Let’s Talk About Sex (Work) | Sarah Stook

It’s the world’s oldest profession.

Our views of prostitution had been shaped by media over time. Prostitutes in fictional media land into several characters, depending on the work and their circumstances:

The Willing Prostitute:

  • Vivian Ward, Pretty Woman (1990). Portrayed by Julia Roberts, her character became a prostitute after running away from home at a young age. She’s not too keen in breaking out of her profession and is open about it, though she secretly harbours wishes about finding her prince on a white horse. Vivian is independent and intelligent, never kissing on the mouth and insisting on condoms. Her character is not a sad, unlucky woman drawn into the clutches of street work, but someone taking it as a living.
  • Sabine, Moulin Rouge (2001). A beautiful dancer in the infamous Moulin Rouge, Sabine is more than willing to use sex to further her profession. This changes as the film progresses, but she is initially confident in her role.
  • Mona Stangley, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Not a prostitute, but a madam, Stangley is open about her business whilst the townsfolk either ignore the brothel or actively use it. Though outsiders are horrified, the brothel itself is treated as a status quo part of the town, with even the police turning a blind eye.
  • Ros, Game of Thrones (2011). A redhead and one of the main prostitutes portrayed in the show, she is a manipulative and cunning woman who uses her skills to survive. An ally of Littlefinger, she uses her job to gain power for herself. She is literate. Her clients include some of the most important men in Westeros. Character Shae is also a prostitute, but her origins are unknown- though she doesn’t seem to be too upset by her situation.


The Forced Prostitute:

  • Fantine, Les Miserables (1862). Impregnated by a wealthy man, he left her to marry in his social class. Originally a factory worker, Fantine left her daughter Cosette in the care of a pair of innkeepers. The innkeepers lie and ask for more money than needed. After Fantine rejects a foreman, her secret is revealed and she is cast out. With no choice, Fantine turns to prostitution. Her beautiful hair is cut off and her teeth are pulled. She faces horrible clients and cruel co-workers.
  • Hattie and Violet, Pretty Baby (1978). Hattie and Violet are mother and daughter, the former a prostitute. Though Hattie is matter of fact about her position, she wishes to leave it and marries to escape. She still bids her twelve year old daughter’s virginity, a girl who wants no part in it.

The presentation of prostitution in the media will affect views. Pretty Woman is a nice rom-com, but it covers drug dealing, murder (a girl is found dead early in the film, presumably killed by a client) and rape (a character is nearly raped by a man who thinks that as a prostitute, she can’t say no). Prostitutes in Game of Thrones are side characters to show the morals of other characters, treated well if they’re smart/good or dismissed by cruel clients. Sabine is willing to use her body, but as the film continues, she dreams of escape and of the true love she has found. Mona merely uses prostitution as a business venture, with sex work just seen as an exchange between two people. Hattie is willing to sell her daughter, but still wants to escape and does want her daughter to come with her. Violet is a victim of circumstance and parenting. Fantine is also a victim- impregnated by a man who left her, mother of a bastard child in the early 19th century and cast out for rejecting the sexual harassment of a man more powerful than she. Prostitution is either a whole good, a joke where a character orders a good time for a friend, or a true evil where woman are exploited due to their desperation.


Real Life:

Prostitution is known as the world’s oldest profession. In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, prostitutes were legal and powerful in their own right. It was not until the middle ages when prostitution became taboo in most of the world, even though many wealthy men used it whilst forbidding sex outside of marriage for women. Some cultures used concubines, a similar concept. It did depend on culture though, as young men were used as ‘masseuses’ in Ottoman era Turkey. In India, girls were sold to houses of worship in order to give their life to deities, though they were in fact temple prostitutes.


Major Cases:

Contagious Diseases Act- Originally passed in 1864, with changes made in 1866 and 1869, the law allowed police to arrest suspected prostitutes in ports and army towns, where they had servicemen clientele (most were unmarried, there was often forced celibacy and open homosexuality was not an option). When arrested, prostitutes were checked for STIs (then known as venereal diseases) and if found to be affected were imprisoned in lock hospitals for treatments. They could initially be kept for three months, then for a year. In the year of the first act, one in three causes of illness in the military were from sexually transmitted infections. The act was brought in to curb this, as the condition of the barracks was also unsanitary.

Whilst the prostitutes themselves were criminalised, no action was made against clients. This case was one of the first to lead to activism, with normal citizens- including respectable Victorian women- forming groups to protest against it. Those against it tended to be women’s rights organisers and proponents of civil liberties.

The most famous campaigner was Josephine Butler, who also fought against child prostitution and human trafficking. Butler focused her campaign on working class men, outraged by the treatment poor women faced and the action against women, who were seen as pure in society’s eyes. She eventually succeeded.



Eliza Armstrong Case- W T Stead was a prominent 19th and 20th century investigative journalist. As part of an exposé into who white slavery, he was put into contact with an alcoholic named Elizabeth Armstrong. He offered to take her daughter Eliza as a domestic service, though it was known Eliza would be sold into prostitution. £5 was given in exchange for the 13 year old. She was then tested for virginity and drugged. Stead pretended that he’d raped her before leaving, whereupon Eliza was taken to France to be cared for by the Salvation Army.

Stead published the story, though it was initially censored due to the horrifying content (he didn’t sugar coat it). The public was horrified, but it had unintended consequences for Stead, who was charged with assault and abduction. It did bring change though- the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 was passed which raised the age of consent to sixteen and made it an offence to prostitute girls via forced means amongst others.

W T Stead died on the Titanic- he gave his place on a lifeboat away and gave away his lifejacket. He drowned, having last been seen holding onto a raft along with famous industrialist John Jacob Astor. The later life of Eliza Armstrong is unknown, though she was sent to be trained as a servant.


Bacha Bazi- An Afghan term for the sexual relationship between older men and young boys, something common in a country where homosexuality can get you killed (but not marrying nine year olds apparently). The boys are child prostitutes or even sex slaves, with many of the children being forced into it. Illegal under Afghan law, increased to the death penalty under the Taliban, it is not enforced due to the power of the warlords and elders involved.


Types of Prostitution:

  • Street Walkers- When people think of prostitutes, they most often think of skimpily dressed women on street corners, offering a good time to passing men and cars. Though we commonly think of street walkers when we think of prostitutes, they are only the minority, but the majority of those arrested due to their visibility. Their relations mainly take place in motels, paid by the hour hotel rooms or even cars.
  • E-Sex- This is the newest form of prostitution, though phone sex is older than other types. Chat rooms are possible, in which messages are exchanged- safer than physical contact for both client and prostitute. Cam girls are becoming increasingly popular, with those women able to earn a lot of money and presents. They often work on commission, with studios taking a fee.
  • Call Girl/Escort- These women advertise their services online or in places like phone boxes. Some are employed by escort agencies, but others work independently. These services can take place in homes, hotels and other locations.
  • Brothels- A place where prostitution occurs, often disguised as massage parlours and strip clubs. Madams are in charge, whilst pimps tend to work on the outside. Brothels are not as open as they would have been many years before, with stronger societal views against prostitution and changes in society. Due to this, most will hide their business unless they are in a country where it is legal.
  • Hustlers/Gigolos- Male prostitutes. Hustlers are the streetwalkers, though they are a minority as compared to women on the streets. Gigolos are the male equivalent of call girls, operating independently. They are often more of a social person than a one night equivalent, being paid to be a companion of an older woman, though sex is part of it.
  • Window Girls- Common in Amsterdam and other liberal surrounding areas, it is a simple concept- prostitutes solicit from the window. The customer will knock on the window, at which point the prostitute will explain her services and charges. These windows lead to a small back area and the curtains only close when the woman is with a customer.
  • Sex Tourism- Though the women are not specifically there as sex tourist prostitutes, most of them will attempt to attract foreigners. These women operate in tourist areas, often hanging out at bars or in the streets. Some are poor women who have migrated to the big cities whilst others were sold by their families or trafficked into it. In countries where it is prominent, officials will turn a blind eye as it boosts tourism- they may even partake in it.
  • Child Prostitutes- Any prostitute under the age of consent, commonly set as 18 under international law (though not in national law). Most child prostitutes are victims of slavery, trafficking, trickery or the need to survive. The worst countries for child sex trafficking are Thailand, Brazil, India and Mexico. Child prostitutes are often part of sex tourism, as many visitors are looking for countries with more liberal laws or less stringent law enforcement.

What do Prostitutes go through?

Prostitutes are often victims of violence. Some think that it is not possible to rape or sexually assault a prostitute because of their profession, but that is of course untrue. For example:

  • Sex workers have a 32 to 55% chance of experiencing sexual violence in the year.
  • Many are assaulted by the police. 24% of Chicago street workers have been raped by police. That number is around 60% in Bangladesh. In Kyrgyzstan, 90% of sex workers have been sexually assaulted by cops.
  • Half of sex workers in Phnom Penh had been beaten by the police.
  • Due to the less than secure nature of their work, many sex workers are victims of serial killers. The most famous of these are Jack the Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe and the Ipswich strangler, but there are others.
  • They are often robbed by clients or not paid for services rendered.
  • When prostitutes do report abuse to the police, they are not investigated properly, ignored by them, sexually assaulted or arrested themselves.
  • Many are victims of PTSD from attacks.
  • It is particularly dangerous for transgender sex workers, especially in Latin America.
  • Men are also victims– 12% of British male sex workers have been sexually assaulted in the past five years and 70% say they wouldn’t report to the police.
  • Sex workers are thirteen times more likely to have HIV than the average population. They make up to 9% of new infections, though that number is higher in parts of Asia and Africa.


Various Legalisations:

There are five different types of legislation, ranging from the most lenient to the very strictest:

  • Decriminalisation- Sex work is totally legal, and advocates believe it to be labour. Example- New Zealand.
  • Regulation- Sex work is legal, but it is regulated, unlike in the decriminalisation charity. Example- The Netherlands
  • Abolitionism- Sex work such as brothel keeping and pimping are illegal, but prostitution as an act isn’t. Example- Britain
  • Neo-Abolitionism- Sex work is again illegal, but prostitution isn’t. Prostitutes are immune from the law, but clients are. This is called ‘the Nordic model.’ Example- Sweden.
  • Prohibitionism- Sex work and prostitution is illegal. Using services is illegal. Both parties are seen as immoral. Example- Russian.


What do we do?

It’s not an easy topic to tackle. Our focus shouldn’t be on crackdowns or super liberalisation, but on protecting sex workers from crime. Prohibitionism, for example, discourages sex workers from reporting crime out of fear of arrest and incarceration.

Society itself is also to blame. People think that sex workers aren’t as deserving of rights and dismiss them if they are victims of sexual assault. Police workers often ignore them or are even predators. If the victim is not seen as a ‘pure’, good woman, then she is apparently unworthy of protection. In the case of male prostitutes, then there is still a stigma around the sexual assault of males.

Conservatives have much more resignations about sex work than liberals do in terms of legislation. That’s understandable, but it’s something that needs to be talked about. No person on the street deserves to be robbed, raped and abused, whoever they are or what they do.

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