Prostitutes as Workers

By Daniels, Kay | Hecate, November 30, 1983 | Go to article overview

Prostitutes as Workers


Daniels, Kay, Hecate


Eileen McLeod is an academic working in the Department of Applied Social Studies at the University of Warwick. An ex-probation officer, many of whose clients had been street prostitutes, McLeod has been an activist in an organisation known as PROS (the Programme for Reform of the Law on Soliciting); her book comes out of that campaign and was written as a contribution to it.

The PROS campaign is one of a variety of prostitute campaigns which have developed in Europe and America in the last decade and which have taken as their goal decriminalisation: the abolition of legislation which discriminates against women working as prostitutes. In the USA, COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics) was set up in 1973 by Margot St. James and was one of the first of these groups. In France in 1975, prostitutes occupied churches as a protest at police harrassment. The British campaign began too in the mid-1970s with the advent of a group which, in search of an eyecatching acronym, came up with the unfortunate name of PUSSI (Prostitutes United for Social and Sexual Integration. PROS started the following year in Birmingham and was made up of working prostitutes and radical professionals from the legal/welfare field.

Women Working is not the first book to come out of the prostitute campaign but it is different in some important ways from the others and has a specific contribution to make to the contemporary discussion of prostitution. Both the French campaign and the British have produced books by male writers which atttempt to look at prostitution through the words of the women themselves. Out of the French women's occupation of the churches came a collection of interviews and writing put together by Claude Jaget, a journalist on the newspaper Liberation, and published in English in 1980 as Prostitutes Our Life. In England, the establishing of the prostitutes' campaign was even more closely associated with the publication of a book, for the occasion of the launching of PUSSI (later renamed PLAN) was also the occasion of the launching of Prostitutes by Jeremy Sandford (author of the film-scripts Cathy Come Home and Edna the Inebriate Woman) who, with one of the chief interviewees in his book, Helen Buckingham, originated the new organisation. Sandford's book enables women to speak for themselves (albeit within a format which is journalistic and sometimes sensationalist) about their experiences of working as prostitutes, and Sandford himself argued for decriminalisation and an end to `hypocrisy.'

The `book of the campaign' is not, then, a totally novel phenomenon. There have been books before McLeod's that have broken with the tradition of observing prostitutes as mute objects of study, books which reflect the new politics of prostitution in which women working as prostitutes have begun to organise, speak out and use the media to put over their case for change. Where McLeod's book is different is that this is an academic book which comes out of the campaign (not a piece of journalism) and it is a book in which priority is given not to revealing the experience of prostitutes but to analysing their work and suggesting changes in the law which could benefit them as workers. Though Women Working makes extensive and careful use of interviews with prostitutes (and with clients) it uses them to quite different effect from those which appear in Sandford and Jaget, reducing their latent sensationalism by inserting them as excerpts in a broader argument. The result is still a powerful argument for decriminalisation but an argument which relies more on understatement than sensationalism. This tendency to play down (though certainly not ignore) some of the more painful and sordid aspects of prostitution seems to be a deliberate and strategic intention: the more prostitution can be shown to be like other work women do (even to the point that it begins to look mundane), and the more prostitutes can be shown to be ordinary women merely compelled by circumstances to take up this occupation ('ordinary' women, perhaps even `respectable' women), then the greater the likelihood that the laws relating to street prostitution will be changed. …

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