Marhoefer, Laurie. “Degeneration, Sexual Freedom, and the Politics of the Weimar Republic, 1918-1933.” German Studies Review 34, no. 3 (2011): 529–49.
Prostitution is often viewed in feminist theory as the sine qua non of the female condition under patriarchy. Frequently cited as ‘the absolute embodiment of patriarchal male privilege’ (Kesler, 2002: 19), the highly gendered nature of commercial sex appears to offer a graphic example of male domination, exercised through the medium of sexuality.
This construction is, however, as convincing as it is problematic. By reviewing the work of Shelia Jeffries, Judith Walkowitz, Gail Pheterson, Shannon Bell, Jo Doezema, Kamala Kempadoo and Jo Phoenix, I aim to illustrate that feminist writers, by assuming different theoretical lenses, offer diverse interpretations of the subject of prostitution – both in terms of women’s subjective positions and as a problem of a particular type. Prostitution therefore rather than having a singular meaning is more usefully viewed as an important crucible for testing the central mainstays of feminist theory. As Donna Guy notes:
Full of apparent contradictions and discrepancies, the history of modern prostitution control offers a dynamic perspective on the private lives of women as well as the public functioning of medicine, patriarchy and the nation state and emphasizes the need to understand how gender and sexuality are interrelated inextricably to race, cultural diversity and economic circumstances. (Guy, 1995: 182)
As this quotation suggests, and as I will demonstrate in the course of this article, there are limitations in viewing prostitution as straightforwardly paradigmatic, given the contingencies and diversity of the structures under which its materializes.
For female street sex workers in Britain, selling sex means managing risks. Violence from male clients, harassment from community protesters and criminalisation through overpolicing are daily hazards on the street. Using qualitative data and extensive field observations of the street market in Birmingham, UK, it is argued in this paper that street sex workers do not passively accept these risks but, instead, manage occupational hazards by manipulating, separating, controlling and resisting urban spaces. Women actively use space to inform their collective and individual working practices to minimise harm and maximise profits. However, the findings conclude that sites of street prostitution are made increasingly dangerous for women through punitive policing policies, conservative heterosexual discourses and a lack of realistic prostitution policy that addresses the central issues relating to commercial sex.
In the wake of the FBI’s attack on organized prostitution operating out of exclusive call houses in the late 1930s, which, according to J. Edgar Hoover, “had revealed that powerful vice rings operate in almost every large city in the country,” a sex worker named Linda Robertson from Minneapolis wrote a letter to the bureau chief defending her right to engage in prostitution.1 Proclaiming herself to be “a common prostitute. Clean, healthy, in fine physical condition,” she pointed to her educational background, her ability to rationally choose prostitution in a sex-segregated job market, and the fact that her employers looked after her interests as evidence that she provided a service “necessary to our social structure.” Of her customers, she had this to say: “Lawyers, Priests, business-men, social lions, scions of pioneer families, city and state officials and officers of the Law form the bulk of our customers. They demand superior girls and they get them.” She concluded her note by signing off: “So in the future wouldn’t it be more sportsmanlike to leave us to our devices and let those who actually think they have cause arrest us?”2 Robertson believed the FBI’s crackdown on elite call houses to be hopelessly naive, needlessly interventionist, and perhaps hypocritical in that it criminalized what Robertson believed to be a victimless crime; it targeted only the upper echelons of the commercial sex market, which catered exclusively to the wealthy and well-connected customers, like the ones that Robertson described.
Though Hoover suspected the letter might be a hoax, he still shared it with Courtney Ryley Cooper, a well-known journalist of true crime articles [End Page 137] and books who served informally as a publicist for the FBI by working closely with Hoover. From 1933 to 1942 Cooper collaborated with Hoover to polish the public image of the FBI; he operated as “Hoover’s most important ghostwriter of the 1930s” while also publishing books and articles celebrating the work of the FBI under his own name.3 Cooper reprinted the most sensational parts of the letter as the opening vignette in his 1939 exposé of prostitution,Designs in Scarlet. In that vignette, Cooper recalled what Hoover had said when he handed over the letter: “[Note] the viewpoint. The idea that a well-educated, apparently otherwise decent girl may look upon prostitution as an envied profession.”4 Hoover believed that it was the FBI’s responsibility to protect silly girls like Linda Robertson from the venal people who profited from their degradation. In providing Cooper with this letter, Hoover was mounting a defense against those accusing him of unsportsmanlike, or overly interfering, tactics in his antivice campaigns.
The FBI began investigating call house prostitution in the fall of 1935, and Hoover announced a nationwide attack on vice rings—criminal networks devoted to profiting off of prostitution—in February 1936. For the remainder of that year newspapers across the country routinely published articles about the G-men’s daring exploits against organized vice and their targeting of the madams—frequently called “vice queens”—who profited from New York City’s sex marketplace. Sensational headlines abounded: “Blonde Indicted as White Slaver,” “Bad News for Vice Queen,” and “Women Unfold Sordid Story in Slave Case.”5 In the FBI’s telling, Hoover’s FBI sought to protect the hearts of innocent, naive, white girls from the machinations of madams consumed with greed, ambition, and perversity. According to Hoover, these madams were particularly dangerous because they acted as procurers, “inducing the victims to transport themselves interstate” and violating the federal White Slave Traffic Act, commonly known as the Mann Act.6
For more than a century, prostitution in Vancouver, British Columbia has been at the centre of legal and political debate, policing, media coverage, and policy-making. From 1975 to 1985, a heterogeneous, pimp-free community of sex workers lived and worked on and around Davie Street in the city’s emerging ‘gay’ West End. Their presence sparked a vigorous backlash, including vigilante action, from multiple stake-holders intent on transforming the port town into a ‘world class city’ and venerable host of the World’s Fair, ‘Expo 1986’. In this article, drawing from interviews and archival material, I examine the abolitionist strategies adopted by Vancouver’s residents’ groups, business owners, politicians, and police to criminalize street solicitation and evacuate prostitutes who, in small numbers, ‘whorganized’ to fight back. The collective disavowal of sex workers as citizens was premised on the ‘cleansing’ of the zone under siege, which became whitened and made safe for bourgeois (queer) capitalism, with lethal consequences for outdoor sex workers in the city.
This paper problematizes the representation of sex work(ers) through examination of two case studies. Drawing on the existing theoretical literature on sex work and working through the lens of intersectionality and interlocking analysis, this study uses the two case studies as illustrations of the way in which representations of sex workers online can normalize sex work, complicate images of sex work, and help to open up a dialogue about sex work in the public sphere.