Entry from May 14, 2010

“We thought of ourselves as calendar girls,” says [Claire] Finch today, sitting in her lounge as she describes the parlour where six middle-aged women, two or three working at any one time, sold massages with ‘happy endings.’ The prosecution’s view was less rose-tinted. Although women are legally entitled to sell sex individually, if they club together they risk a charge of brothel keeping for whoever has their name on the lease.” So today’s Times of London reports. “We weren’t women doing drugs on street corners or even Belle de Jour, nipping off to Italy on the weekend. We were just middle-aged ladies trying to pay the mortgage,” says Ms Finch. The Times explains that,

during her marriage, Claire worked as an aromatherapy masseuse. But after a divorce, her husband ran into financial difficulties and couldn’t make the maintenance payments. With two small children to support, she came across a company that dealt in massage and other sexual services. “I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t possibly do this.[’] But I had a mortgage to pay,” she says.

So what happened when the case came to trial? The jury agreed with the lady with the mortgage and with the testimonials she received from three of her neighbors to the effect that she was a good and caring neighbor herself rather than the keeper, in the quaint language of the now seemingly-outdated law, “a disorderly house.” In Ms Finch’s words: “It was a wonderful moment winning that case. Better than winning the lottery. . .I was ecstatic. The whole place erupted . . . the policewoman squeezed my hand. Even the judge was smiling.” Well, who wouldn’t sympathize? The question then becomes, however, how far does this outcome, particularly insofar as it involves the solicitous neighbors and the sympathetic policewoman and the smiling judge, indicate that there has been a sea change in people’s ideas of decency, at least in the UK?

I think the answer must be that ordinary people are seeing the hypocrisy of keeping on the books and still, occasionally, attempting to enforce pre-sexual revolution prostitution laws when the culture demands that we look with indulgence on all kinds of things that are much, much worse than a bunch of middle-aged ladies — Ms Finch is said “not to hire anyone under 35, telling them that they deserved a chance at other things in life” — giving hand jobs to scrape a living like ordinary working stiffs. You can tell this, too, by that reference to the “Calendar Girls” — some middle aged women from Yorkshire who stripped off in photographs for a calendar designed to raise money for charity. They made a movie about it a few years ago and, as I observed at the time, the movie-makers appeared to have had no interest in what this said about our culture but only wanted to celebrate the women’s personal stories and their sudden elevation to celebrity status. But, looking back from the point of view of Ms Finch’s acquittal, the Calendar Girls’ story seems to have been a landmark on the way to the normalization of sex-as-commodity.

Still, we must suppose that most people would continue to believe that this commodification must stay within certain bounds — the newly re-defined limits of decency — as Ms Finch implicitly recognized by stressing what she and her “ladies” were not. They were not streetwalkers or druggies or the high class call-girl who wrote on the Internet and later in a book under the name of Belle de Jour and who, after a TV series was made of the book, was revealed to be Dr Brooke Magnanti, a hospital researcher from Bristol. “We talked about cushions, children or menstrual cycles,” Ms Finch told The Times. “I don’t have a bunch of Ukrainians strapped to things in the cellar.” She’s not one of that sort of prostitutes, you see.

So if the logic of the revolution leads us to some form of legalized and socially-tolerated prostitution, how much further is it likely to lead us? Whatever it has lost, what of the old-fashioned sense of decency has the post-revolutionary generation managed to retain? Coincidentally, there was a story in the Daily Telegraph of London a few days ago about how “an Australian documentary maker has convinced several young people to appear in a reality television programme in which they auction their virginity to the highest bidder.” Outrage and the threat of prosecution in Australia has forced this person, Justin Sisley, to move his production from Australia to Nevada, where prostitution has long been legal. So decency still draws the line apparently, at selling one’s virginity for money and fame. At least in Australia. I wonder how long that will continue to be the case? We shall find out if and when Mr Sisley’s “documentary” appears on American television.

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