A chance encounter with a homeless man in a coffee shop, leads Alice Glass, recently exited from prostitution, to reflect on poetry, prostitution and the nature of work.
I was sat in a semi-chain café in Stokes Croft, Bristol, and a man with a prematurely weathered face came over to me, and offered me a side order of street poetry to go with my decaf cappuccino. I accepted his proposal and he delivered a beatnik style verse, which I struggled to follow as I was still mentally enmeshed in my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Nonetheless, I could tell that his verse was eloquent and politically earnest, and I gave him a pound. Of course, a poetry performance is worth more than a pound, but it was more or less all I had. A coffee out to me is, these days, a rare treat.
Once finished, he didn’t pause much for any kind of affirmation, but simply left to seek further audiences, to expand on his wealth, more so, than to spread his message.
Was this his work?
Now a hyper capitalist might say no, because such exchanges have no wider financial economy and a discussion of work only relates to economic value. A bourgeois philistine might say no, because poetry itself has no specific value to them, and in their arrogance imagine that it therefore has no wider cultural value. An inpatient scrooge might say no, because they just want to get on with reading The Times and so conveniently conceive of this offering as impertinent begging, rather than an exchange of human currency.
I said yes, because I saw no harm in listening to a homeless man’s poem and I had that pound to spare. I would prefer, of course, to live in a country that had more time for cultural arts (rather than ready meals, asinine television and Ikea; one of the few things Sweden has done that I take major issue with) and poured more energy into art, literature and other poetic flights of fancy. That had jobs to offer Arts students, or more funding to aid in further scholarship, or more opportunities for penniless musicians, writers and agitators to earn a crust.
However, the fact of the unfortunateness of the situation that led to that laureate wandering amidst coffee table crowds in the hope that he might acquire enough money to put a hostel roof over his head, or obtain his narcotic anaesthetic to get him through the night, did not mean that I was causing him more harm or damage by the engagement. The engagement itself wasn’t at fault, only the context. Indeed, let’s shift the context slightly. Perhaps that well-to-do semi-coffee chain could encourage its organic banana bread munching attendants, to lift their jaded hipster heads from their sleek, white mackerels, and mentally attend to some organised street poetry and in doing so, give that man a fucking wage slip.
It is often only the comfortably middle class who romanticise the sharp precipices of the Bohemian. The truly poor have no time for such featherbedded wankery. Every artist really wants work, and with it the stability of regular pay, just as anyone else. As Milan Kundera seems to demonstrate, happiness may actually be arrived at out of heaviness. “…life in Paradise was not like adventure. It moved in a circle among known objects. Its monotony bred happiness, not boredom.”
When we talk of work in the context of it bringing happiness, we often mean a sense of knowing how we are to plan our lives. Or indeed, this I believe, is the common motivation for finding happiness with work. For many people what they want is a job that pays enough, that gives them enough, that is promised for long enough and does not require of them a perversion of their dignity and personal space. In other words, that it is not unpleasant.
When I have spoken with a close male friend, and persistently remonstrated on why he should gun his artistic abilities through the prism of aspiration, he has said that he simply doesn’t want to. He just wants a comfortable living that would enable him the time and the movement to have pleasant weekends and maybe a nice garden. When I sought the counsel of my sister during a moment of inebriation I asked her – and she is usually very privately lipped – what is it that you really want? She said, “A flat of my own. Privacy. And enough money to go on holiday now and again.”
I am pretty well versed in the signs of addiction and mental strain, and it is of course obvious that the poet was not someone who scraped by out of some desperate desire to be an artist, rather it was the case that his alienation from atypical society, due to personal damage, arrived at him utilising his abilities for scraps of change. Like a busker, a street magician or a Victorian girl selling bunches of lavender. And though it is often paid for in more than scraps of change, so too a prostitute.
Prostitutes have historically been perceived as belonging in some fashion to a mythic bohemian underclass. They are differentiated from more easily delineated social rungs (working, middle, upper) as romanticised degenerates; the children of the working class who reject the conservative values of the oppressive bourgeoisie. Unlike the upper classes, they have no socioeconomic foundation to protect them from the instability or impulsivity of their occupations, akin to the poets and inebriates of their imagined acquaintance.
Subversive, aberrant and darkly romantic, they are outside of general norms and obscured through middle class sentiment. Libertine tales of louche and sadistic encounters with prostitutes in the writings of the Marquis de Sade, beatific depictions during the Belle Ėpoque by de Toulouse-Lautrec, tales of wealthy, ever-outsider courtesans, such as Cora Pearl; a veritable miscellany of prostitutional Bohemia that coalesces in the cultural imagination to form a particular brand of double edged sword.
So is prostitution work?
The discussion really has less to do with defining whether or not something is work, and more to do with understanding the different ways in which paid-for activities arise, what the dynamics of those activities look like when money is exchanged and what are the consequences. Added to which, the important question, how great is the necessity of this exchange in relation to these consequences? I’m not going to go into this here in detail in relation to prostitution, as I and others have done it elsewhere.
But when radical (not liberal, Laurie Penny) feminists object to prostitution being reframed as work it is not because many don’t recognise that there is a necessitation for labour involved, but because this politicised reframing is designed to sublimate the material realities of prostitution into a vague mythology. Its proponents attempt to consistently privilege flimsy notions of choice, work, empowerment in place of specific analysis. They don’t ask what it is to be a prostitute, they ask what it means to be one. It isn’t about what prostitution is like, but rather, what prostitution should sound like, how we should feel about it, what are our interpretations of it should be. It’s Post Structuralism gone bananas.
The covert intention behind the suggestion, is really to eradicate, conjecturally, the differences between prostitution and the forms of work enacted by those who are financially and socially benefiting from pursuing this line of reasoning. Laurie Penny (as well as Brook Magnanti and Germaine Greer for that matter) can tacitly imply that prostitution is no more morally problematic than her own labours as a cosseted, pay rolled journalist. As can the punter, who despite his steady job and his mortgage, can presume himself to be in a similar social position as the 18 year old Polish girl who he uses for semen extraction, in a dingy part of town he would never normally visit. Because then, the lived differences do not need to be examined.
Aren’t we equally all the 99% in the end? Well no. For exited prostitutes struggling to cope with trauma, homelessness and addiction, being told by smug, comfortable journalists and punters that we are somehow on the same oppression page, is a bit insulting. Yes we all worship at the feet of the same God, but some of us have to bow considerably lower than others.
You’ll note it isn’t actually in service of reframing prostitution in relation to other exploitations (which may also contain ‘work’) such a sweat shops, in a helpful fashion in order to demonstrate how exploitation and oppression works in different ways and at different levels. In this respect, I don’t think prostitution is uniquely morally contentious.
When Penny makes the case that it is not the sex that is the problem with prostitution, rather it is the work, she is labouring under the immaturity that it is feasible to ignore the fundamental constitution of prostitution, in its intersection between sex and work, especially in how that relates to gendered practices and ideas in society.
Which in its way pertains to sweat shops, as they are practiced that rely most often on female labour, whose oppression is often excused using the nebulous framework of ‘occupational choice.’ One wonders why Penny considers herself a feminist at all (let alone a radical one) when the gendered nature of prostitution doesn’t concern her anywhere near as much the occupational nature of it.
To be tawdry, you could pay me to take a shit in my mouth and even on its own, the fact that you are paying me is not solely of more interest than the fact that you want to take a shit in my mouth. But if we extend this – if it is nearly always middle class men wanting to shit in the mouths of poor women, immigrant women or women of colour – then the desire to shit in somebody’s mouth is as culturally significant, if not more so, than the desire to pay for an activity in and of itself. If middle class men want to pay to shit in poor women irrespective of the political economics of the day (Capitalism, Feudalism, whatever) then how that activity is organised is tertiary in relevance to desire and its cultural functioning.
In any case, the thesis reads hopelessly like self indulgent University nihilism, wherein society itself is considered irredeemable and thusly we might just thrust any attempts at social democracy or progression or feminism to the rabid dogs of hyper libertarianism and hope they don’t tear them up too much; hope they are not insatiably hungry.