Last week I caught up with the movie Careless Love. Written by John Duigan it’s about a Sydney university student called Linh played by Nammi Le who works at night as a sex worker to help her immigrant family with their mortgage. Basically it’s just a contemporary expose of a university student/prostitute’s life without any analysis of the institution that is prostitution.
John Duigan decided to write Careless Love after reading a series of reports on how university students were turning to prostitution to cope with the rising cost of living and university fees. Duigan says that he didn’t set out to write a story about sexual slavery or drug abuse, or to depict sex work as glamorous. He was equally determined that Linh wasn’t regarded as a victim. Careless Love presents prostitution as a choice for young women to make; delivering greater income than the usual part-time work available for university students such as waitressing.
Last week there was a plethora of stories in the media about sex work with workers and their supporters arguing for the practice’s legitimacy. The first of these articles concerned the Melbourne Festival of Sex Work. To note the occasion, local sex workers intent on demystifying their profession appeared on a panel open to the public. The Age reports that at the Secret Society Bar in Bourke Street a porn star, an escort, a tantric practitioner, a dominatrix and a rent boy invited members of the public to ask any question about their sex work in exchange for a gold coin donation. Then there was an opinion piece written by Wendy Squires. In Selling your body, not your soul, Squires defends her prostitute friend whom she says is ‘not manipulating affections or promising more than can be delivered.’ Rather she’s ‘a businesswoman exchanging sex for money in a legal and safe environment.’
In Careless Love, Linh is an intelligent and beautiful young woman who chooses to do escort work in an effort to pay for her family’s mortgage. Linh is portrayed as strong and in control of her life and her clients. For her, the process of moving into prostitution and exiting happens seamlessly. She is not a victim, for the idea of the prostituted woman as without ‘agency’ is no longer politically correct. According to Ekman, author of Prostitution, the abolition of the victim and post-modernism’s defence of the status-quo, to be a victim is now regarded as shameful. Referring to someone as a victim, according to the post-modernists, is to deny them their ‘agency’.
“To be able to defend that women sell their bodies (and that men buy them) one must first abolish the victim and instead redefine the prostitute as a sex worker, a strong woman who knows what she wants, a businesswoman. The sex worker becomes a sort of new version of the ‘happy hooker’.
But a ‘happy hooker’ is not the experience of prostitutes who don’t have this so-called choice. In reality, prostitution is a job where 71% of women have been subjected to physical violence; 63% have been raped while in prostitution and 89% want to leave and would do so if they could. Women in prostitution have a death rate 40 times higher than the average and are 16 times more likely to be murdered.
If the only information about sex work is obtained from our current media then the purchase of women’s bodies for sex will continue to be regarded as normal. But rather than prostitution being inevitable and unstoppable, it is ‘socially constructed out of men’s dominance and women’s subordination’ (Jeffreys 1997, 3).
When Linh’s double life is finally revealed there is disapproval mostly from her family but also from her boyfriend. Her parents are ashamed that they have been rescued by prostitution money and her boyfriend tries unsuccessfully to forgive and forget. But why is it that the prostitute, and in this case Linh who is condemned for her part in the prostitution contract? What about the men who use her and the millions of other women who are trafficked and prostituted.
These recent media depictions of sex work leave so much to be desired.
References: Jeffreys, S 1997, The Idea of Prostitution, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne.