Biggest Book on Oldest Profession
(from brinkzine.com 4/9/07)
- editor Melissa Ditmore
Maybe in the near future some enterprising young college student, whose grandfather told tall tales of selling the “Encyclopædia Britannica” door-to-door to pay his way through school, will do the same with a brand new encyclopedia about the world’s oldest profession. Surely the Lady of the House or anyone else who opens the door will be instantly curious about the contents of Greenwood Press’s lavishly illustrated two-volume “Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work,” edited by Melissa Ditmore. As the eager entrepreneur would whisper to seal the deal, the Encyclopedia’s massive collection of original essays includes everything you ever wanted to know on the subject but were afraid to ask. With such diverse topics as the Bible, Geishas, Storyville, Films, HIV/AIDS and the Prostitution Rights Movement, the Mann Act, Kama Sutra, Jack the Ripper, Poetry, Child Prostitution, Hip Hop, and “Debbie Doesn’t Do It for Free,” this seminal work is both lots of fun and enlightening. It would be an easy transaction, but until the day a salesman brings it to your door, you’ll have to find this encyclopedia in the bookstore, online, or in libraries.
Fortunately, I was able to get my hands on a copy at a book party for the Encyclopedia’s very smart and very hip young editor of this ambitious work. Dr. Melissa Hope Ditmore is the coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, edits the annual journal Research for Sex Work, and is a contributor to “Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered” (Paradigm, 2005), “Affective Turn” (Duke, 2007) and “Women Across Borders” (Black Rose, forthcoming). Moreover, she has spoken about prostitution, migration rights and research ethics at the United Nations, the International Conference on HIV/AIDS, Columbia University, Cornell University, Hong Kong City University and numerous academic and political conferences. Impressed with her book, her credentials, and her decision to pass out condoms to everyone at the party, I cornered her and began this interview.
Danny Peary: Did you get involved with this project by going to Greenwood Press or did your publisher find you?
Melissa Ditmore: A very interesting female editor at Greenwood Press grew up in Detroit and was really into the flashy cars driven by pimps. I believe that’s the real starting point of "Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work" – the personal background that inspired her to come up with the idea for a book. She convinced Greenwood to produce an encyclopedia and looked for someone to edit it. A scholar referred her to Priscilla Alexander, the editor of “Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry.” Priscilla invited me to co-edit the book with her, and we really were excited to do it together. Then she was overwhelmed with other work, and Greenwood got stuck with me as the sole editor.
DP: I’m sure Greenwood Press felt comfortable having you as the lone editor of the book because of your expertise on the subject. Can you tell me a little about your background writing and speaking about sex work, trafficking, migration rights, and prostitution and the law?
MD: My background primarily includes researching and writing about the sex industry, not publishing. I've done research with sex workers in the U.S. and Asia, planning what we'd cover based on the issues they told me were most pressing in their lives - police issues, violence, access to health and legal services, and law reform, as well as more inspiring things like how resourceful, independent and self-reliant many sex workers are. I didn’t have the publishing background that would have made the process of assembling this book much easier. But everyone with publishing experience knew how much work it would it be and did not want to take it on! So I stepped in, a bit naively, and learned an enormous amount on the job.
DP: Were you surprised Greenwood wanted to publish a two-volume encyclopedia on prostitution and sex work rather than an encyclopedia on sex?
MD: Sex sells, but sex and money sells even more! Seriously, there have been histories of sexuality, but no large-scale treatment of this kind on prostitution. So the surprise was not that the book would be done, but that I would do it.
DP: In the book, you quote the cliché that “prostitution is the oldest profession,” so were you at least surprised when you began your research to discover that your book would be the first comprehensive reference on the subject?
MD: Yes, that did surprise me! I had not thought about this kind of resource until I was approached by Priscilla to work on it with her. Both of us realized that it would be the first book of its kind, so we had to do it!
DP: Was your book completely organized from the beginning or did it evolve as various authors agreed to take part and chose their own topics?
MD: The book had a panel of advisors. We brainstormed to come up with an entry list, and sent out a call for contributors. There was a deluge of responses from people with wonderful ideas that we hadn’t included. The entry list changed until the day I sent in the final manuscript!
DP: Talk about the process of putting together this book and finding your all-star lineup of authors over what must have been a lengthy period of time. Did you disappear from the world?
MD: The internet was a huge help – email made it possible to do this book in only two years. Some days it felt like I had disappeared behind my computer, but had I really spent all my time online, I never would have found all 179 contributors. Many responded to my calls; the others were referred to me by people who knew about the book. When contracted contributors died or were made homeless by hurricanes, as did happen, I pressed my friends and colleagues into service and they came through in a big way. I am grateful to all my writers.
DP: You are well-versed on the subject, but what did you learn that surprised or shocked you in your book?
MD: One example: Fifteen-hundred years back, a few worldly whores retreated from the world to pursue religious salvation with the new religion of Christianity. Desert harlots were early Christian ascetics who gave up prostitution and worldly comfort to meditate in a harsh environment.
DP: One of the book’s many diverse topics is the Bible—does the Bible or religion in general have anything positive to say about prostitution?
MD: What did Jesus do? Hang out with whores. Seriously, Jesus is understood to have ministered to prostitutes. And I learned from Avaren Ipsen, the author of the entry on the Bible, that in the New Testament, Paul condemns not prostitutes but men seeking their services. Ipsen also points out that the harlot Rahab is portrayed as a heroine in the Old Testament. Yet Leviticus and Genesis specify harsh penalties for prostitution, including death. Ipsen writes that often prostitutes were meant to be symbolic in the Bible, representing conquered territory to be plundered. Different religions have different associations with prostitution (some accepting, some condemning), from the temple prostitution in Ancient Greece and the caste of temple prostitutes in India to the contemporary form of goddess worship in California’s Children of God sect.
DP: Another of your topics is prostitution in the movies. You didn’t write the essay in your book, but do you think there any films that get it right?
MD: Films are often escapism and fantasy with compelling characters and stories. I don’t think narrative films should be held to portraying “reality.” Documentaries are different because they purport to show reality. However, I think Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls, a 1986 narrative set in a New York brothel, gets it right as a slice of the sex industry. Perhaps its most vivid message is how routine the sex becomes for the sex worker, as evoked in the sheer number of times she takes and puts back on her clothes. Pretty Woman is Cinderella. It’s not true-to-life, but on the positive side, Julia Roberts’ Vivian is a smart and sexy, health-conscious hooker. Hookers do make great symbols in the movies, both as a symbol of decay and of flawed humanity, as in the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope.
DP: “Pretty Woman” has been criticized by many feminist critics for portraying streetwalkers—as opposed to expensive call girls--in a glamorous light, including having them all seem healthy, pretty, and sexy. They are almost role models rather than women who struggle to survive on the dangerous streets. You speak of Vivian being sexy in a positive way, but wouldn’t it be better for young girls seeing the film if she weren’t sexy?
MD: I think Vivian is a good role model for safe sex and even eroticizing condoms. Hollywood’s talent for glamorizing things is why I like the movies! I’m there for escapism, so I don’t mind that aspect of “Pretty Woman.” But I do think the film does present an unglamorous world when Vivian is on the street and in the rough bars she frequents, and even when she is assaulted in the posh hotel. Vivian is a real contrast to her roommate, who spends the rent money and utters my favorite line in the film, “You clean up real good,” after Vivian’s Pygmalionesque transformation.
DP: What is the major misconception people who pick up your book—and those who wouldn’t come near it--might have about sex work and prostitutes?
MD: Some people assume that sex workers have no limits, that they accept all comers with every type of scenario, as it were. This is not so. Sex workers set limits for what they will and won’t do; they negotiate prices for specific acts and time spent; and they turn down would-be clients who they suspect will not respect their boundaries. This wrong perception is most insidious when clients violate boundaries, as in the case of rape. It is frightening when doctors and police question whether prostitutes can be raped at all. That a prostitute’s claim of being the victim of a sexual crime is often ignored enables people who prey on sex workers to do so with impunity.
DP: This obviously fits into the issue of violence against women.
MD: Violence against sex workers isn’t often reported; murders are even classified as “no human involvement” and this is the truly criminal act. Murdered sex workers are mourned (by their colleagues, clients, and families) no less than anyone else who is murdered. The fact that police rarely investigate or prosecute even the murder of a prostitute makes sex workers easy prey. I’d like to point out that a Nicaraguan trannie (transsexual) was killed recently in San Francisco. She was 27-year-old Ruby Ordenana, a.k.a. Ruby Rodriguez. Police must investigate violence against sex workers of all genders.
DP: What should we know about male prostitution?
MD: Male prostitution is everywhere. Not all men in the sex industry are gay. Not even all male prostitutes who cater to men are gay. Many are “gay-for-pay.” Men work as escorts for men and women, although women hiring gigolos is a smaller market than the market selling sex to men. There are markets for women to purchase sex, usually women from rich countries in poorer countries. Transgenders also sell sex– it’s not only male-to-female transgender prostitutes, but transgender female-to-male as well.
DP: If someone says prostitution is a social problem, would you, an ardent advocate for prostitutes to have protection under the law, agree with them, or would you say that something other than prostitution is the real problem?
MD: Conversations like this scenario you’ve posed are really illuminating for me. I usually take the opportunity to ask what these people see as the problem. Their reply usually goes one of two ways: “It affects me this way”--and they usually provide an example--or “I just think it’s wrong.” People who live where there are street strolls (neighborhoods with street prostitution) may complain that there are both an abundance of litter and excessive traffic. If there is a concrete issue, and litter and traffic are pretty clear, it should be addressed. However, when the person who is complaining about prostitution does so because of a gut or socialized response, it is not so easily addressed. Unfortunately, this is quite common!
DP: Should we worry about high-priced call girls or just streetwalkers?
MD: That depends on what you’re worried about. If it’s health, the women who are more desperate for money are more likely to take risks—such as agreeing to a client’s demand that no condoms are used-- but people who are new to sex work at any level need to know about general health issues and how to avoid sexually transmitted infections; and even how not to catch cold when they see a lot of clients. If it’s violence, all sex workers of all genders and economic strata fear it, with good reason. That said, I believe people working the street are generally more likely to face violence because they are visible.
DP: Have feminists dropped the ball as far as prostitution goes?
MD: Feminists are diverse, and many sex workers are themselves feminists. Out and proud sex workers have changed feminism by challenging the old-fashioned and dated “women against pornography” ethic. Lots of women like pornography and are tired of being told that disqualifies them from being feminists. There is a feminist faction railing against the sex industry for contributing to violence against women, but it is allied with the Christian Right, which never has promoted women’s issues. I have a hard time seeing these women as feminists because of their strange bedfellows. Feminists who advocate for rights rather than telling other women what they should be doing are simply more productive and more in tune with young women today.
DP: One chapter in your book is titled “HIV/AIDS and the Prostitution Rights Movement.” Is there indeed a “movement?”
MD: There is indeed a movement. Sex workers have unions in Asia, Australia, Europe, and Latin America. There is a unionized strip club in California. But that’s labor. There is an enormous human rights aspect to the sex workers’ rights movement, too. That includes addressing violence against sex workers, including sexual assault, and demanding that sex workers to be treated the same way other people are. For example, in some parts of Europe, sex workers pay taxes but do not receive the same government health care and retirement benefits as other workers. As a result sex workers in Europe have formed an international committee with members from over fifteen countries to advocate for the same rights afforded to others.
DP: Compared to other countries, how does the United States treat prostitutes?
Should we assume the worst countries are those where the governments condone and even support trafficking, child prostitution, and sexual slavery?
MD: Prostitution itself is not illegal in most of the developed world, as it is in most of America. But overt and known prostitutes are ostracized almost everywhere. Clandestine sex workers who avoid arrest can live quite well, but those who are arrested or targeted by the government could lose all their savings and property. Women who have been so-targeted have suffered terribly and lost much. The law is not sympathetic toward prostitution in the U.S., but at least no one is executed for introducing clients to sex workers. In China, Heidi Fleiss could have been executed!
While no government supports trafficking, there are corrupt individuals in positions of power – think bribable border guards and embassy personnel rather than oligarchs and presidents. Also, some governments have introduced policies that increase trafficking. Consider restrictions on movement – when women are not allowed to travel to a different country because their governments fear they will become prostitutes there. Those women who are determined to migrate must hire people to help them cross borders. The Thai government used to scrutinize women under 35 who attempted to leave the country. It saw that the women often paid others to help them secure fake papers. These documents were extremely expensive and some of the women ended up in great debt trying to pay off inflated travel expenses. Romania used to stamp the passports of young women leaving the country for Greece with the word “prostitute,” thereby making it almost impossible for them to be granted entrance. Women who were insistent about leaving without stamped passports hired people to help smuggle them across the border, often paying extortionate prices for the service. Limiting women’s movement encourages their ingenuity, but some people exploit this for monetary gain, sometimes using the vulnerabilities of illegal migrants to enslave them--not with chains but debt and threats.
DP: A topic getting a lot of news coverage recently is the “comfort women” who provided sexual services to Japanese soldiers (mostly officers) during WWII. What are your thoughts?
MD: The women to whom this happened are elderly now. Many have died already. They deserve more than an apology before they die.
DP: You’ve spoken at the U.N. What should the U.N. do about trafficking, HIV, sexual assault and other issues relating to prostitution in the world?
MD: No comment.
DP: Well, what was it like to have delivered a speech about sex work at the United Nations? Do you think you or other speakers made an impact, or are there other places where it is more beneficial to speak?
MD: I spoke to the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, and the chair didn’t even leave her headphones on – I had no impact at all! She’s a Moroccan woman with whom I spoke French, and she needed translation from English to French, so I know she didn’t bother to listen. Nothing says “I can’t hear you” like removing your headphones! But others were interested, and that is gratifying.
So yes there are more effective venues, but the key is the audience rather than the venue. A good audience wants to hear what you have to say, a bad one has already decided not to hear.
Last year four sex workers spoke to the UN General Assembly during its meeting on HIV. They had a much more receptive audience, and were given much better positions in regard to where they sat in the room and their placement on the program. The beautiful Martine Ago from Bleti in Ivory Coast sat next to and spoke right after Secretary General Kofi Annan. Many people listened and those who did not pretended to!
DP: What needs most to be fixed in regard to prostitution in the U.S. and internationally?
MD: Again, violence against sex workers of all genders should be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But police cannot play cat and mouse with sex workers if they mean to truly enforce laws against violence when sex workers are involved. Sex workers around the world say that the police are the prime violators of their rights. This is a far greater crime than exchanging sex for money.
DP: What is your goal for this book in terms of enlightening people?
MD: Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work illuminates sex work for people who have a limited understanding of it. I want readers to have informed opinions and be able to make smart decisions about sex work based on the large amount of information the book presents to them. Before I met prostitutes, I was sure that nobody wanted to be a prostitute--or wanted anyone they knew to be prostitutes or even visit them. And they told me I was wrong, so wrong! My friends explained why they like their work and what they get out of it, as well as what they would change if they could to improve their livelihood. I want everyone to appreciate the book, but if sex workers enjoy it, I will be elated!
DP: What is next for you?
MD: I’ve directed a short film about politics and sex work. This was for the Network of Sex Work Projects, an international network with members in over fifty countries on six continents dedicated to promoting the health and human rights of sex workers everywhere. You can see it online at http://sexworkerspresent.blip.tv/.
DP: And a second book?
MD: I’m currently editing the manuscript of my next book. It’s a much smaller and more personal endeavor. It will fit in a handbag or back pocket!