From time to time, Wallace makes it onto another one of those “cool small towns in America” lists, here, #38. Although this latest list celebrates the “rich history and culture” you find in small towns, it fails to plug the Oasis Bordello Museum, which was mentioned in Travel + Leisure’s 2012 list and Budget Travel’s 2009 list (which also features my current town, strangely). If the article’s authors had actually spoken with the people living in Wallace, amid the “large pine-topped mountain peaks and breathtaking sunsets downtown” long enough to talk about the brothel-based sex work aspect of the town’s history they would have heard something like this:
“The houses prevented rapes.”
“They gave back a lot to the community.”
“It’s just like any other business.”
Whenever I talk about Wallace’s brothel-based sex work history and culture to a group of outsiders, I inevitably get asked these questions:
“How do you feel about it?”
“Do you think it’s immoral?”
“Should we legalize prostitution?”
Recently, at the Lexington Rotary Club talk I gave, I was asked these very questions, and they led to some of the more lively moments of the discussion. But they were also the moments when I felt least committed to what I was saying, because in some ways I don’t have a “position.” And I come from a place—am trying to translate the cultural values of this place—that continues to justify sex work as a positive thing. Or at least as a not-bad thing. Like, overwhelmingly so. So much so that I sometimes forget that a lot of people think that sex work cannot be anything other than inherently exploitive, immoral, and/or degrading for women.
I’m going to go ahead and do something I’m hesitant about and get a little personal…
I’ve been called a whore myself. At times, it was not meant to be nor taken as an insult (if you know what I mean). But the other times, it was hurled at me as an insult by this one person I used to love (but who loved me more in a possession kind of way) and also by someone I never loved but used to fuck and was angry I wasn’t going to continue to do that. I sometimes wonder how I should have reacted to this word when I was called it in this more degrading sense.
The word itself wasn’t really hurtful to me. I mean, the thing that was really hurtful was not the word, but that it was *meant* to be hurtful and said by someone who supposedly cared for me, you know? What hurt was how it belied a deep lack of respect, how it denied shared human-ness. What hurt most was the violent attitude the word performed, that it was intended to control me, belittle me, and hit with the force of a blow. What hurt was the nonconsensual power dynamic the word sets up, a dynamic where I was supposedly less-than.
My response at the time was to say things like “oh that’s like the pot calling the kettle a word” or “at least whores get paid” or very calmly “you can call me whatever you want; I know my worth.” The word “whore” is used to refer to slutty non-paid women as often as it refers to women who get paid for sex. It implies something about morality. But the term is also really incoherent in some ways. For example, it’s unclear exactly how many sex partners makes someone a whore. I mean, is it two, five, ten, fifty? Maybe this matters as well: because there is no adequate male equivalent, it is also inseparable with sexism (even when women use it against other women), commodification, and wanting to own a woman’s body, wanting to possess or “to have and to hold,” which is the wording of some marriage vows and also bills of sale.
I like Urban Dictionary’s current top definition: a woman who will sleep with other people but who won’t sleep with YOU.
In my hometown, women did not solicit on the streets, because street work was differentiated from our brothel-based situation as degrading. It was poor form to use the word whore to characterize the women working in the houses, unless it was used in a more matter of fact, “technically correct” way and not in the dehumanizing, belittling, intending to strike with the force of a blow way.
Gary Morrison, who I interviewed in 2010, speaking about the late 1950s-1960s era, explained it like this:
And that’s how they were known, in the community, was the “houses.” […] these gals—and by the way, they were called, again, a lot of misnomers here, they were known as girls. The word whore would have been denigrating for those girls. That would have been reserved, I soon learned, for street use: either an amateur, or a pro, on the street. You might use that term for a loose woman. Up there [in the houses] they were either a prostitute or more commonly, the girls.
My dad has told me this story about when he was a kid nonchalantly repeating something he’d heard someone else say. The way he tells it, grandma responded firmly, assertively:
You don’t ever call them whores.
He remembers because it was one of those moments you have where you didn’t realize you were doing something wrong and then you find out you were and it crystalizes in your mind and you can’t unremember it because it’s one of those moments when you learn about morality and how to treat other people like humans, with dignity and respect. Grandma has talked to me like that before, so I know this from experience.
Which brings me back to the question of how I feel about the morality/legalization of sex work…
The way I answered these questions at my presentation to Lexington Rotary was ultimately not satisfying to a few people who wanted me to take a position, to stake my claim, to argue and defend a particular viewpoint. Instead I said,
I think we should be able to do what we want with our bodies. So theoretically, I think legalization would be ideal. But there are pragmatic concerns to think about, like whether or not it provides camouflage for or increases demand for nonconsensual sex trafficking.
I was pressed on these points, but right now, I can only take a position on one question: I don’t think it’s immoral. So I disagree with the position that says sex work is inherently exploitive or wrong because it commodifies humans’ bodies, as long as there is informed consent involved. I know by taking this position, I differ from some feminists, particularly Sheila Jeffreys (see especially http://bit.ly/industrialvagina).
There’s another position that is also pragmatic that says that sex work will always be around in one form or another—“the oldest profession” is a saying for a reason—and that position argues we should strive as much as possible to make it safer. Legalizing sex work could be seen as pragmatic insofar as it reduces the stigma and the underground aspects of the business while offering the possibility for regulation. But the so-called Swedish model of targeting johns appears to be provisionally successful at reducing demand. One of my students is researching this right now…
As for the claim you hear in Wallace about how sex work in town reduced rape? Although I haven’t yet been able to substantiate nor disprove that particular claim, there are some studies that show perhaps pornography may decrease sex crime rates, so I guess that’s provisionally possible, but I don’t feel comfortable enough about any of these studies to try to interpret them in more detail at this point.
I still struggle with the issue of “free choice,” versus economically-coerced choice. Aren’t most of us whores to someone or something, in a way? If we lived in a culture where every job were equally compensated, which professions would no longer exist: doctors, janitors, engineers, sex workers? In theory, I like the logic of sex work being “just like any other business,” even though of course it isn’t, because it also is, even though of course it isn’t. Anyway. You see what I mean.
Further reading that comes to mind at the moment:
2. “Lost Girls” of Craigslist: http://interviews.gawker.com/robert-kolker-talks-lost-girls-and-the-long-island-seri-814336646