Saturday, 20 November 2004

Opinion poll

Here are the results of a poll based on face-to-face interviews carried out in the south of England over three weeks last month:

Question: How do you feel about being called “colleagues” rather than “staff”?

Replies (percentage of sample)
“I think it’s silly” (or variations) 42.86%
“Well, it’s nice, really, isn’t it?” 14.29%
“Pity the pay stays the same” 14.29%
[Don’t knows 28.57%]
[Note: There was no need for statistical weighting by age, gender, ethnicity, political inclination, financial status or other variables since the sample was not random but consisted solely of representatives of the group affected, that is to say Sainsbury’s check-out staff (or colleagues). A total of seven interviews took place, six in the work environment and one in a car park. The interviewer noted in his report that all respondents replied clearly and courteously.]

Making this survey and noting the results have convinced me that only one thing matters about titles or modes of address, and that is whether the persons concerned are happy with them.

Some years ago I was working with a local medical-cum-social charity which announced that its policy was to refer to prostitutes always as sex workers. I had two problems with this: first, had anyone ever asked them whether they liked this? When I first heard of it I thought of old Lucy who (so I was told) used to do it in the recreation ground for half-a-crown, and her likely horse laugh: “Oh, I wouldn’t call it work, dearie”. Second, what do you then call their pimps: sex work supervisors?


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9 comments:

PerfectlyVocal said...

We have a similar thing in the NHS. Traditionally patients were called patients. Over recent years they have been variously known as "Customers", "Consumers" and more recently "Service Users". Interestingly, the Out Patients Department has never changed its name. I don't think it's about what title a person is given, but the way that they are treated.

Tony said...

Yes, absolutely. Another very silly one is that passengers have become customers. Why? What's the point?

Chameleon said...

Your terminological point, though tongue in cheek, is nevertheless interesting. In her Author's Note to "Whores in History", Nickie Roberts writes: "I use the word 'whore' throughout this text interchangeably with 'prostitute'. Like other sex workers, I am in the process of reclaiming this word (as lesbians have in recent years reclaimed 'dyke') so as to defuse it of its pejorative sense". In his introduction to Working Girls, An Illustrated History of the World's Oldest Profession, Neil Philips states: "It is as 'working girls' that prostitutes see themselves". In "Working: My Life as a Prostitute", Dolores French on the subject of her imminent abandonment of "respectability" declares: "I was about to turn a corner. I was going to charge for sex, and I was already thinking about how I would spend the money.
After tomorrow, I thought, no one will ever be able to use the word whore against me. After tomorrow it will no longer be the worst curse someone could throw at me, it will simply be a statement of fact. Maybe it would be worth doing, I thought, simply to take the sting out of that word". Later, she records a conversation with a more experienced lady of the night, Elaine:
"A courtesan. What the hell was that? I knew it had something to do with sex, but what?
She told me the history of the word. A courtesan had originally been a court mistress, she said, a companion to the royal. A courtesan conducted herself as a public lady, while the legal wife stayed in the royal apartments to bear and raise children. Elaine explained that, as the centuries rolled by, a courtesan's job became less formal and more of a paid affair. She told me that she was not a call girl, like Stephanie. 'A call girl is available for one night, or by the hour,'she said, making it clear she did not approve of Stephanie or her work habits. 'I have an ongoing relationship with my clients'.
A courtesan, she said, keeps up the fantasy that she and the man share a life together, albeit a secret one. A courtesan knows all about a man's family, his job, what kind of wine he drinks, what books he reads".
In "Grandes Horizontales, The Lives and Legends of Four Nineteenth Century Courtesans", Virginia Rounding examines the phenomenon with greater historical depth and analytical rigour (as befits the author of a work of popular history as opposed to the memoirs quoted above). According to Alexandre Dumas fils, the démi-monde was not synonymous with a "'a mob of courtesans'", but constituted the class of the déclassé, an individual whose social status had been eroded: "Declassed women included victims of scandal, divorcees, women separated from or abandoned by husband or lover, 'merry widows' or foreign women whom the authorities might deport when it suited them". The boundary between the two was not immediately discernable: "The demi-monde knew how to copy the haut-monde (the world of high society) and yet at the same time the haut monde was not above copying the half-world, particularly where fashionable dress was concerned. But though the two worlds might on the surface seem indistinguishable, there was nevertheless a chasm fixed between them. There was a bridge over this chasm, but it led in one direction only: it was easy enough for a woman from the haut monde to fall and find herself in the demi-monde, but no return journey was possible, no way for a demi-mondaine to climb her way into high society, no matter what riches she might amass or works of charity she might undertake". Although Dumas fils was adamant that the demi-mondaine never accepted money for her favours, and therefore belonged to a different category from the courtesan, conventional wisdom conflates the two.
By way of a slight digression, in his work on the criminal underbelly of nineteenth century New York, "Low Life", Luc Sante discusses different classes of brothelIn the Broadway district, there was a literal progression in price and quality as one moved uptown, from the houses near and on Canal Street that catered mostly to sailors to the luxurious establishments around Clinton Street [how oddly appropriate this name sounds to post-Lewinsky ears!] (now called Eighth Street). All of them, regardless of tone and price, were essentially the same: red-brick residential houses, with names painted in white above their doors: the Gem, the Forget-Me-Not, Sinbad the Sailor, the Black Crook. The fanciest, which were called 'parlor houses' featured an atmosphere of considerable decorum in their parlors, where liquor was sold and imbibed with sophisticated restraint, and where a pianist, always called Professor, provided a cultural note (...)
Meanwhile, in the lower strata, one curious phenomenon (...) was the 'cigar store battery'. Ostensibly, these were tobacco shops, but an uninitiated customer who entered would find a very meager stock of cigars and a shopkeeper, often female, who did not appear interested in selling them. The knowing client, on the other hand, would be directed to the brothel in the rear or upstairs (...). Not far away were the concert saloons, which derived the bulk of their trade from sailors. The first of these, the Melodeon, was established on Broadway in 1860 and soon there were dozens, many of them carrying names like the Sailor's Welcome Home, the Sailor's Retreat, the Jolly Tar, the Flowing Sea Inn. The female employees, who were sometimes attired in 'Turkish' costumes, with harem pants, were principally what today would be called B-girls. They spent most of their time urging customers to drink, receiving a one-third cut on inflated prices, such as $5 bottles of wine, and if they wished to pursue their interaction past that stage, had to do it off the premises and on their own time. Further down the scale were the streetwalkers or 'cruisers', who at this period mostly worked the parks".
In "Nothing Personal, The Business of Sex", Donald McRae describes some of the hypocrisy surrounding the oldest profession in contemporary Britain: "It would be laughable if it were not so damaging that prostitution has still not been decriminalised in Britain. Instead, we have to deal with the ludicrous situation where actual prostitution is not illegal; rather, the advertising of the act constitutes a crime, which is a curious anomaly to be applied to a billion-pound industry by a capitalistic legal system. This also results in the widespread confusion surrounding the discrepancy between legalisation and decriminalisation. Prostitutes are not calling for the legalisation of their trade, for such a change is less innocuous than it sounds. Under legalisation, the State assumes the role of an all-controlling pimp with often disastrous consequences for the prostitutes themselves. (...)
From a similar perepective, Peter Sutcliffe's 'Yorkshire Ripper' murder of thirteen women in the late 1970s was apparently driven by a divine mission to rid the Earth of the 'guilty scum' who walked the streets. Sutcliffe claimed that he could tell that prostitutes were not 'innocent' just by observing the way in which they walked. Just as Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, declared that the saddest part of the Ripper case was that some of Sutcliffe's victims were not prostitutes, so the Yorkshire police ran a 'the next victim may be innocent' poster campaign after five prostitutes had already been murdered.
As long as prostitution is a criminal offence then this presumed guilt will continue to be a given and prostitutes' lives will still be considered to be 'worth' less than others. I soon learnt that when a prostitute is a victim of violence it continues to be presumed in some quarters that 'she was asking for it....' This attitude is degrading not only to the prostitute but to all women".
The chapter of Ronald Pearsall's brilliant "The Worm in the Bud, The World of Victorian Sexuality" devoted to prostitution begins thus: "Henry Mayhew, whose London Labour and the London Poor (1851-1862) is the great sociological masterpiece of the century, divided prostitutes into six categories:
1. kept mistresses
prima donnas
2. convives a. independent
b. subject to mistress
i. 'board lodgers' (given board)
ii. 'dress lodgers' (given board and
dress)
3. low lodging houses women
4. sailors' and soldiers' women
5. park women
6. thieves' women"

Although this does not exhaust my library on the subject, I have in all probability exhausted your patience. Suffice it to say that the business of paid sexual is as rich a seam of sociological information and specialised technical vocabulary as any of its established "decent" counterparts. The sheer variety of practices and tastes catered for is perhaps its most striking feature alongside the more obvious issue of class divisions (pecking order as reflected in working conditions) amongst the sex trade's practitioners. As a feminist I can condemn the patriarchal system, which condones such exploitation, yet as a realist I do not believe that prostitution will ever be eradicated.

Tony said...

Golly, Cham. You say you've got a library on the subject?
You have provided us with fairly exhaustive coverage of the nomenclature, though Partridge could contribute a few historical terms, and of course there are the modern "toms", "hookers" and so on (the latter is American but I think suggests a slightly upmarket version, like poules de luxe).
I was surprised to read that the courtesan's shared life with her patron was secret. Does this mean that Camilla P-B ceased to be one as soon as everybody knew about her? I suppose The Mistress Royal was always the proper title for her anyway.
One final observation: in special situations status can change both ways quite rapidly. In Istanbul the hookers in the Hilton bar apparently charged $100, but I was told that if business was bad they changed clothes after midnight and went to hang around the fish market, where they quoted $2.50.
I think that's quite enough about all that.

Chameleon said...

Yes, Tony, I do have shelf after shelf of books on prostitution alongside shelf after shelf of books on death, putrefaction, burial customs and so on, enough to qualify as a library. I am an inveterate (and incurable) book hoarder. Apart from sex and mortality (interests I suspect I might share with quite a few others), I have a more than respectable collection of feminist works (very helpful to me during the seven years of single parenthood I endured), cinema studies and, of course, the volumes related to my academic output (nationalism and identity, particularly Hungarian history and literature). This addiction is as financially crippling as drugs...especially when added to my obsession with DVDs, sigh!

Tony said...

Wow. I've got a few thousand books too, but not a single one on putrefaction! But then everyone's library has its lacunae; my guess is that yours might be a bit light on Dewey 817.
But I mustn't get started on Dewey. I've only just realised that it's an ongoing thing and it's a sharp man who can keep up-to-date with it. In June the classification for gastro-oesophageal reflux was amended to 616.323, and THIS VERY MONTH the law of criminal trials of the Roman empire became 340.54057. Fascinating; I must compose a post about it all.

wontonfoey said...

Wow! I think this DYKE has found a friend in Cham! In San Francisco (we) expanded the words "sex worker" to include all people who work in the sex industry: phone sex operators, strippers, actresses...ect. Before the railroad, the only white women out West were prostitutes, and it is STILL an industry to import women as slaves into this country. There are an estimated one million slaves, mostly sexual currently in the USA. Its nice to know that there are some well educated feminists around the globe who care about women, becasue the rich white men here sure don't!

wontonfoey said...

My evidence is personal, but the women I know in the "sex industry" are not empowered capitalists. They are women with histories of sexual violence and abuse, undereducated and with drug habits. Maybe there are some who can beat the game, but it is a hard life.

Tony said...

Chameleon and Wontonfoey: Look, ladies, this is all most interesting but I detect a wandering from the point and perhaps we should call it a day now.
Feel free to have your discussion here if you want, but it might be better to continue it in either of your own excellent weblogs.