How Happy Are Hookers?

But not so with our third supposition, which is considerably intertwined with early incestuous relationships. The idea that prostitution is an endearing and useful profession—at least potentially, if people became more tolerant—is gaining momentum. In the media, glamorous actresses play roles that legitimatize, even romanticize, prostitution. Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. It is all reminiscent of those wonderful old westerns in which gaily dressed young ladies from the local brothel, full of spunk and self-assurance, teamed up with the guy in the white hat to foil the bad guys and prudish town fathers. Playboy’s cartoons depict gorgeous young things in brothels as both delighted and delightful, filled with good humor, and obviously enjoying their work.

Today one does not have to go to Playboy to be exposed to the new idea of the “happy hooker” and the rollicking sounds of the unashamedly advertised The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Even TV Guide recognizes a disturbing trend. Criticizing the “recent spate” of TV movies and series episodes about prostitutes, TV Guide has commented: “The subject is worthy of dramatic treatment, sure—but not always with the over glamorized image conveyed by the likes of Veronica Hamill, “Sessions,” and Loni Anderson, “My Mother’s Secret Life.” TV’s hookers are invariably attractive, rich, even classy—and they make the world’s oldest profession seem unduly respectable.”

“Well, why shouldn’t it be respectable?” is the vigorous rejoinder of certain prostitutes themselves. They spearhead another level of prostitution’s growing acceptance, that of serious articulation, COYOTE—Call Off Your Old-Time Ethics—held its Second International Hookers’ Convention July 16 in San Francisco, coinciding with the Democratic convention. These women speak at their national conventions and Donahue-type talk shows boldly, unapologeticly, humorously, and with a strong appeal to logic.

On the surface, their arguments seem telling. Surely the acceptance of prostitutes cannot be put on a par with racial intolerance—in fact, is it not just the opposite: a tolerant view of society’s victims and dissidents? Is not prostitution the best option for many women? In a pluralistic society, why should one person’s viewpoint stigmatize another? We are asked why we pass laws against women who harm no one but simply provide pleasure? We are told that if prostitutes were accepted as full human beings in America, as blacks and Jews have been, their conditions would radically improve.

Article continues below

Logical. Reasonable. And who among us does not wish to be tolerant and hear words spoken against the humiliations prostitutes experience? The respect and dignity these women yearn for we also wish for them. Issues of human sexuality are complex, and it is obvious that condemning incest or prostitution is not going to eliminate it. But tolerance as the solution whitewashes a situation in which a woman, made in God’s image, sells her body. Prostitution is ugly. The term “happy hooker” is a lie. For every Xaviera Hollander writing about the carnal delights of the profession (and obviously receiving large royalty checks for telling us this), there are scores of Linda Lovelaces with tales of brutal exploitation.

The Unhappy Hooker

Prostitutes like the ones who appeared on Donahue’s show may live well, and perhaps without surface guilt or even pain, but are they typical? Recent studies indicate not. For instance, more than one study has indicated around 60 percent of young prostitutes are victims of incest. As reported in the Chicago Tribune (June 24, 1984), respondents to Dr. Mimi Silbert’s study in San Francisco said they were first molested at the average age of 10, and that physical force or emotional or physical threats were used. Their typical responses were “I felt disgusted by sex”; “I felt dirty”; “I felt terrible.”

Dr. Silbert first noted two conditions: (1) an incestuous father or father-figure; (2) a child’s belief that no one will listen to her confused fears (or, worse, that others will accuse her of lying). The result? This, she says, “lays the foundation for prostitution. A lifestyle of learned helplessness ensues.” Through incest and other abuse, girls feel “sexually spoiled,” their feelings of inferiority compounded by other degrading experiences which lead them into prostitution as “their only choice.”

Significantly, none of the young female prostitutes surveyed mentioned pleasure as a motivation for entering the profession; and once involved, many felt there was no escape.

Said one fifteen-year-old in Minneapolis, “I hate what I’m doing. I don’t have fun at this.… I want to get out of it, but I can’t go home. My father’s no better than a trick [customer]. I mean, if someone’s going to mess with me, I might as well get paid for it, right?” The myth of “happy hookers” enjoying their trade doesn’t match reality.

And yet, fed by unchallenged acceptance of the myth that prostitution is harmless, a “victimless crime,” child prostitution is on the rise. One judge, apparently accepting the argument, sent a fourteen-year-old back to the streets again, asserting that prostitution is merely a “recreational transaction.” Such a position has immediate tragic consequences, among them an open field for the pimp.

Article continues below

But it is not just children who are exploited. Prostitutes themselves are pulled into a descending spiral. More than a decade ago New York Magazine ran a lengthy article by Gail Sheehy titled “Redpants,” which was carefully researched and thoughtfully written. One of the chilling aspects of that research was what happened to the beautiful young women who began as highly valued and highly paid prostitutes. As they grew older (entering their 20s) and lost some of their beauty, they were forced to work during more dangerous hours and made less money. By the time they reached their 30s they were often prematurely old and unattractive, with no recourse but to work the hours long past midnight when the income was very low and the potential for violence very high.

A social worker in Chicago confirms this downward slide. “I’ve been amazed,” she says, “at the number of bag ladies I work with who are former prostitutes. Now they have nothing to sell, and no future.”

Those who defend prostitution protest that by normalizing prostitution this is precisely the sordid picture they want to avoid. They might point to Amsterdam, for instance, where husbands drop off their wives in the morning and appreciate the extremely good pay the wives bring home at night. There it is accepted, and advertised worldwide.

Amsterdam may indeed be instructive. As someone has said about its red-light district, “Its primary driving sin is greed.” Anyone who has walked through the district and seen the proximity of drugs, warnings against pickpockets, the general degradation and violence, knows that what the city experiences is far from a liberating freedom and tolerance.

Most prostitutes have been entrapped and yearn for something better; relatively few have callously chosen prostitution with the same moral indifference as the adulteress so graphically warned against in Proverbs 5. To bright young women who have many options but still choose prostitution, we should speak out forcefully that it is corrosive. The wealthy Romans who drank out of lead goblets were, like some of these articulate women, unaware of the lead poisoning entering their bodies and could not account for the serious physical symptoms they experienced. Ironically, the slaves, drinking from clay goblets, were spared. These ancients never knew what was happening to them, and in a sense this is just the case with those self-assured women who willingly embrace the profession.

Article continues below

The women of COYOTE, however, will no doubt continue to hold fast to their argument. The discussions remind one of the great social and sexual experiments launched in the early 70s with a misunderstanding of the consequences. Writers and “experts” proposed that an open marriage, with occasional adultery mixed in for spice, would produce a healthier relationship. Many people experimented, and it took some time for them to realize that these proposals had been made with little basis in research or historical study. The results were disastrous. One writer in New York said she interviewed a great many of her friends who were having affairs. In beginning the interviews she fully expected her friends to be enriched with new horizons and expanding awareness. But—surprise—she found the affairs had been extremely destructive to both the marriages and the partners themselves. More than a dozen years later, some of the same writers who extolled the sexual revolution are admitting to the naïveté and excesses of those years. A similar awakening may one day occur among those who view prostitution as a mere “recreational exchange.”

What To Do?

How can Christians combat the myths surrounding prostitution? To be salt in the world means to engage the difficult questions (such as whether decriminalization would cause more or less pain); it means to confront ultimately destructive ideas and to make our views known.

First, we should praise the media for coverage like that already cited on teen prostitution, incest, and child abuse. We agree with TV Guide’s assertion that true dramatic treatment of prostitutes would be appropriate for television. What Roots did to sensitize us to the suffering of blacks, dramatic and accurate stories could do regarding prostitution. When television moves into “entertainment,” it should especially avoid sugarcoated stories on this subject. Second, we should ask the press to go beyond just reporting on statistics, and beyond a few brief paragraphs against glamorizing prostitution; it should publish the work of some editorialists who perceive the tragedy prostitution represents.

But in calling for this, we must also caution ourselves as Christians. While prostitutes were holding their first national convention in Washington, D.C., in the mid-seventies, three appeared on a local talk show with then-CT editor Harold Lindsell, who presented a scriptural viewpoint. Though they vigorously debated him, it was clear they felt they had no way out, and they asserted with some emotion that the churches would have nothing to do with them. It was a cry for help beneath their rhetoric, although today they would surely deny that. These women represent thousands who see no acceptance and no safe haven in the church. Yet it is the church which should represent Christ to them. The church is against prostitution because God is holy and because it supports their dignity as persons made in God’s image. When we project the opposite to them, we fail to act redemptively.

Article continues below

In contrast, Jesus treated Mary Magdalene with respect; she became a believer and it was she he honored with his first appearance after the Resurrection. When a prostitute washed Jesus’ feet with her hair, his host thought he should recoil from the woman of bad reputation. But instead, Jesus praised her tribute and criticized his host. The woman taken in adultery was told by Jesus to go and sin no more. But before saying that, he pointed out the sins of the religious people who had self-righteously dragged her there. It was obvious he considered religious pride and middle-class hypocrisy at least as damaging to the soul as sins of the flesh. The Gospels never record an instance where Jesus lashed out at prostitutes; and he freely moved among them despite risk to his reputation.

We must take care that we do not find ourselves on the side of those who, unlike Jesus, treat prostitutes as inferiors. If we think ourselves even slightly better than just one person, we do not understand our own doctrines. In addition, we must also be ready to admit with humility that the church historically has made some very bad judgments in regard to sex. Often Christians have distorted human sexuality, giving secularists ammunition to support their charge that we have disqualified ourselves to speak. Bad doctrinal assumptions stain the church: we are still suffering from the results of anti-Semitism, heretic-burning and racism, ideas once supported by many Christians. We must genuinely pattern both our standards and our actions after Christ and, in the words of Saint Francis, be an “instrument of his peace.” Only as we follow Christ’s compassionate yet holy example can we act as salt and light.

But that does not mean we cannot be outraged. To be outraged at prostitution is a Christian response. Unfortunately, our outrage agenda has been neatly circumscribed by our culture. We have learned to be outraged at some evil ideas but not others. On the plus side is our extreme touchiness about Jew-baiting and ethnic slurs: Thirty years ago children chanted, “Catch a nigger by the toe, if he hollers, let him go.” Most parents today would correct a child who chants that. But when we hear a lighthearted Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and little snickering jokes about bordellos, we let them pass. Currently both in Germany and in the U.S. some dark humor treats casually what the Jewish people endured in the concentration camps. What if we heard in snickering bad taste a parody line, “The best little gas oven in Auschwitz”? Just reading the line makes us cringe. It does not belong in this magazine. And that is just the point. It is in horrible taste, unthinkable, and we should not let such a comment pass unchallenged.

Article continues below

In one way racial bigotry and prostitution have the same root—they deny a person’s value before God. Making light of prostitution makes light of vilifying persons loved by God. C.S. Lewis eloquently stated the positive side of this in The Weight of Glory:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.… All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.…”

Prostitutes are immortals too. We must be extremely careful that we do not vilify them, but act for them, and let them see the compassionate, holy Christ who reaches out in love to every one of them.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.