who dominates pop culture depictions of sex workers. She drinks expensive champagne, wears Parisian perfume, and drives guys wild. Better yet, she doesn’t fit the naive hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype: “To avoid complications, she never kept the same address,” and later, “‘Let them eat cake!’ she said, just like Marie Antoinette.” She’s certainly not out there searching for her Richard Gere to take her home and save the day. This is a business-savvy woman who’s completely in control of the game. Freddie Mercury, who once declared himself to be a “musical prostitute,” actually got it. Score: 10/10, Lolo
I love this song! I love it. The tune is so cheerful and sassy and upbeat that I immediately forget Donna repeatedly calls the street workers “sad girls,” which is not only insulting but unearned, since the rest of the lyrics don’t explain what’s making the girls so sad. In fact, the rest of the lyrics don’t tell us anything about the girls. We do know that they “look hot” and that they’re “dirty”—ouch—but allegedly they’re “the same” as the singer and therefore the listener since she’s speaking as “us” in that moment, the non-sex working observers. The sudden solidarity seems pretty half-assed but I guess even the attempt is to be appreciated. The path of this song is so messy, with all sorts of perspective changes (one minute she’s speaking to the clients, then she’s speaking to the girls, then she’s speaking as the girls) that it’s hard to figure out who’s being celebrated, who’s being condemned, and who’s being excused for their prurient interest in a bunch of sexy ladies who are doing their job and don’t want Donna Summer outing them to their moms. (How else is “mama” going to find out “her girl it out at night”? Are moms regularly patrolling the stroll? Or wait a minute—is Dad?!?!) The inherent conflict of this song’s peppy delivery of typical prostitute derision makes it seem even more insidious than more obvious anti-sex work songs. I might love it, but it’s evil. Score: 3/10, Charlotte
Letter to a John — Ani DiFranco
We enter the scene with an ambiguous stripper/hooker, kind of like our friend in “Private Dancer,” crying at work. And you know, I’d probably cry too if I had to give lap dances for only $5 a song—what the hell? I know it was 1994 when this was written, but still, that seems awfully cheap to me. Anyway, the song’s protagonist was was raped at 11 by a man her father’s age, hates her work, of course, and dreams of escaping with the tons of cash she’s making.
It’s a mostly pathetic portrait of sex workers, but there are a couple of points I do appreciate. First of all, this lady’s got plans to make a bunch of cash and quit the business, so at least it’s not like she sees herself in a hopeless, dead-end situation. I’m also pretty fond of the lines: “I want you to pay me for my beauty; I think it’s only right / I have been paying for it all of my life.” Not because I was raped in junior high like she was, but as a sex worker I’ve definitely felt this thrill before, where I’m sort of getting even with society for the shit women go through. Getting paid to be ogled, when you’re likely going to get ogled regardless by virtue of your gender, can feel pretty good. She also tells her customers not to preach to her about decency or pride, that they’re no better than her, and that, while she doesn’t blame them for anything, she doesn’t want to be their friends. Sounds like a response to some white knight douchebags. So, while the stripper-hooker is mostly a bad stereotype, I love that she’s got this independent streak and isn’t waiting for anyone to save her.
Musically, “Letter to a John” is about the most boring, non-melodic three-and-a-half minutes ever. In live shows, Ani changes the line “I’m just gonna sit on your lap for $5 a song” to “$10 a song” the second time around, and then her fans start screaming and cheering because now the poor stripper-hooker’s only selling her work for half, rather than a quarter, of market value. If you ever end up at an Ani show and hear her start to play this one, use this opportunity to go get yourself a beer. You’re welcome. Score: 6/10, Lolo
Roxanne — The Police
“Sell your body to the night”? Ugh, Sting, I gag. This song, in case you didn’t already know, is sung by a douche-y white knight who decides that he’s loved Roxanne since he first met her, which I’ll guess was when he walked into her apartment and gave her some cash. He says “I wouldn’t talk down to you” and then he says, “my mind is made up” (because his decision is the final word on what she does) and “It’s a bad way.” That might not be talking down, but it is being a judgmental, meddling turd. And all because he doesn’t want to “share” her. What is so noble, exactly, in declaring that this woman is the exclusive domain of your penis and that she’ll go broke while being so? Is Roxanne really the one who doesn’t “care if it’s wrong or if it’s right” or is it the infatuated tool who’s oblivious to the fact that she doesn’t want to stop working to be in a relationship with him? And why is she “putting on the red light” if she’s then walking the streets? Is she advertising that men should come to her place when she’s not there? The only likable thing about this situation is that apparently Roxanne is going to sell it no matter how much Sting and his band scream at her not to. Get it, Girl. Score: 2/10, Charlotte
Jigsaw Youth — Bikini Kill
If I could fuck any celebrity, I would wish really really hard that Kathleen Hanna counts as a celebrity. Before fronting one of the coolest riot grrl bands ever, she stripped her way through college at Evergreen, and I give her some serious credit for being one of few outspoken feminist rockstars in the ’90s who was able to discuss sex work realistically and respectfully. See, Ani DiFranco? It’s doable.
“Jigsaw Youth” starts out: “I can sell my body if I wanna / God knows you already sold your mind.” I swoon. Score: 10/10, Lolo
Tina Toledo’s Street Walking Blues – Ryan Adams
All right, this song is kind of fun, though it doesn’t sound particularly bluesy to me. I’m thinking he just had to call it the blues because it’s about a prostitute and you know how their lives are: full of “black limousines” and commutes from Brooklyn to Queens, where all the real money is. The interesting thing about Tina Toledo, besides her ridiculous name, is that she’s a little country mouse from Boston who had the funds to take Amtrak to New York (rather than Greyhound; maybe that was too predictable?) and now she sends her money “home for medical school.” Who back home is she sending to medical school? Maybe her “kid” who lives with Tina’s mom, while Tina herself is in school in New York. It’s all very confusing, but then Tina herself seems confused, because she hangs out in Washington Square (in Manhattan) and tries to cover her ass with “the cops on the beat” there by giving them “a little discount”—do cops really leave prostitutes alone if they get 10% off their visits?—but we’ve already been told she works in Queens, which would have a different vice squad. Ah, well. These lyrics seems like they’ve been written by a middle schooler who’s seen a couple of adult movies featuring hookers and maybe googled “New York City” once and picked up a few geographical points of reference. How much is this chick making that she’s sending enough money home to put someone else through medical school while also saving lots of “money in the bank” and apparently covering her own schooling? No wonder it’s so “hard on the knees.” She’s got to be giving those limo-riding fat cats upwards of 50 blowjobs a night. Oh and at one point we’re told that she’s in a hotel room and there’s also a pimp. Comprehensive! Score: 0/10, Charlotte
A Handful of Songs by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground
Who else could write a song about speed-snorting tranny hookers and have it turn into a staple for wedding DJs and Animal Planet? I love the unapologetic raunch of all the “Wild Side” characters, especially Candy, who never loses her head, “even when she’s giving head.” Then you’ve got to admire Joe, the shrewd businessman of the bunch who “never once gave it away,” but makes certain he’s always well paid for his services. Sure, Jackie has a little drug problem to contend with, but Lou cheerfully prescribes her some Valium to help with the comedown, like it’s no big deal. No broken hearts, no shame, no crying in the dressing room. I wanna be best friends with all of them!
This is one of many sex work-inspired Lou Reed/Velvet Underground songs that I love. There’s “There She Goes Again”, the most poppy and cheerful-sounding song about a streetwalker ever. While the singer of this one seems to have some jealousy issues, the prostitute herself is pretty well-adjusted: “Now take a look, there’s no tears in her eyes / She won’t take it from just any guy.” Then there’s the beautiful and ambiguously whorish “Femme Fatale,” about a chick “from the street” who has a black book full of guys to toy with and torture.
Finally, if you haven’t heard Lou’s late ’70s whore chef d’ouevre, it’s about time you did. “Street Hassle” begins with a section called “Waltzing Matilda,” a romantic girl-meets-gigolo story: girl meet gigolo, pays him, they have amazing sex, and “when the sun rose and he made to leave … neither regretted a thing.” The song is refreshing on so many levels. A sex worker who’s not sad, a client who’s not predatory, a legitimately hot mid-song sex scene, a no-string-attached transaction that leaves both parties satisfied. Score (for Lou Reed’s many contributions to the sex worker canon): 10/10, Lolo