Power to the prostitute? Tackling the taboo on the sex trade

A feature on the often taboo topic of prostitution, following new French legislation that criminalises men who pay for sex and, secondly, Stacey Dooley’s brilliant series ‘Sex in Strange Places’.

This article was first published in Issue 653 of Exeposé, on May 3rd. 

Scroll down for the full text and a screen grab of the original print page.


There are few topics that university students won’t weigh in on. David Cameron is both a Bullingdon boy and a political juggernaut. Sports initiations, depending on your point of view, are either orgies of misogyny and dangerous drinking, or harmless fun. Political correctness has been taken too far or not far enough. And yet there seems to be one topic that students shy away from: prostitution. Just mentioning it to my conservative and liberal friends alike is enough to get both parties’ hackles; someone will often introduce a big, controversial issue, placing it on the table like a large, meaty pizza, for everyone seated to examine. Yet, with the topic of prostitution, conversation is reduced to a dour English tea party, everyone having to work their jaw to chew – or in this case, talk.


On Oxforddictionaries.com, ‘prostitute’ is defined as: “a person, typically a woman, who engages in sexual activity for payment.” A 2004 Home Office report estimated that there were 80,000 women involved in ‘on-street’ prostitution in the UK – and this was before the financial crash. My guess is that 80,000 might be a rather conservative figure now.

Prostitution is never far away from the nation’s attention, with candid photos of skimpily clad women perched in the laps of married footballers or politicians, splashed across tabloid front pages. “Disgraced Lord was caught snorting cocaine with £200-a-night prostitute during sordid romp,” screamed a Mail Online headline in July last year. Prostitution is seen in this context as dirty, sordid, a vice. To employ a prostitute is to dance with the devil: a marriage-ending, career-threatening dance. In the papers, prostitutes are invariably nameless and demonised. And yet there is another view on prostitution that is at the other end of the spectrum. One that sees female prostitutes as women reclaiming their sexuality and using it to their advantage; exploiting their sex appeal, and not the other way around. High-class prostitutes are smart and street-savvy, in a Pretty Woman way. They’re businesswomen in Agent Provocateur; it’s their clients who are the mugs, whilst the £500-a-night prostitutes are saving for their penthouses.

Janice Turner, of The Times, refers to this view of prostitution as the “happy hooker, Belle de Jour soft-porn fantasy”. The image of the prostitute has inevitably been softened by films such as Pretty Woman and more recently, the TV show Secret Diary of a Call Girl. This archetype of the ‘hooker with a heart of gold,’ features prominently in soap operas. It’s this ‘happy hooker’ fantasy that, in my opinion, is just as damaging as the apocryphal idea of all prostitutes as dark temptresses, home-wreckers, modern Liliths. And what’s worrying is that this ‘happy hooker’ fantasy is seeping into university student culture.

fashion, person, woman
(Picture posed by model.) Image: Pexels.com

In February this year, Exeposé revealed that 400 Exeter students are ‘Sugar Babies’. This placed Exeter in the top ten of universities for having the most students registered as ‘Sugar Babies.’ Sugar Babies seek wealthy patrons – Sugar Daddies – on the online dating site Seeking Arrangements, and can earn up to £2,000 per month to help fund their education, accommodation and living costs. Sugar Baby ‘perks’ include “shopping sprees, expensive dinners, and exotic travel.” Meanwhile Sugar Daddies are assured of “upfront and honest arrangements with someone who will cater to your needs.” In conversations with friends, the concept of ‘Sugar Babies’ is regarded as a little sleazy, but not at all troubling. Sex is not explicitly stated in the contract, your debts are paid off and you’re spoilt. For the price of some stretched morals, the pay-off doesn’t seem too bad. And yet, whilst sex is not contracted explicitly, the idea that out of two girls, one offering sexual favours and the other not, the Sugar Daddy would pick the latter seems to me a non sequitur. To obtain a Sugar Daddy, it seems logical that a Sugar Baby would feel obliged to offer sex.

As students, we face £9,000 a year in tuitions fees, maintenance loans to pay-off, and the knowledge that an undergraduate degree is at once required and yet still not enough in today’s oversaturated market. To stand out, we must fund unpaid internships and further education to have any career prospects. For poorer students who become Sugar Babies, is their trade-in of “catering” to their Sugar Daddy’s “needs” in exchange for money and career advice such a jump from women who sell sex to make ends meet? The economic climate has made students – in particular, women – vulnerable to the sex trade.

However, I don’t want to say that sex work cannot ever be empowering. Writer and artist Sebastian Horsley, a former escort, told The Independent in an interview that “contrary to what those foul feminists will tell you, the prostitute is not a victim… There is exploitation, but there is exploitation in all industries”. In Stacey Dooley’s recent investigative series for BBC 3, Sex in Strange Places, the viewer is introduced to a colourful array of prostitutes from around the world, some of whom are delighted to have made it in the industry, and are seen living the high life, or else enjoying their new found body confidence and sexuality.


However, Dooley’s narrative is also cautionary. In the third episode, which takes place in recession-struck Russia, Dooley witnesses a first-time prostitute emerging victorious from the hotel of her first client. Although the prostitute is happy, bragging about her $200 dollar tip, Dooley tells the camera that it seems impossible for the sex industry not to leave its “impact on you.” The series details how most often prostitutes are forced into this industry.

The image of the prostitute has inevitably been softened by films such as Pretty Woman. Image: 22860 / Flickr.com

In early April, a French law criminalising men who pay for prostitutes – rather than the prostitutes themselves – was put in place. If caught, punters pay a €1,500 fine, and attend classes about the conditions prostitutes face. It was inspired by the Swedish Violence Against Women Act, which places criminal responsibility for prostitution on the purchaser; since 1999, the number of Swedish prostitutes has halved. The information that surfaced during the debate surrounding the new French law was often shocking. Significantly, in France, 90 per cent of prostitutes are from poorer nations. They are not temptresses, or ‘happy hookers,’ but vulnerable, and far from home. They are not sipping champagne with Russian oligarchs, but servicing 15 punters a night to pay off their pimp.

Sexual education is finally taking priority in universities, although not yet Exeter, with “consent classes” being introduced at Freshers’ Weeks up and down the country. But whilst middle-class boys are taught that it’s not OK to shag drunk, middle-class girls in disabled toilets, none of us are taught what to think about prostitution. It is the tabooed topic to be tentatively nibbled.

I was recently reminded of a rumour that circulated my first-year halls, that a boy there had lost his virginity to a prostitute – paid for by the boy’s father. At the time we all laughed at the image of this boy entering the lair of, we imagined, a kind of “Stiffler’s Mom” avatar. But what if the prostitute in question had been vulnerable, poor, as inexperienced in good fortune as this boy was inexperienced between the sheets? In laughing, we had all, in some small way, condoned the ‘happy hooker’ fantasy, and the archaic idea that a father paying for his son’s cherry to be popped could ever be OK.

It’s time that universities addressed prostitution head on. We need to dispel fantasies of happy, Pretty Woman-esque prostitutes just as much as the media’s fantasies of prostitutes as temptresses. Whilst the sex trade can be empowering for some, for most it’s a trap.


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