We Need More Nuanced Portrayals of Sex Workers ‹ CrimeReads
Popular culture of TV, film and crime novels would have us believe the role of a sex worker is largely to be a nameless body in the background: perhaps semi-clad on someone’s lap, perhaps grinding against a pole, sooner rather than later most probably found dead in a back alley. Their deaths might precipitate action, a Detective has a case to solve (although the case will only catch attention if several sex workers are killed – one dead sex worker isn’t really all that, is it? Please note I write that with a heavy sense of irony). If the sex worker’s character is fleshed-out at all, it’s when the detective discovers that they were uneducated, unstable addicts without aspirations, dreams or desires. We appear comfortable forcing sex workers into uncomplicated, two-dimensional stereotypes. I started to question the accepted portrayal of sex workers in crime novels.
For centuries, female sex workers in novels have been depicted as passive victims pinned by a heavy male gaze. Things happen to them, and rarely anything good. They are raped, beaten, murdered. Sadly this isn’t a facile troupe, it’s a fact. Violence against sex workers is a horrific reality. That disturbed me because allowing sex workers in fiction to remain silent props up the worst part of our society. The powerless and vulnerable remain so if they are voiceless. I would like to be instrumental in changing the laws that leave sex workers vulnerable, but that’s unlikely as I’m not a politician, so I did the best I could. In ONE LAST SECRET I wrote a nuanced, complicated, compelling heroine who is a sex worker. And I allowed her to roar.
Some find it incomprehensible that anyone who exchanges sexual acts for money has a right to be respected in our ‘moral’ society. A society that values fidelity, motherhood and even chastity. We are conditioned to believe that sex workers have nothing to give other than their bodies. I don’t accept that. Dora offers one voice to those working in the sex industry and is a small step towards correcting a miscarriage of literary justice.
Despite the glamourous and enviable setting that I give Dora access to – a luxurious chateau in the south of France – awful things happen to her in my chilling psychological thriller—as they do to sex-workers in many crime books, and as they do in life—but she comes out fighting. She is witty, cool, vengeful, flawed, exposed and fabulous, as any woman can be, regardless of their sexual proclivities. Dora has agency, motivation and ambitions that are realised. She may not get everything right (who does?). She is often confused, sometimes outwitted and tricked, but no matter what, she absolutely refuses to be a plot device.
My characters are sometimes considered quite challenging, insomuch as they may not all be likeable – but I promise they will be fascinating! I insist on them being realistic and therefore flawed. Most of us are flawed (although to a lesser extent than my characters, I hope!). We are complex, irrational and sometimes unreasonable. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things. Dora is an escort, and while I do hope I explain her choices by providing a detailed insight into her past, there is no doubt that many will find her line of work thorny to read about. Furthermore, her work means she gets embroiled with some ruthless, dangerous people. Her life is far from a bed of roses, regrettably. Although I maintain a nice, comfortable time is what we want for ourselves in real life, reading about the thornier, darker ‘what if’ moments make for exciting page-turner books. It would be so bland to pick up a book where everyone was pleasant all the time and nothing dramatic ever happened. A novelist has to peek behind the curtains that are drawn around respectability.
First and foremost I write to entertain, not teach or direct anyone’s moral compass; however, I am extremely excited if I hear a reader is left pondering or moved or might have had a perception shift or a widening of perspective. I knew nothing about high-end escorts when I started writing this novel; through my research, meeting and interviewing women who are in this line of work, I think I became more compassionate. I still believe it’s an awful way to make a living but I don’t have to: that’s the point. I’ve been blessed with choices and chances, supportive parents, and a good education. Many of the women I met during research have had none of that. It’s easy – although unproductive – to judge. Maybe we could put our energy into changing the conditions for women in this industry instead.
Blow Your House Down by Pat Barker
A serial killer stalks prostitutes with profound and unexpected consequences. Brenda, with three children, can’t afford to give up while Audrey, now in her forties, desperately goes on ‘working the cars’. And then, when another woman is savagely murdered, Jean, her lover, takes desperate measures…
The Less Dead by Denise Mina
Glasgow-based physician Margot Dunlop is trying to make sense of her world, and so reaches out to the agency that facilitated her adoption to get in touch with her birth mother, only to learn that she was a sex worker murdered shortly after Margot’s birth. Margot isn’t sure she wants to be involved in this dark underbelly of her roots, but she isn’t given a choice when the killer begins stalking and harassing her as well.
These Women by Ivy Pochoda
A crime thriller about a serial killer targeting sex workers in a neighborhood in Los Angeles. Pochoda cleverly provides a sophisticated feminist analysis on the consequences of disregarding violence against sex workers.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
It’s hard to believe this poised and beautifully written novel is a debut. Sayuri narrates the extraordinary tale of her life. taken at the tender age of nine to become a geisha, a world supposedly of eroticism and enchantment, but also one of exploitation and degradation. We follow her for a quarter of a century on her journey to physical and emotional freedom.
There are a number of non-fiction books written on the subject. Here are some that I found interesting.
A Curious History of Sex by Dr. Kate Lister
This history of prostitution is thoroughly entertaining and a well-referenced historical tour of 2500 years of sexual practices, body parts and sex in general. Witty and warm.
When Sex Becomes Work by Mariska Majoor
Majoor is a former-sex-worker, founder of the Prostitution Information Center and Amsterdam’s most famous sex worker activist. She has been knighted by the royal Dutch family. So her story is fascinating.
The Amsterdam Diaries: Kiss and tell tales from the Red-Light District by Marcus Segretto
Originally a blog detailing his adventures in Amsterdam’s Red-Light District, from a customer perspective. Fans of the blog encouraged Segretto to publish his blog as a book, which he did. Interesting to see the experiences and thoughts of clients.
Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac
This book addresses contemporary issues around migration, race and modern labour rights.
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