brothels

(Photo by Pierre Galin via Flickr)

Yes, I saw the coverage earlier this month on pregnant Nevada brothel worker Summer Sebastian blogging about enjoying a few months at work at the Bunny Ranch while her (former) millionaire partner watches their beautiful twins at home.

No, I didn’t get the promised message of empowerment and normalization or a real heart-to-heart on what it’s like to be a mother and a sex worker.

This woman lives in a fantasy world where she’s the personal star of her own little reality show. She has safeguards, privileges, incentives, and motivations that even the most successful of us more marginalized sex workers lack.

I’m not going to applaud her for working full-service during her pregnancy and sharing it with the world, because she isn’t sharing it for me.

We don’t even need to talk about any risks posed to her baby because, let’s be real, she has the security of open access to medical care, stable housing and food, security personnel protecting her at her legal brothel, virtually no risk of being blackmailed or arrested, andmost invaluable to every pregnant personshe has a solid system of support in other workers. Sex work is lonely and isolating by nature and having a tribe physically present is a vital resource that we should all have access to.

This woman has access to literally anything in the world that a pregnant hooker could ever need.  

Including a platform. [READ MORE]

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Margaret Wells (Samantha Morton) and William North (Danny Sapani) at the door of her brothel in Harlots.

Harlots is a new drama on Hulu following the misadventures and rivalries of two competing brothels in mid-18th century London. Created by Moira Buffini and Allison Newman, and loosely based on research by Hallie Rubenhold, Harlots isn’t only notable for being about harlots—all the writers and  directors are women also, which allows for a truly unprecedented lack of the male gaze and titillation shots, and instead creates room for the characters to be fully-fleshed people. History geek Tits and Sass contributors Kitty Stryker and Red discuss the first episodes and what sex worker life was like in the Georgian England setting of the show. 

On historical context:

Kitty: The one in five women are sex workers at the time statistic, cited in the beginning of the show, is a high estimate, but it is quoted a lot, and may not be incorrect. The number appears to come from historian Dan Cruickshank in his book, The Secret History Of Georgian London: How The Wages Of Sin Shaped The Capital. He is also where the number of of £1.5 billion in today’s money as the gross turnover of sex work funds at the time comes from.

Red: Capitalism and a market economy were just starting to take over and the situation of women was changing, as the public sphere became the exclusive province of men in England. At the same time, capitalism was pushing the growth of a relatively new genre: porn! Much of the earliest porn consists of dialogues between whores or a whore recounting her exploits (a la Fanny Hill).

While the one in five stat is high, women dipped in and out of sex work as necessary, and the word whore didn’t exclusively mean a professional until later on in the century.

Kitty: It’s also worth noting that while sex work was prominent, “bawds,” or madams, were deeply loathed by London society—one famous bawd was stoned to death for her part in “corrupting the innocent.” Now, to be fair, many bawds did go around looking for naive farm girls to offer free housing to, only to then trap them with false debt for the lodgings and food they used. But this is also definitely where the hatred of pimps strongly developed.

Covent Garden was the place for sex workers at the time! Golden Square, also referenced in the show, incidentally, went from being a place for wealthy up-and-coming sex workers to a place for dire poverty—it becomes the epicenter of the cholera epidemic that wiped out a lot of London in 1854.

On Harris’ List, an anonymous book of commentary on Covent Garden prostitutes, a kind of antecedent to today’s board escort reviews—the show opens with Lucy (Eloise Smyth) reading each brothel worker’s entry aloud to her:

Kitty: The history of Harris’s List is actually super interesting and this was a good book on it—Covent Garden Ladies by Hallie Rubenhold, the book this show is actually loosely based on. You can read the list here for free, by the way!

Red: Charlotte (Jessica Brown Findlay) is based on a real woman Rubenhold wrote about, and so is her mother—Elizabeth Ward, Samantha Morton’s character. They changed the last name to Wells in the show, and her first name to Margaret. The real Charlotte changed her last name to Hayes after she got her first rich protector and left her mother’s brothel.

Interesting note: Some of the women who paid Harris to write good reviews of them in his list formed a “Whores’ Club” where they met and drank together and paid dues, and any of the club members who needed help got some of the dues.

On the contract Charlotte’s thinking about signing with her benefactor and how it compared to marriage at the time:

These contracts were common among famous, sought-after sex workers. Some had two or more going at a time sometimes! Many times these contracts were oral contracts, and would stipulate how much the kept woman would get per month in cash and gifts, if she would be given an apartment or not, if her bills would be paid, new clothing, etc.

Because what she gave in exchange was often just “understood,” it left a lot of wiggle room for her. Often, when such a contract was broken and the arrangement was declared over, she could also negotiate for annuities, perhaps in exchange for keeping his secrets.

One attractive thing about having such a contract is that the person paying often paid to the bawd who “owned” the sex worker in question. In order for the sex worker to be “released” to the status of kept woman, the buyer would have to pay off all debts the sex worker had accrued according to the bawd. Becoming a kept woman could mean less risk of syphilis, which was a disfiguring death sentence at the time, and also could mean when the arrangement ended, you were free to do what you wanted as you weren’t indebted to a house anymore.

I think it’s interesting that while Margaret obviously feels a lot of resentment for being sold to Lydia Quigley (Lesley Manville) when she was 10 (a sadly pretty common occurrence at the time—the youngest on record was eight, and people believed having sex with a child would cure you of STIs), and Charlotte’s virginity was auctioned off at the age of consent (which was 12 for girls, 14 for boys at the time), Lucy appears to be at least 18 and is still “not ready.” I wonder if Charlotte is upset that her mother got her into sex work, or that she’s upset that despite her mother’s distaste for marriage, here she is being roped into a different but similar contract with Sir George Howard (Hugh Skinner).

Red: My main thoughts on watching were how laughably anachronistic both Charlotte and Lucy ‘s (a fictional character made up for the show) unwillingness to participate in such a huge money generating activity is. The contract that Charlotte turns her nose up at wouldn’t have given him anything close to coverture over her. Instead, it would have offered her either carte blanche over his money or a specific amount of credit to use when shopping. It couldn’t have prevented her from having other lovers; he would have to rely on her discretion. The idea that someone raised in the poverty of Covent Garden would turn up her nose at that and just want to fuck for money without it is so hilarious to me. This was the ultimate goal of whores in the 18th century, because it was a step up to a security just below that of marriage (which also could and did happen between contemporary sex workers and their clients).

My guess is that Charlotte’s reluctance comes from the producers thinking they need some sort of 21st century young woman angst in order to make these characters relatable.

[READ MORE]

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April Brogan (image via @brogan_rebecca)

April Brogan (image via @brogan_rebecca)

Melissa Gira Grant’s story about April Brogan’s death from withdrawal complications while in jail is a heartbreaking look at how little regard the justice system has for sex worker lives. Our Caty is quoted on the double stigma drug-using sex workers face.

A woman running an underground brothel in Germany has been busted; her workers, undocumented Chinese migrants, will be deported.

A new Cambodian study reiterates what the Lancet already proved: further marginalization and criminalization of sex workers, even in the guise of ending trafficking, only puts us more at risk.

Sex workers don’t owe you any answers” is a sharp, smart, and sadly necessary reminder by Alana Massey that we do not, in fact, owe you answers.  Not to friends, not to teachers, and definitely not to sad little clovers on the internet:

“The best thing sex work taught me was that men will take every opportunity to demand things they feel entitled to,” Bruiser told me in a direct message on Twitter. “I literally owe them exactly nothing.”

[READ MORE]

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Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

Sex workers and allies at the April 9th Amsterdam protest. (Photo by Robin van Lokhuijsen, courtesy of Felicia Anna)

On April 9th, over 200 Amsterdam sex workers and their supporters protested the closing of legal sex businesses in the Red Light District by the city council. The demonstration consisted of a march from the Amsterdam Red Light District to city hall, where the protesters handed a letter to the mayor demanding the reopening of their closed workplaces and the active participation of sex workers in the city’s policy regarding their jobs.

Project 1012

Amsterdam has closed down at least 109 windows already as part of Project 1012, an initiative to bring the number of legal window workplaces down by 40% from 476 to 284. Project 1012, named for the Red Light District area code, is a massive gentrification project aimed at ridding Amsterdam center of “low value” businesses like marijuana coffee shops and the windows.

Government officials consider closing down legal work locations for sex workers an effective measure to prevent trafficking because they believe these businesses to be “sensitive to criminal activity” (“criminogeen” in Dutch, a new word invented solely to justify this policy) simply because they are part of the sex industry. Ironically, even local police voiced a preference for reopening the windows in order to keep sex work legal and visible.

The demonstration, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, was facilitated by PROUD, a sex worker-led union that launched earlier this year. The letter they addressed to Mayor Everhard van der Laan, demanding that the city stop closing windows and reopen closed brothels, as well as actively include sex workers in the city’s sex work policy, was signed by nearly a thousand supporters, many of whom are Red Light District sex workers themselves.

The mayor dismissed the sex workers’ concerns by saying that “the war is over,” maintaining that the issue has already been concluded decisively. He asked the protesters, “You tell me in what other city sex workers can demonstrate in these numbers in the streets,” implying that sex workers should be grateful for the rights they already have. He also stated that the city had already decided to close down fewer brothels, though this policy decision was actually motivated by the city council’s desire to lower Project 1012’s 108 million euro budget.

[READ MORE]

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"Taxes" by 401kcalculator.org

Your taxes are due Wed., April 15! (“Taxes” by 401kcalculator.org)

Just in time for Tax Day: Sex workers deserve tax breaks and bank accounts! We do. 

The New York Post (seriously) published a nuanced look at the city’s erotic massage scene, including a discussion of immigration and the problems with the federal definition of sex trafficking.

Ontario’s Attorney General has found C-36, the bill that implemented End Demand in Canada, constitutional and Kathleen Wynne will uphold it. The protests over the verdict in the Cindy Gladue murder trial only serve to underscore Wynne’s initial misgivings about it.

Kenyan sex workers stick together to advocate for their rights.

400 sex workers will be offered Truvada, a pre-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, as part of a study at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.  The study is simply to see whether sex workers, considered an “at risk” group for HIV infection, will take the drug regularly. The trial will also give 300 HIV-positive sex workers anti-retrovirals, which, if taken properly, can reduce the possibility of HIV transmission to zero.  [READ MORE]

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