Prostitution, Feminism and Critical Praxis: profession prostitute?

Dr Maggie O'Neill

in The Austrian Journal of Sociology, special edition on Work and Society, edited by Johanna Hofbauer and Jorg Flecker, winter 1996.

"it becomes such a closed circuit..because it is not a job you can go out and admit to the have the friends you work with..and they become the friends you go out in the end you stay within the one circuit.. society looks down on prostitutes morally like its wrong and its not wrong" Jane (excerpt from a life history interview 1992)


In this paper I will explore the fact that prostitution is experienced and articulated as sex work for some women in contemporary society. In doing so I am interested in how women 'make out' in sex work, that is to say, in negotiating the relationship between psychic processes and social processes, between self and the wider social world. 'Making out' in prostitution will be explored through excerpts from life history narratives conducted with female prostitutes between 1990 and 1994. These narratives focus upon routes into prostitution, making out in prostitution, male violence against women working as prostitutes. They reveal the resistances women engage in in order to maintain stable self identities whilst labelled and treated as 'other' as marginal and criminal through the operation of what Gail Pheterson (1986) has called the 'whore stigma'.

This paper also seeks to locate the experiences, needs, meanings and practices of female prostitutes within socio-economic and historical contexts. There have been shifts in the social organisation of prostitution from tradition to later modernity (Welzer-Lang 1993;O'Neill 1996). Current discourse on prostitution has shifted its location from within a socio-legal discourse towards a feminist discourse centred initially upon violence and pornography and more latterly upon work, rights and human liberties (Jennes 1993). Such shifts can be examined within critical theoretical debates upon de-traditionalization, risk and the disembedding of many taken for granted social experiences, practices, processes and structures.

My central thesis here is that we must engage in research with women in order to make better sense of women's lived experiences contextualised within an understanding of the sociology of work, the feminization of poverty, as well as the rise of the prostitutes rights movement who are demanding that prostitution be accepted as work and that female prostitutes be given the same rights and liberties as other workers. This essay is part of a larger project which is rooted in feminist participatory action research (influenced by the work of Maria Mies, Jalna Hanmer, the work of the Rights of Women Collective in London and Orlando Fals Borda). Feminist participatory action research is, for me, about creating the intellectual and practical spaces for women's voices to be heard and listened to and is also about revealing the inter-relations between women's lived experiences, feminist research and feminist theory. Feminist participatory action research is feminist praxis. Working with the stereotypical subjects of research in order to better understand their working lives and to work with them to develop changes in public attitudes and social policies can have transformative consequences for all those involved.

The relationship between theory, experience and practice is of vital importance to such work. Jose Ortega y Gasset uses the concept of 'erlebnis'.

"Through experiencing something we intuitively apprehend its essence, we feel enjoy and understand it as a reality, and we thereby place our being in a wider more fulfilling context...such an experience called vivencia in Spanish is complemented by another idea:that of authentic commitment resulting from historical materialism and classical Marxism...'Philosophers should not be content with just explaining the world, but should try to transform it'" (Orlando Fals Borda 1988,p87-88.)

For Fals Borda, participatory action research is a combination of experience and commitment. Maria Mies (1991) talks about the integration of research in the emancipatory process. Mies shows how women confronting 'other women' and the reality of their lives raises questions about themselves, the situation of other women, their value systems, and how an 'unlearning' can take place of that which women previously accepted as 'natural' 'normal'. Bringing subjectivity and concern into the research process helps women to better understand and also to question their own situations and the situations of other women. A key concept for Mies is 'partial identification', "the recognition of that which binds me to other women as well as that which separates me". A combination of experience and commitment is important to the development of participatory action research with female prostitutes. My current work centres around the need to develop grass roots initiatives to ensure better networks of support to female prostitutes; to facilitate options other than prostitution for those who want to leave prostitution; and to facilitate a better understanding of routes into prostitution from local authority care Footnote1 in order to develop interventionary strategies.

Historical Context

The prostitute as 'other' needs to be explored in its historical context, as does the very cultural practice of prostitution - which is a universal cultural practice. Traditionally conducted within the public sphere prostitution is most prolific within major cities for historical reasons and the economics of the market or industry and is inevitably tied to politics. The effects of Victorian morality and the social purity movement together with the social organisation of gender relations have in Britain created a legacy, enshrined in law with Wolfendon and subsequent sexual and street offences legislation (see Walkowitz 1982; Mcleod 1982) which punish the prostitute but are ineffective at sanctioning the client or pimp, and furthermore, claim concern for her welfare. It is women's sexuality that is scorned and regulated. Men are both the purchasers of sex and those who own manage and control the wider sex industry. It is time we turned our attention to the men involved in prostitution (see Mary McIntosh 1978 and Maggie O'Neill 1993.)

The history of prostitution is one of immense contradictions as the prostitute is a figure represented in varying guises: whore/priestess, whore/goddess,whores achieved a certain level of autonomy leading to education and status within Ancient Greek society; whores became bad girls especially as the growth of christianity and later protestantism contrasted the ideal of the good wife and mother with bad girl and sinner; increasingly within the Victorian period ideals of social purity and morality contrasted with dire economic poverty for working class/underclass women involved in a prolific sex for sale market, particularly in London (see Roberts N 1992; Henriques F 1962; Zola E 1972; Kishtainy K 1982; Walkowitz J 1982.) Whores are part of the patriarchal imagination re-appearing in fantasies both sacred and profane. Gustave Flaubert from a letter to Louise Colet, in 1853

It may be a perverse taste, but I love prostitution, for itself, independently of what is beneath. I've never been able to see one of those women in d{Special Char 142 in Font "Times"}collet{Special Char 142 in Font "Times"} pass by under the gaslights, in the rain, without feeling palpitations, just as monks' robes with their knotted girdles arouse my spirits in some ascetic and deep corner. There is, in this idea of prostitution, a point of intersections so complex - lust, bitterness, the void of human relations, the frenzy of muscles and the sound of gold - that looking deeply into it makes you dizzy; and you learn of so many things! And you are so sad! And you dream so well of love! Ah, writers of elegies, it is not on ruins that you should go to lean your elbows but on the breasts of these gay women!

Yes, something is lacking in a man who has never awoken in a nameless bed, who has not seen asleep on his pillow a head that he will not see again, and who, leaving at sunrise, has not passed bridges longing to throw himself in the water, since life seemed to be rising up in belches from the depths of his heart to his head. If it were only for the shameless dress, the temptation of the chimera, the unknown, the caract{Special Char 143 in Font "Times"}re maudit, the ancient poetry of corruption and venality!(Nicholas John 1994:64)

'Whore' is also a term of abuse often hurled at women in domestic disputes, in encounters of male violence against women and by adolescent boys unsure or fearful of the sexuality of their female peers(Jalner Hanmer and Mary Maynard 1987; Stanko 1987; Lees 1994: Theweleit 1987;1989).

Currently women working as prostitutes are perceived as bad girls, contravening norms of acceptable femininity, suffering whore stigma (Pheterson 1986) and increasingly criminalized by state, policing practices and the lack of effective action taken by police and the state to address male violence against women. Some aspects of prostitute womens' experiences are not so different from the experiences of prostitutes in earlier centuries. Social stigma, violence, social exclusion and reduced personal safety are central to the lived experience of prostitute women as they have been throughout the documented history of prostitution. All of these closely relate to relationships with men (clients/pimps) and to paternalistic and patriarchal institutions, mores, and regularised conduct.

The history of prostitution is a history framed by attempts to repress and make morally reprehensible the women involved in prostitution whilst accepting, even venerating the desires and fantasies symbolically associated with the whore, the prostitute, the fallen woman. The history of prostitution is then also tied to the history and social construction of sexuality, cathexis and desire (see Connell 1987); gender relations; masculinity; and capitalist exchange relations which increasingly commodify everything, even love (see Fromm 1967; Luhmann 1986).

Prostitution in Later Modernity

Current debates on modernity/later modernity/reflexive modernity certainly in the British and Austrian/German academic worlds centre upon two major themes: de-traditionalization and the relocation of authority to the self incorporating increased self monitoring (Giddens1991;1992) and reflexive modernization and risk. The relationship between tradition and modernity is illuminated through an increasingly reflexive modernity. Footnote2 Initial research from France (Welzer Lang 1993) shows that there has been a reduction in the numbers of visible prostitutes on street; an increase in male /transsexual prostitution, one in three are men/boys; an increase in the self regulation and organisation of prostitution by women themselves; and new forms of machine sexuality coinciding with the AIDS era, for example the minitel in France, telephone sex, computer sex. Welzer Lang's findings are echoed by my own in England over the past five years with the additional phenomenon of young people, mostly young women from local authority care becoming involved in prostitution whilst in care or on leaving care.

The consequences of scientific and industrial development are risks and hazards (Beck 1992). In my experience there has been an increase in the risks associated with prostitution during the past five years: the risk of crimes of violence against the person from assault to murder ; the risk of sexually transmitted diseases most notably AIDS and HIV; risks associated with using hard drugs such as crack/cocaine and heroin as well as risks associated with selling sex to fund drug use. The women I have spoken with and work with are fastidious in their use of condoms. Violence is a taken for granted aspect of their 'work'. The development of a crack/cocaine culture on street has increased levels of violence against working women. Sometimes women are attacked and robbed for money for drugs as they are seen as 'easy' targets. Pimps often patrol the street regularly to collect 'their' money from 'their' women.

These themes are highly relevant to this study of prostitution when we consider the growing risks to women working on and off street, and the shift in discourses about prostitution which focus upon the professionalisation of the prostitute, her needs, rights and human liberties. Prostitution for many women is experienced as "doing body work". However doing prostitution is also experienced as a socially stigmatised role, a crime against morality, yet at one and the same time it is a taken for granted role for some women in patriarchal society.

One clear development since the 1970's in North America and the 1980's in Britain is the increase in the regulation and organisation of prostitution by women for themselves. This is tied to the rise of the prostitutes rights movement which developed in the 1970's in North America and also in Germany and the Netherlands related directly to the feminist movement. This inter-relation between feminists and prostitutes has helped to shift the discourse on prostitution out of a legal framework and into a feminist framework focusing first of all upon violence against female prostitutes by clients and also pimps and secondly upon prostitution as work (see Valerie Jennes 1993).

In October 1991 the 1st European Whores Congress was held in Frankfurt am Main. The Congress was called 'Women at Work'. Sex Workers and Ex-Sex Workers, politicians and supporters from 16 European countries were present. A central focus was the European Common Market and the need to address the social rights of sex workers within the framework of the 'Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers.' The German prostitutes movement stated the following

Prostitution is a reality in our society, the practice of which in a lot of European Countries is forbidden. In view of the development of the European internal market 1992 a compatibility of laws is necessary. Sex work must be legal everywhere, decriminalized and sexworkers must no longer be discriminated. The right of self determination for every person working in prostitution in their working and private lives must be granted. (Drobler 1991,p69.)

I attended the conference as a supporter of Scot Pep a pioneering peer empowerment, peer education organisation working with and for both female and male prostitutes in Scotland. In the workshop on prostitution and feminism some of our group felt that feminists should support sex workers because sex work challenges patriarchal structures and gender relations in the inter-related spheres of sexuality, work and power. And, that to decriminalize sex work supports the aim to break the power of patriarchy to divide us into good girls and bad girls. For not being able to divide us into good and bad girls can help to free us from sex role stereotyping.

Many international women's groups do support de-criminalization for it enhances women's self determination, it minimises the need for pimps and it removes the regulatory powers of the state and welfare agencies over women's health and welfare needs and rights. The regulation of prostitution has focused upon the regulation of women, their health, their bodies, their sexualities, their family life. Information is kept by the police or agencies of social control with access for social, health and welfare agencies but no access for women themselves. Claims of unfit mothering - because she is a prostitute - are one outcome. Chilren are taken and sometimes 'lost' into local authority care. There are many women working outside the regulatory apparatus in some countries because of the way the system is enforced and managed and also because of what it means to women themselves. There is no system of regulation for pimps and punters! The Women's Committee of the European Parliament calls on Member States to decriminalise Prostitution, and protect the health and safety of prostitutes, pointing out that the "semi-illegal, shady background against which prostitutes operate actually encourages such abuses as prostitution under duress, degrading working and living conditions, maltreatment and murder." (Nursing Times 'Into Europe' Oct24 1990).

In October 1993, Nottingham, England a conference, 'Soliciting for Change' was held to develop strategies to change the laws around soliciting in Britain. Prostitution is no longer an imprisonable offence since 1983 but a woman can be sent to prison for non payment of fines, for fine default. Women who solicit on street can be picked up regularly and fined for the offence of soliciting on street. Fines can accumulate until a woman may be carrying as much as two thousand pounds in fines with no hope of paying this off through her regular work on street as well as payments to her pimp. If she goes to prison for fine default her children may be put into local authority care and may not be returned to her if she is deemed an unfit mother. Prostitution is not illegal but it is very difficult to solicit legally. Working from home is an offence in that if a woman is sharing her flat with another woman she can be prosecuted for operating a brothel and if she lives with her eighteen year old son, or male partner he can be prosecuted for pimping. Soliciting for Change made the following recommendations.

Summary of Recommendations

The brothel keeping laws should be removed so that women can work in premises, within which there are acceptable health and safety standards. This includes, access to water, washing facilities and prophylactic supplies, general cleanliness and heat, light and ventilation. There should be no health regulations which are different from those which apply to similar establishments. There should be no compulsory medical examinations of prostitutes. It is necessary to ensure that health services are appropriate and accessible to encourage voluntary attendance by both prostitutes and clients. Street prostitution laws should be abolished. Policing of street prostitution should focus on minimising violence by the use of existing laws. This should be non-governmental and NGO support for antiviolence initiatives for and by prostitutes.

We recommended the removal of term "common prostitute" and of soliciting and loitering as offences. Removal of necessity for working women to declare their convictions when seeking employment and removal of stigma of such convictions affecting their suitability for fostering, guardianship and custody cases. Widespread change in Department of Social Security benefits to young people. The government must recognise that it is vital that benefits for 16-18 year olds be restored to protect young people from exploitation (sexual as well as other form of exploitation), Student benefits must be restored to previous levels at least. Housing benefit must be set at a reasonable level for everyone. Legal age for consent should 16 years. Advice and support should be available for people under that age, who are sexually active. Sex education and support for young people of 11 years and upwards should be available. Imaginative ways of communicating with young people about sex should be encouraged, eg., youth bus. Such initiatives should not be stopped for moral reasons. A national network and directory for safe houses, safe families and general exchange of information should be developed. Increased emphasis on community. This might include development of long term police protection squad officers somewhat along the lines of domestic violence squads, liaison and training with other relevant statutory and voluntary agencies to effect change of police attitudes to young and vulnerable people in prostitution, more effective use of the law against those who exploit young people of force women to work as prostitutes. (NB Removal of prostitution laws is necessary to achieve this). Men and women working in the sex industry should be consulted about their views on issues related to changes in the prostitution laws, perhaps by national questionnaire (O'Neill, Johnson, McDonald, Webster, Wellik and McGregor 1994)

The female prostitutes attending both the Frankfurt conference and the Nottingham conference were strong, articulate women concerned to improve the working conditions for all women and younger women working as prostitutes. Many of these women consider themselves professional prostitutes. But, how is prostitution defined and experienced as work by female prostitutes? How do women make out in prostitution given the concomitant whore stigma and related risks? In order to 'get at' answers to these questions it is necessary to engage with women's lived experiences, lived relations, feelings, meanings, practices. By taking an ethnographic approach to better understand their lived experiences, through life story narratives we can take a closer look at women's experiences of prostitution as 'work' and the psychic processes and social processes embedded in lived relations.

Women at Work: Women's Voices

Routes into prostitution

Through the ethnographic data collection I have found that economic need is the bottom line for entry into prostitution. For some women association with others working, association with the area and a will to change her situation by any means combine to enable entry into prostitution. For some coercion by another girl or a pimp facilitates entry into prostitution. Young, vulnerable and emotionally needy young women from local authority care are sometimes coerced into prostitution during the course of their developing relationship with a new boyfriend who becomes their pimp. Some are pressured into working by a friend(s) in the children's home who may be 'top dog' and use intimidation or even force to encourage other young people into working for her and/or her pimp/boyfriend. Once involved in street prostitution poverty as well as relationships with pimps or a sense of belonging to the sub culture may keep her there.


Sam "there is all different reasons why you go into prostitution..I went into it through choice and if I decide to stop it might happen this year or the next but I can't see it because I am not ready to I have good clients and I am not prepared to give up them dollars for love or money..I have always known I have high self esteem because I have other skills and I think don't think every prostitute has got low self esteem because every prostitute hasn't..once you start stigmatising prostitution girls start having low self esteem once a woman starts believing in herself she can decide for herself..go back to college or work in the may women prostitute themselves in relationships they don't want to be in but stay in a marriage for financial gain..if it wasn't for financial gain how many women would walk out of that relationship"(from a taped discussion with Jane, Sam, Moira, Susan and Mary 30th September 1992)

Drawing comparisons between prostitution and marriage as well as women's heterosexual relationships with men Sam's point is a valid one, depending of course upon your definition of prostitution and your moral sentiments. There are other comparisons which can be made. One aspect of women's work in heterosexual relationships is caregiving work. Emotional labour is a central aspect of the prostitutes working relationship with her clients. Emotional energy is directed at minimising her own feeling world at work and emotional energy is used in and around her interactions with and for clients. Women on street and women working in parlours aim to make clients (men) feel good. For Sandra Bartky (1990), writing upon heterosexual relationships, a woman may be "ethically and epistemically disempowered by the care she gives, this caregiving affords her the feeling that a mighty power resides within her being..The feeling of out-flowing personal power so characteristic of the caregiving woman is quite different from the having of any actual power in the world"(p115-116). At one end of the caregiving continuum Bartky places commercial caregiving which may include giving care by manipulating, suppressing and falsifying ones feeling life (see Arlie Hothschild 1983). At the other end is caregiving with no ulterior motive, given in "absolute sincerity". Most of us, she tells us, probably fall somewhere in the middle but we measure ourselves by the latter form. The issue here is how do women 'make out' in conditions where they must separate body from self to do the intimate work of fulfilling clients sexual needs/desires and at one and the same time how do they manage to suppress their own feeling life and manufacture care, concern, consideration, a listening ear, indeed a devoted stance to their clients?

Making Out


Sam "There are parallels with other relationships, the wife or mistress, relationships between women and men in general. There is more of it with the prostitute pimp relationship. The exchange of money is the main feature. Main (major) relationships wouldn't entertain a prostitute. The emotional bond is the main thing behind main relationships. Women are so giving. A lot of relationships (with pimps) wouldn't be happening if she wasn't a prostitute! A lot of women feel they are not worth much. Also it is the security of having a relationship. There is a lot of pressure on us to have relationships". (hand written quotations from a discussion in the spring months of 1993)


Moira "I have lost friends they look at you totally bothered me..I thought fucking hell I am a prostitute..I am but I'm not..I have two different and me... my boyfriend's friend sat watching the telly and said look at them dirty prostitutes..and I said just remember I am a prostitute and this is my settee paid for by prostitution and my tv and my carpet and everybody looked at me horrified......I was so frightened (in the beginning)..the first punter just wanted to look..I had these durex and I wasn't even to sure how to put it on properly..I had real horrible nightmares that night..and I just counted my money that was my comfort..(from a taped discussion with Jane, Sam, Moira, Susan and Mary 30th September 1992)

Prostitutes who were also feminists speaking at the 1st European Prostitutes Congress October 1991 spoke about the managed and controlled relationship they fostered with clients and the thrill and status their earning power gave them in society. These women experienced their earning power as power and control. "I say to him what he can do and when he can do can put a clamp on my left tit, but not on my right one..I am never short of money..never..this gives me power and status in this society" Certainly, an emphasis upon 'taking control' and using the body as labour power is a common theme in the impressions and personal experiences I have collected from my conversations with sex workers and ex-sex workers and in the available literature. However, not every sex worker experiences or talks about 'control' and 'choice' in this way. This is inevitable given: the complexity of women's lived experience; the many ways in which we negotiate issues of 'power' 'rights' 'needs' 'choices' in the interplay between ourselves, others and the material and emotional resources that are available and not available to us, in the context of our lived experience; and finally given our experiences of the contradictions of oppression (O'Neill 1992).

Making out involves not only rationalising the role of prostitute in relation to other roles for women and in the context of possible poverty but also managing the relationship between the separation of self/emotions and the body and wider society - the communities in which women live.


Fran "I used to have hang ups about my body but not any more..I don't care a shit..what they want is my body..its not what is there on your body.. but the clutching and the holding.... I said hang on you're right because when I wasn't in control of my body he was in control of me..and from that day..I'm a working girl..I work with my body..I loved the sauna work..(Excerpt from a life history interview summer 1992).

The body is the tool of the trade. The 'self' is for ones family, partner and self. Actions which facilitate this separation are: not kissing; the speed of the encounter on average women on street talked about a seven minute average per punter; insisting on condoms with clients but not with partners; putting a condom on a 'difficult' client with the mouth in part to avoid refusals to wear a condom; using an assumed name; changing your mind once you have the money if you can do this safely. For some women never getting personal or giving the client information about private lives is a way of managing. Some keep their eyes closed whilst giving straight sex and/or oral. For others friendly regular clients were a bonus because they were a known quantity and were described as friends. "I get my christmas shopping..a new coat..and presents for the kids..every year after we've been up to London to see a show and stopped over." Keeping a mental distance is a common strategy. "I often think about the shopping and what I'm giving for tea.." One woman described a client who fell in love with her and wanted her to stop, he suggested paying for her flat if she would stop, "but it wouldn't have was his fantasy really".


Moira "Some clients are into weird things. Unprotected sex without a durex. Anal sex without a durex. They don't even want to pay more without a durex. Some bribe younger girls with extra fivers and tenners. The best are the older, married clients. An everyday client is better. Some clients will buy you things, give extra money, pay for holidays. Not all clients are weirdos. There is the client who loves his wife, has been married for 35 years and just wants to relive his youth. Some don't even want sex, but friendship. They will buy the shopping, pay for gifts and lots besides. A man can always find money for sex." (hand written quotations from a discussion in the spring months of 1993)

For some clients, the money they spend is not just for sex but also for what accompanies it, kindness, comfort, care - emotional labour. Moira's reflections on the gendered relations between her her partner and her clients are interesting as well as the glimpse they give us into the process of her coming to manage her prostitute identity.

Moira "My boyfriend has got me round his little finger I cook, wash and clean for him so I want boyfriend has got power over me so I need to have power over someone else..I admire smart men..I stayed five years with someone who battered me because of security and money..but now I have power and I need my boyfriend for emotional security..I don't need him for anything else..I sort myself out..I was a sly prostitute for a year and a half but this last year and a half I have been open about it..why have I got to be boyfriend wanted me to stop because of his friends and I said fuck your friends..and I thought why am I ashamed of this..we all have a better standard of life..I put clothes on my sons back and furniture in this house..I used to say I am not really a prostitute I just do it know..I used to wait until my son was asleep go on the half eight train and be back the following morning and I thought what am I doing this for when the beat is only around the corner..I feel comfortable up there now and I feel safer than anywhere else..but some of them are right bastards.(excerpt from a life history interview)

Male violence

Male violence is an endemic aspect of the daily working life of female prostitutes. Some women talk about how they have experienced very few physical assaults and attacks due to the fact that they are good at "gentling" the men, at "negotiating" and "counselling." They are good at 'caregiving' diffusing emotional tensions, insecurities, fears. Further to this they talk about the violence they experience or have experienced in a very matter of fact way (see Hoigard and Finstaad 1992) as an expected aspect of the work. Violence includes verbal and physical intimidation, bullying, rapes, beatings and murder.

Moira "There is a lot of violence..this man who came to fit my window..I don't know how we got on the subject..but he said well prostitutes that comes with the job doesn't I said 'why should it come with the job?' ..why should they be abused..because they are getting paid for it he said..They are getting paid to do a service I said..`like you come and fit my window if I kick you in the nuts on the way out is that part of the service'? ..`no because I only put glass in' so I said `well I only sell my body but it doesn't mean to say someone can do what they want to me and rape me and abuse me'..two deaf guys took my friend and snatched the money back of my friend so I said `your windscreen is gonna cost more than twenty quid so give her her money back'..there has to be no hesitation you have to make out your in like to dominate women..up there they think they can dominate you because they pay for you..sometimes they get rough and grab you and I say `eh unless your willing to pay more hands off'..I`ve always noticed the girls who are being attacked are the weaker vulnerable looking girls..I always get across to them that I am not a stupid prostitute"Moira's narrative taken from ONeill et al 1994.

Managing and 'making out' includes complex interactions with the 'self' around prostitute identity, caring and giving but not being a 'stupid prostitute.' Listening to their narratives, it appears that women make out by separating the self from the body when doing body work and they make out by accepting violence against them as one aspect of their work experience but aim to prevent it by 'sussing' clients out and 'gentling' 'counselling' them through potential violence. Routes into prostitution are marked by differing life circumstances, differing experiences, getting involved in exploitative relations with a man at a vulnerable age or point in ones life, association with other workers or the scene which helps to legitimate selling sex, coupled with desperate financial circumstances and a will to change the situation by any means. These women I would argue are representative of women in contemporary society. They are following Tim Clarke (1980) the end stop in a discourse on the good or honest woman. Prostitute women or prostituted women are indices for women more generally in conditions of later modernity.


The development of a better understanding of prostitution as work includes the need to explore micrology of women's lives, hopes, daydreams, meanings, practices and the inter-related structures of sexuality, power, work and violence. We need to focus upon the ideology of male sexual needs (Mary McIntosh 1978) and the social organisation of desire. We need to explore masculinities in relation to doing sex work and buying sexual services. This must include an analysis of the masculinist state tied to the capital accumulation process on the one hand and the myth of democratic legitimation on the other (see O'Neill 1994). Prostitution as work must be understood alongside the feminisation of poverty within the context of the re-structuring of national economies, unemployment and the growth of a new and poorer underclass. We need to explore comparative and historical work to gain a more global/international perspective on the social organisation of prostitution and the international political economy of prostitution.

To accept that prostitution is work that any one of age can offer or seek simply lets the state off the hook in fundamentally dealing with the feminisation of poverty and reinforces the current emphasis upon individualism at the expense of the community, of the group. We also need to consider those young people looked after in local authority children's homes who move into prostitution whilst in care or on leaving care. Meanwhile working with women working as prostitutes can generate better knowledge and understanding of female prostitution and help to develop policies which are women centred and serve to develop better organised networks of support to women and young women working as prostitutes.

Prostitution as 'work' needs a more sustained and focused study than that presented in this paper. We need to engage with the management and organisation of the sex industry as well as the form and content of this 'work'. The ways in which 'profession prostitute' helps to structure ones life and identity is an important indicator in trying to define and analyse prostitution defined by Valerie Jennes (1993) as "voluntary chosen service work". At one and the same time de-criminalising prostitution and implementing laws against male violence against women, pimping and procuring thus enabling women to manage and organise for themselves along the lines of the Soliciting for Change recommendations looks like the only women centred way forward.

"On my patch of street, I've got landmarks, things that are familiar to me, that I know: and that, too, is a form of protection for me, a make-up. At night, I don't put up with anything: I'm hard, mean, aggressive. I can't help it, and in the morning when I get home I go back to being the nice, calm, woman again.

What's important is that we're seen as not really women, maybe not even women at all. Of course there's the problem of men's exploitation of women, but it's even more apparent in the case of prostitutes - it's really flagrant, real, concrete. And then a prostitute isn't only exploited by men, but also by women. A prostitute has to fight first to be recognised as a woman. For a woman in a society like ours, being a prostitute is the lowest of the low, it's degrading. It's true that prostitution must disappear, but I think so many things are needed to bring that about that we won't see it happen, and neither will our children. So people could at least try and accept prostitutes. They could at least be ready to look them in the face and acknowledge them. It's the least they can do."( Jaget C 1980 p 113).


As always thanks to the women working in prostitution who have worked with me over the years giving time as well as energy and commitment to challenging and resisting sexual and social inequalities. Particular thanks to Karen, Mo and Sue at POW!, Sue M, Terry, Nicola, Jo, Mandy, Michelle, and Michaela. Thanks to Herman Gilles for sending me the wonderful book edited by Nicholas John and to Richard Harvey Brown for informing me about the work of Fals Borda. Thanks to Mike Dent for commenting upon the conference paper.


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Zola E (1972) Nana London, Penguin.{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}{Special Char 202 in Font "Times"}


see O'Neill, Goode and Hopkins (1995) 'Juvenile Prostitution: the experiences of young women in local authority care' in Childright Jan 1995, Journal of the Children's Legal Centre, London.


I have one major concern. There is an absence of a feminized account of modernity and later modernity. We need to write women in to the history of modernity in order to theorise from a better, more fuller understanding. For Janet Wolf (1989) "so far as the experience of 'the modern' occurred mainly in the public sphere, it is primarily men's experience"(p141-142.) In order to gain a feminized account we need to examine historical documents, letters, biographies as well as focusing upon power relations, gendered relations, labour and the social organisation of sexuality and desire.