Category Archives: morality & sex work series

i wish i could have met dolores

It’s been about a week and a half since I read from my work at the Wallace Brewing Company’s Orehouse Tasting Room. It was a packed house: the News Press claimed there were “more than fifty” attendees, but during the question/answer period afterward I counted sixty-four people in the standing room only audience. I was grateful for the opportunity to share some of my in-progress writing in person.

So this post is for those who missed out for one reason or another. Below is a transcript of what I read. For a blog bonus, I’ve added pictures.

Thank you to Chase and Cathleen for hosting this event and inviting me to participate. Thank you to the Wallace District Mining Museum, who funded much of my research.

***

I wish I could have met Dolores. That wasn’t her given name, of course. She was born Mary Giacolone and she died Maria Greer. But for most of her life, she was Dolores Arnold, savvy businesswoman who ascended from working girl to madam of a successful brothel franchise in Wallace, Idaho from 1943 until the late 1980s. Dolores’s story, like her identity—an invented persona she assumed for forty years—is a mix of fact and fiction that became its own reality. Dolores knew that stories repeated often enough could blur together and create a believable myth. She harnessed that power to create a world here, a world where the sex industry could be relatively safe and widely supported by the vast majority of the community, despite its illegal nature.

I’ve conducted more than seventy-five interviews during the course of my research and almost every single person I talk to repeats the following phrases: “The houses offered relief for single miners and kept local women from getting raped. The women were clean and didn’t solicit around town or on the streets.” But especially: “The houses were good for the local economy; they gave so much back to the community.” It’s no accident that these phrases are the univocal chorus around town to this day. They are the result of Dolores’s forty-year reign as queen. One woman I interviewed characterized the brothels as “The United Way of Wallace,” adding that she thought there should be a statue of Dolores in this town (Stewart).

Dolores had striking beauty, even well into old age. “People were in awe of her,” one man told me, “she could have been a movie star earlier in her career” (Higgins). I think people responded to her unguarded, empathic demeanor and the confident way she carried herself, all of which she expressed through her eyes. Taller than the average woman, Dolores had long dark hair and a wide smile. She sensed the motivations of others and noticed details overlooked by most people. Those who knew her describe her as charming, warm, funny, graceful, and elegant. She made everyone feel special. She also had a reputation for strict professionalism in all of her business dealings, prompting a higher standard of excellence among subordinates, colleagues, clients, and community members.

Dolores Arnold taken by Dick Caron, Dec 1 1965

Candid of Dolores Arnold in 1965. (Photo courtesy Dick Caron)

If I could talk to Dolores today, I would ask her what her childhood was like, what drew her to Wallace and what influenced her decision to exchange sex for money. I would ask her what she learned along the way. I would also ask her if she ever had mixed feelings about owning and managing an illicit business commonly perceived as immoral and exploitive, despite its widespread acceptance in Wallace.

Like many women drawn into the sex industry during the 1940s, Dolores suffered a traumatic childhood. Her parents were Italian immigrants who met in New Jersey. Dolores’s father worked in a glass factory there at the time of her birth, and in the early 1920s they moved to Spanaway, Washington, where they bought a farm worth $2,600 in 1930 (1920-1930 US Census data). Dolores’s mother died when she was just six, leaving her widowed husband to raise Dolores and her three siblings, including younger sister Janet and two younger brothers. Before Janet died, she met with Dick Caron to talk about her childhood. During this conversation, Janet said Dolores and her siblings were left to raise themselves after their mother’s premature death, and they often dealt with “adverse conditions” as a result. They found out later that their mother had relatives they never met. Janet assumed they stayed away because they didn’t want to feel obligated to take in the kids. They “were better off for being alone,” Janet claimed, “made us tough.” It did not, however, make them close. While Janet did not interfere with her sister’s life, she also didn’t support it (Caron notes).

Just a year and a half after Dolores’s mother died, the stock market crashed, and the country plunged into the Great Depression. Dolores did not finish high school and moved to Wallace in 1943 at the age of twenty-three, after working in the shipyards at Bremerton, Washington, where she was a “Rosie the Riveter” (Caron notes, Barnard Stockbridge Collection, Mogenson, Morrison, and Truean). She’d heard that Wallace was the place to go if she wanted to take advantage of a particular arrangement here that could be lucrative if approached in the right way.

According to Gary Morrison, a Wallace boy who befriended Dolores in the 1960s when he delivered groceries to the Lux Rooms and considered her “like a family member,” Dolores’s move “was a business decision.” Morrison said she explained it this way:

I made up my mind that I could do that. Once I agreed that I could do that and just set that part of me aside, and said, okay this is business, I’m not going to whine about it, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. That’s what I’m going to do. Once I’d decided that I could accept that, I got in the car and I drove to Wallace. Somebody had told me about Wallace, having these—I had to hunt around and ask people, I didn’t know where the houses were.

She began working on the floor at the Lux Rooms, above where the Sixth Street Melodrama is now.

LuxRoomsOutsidein2010

Front of the Sixth Street Melodrama. The Lux was upstairs until 1977, accessible only from Kelly’s Alley, to the north of the building. (Photo by author)

Timing contributed to Dolores’s successful career: she arrived at an opportune moment for the sex industry, after the introduction of penicillin, which cured most sexually transmitted infections, and before the eruption of AIDS (Roizen). During this era, the brothels were open 24 hours a day, doing “booming business” serving military men (Mayfield, Gordon). Even though Wallace was officially off-limits, sailors and airmen frequently visited. They came from Farragut Naval Base near Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, Washington. To get around the off-limits designation, military men would buy a bus ticket for Missoula, Montana, and get off in Wallace to visit the houses without leaving a paper trail that would get them in trouble (Filer). They were not allowed to wear anything but their issued uniforms and madams wouldn’t let them upstairs unless they were in street clothes, but they found a way around this obstacle as well. A cleaning business accessible from the alley behind Cedar Street was known to rent civilian clothes to enable them to visit the brothels while maintaining the appearance of propriety (Filer).

It’s unclear how long Dolores worked before she was able to buy the Lux Rooms because there are multiple conflicting stories about how she came into the means. One man told me she tried to get a loan from the bank but was turned down (“AH”). There are rumors asserting that she received the money from Hank Day, the prominent mining executive she had a relationship with (Higgins). Another man said Dolores told him she “saved every bloody dime. And put it in the bank” (Morrison). Others guessed she invested in mine stocks (Posnick, “JA”). The written record shows that she and Lonnie Greer bought the Lux Rooms from Mary Albertini in 1953 for $7,000 dollars [clarification here: they bought the *building* from her, not the business…].

LuxRoomsHallway

Hallway of former Lux Rooms, looking east into the madam’s room. (Photo by author)

Dolores built her business into a classy operation, which she expanded in 1968, when she bought the Jade from her friend Loma Delmonte and turned it into the Luxette. Dolores worked hard to create the image of community caretaker and was almost universally admired around town. The walls of her personal room at the Lux, where she entertained especially privileged guests, were adorned with 18 karat gold fleck paint imported from Italy for the price of $200 a gallon and her closet was full of fur coats (“Tommy”). Dolores began the practice of advertising by giving away Playboy-style pinup girl calendars personalized with her business name and other houses followed her lead by passing out similarly styled matchbooks. “In today’s era,” one local businessman told me, “she would easily be a top executive in a large corporation. She was that good. She was instrumental in forming a consortium with the other madams to buy the community stuff” (Higgins). Dolores worked to promote prostitution as a profession as legitimate as anyone else’s (Hulsizer, Houchin, Michael).

LuxViewfromDoloresRoom

Bay window looking out of madam’s room. (Photo by author)

Dolores was friendly and outgoing yet known for her discretion, which was partly what kept her in the good graces of the community. She hosted private parties for local civic organizations like the Gyros. Despite one exception that several people noted, there was no sex at these parties, which operated in accordance with the “underlying and rarely spoken agreement” that they “wouldn’t fall into some kind of a debauchery, you know, a big orgy that then would be talked about in the community for the next century,” as one man put it (Morrison). Dolores is also in a regional newspaper saying, “People always think the worst of these places. But we do it right” (Henderson). “Doing it right” probably contained some sexual innuendo, but she was also referring to background checks and doctor’s visits. When the women first arrived to work at the houses, police officers took their mug shot and fingerprints, sent copies to the FBI and Immigration, and received a rap sheet back. The officers would then call the brothel managers with the information to ensure they weren’t employing underage girls or anyone who appeared to have connections with organized crime (Jacobson). “Doing it right” also referred to discretion: the working girls “would never come up to a guy around town and say that she knew him,” one woman told me, adding, “they kept their personal life personal and their business life professional” (Schonhanes).

Most of the people I’ve interviewed make sure to mention how the madams tipped generously for deliveries and bought most of the raffle tickets for various fundraisers. Although there’s no doubt that Dolores was generous, she was also very aware of public relations, and she purposefully appealed to the classic “heart of gold” stereotype. She was the biggest contributor around town, renowned for winning all the raffles and then turning the prizes into donations, passing along her Demolay turkeys to families in need (Morrison). Dolores notoriously bought the school’s band uniforms, in part, rumor has it, in exchange for an agreement that they would no longer march around the streets to practice early in the morning.

RemodeledLux2015

Gold-veined mirror in the entryway of the Lux Rooms at the corner of 6th and Cedar, where Dolores relocated in 1978. (Photo by author)

The madams and women who worked in the houses emphasized the positive. Men and women alike repeat that the houses were symbiotic with the town, which operated according to a “live and let live” system of morality. The madams circulated sayings that explicitly connected their work to family and community values. For example, “Dolores often said that she saved more marriages than any clergyman ever did.” (Higgins). The madams donated money in visible ways to local government, schools, charities, and churches. They knew that word of their works would travel if they maintained a consistent image.

And word did spread. A New York Times article discussing the temporary closure of the houses in 1973 notes how Dolores gave baskets of food to the families of the [ninety-one] miners who died in the Sunshine Mine disaster the previous year (“5 Brothels Shut”). Another newspaper story claims that “Dolores Arnold and her contributions to the town of Wallace are legend, and most of the legend is true,” although one “rumor—that she has solid-gold bathroom fixtures in her apartment at the Lux and Luxette Hotel—needed clarification. Gold plate, Dolores explained, not solid gold” (Henderson). This article, written during the 1980s, also corrects a popular legend about her Cadillac that nevertheless continues to be repeated: “The house madam seemed amused by another story that she orders a new Cadillac in Spokane every year and pays for it in cash. ‘That’s a lie… My Cadillac is 14 years old’” (Henderson). One story often told locally involves a robbery or fight at one of the houses, resulting in a court case. Dolores was called as a witness, and at one point, the lawyer asked her which way the door in the brothel opened. She said to him, straight-faced, “you know damn well which way that door opens” (“FG,” Higgins, Achord). According to another version of this story, it wasn’t Dolores but a girl who worked for her, and she was fired because of her lack of discretion (Magnuson).

RemodeledLux2015_1

Bathroom with original pink sink at the remodeled Lux Rooms in 2015. (Photo by author)

One of the more popular services was said to be the bubble bath (“Betty,” Mooney, “Paul”), even though it was also one of the most expensive. Terry Douglas, who maintained the “coin operated amusement devices” in the house’s bars and jukeboxes, related a story about his boss giving him money for a bubble bath experience, which he’d been hesitant to try out because of the cost. Douglas closed his story by saying with a smile, “And I’ve never forgot it. And we’re thirty years later.”

RemodeledLux2015_2

Bathroom with original bathtub at the remodeled Lux Rooms in 2015. (Photo by author)

***

I’ll just go ahead and leave it there for now. To read more about the houses in and around Wallace through the years, you can visit my website: abusinessdoingpleasure.com. Sign up to receive future posts via email and stay updated on the project, which will be published as a book next year. For now, I have overview DVDs on sale for $10.00. Please feel free to ask me questions or share your stories! I’m grateful to be able to share this work with you and it’s such an honor to open for Keith, whose writing I admire very much…

coercion & criminality (morality and sex work part four)

Writers and writing teachers have this saying: you can only get to the universal through the specific. That’s what this post is about: stories of two women in Wallace. The first is about a madam who was convicted for trafficking in 1912, and the second is about a woman who worked in the Arment Rooms for a brief time during the post WWII heyday in the mid-1950s.

I’ve been thinking a lot about sex work and criminality during these past few posts and the discussions they’ve prompted with others in my life. On the one hand: some of the anti-legalization side of the discussion sounds paternalistic, like “you might have thought that you freely chose sex work, but you actually didn’t know what was good for you, girl.” This perspective basically asserts that women unknowingly fall into the trap of prostitution. They are “rescued” and informed that they had been manipulated into thinking that they chose sex work, but in reality they had been trafficked. This language conflates sex work and trafficking. As I have mentioned before, proponents of this point of view often refuse the possibility that any woman could freely choose sex work by referring to all women who sell sex as “prostituted women.”

It reminds me of the moral panic rhetoric leading up to the passage of the Mann Act in 1910. This law made it a federal offense to transport a woman across state lines for “immoral purposes.” It was also called the “white slave traffic act,” a phrase that arose during progressive era social hygiene reform. Many vulnerable women who ran into financial insecurity, often immigrants, were coerced into prostitution and felt unable to leave even when not physically constrained because they would bear the stigma of immorality. From the mostly sensational stories you read about this time, it’s unclear whether many of the women were trafficked or just needed a way out. The Mann Act targeted “procurers” (we would now call them pimps) and declared these “inmates of bawdy houses” victims. The law effectively absolved the women of moral responsibility and framed them as “saved.”

In Wallace, there was a madam named Effie Rogan who ran a house called the Reliance from 1895-1911. Here’s what she looked like in 1906:

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

photo courtesy university of idaho library special collections

Effie’s brothel was located at 510 Pine Street from 1891-1904, at which point she moved to the triangle-shaped patch of land by the river near where the Depot is today. Like many who were selling sex back in these days, her housemates’ occupations were listed as dressmakers and hairdressers during the 1910 census. She was convicted of trafficking under the Mann Act in 1912.

It usually worked like this: procurers and madams lured women into town with promises of marriage or jobs like dressmaking and hairdressing, met them at the train station, then took away their clothes and raped them into feeling demoralized or “ruined.” It was also the case that many women were told they would have to work off their train tickets and then they entered into what amounted to indentured servitude, seldom able to pay off the original debt added to the constantly accruing room and board debt.

As is the case today, many anti-legalization advocates from back in those days had self-serving agendas. They passed around exaggerated stories meant to invoke pity, generate political influence, and of course they were also rewarded with attention and a sense of self-satisfied pleasure. But there were also those who felt called by God or their conscience to be a voice for others. They believed sex workers (or prostituted women) could not speak (or choose) for themselves. This perspective seems somewhat patronizing to me because as it frees the women from moral responsibility to spare them stigma, it also dismisses or invalidates what some women have to say about their experiences. When we conflate trafficking with sex work, I think it does a disservice to the women who believe and assert that they freely chose and continue to choose sex work.

On the other hand: it’s pretty horrible to imagine madams like Effie and her procurer colleagues profiting off of the misery of desperate women whose lives were so wrecked that many of them drank a small bottle of carbolic acid to die. And this situation continues in different ways for many women selling sex today. To legally qualify as a victim of sex trafficking, you have to be recruited, harbored, transported, delivered, or obtained for the purpose of commercial sex through the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Or you have not yet turned 18 years old.

The 530 police records and rap sheets recording the appearance and background of the women working in the Silver Valley’s brothels from 1952-1973 offer evidence that some of them would have likely fallen into the category of trafficking through coercion. Two summers of doing this research has shown me that the conditions for women in Wallace seem to have been generally positive, but in the rest of this post I want to address the kind of conditions that led to the women finding themselves in Wallace in the first place.

The sheriff’s office files confirm that girls were turned away if their record came back from the FBI to reveal they were younger than 21 years old. Some slipped through the cracks, obviously, but there appears to have been an effort that exceeds due diligence. If the rap sheet showed indications of involvement with organized crime, they were also turned away. Some of them were material witnesses for Mann Act cases in other cities. So in terms of the law, some of the women were trafficked, since they had been caught up in Mann Act cases.

Many women had pimps in other towns. This was often noted in their records explicitly, as was the case for a woman who called herself “Kitty Black,” who was born in Chewelah, Washington in 1919 and found herself in Wallace for four months during the summer of 1956:

shoshone county sheriff's office files #705

shoshone county sheriff’s office files #705

The rap sheet notes that she was first picked up by the police in Spokane, Washington in 1940 and fined $25 for “city vag.” (used by many cities as code for prostitution, but it might also indicate homelessness or drug addiction). Eight months later, we find her in Grand Coulee, Washington, where she is again charged with vagrancy and told to leave town. Most likely, there was huge demand for sex work there during this time, when it was essentially a boom town because of the dam, according to the visitor’s guide website:

In the Grand Coulee, life changed dramatically and quickly once work on the dam began in 1933. Not only did the undertaking of this massive project change forever the shape of the river, but overnight it created towns where nothing but sagebrush, sand and rocks had previously existed. Thousands came to the Grand Coulee looking for work in the midst of the Depression. They worked around the clock to finish the dam by 1942.

During World War II, Kitty finds gainful employment with the War Department:

scso file #705

scso file #705

That’s right, she was a Rosie the Riveter. So were MANY of these women. We should really revise our collective understanding of Rosie the Riveter and think more about what happened to the actual women those images stand in for: many were in the sex industry both before and after the war. After all the patriotism and serving our country rhetoric, we were basically like, “thanks and good luck finding another job that pays a comparable wage.”

In 1945, Kitty is picked up for driving while drunk and grand theft in San Bernardino, California. She makes her way to San Diego shortly thereafter, is charged with being drunk, and serves a fifteen-day term in the city jail. Two years later, she’s back in Spokane where she is arrested for “Inv.,” which is short for investigation and means that she wasn’t charged with anything. (Wallace used this code for regulating prostitution. The rap sheets read “Inv” and then the charge was disposed of with the phrase “fingerprinted, mugged, and released,” or sometimes just “fmr.”) There is a noticeable gap between her 1947 Spokane arrest and 1956, when she comes to Wallace at the age of 37 to work in the Arment Rooms, but her record notes that she admits to having been a prostitute in Troy, Montana during 1955.

It’s unclear whether Kitty’s pimp coerced her into the business or whether he found her sometime along the way. Her file notes her pimp lived in Spokane, which is where she was first arrested, so both are possible. When women have pimps, it often indicates coercion—these are men who are incredibly skilled at targeting women, sometimes by trolling the jails and paying for them to be released. Others target young girls with an unstable family life, financial insecurity, runaways, “rebellious” girls, girls who have gained a reputation for sleeping around, or simply women who were raised in a way that was sheltered. These men know how to find and exploit vulnerability. Then they con their marks into thinking that they are loved so it may feel like a boyfriend kind of situation, or, as I mentioned above, they manipulate the women to feel like they can’t do any better, or they threaten to hurt their kids, or the women for whatever reason just feel like they owe these men something (and here I think the historic power of male supremacy in our culture comes into play as well). And then there is also often outright abuse. Lots of women who came through Wallace’s houses had men’s names tattooed on their bodies. These names were not their fathers or brothers or sons. These names were their pimps branding them.

Okay that’s probably enough for this post. Besides evidence that many of the women had pimps, are there other indications of coercion found in the 1952-1973 SCSO body of evidence?

— Many women who found themselves in the Wallace brothels might not have been actively “trafficked,” but likely felt coerced by their financial situation, like they didn’t have better options. The following other crimes show up on their rap sheets: narcotics, burglary, “obtaining money by false pretenses,” shoplifting, forgery, larceny, drunk and disorderly, “justifiable homicide,” drunk in public, embezzling, robbery, stolen credit cards, writing bad checks or “bogus checks.” (Now here I am doing that thing where I’m conflating a bit between trafficking and sex work, but I also believe economic coercion is a very tangible thing.) It’s really easy for just one disruptive life event to lead even a well-functioning, together person into a downward spiral of addiction or simply to knock them into financial insecurity. In Kitty’s case, it looks like she was an alcoholic after the war ended, and needed a means to support herself starting at least by the time she turned twenty-one.

— I need to look more into this, but there are several women who appear to have entered the sex industry from a place in California called the Ventura School for Girls, where they were labeled “wayward girl.” There is one other reference to a girl from an “orphan home,” but it seems unusual to me that this particular Ventura School for Girls shows up several times… Were they just more likely to end up in the sex industry already or was the school selling them off or providing some kind of pipeline? Was there a personal connection through one of the madams? Here’s what a quick search of the googleverses tells me:

The reformatory was a facility for wayward and sexually promiscuous young women; having a daughter incarcerated there was a great shame for any family. “Young women would go to very drastic measures in order to escape going to the Ventura School for Girls because of its bad reputation,” explains historian Elizabeth Escobedo. “There were women at the juvenile hall who… were swallowing safety pins the night before in order to get out of it.”

— And if you want to know more about Gayle Starr’s story, my former colleague and friend BP Morton dug a little more into that: it’s worth a read.

a trojan horse. (morality and sex work part three)

This is the third (and final?) post in my Morality and Sex Work mini-series.

The inspiration for the title comes from the famous story in Greek mythology about “cunning Odysseus” (his epithet in the ancient Greek is mētis, which is also translates to mean “crafty” or “skilled”) hatching a plan to offer a giant wooden horse as an offering to the enemies, who bring the gift into their city, only to be destroyed after those hidden inside the horse crawl out in the dead of night and open the gates for a surprise attack.

It is impossible to talk about sex work and especially morality without getting into some interconnected aspects that are tricky to address…

Trojan Horse in front of the Schilemann Museum in Ankershagen, Germany (photo by Christof Bobzin)

After my post last week, I received two questions/comments via Facebook that I’d like to share here. The first was from my friend, Kristen, who suggested that it is important to consider whether or not working in the sex industry has negative psychological consequences, or is psychologically damaging, even in the most ideal circumstances:

Also, what are the consequences, professional AND relational, for women when they leave the profession, as I’m assuming the vast majority inevitably do. These are the questions I have about porn workers as well.

I bet Kristen is thinking at least in part about Linda Lovelace, whose story—what I know of it from watching Inside Deep Throat and the biopic that came out more recently—was pretty tragic, before, during, and after her experience making that infamous film. She hardly got paid for it and was in an abusive situation. Before dying young, she apparently came to feel like making that movie ruined her life. There are also positive stories like Nina Hartley, for example, who’s spent the last thirty years in porn and is using her celebrity + experience in adult film as a platform for sex education (which is also something that gets said about porn and often is not true, but in this case it is)…

Someone else (who wrote me in a personal message and so I won’t name her here unless she lets me know it’s okay to credit her) also offered some thoughts and questions:

How likely is it that these ladies had experienced sexual abuse, physical abuse, and/or neglect as children before ending up in these Wallace “whorehouses” (most of the people I knew growing up in Wallace referred to them as such). I also wonder how many of them experienced being involved with a pimp prior to their employment in Wallace. And what about the part of drug/alcohol abuse and it’s impact on the women? Recently watched A Path Appears on Independent Lens and made me think of you and your blog. Sex trafficking articles abound which speak to the above abuses among prostitutes. I wonder about the damage done to them before they ever started prostitution. I wonder what emotional, physical, psychological, spiritual and then possibly financial state they were in when they made this decision or if they really had a choice. Or if their choice was taken away and if their worth was stripped before they “decided” to become a prostitute. Or perhaps they were runaways and met a pimp who helped them into the business.

I hadn’t seen A Path Appears, so I watched it this past weekend while I was snowed in (it’s available to on Amazon Instant, if you missed it on TV or would rather stream it). For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s the follow-up to Half the Sky, a morality-based and economic-based argument for the value of empowering women, by journalists Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristof. Their argument in Half the Sky was basically that if we aren’t enabling the talent, intelligence, and skills of half the people in the world (women and girls), we are missing out on huge opportunities and contributions. They have found evidence that education and economic opportunity are lasting solutions that recruit others and have a ripple effect on everyone in the community.

In A Path Appears, Kristof and WuDunn have zoomed in to try to better understand specific challenges and offer solutions by pointing us toward models that are working to make a difference (in a world where “talent is universal, but opportunity is not”). It’s a three part documentary, with the first part specifically addressing sex trafficking in the U.S., the second part addressing poverty in West Virginia, Haiti, and Colombia, and the third part going into solutions that respond effectively to intimate partner violence in Atlanta, Georgia and sexual violence in the home in Kenya.

I liked that the documentary series was both about what’s going on in other countries as well as what’s happening right here in the U.S., especially regarding sex trafficking: it highlights the vulnerability of the girls who are targeted, offers law enforcement strategies that don’t repeat the trauma or engage in victim-blaming, and showcases nonprofits helping survivors build new lives. The title is taken from a saying written in 1921 by Lu Xun about how hope is like a path through the countryside: at first you can’t see a way but then after enough people begin to walk the same way again and again, a path (or solution) appears.

Here are some quotes I found compelling and wrote down as I watched:

“I don’t think most Americans appreciate how much or how brutal the sex trafficking is right here at home.”

“The bootcamp for prostitution is child rape.”

“If that’s your choice, what are the options? The truth is it takes a lot of failed communities to get them out there [on the streets], and it takes communities to bring them back [to safety].”

We need to put the shame back onto the abusers where it belongs.

Vulnerability, childhood trauma, addiction, neglect, and abuse in the home create “this horrible maelstrom” of feeling “trapped and forced into prostitution.” Drugs, prostitution, trafficking, “it’s all so interwoven,” that a victimless crime business arrangement between consenting adults is not the reality.

“He knew better than i did that all i wanted was to have a family and to be loved…. I was arrested 167 times and he was arrested zero. And I would have done life in prison before testifying against that man [her pimp]…. There has to be a better way.”

There are 10 times as many johns as there are people selling sex, but 60% of arrests are the women. “If there were no johns there would be no prostitution…. There are an awful lot of men who buy sex and have a lot to lose.”

Regarding an economic empowerment solution: “The products we’re making are a by-product of what we’re trying to do.”

Over and over again, the stories we see feature women who were not really choosing to sell sex, but often were running away from instability in the home, introduced to prostitution by parents or other family members, and survivors of sexual abuse of some kind. The producers make the argument that investing in prevention and providing holistic long-term answers through rescue, safe houses, and skills training, creating jobs, is much cheaper than criminalizing the women and sending them to prison at the same time as it also intervenes into the cycle of abuse and/or poverty.

One thing really sticks with me at this point. Some of the girls said that they didn’t realize until later that they had been sexually abused, since their family members were the ones perpetrating the violence when they were young (I’m thinking back to the story of the woman I talked about in my Provisional Diagnosis: Prostitution post), and several mentioned not knowing they’d been trafficked, essentially because they hadn’t named it as such until it was diagnosed as such by others after they had been able to extract themselves. This is at least in part a testament to the psychological manipulation and skilled control of the men (they are mostly men) who target vulnerable girls and women they can live off of.

Which brings me back to the Trojan horse. Some things are not what they seem to be, and it appears likely that many sex work situations at this point in time, at least in the U.S., are not what we could call freely chosen, but rather the byproduct of a trafficking situation, which involves “force, fraud or coercion,” and also “manipulation, control,” according to Kate Mogulescu in the film. In the U.S. at this point in time, I don’t know if there is room in the solution for a more libertarian legalization answer until we better address difficult systemic problems like poverty, addiction, violence in the home, child abuse, and rape. I have not been to Germany, but it sounds like that country’s brothel-based model features some aspects that appear to be more positive, and I’ve heard that in London they have a decriminalized and mostly escort-based system that might also be more positive system, but I don’t know if that’s reality or not.

On the other hand, this is also a trojan horse because many people advancing the sex trafficking argument are actually conflating sex trafficking with sex work, focusing not on people who *do* freely choose sex work, but instead generalizing out to them using the experiences of the ones who have been trafficked. And others conflate labor trafficking with sex trafficking (LSE paper, I’m looking at you). More on all of this in a later post…

Another reason this post is a Trojan horse is that it wasn’t really about sex work in the Silver Valley. So in the next post I’ll return to the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office files and talk about this stuff specifically in the case of Wallace.

“just like any other business”? (morality and sex work part two)

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…

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masters of sex, serial, and telling real people’s stories (morality and sex work part one)

“You pretended to have an orgasm? Is that a common practice among prostitutes?”

“It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat.[…]”

“But why, why would a woman lie about something like that?”

“Gawd almighty, this is… Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you but only cause I like you and you seem real dedicated about your project with your penguin suit and all, with the charts and the timer, but seriously, if you really want to learn about sex then you’re gonna have to get yourself a female partner.”

Masters of Sex, Pilot, 2013

I was just re-reading provisional diagnosis: prostitution because I was thinking about how I didn’t get around to the main point I originally intended to discuss when I began that post. I wanted to say something more about the ethics of telling real people’s stories. Since then, I’ve checked out a couple relevant items of pop culture my friends told me about and revisited two books I read over the summer:

1. the Showtime series, Masters of Sex (based on a book about revolutionary human sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson),

2. the new podcast series, Serial, which re-investigates the murder of a teenage girl in 1999,

3. Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the famous early 20th century-era Chicago brothel, and

4. Alexa Albert’s Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women.

I’ve only seen four episodes of Masters of Sex, and so far I’ve been drawn in by the subject matter, of course, but I’ve also been impressed by the show’s attention to the research itself. The exchange I quoted above, which occurs between Dr. Bill Masters and a woman he found in one of St. Louis’s brothels, illustrates just one important role sex workers played in his initial research. Although the TV version changes things a bit, according to Maier’s book, it was the suggestion of one college-educated woman “‘amplifying her income for an impending marriage’ by dabbling in the sex trade” that “changed everything” for Masters (82), opening his eyes to the importance of finding a female research partner. [Sidenote: I thought Lizzy Caplan was awesome in Mean Girls and True Blood, but she’s really a great match for this role, as Gini Johnson.] I love how the first few episodes highlight the simultaneous importance and difficulty of studying or talking about sex in a culture that is mostly square and/or opposed to women having sex outside the confines of marriage.

After listening to the first two episodes of Serial, I have been inspired by the production quality–Sarah Koenig’s storytelling is compelling and experiments with the podcast genre in cool ways–and I’ve also been drawn into the meta-level-story-about-the-story, which involves real life people. A recent article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian features the following commentary about the consequences of documenting the lives of living people:

“But in the post-listening haze, as I poked around myself and discovered the social media undergrowth amassing under it, I began to have questions about what I was participating in. Serial is, after all, not a work of fiction. It is about real people.”

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