Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The British Tradition of Puritanism and Sleaze (and the Myth of Nancy)........


I came accross a copy of a John Bunyan book yesterday in the public library. 'Puritanism' the writer on the sleeve commented, 'is undoubtedly part of the English character'. I don't know if this is an aspect of my character that I am unconscious of. But while I cannot help but agree on the whole with that statement, it is not an aspect of the national character that I take pride in by any means.

But it is alive and well in the press, in Westminster, in the pressure groups, on the web and in the homes and the streets of the United Kingdom. It can exist similtaneously in the pages of the Graun and the Torygraph. It is a big part of the heritage of both English socialism and feminism (one main reason why I don't really identify myself with either of these traditions, which are essentially as middle class as George Orwell once pointed out). It is what causes the English to be more preoccupied with the sex lives of politicians than the Latin countries. It was this Anglo heritage that almost brought down Bill Clinton.

Sexuality, when it is repressed by puritanism, becomes 'dirty'. Part of the thrill of British sex is down to the belief that something wrong is being done, that a trangression is taking place.

This came to my attention after having read an Emile Zola novel (French writer of the late 19th century). it was entitled 'The Kill' and was a depiction of the decadence of the bourgeoisie of the second empire. There were some fairly graphic sex scenes. I realised that such a novel would not have even been penned, let alone published, by any respected English Victorian author.

I remembered the scenes of 'Oliver Twist' (one of my favourite Victorian novels). I recalled the way that the fact Nancy was a prostitute had to be spelled out by Dickens in the introduction as any description of her trade would have been considered indecent in the novel. Contrast this with Zola's (Zola often being described as the 'French Dickens' for his realism) 'Nana' - an entire novel being devoted to the tragic life of a Parisian courtesan from a working class background. The sexual activities of Nana were described just as graphically as was the bourgeois sex of 'The Kill'.

Let us compare the stories of Nancy and Nana (Paris and London, a Tale of Two Cities, Nana and Nancy, a tale of two.......).
Both women come from poor working class backgrounds. Nana's upbringing is documented in Zola's earlier novel 'L'assomoir', which describes the lives of her alcoholic parents in the Goutte d'Or district of Paris. Nancy's background is only referenced briefly in her discussion with the middle class virgin 'Rose' - but is taken to be not unlike that of Nana. Here, however, is where the similarities end.

Zola does not morally endorse Nana's profession. Her tragedy stems partly from her greed. But it is made clear that Nana decided herself to embark on her profession, and is relatively in control of her work. She gets involved briefly with an abusive boyfriend but it doesn't last that long. Her downfall comes more with the corruption of one of her wealthy clients with a fetish for bondage. Like Nancy Nana has to die, but she catches typhoid).

Nancy, on the other hand, is an unwitting victim. She did not embark on her profession via her own choice but was bullied into it by Fagin and her violent partner Bill Sikes. She was 'led astray', in other words. And she is full of remorse and self pity for what she is, a trait noticably absent from the unrepentant Nana.

Nana and Nancy respectively can be seen to symbolise the British and the French attitudes towards the sex industry. Nancy remains the perpetual archetype for the downtrodden English prostitute. Every woman working the street is Nancy. Every Nancy has a Bill. The shame attached to the sex industry makes it all the sleazier.

I split this into two parts as it is long and not on a straight continuum. Please read on......


The Myth of Nancy (Continued).....

We know the story of Nancy. We know that she met her death at the hands of Bill Sikes, her 'bully' (Victorian for pimp). She was a pure victim of circumstance, of poverty and of male oppression.

I'm glad in a sense that I'm not in the UK right now. The tragic murders in Ipswich will bring the puritans out with no leash, snapping their jaws and using the deaths of these poor women for their own agenda. Agenda being to attempt to prove that all sex workers are Nancy.

Despite New Zealand's law reform, this attitude has found it's way into the press here. A hack named David Harrison writes an article entitled 'Stark Truth of the Sex Trade'. He comments that the murders have shone a dismal light on the extent of prostitution in the UK. Why, I could almost be at home. I'm feeling homesick already, in fact. And guess what? The article is couresy of the good old Torygraph, given to the 'Dominion Post'. Nice one.

'Britain's dark underbelly is a seedy world of desperate, drug addicted women who sell their bodies for their, or their pimps, next fix of heroin or crack'. Harrison unquestionally cites the home office stats on the prevalence of drug addiction among the UK's streetwalkers (stats which I pointed out yesterday were unreliable).

The drugs come early, most are offered heroin by their abusers, and are forced on the streets to feed their habits and pay their pimps (bullies). Some are 'launched' as early as the ages of 12 or 13 (as was the case with Dickens's Nancy, led astray by Fagin and Sikes).

Harrison writes "The street girls (sic!!) are the most vulnerable "workers" in Britain's expanding sex trade". He puts the term workers in inverted commas.

Such an article could just as well appear today in the Graun as the language is identical, patronising while denying sex workers their rights as sex workers. I am not questioning the fact that the vulnerable women he describes exists. I am sure they do. I don't doubt that there were women like Nancy who actually existed at the time Dickens was writing either. I have no doubt that the women are predominately from poor working class backgrounds either (I don't like the term 'underclass' used on the British poor). The fact that such conditions persist is a condemnation of 21st century Britain.

But it is misleading to suggest as he does that almost all streetwalkers are as he describes. They are not. Not all of them have a pimp or bully. Not all are on drugs. Some are simply freelancers who don't want to pay a brothel keeper and do not have the means to set up themselves or work from home. But what about minders? The issue is not one of the men themselves but their behaviour, and whether or not there is coercion taking place. Buying drugs for a partner doesn't necessarily mean he is forcing you either. The options of the men are often just as limited as those of the women. It may make more sense if you are a couple of addicts for the woman to sell sex rather than for the man to do a burglary and land himself in prison. I am not condoning these conditions, simply being straight and avoiding the implication that all partners of sex workers are 'pimps'. The drugs issue will of course be partly resolved by the decriminalisation or legalisation of heroin use - but few people promote this as an option when discussing the issue of addicted sex workers.

But I'll tell you what makes me mad. It is hard for me to express how I feel about this organisation using polite language. But I'll try. Harrison quotes Diane Marshall of Britain's 'Poppy Project', the home office funded programme to provide shelter for victims of sexual trafficking. Don't get me wrong - this in itself is something I would support. I believe that women abused in such a way should be given shelter and support, and it is a good thing for the British government to provide this. But alas, they are giving the money to the wrong people for this purpose. 'Poppy' are connected to a group known as the 'Lillith Project/Eaves Housing' who have a whole other agenda.

These ladies are continuing in the notable tradition of the 'National Vigilance Association' - to stamp out vice and public immorality. They are modern Victorians. They oppose prostitution being defined as 'sex work' - insisting it should remain 'prostitution' (root - to commit an immoral act for money). Yet how do these feminists do this without condemning the fallen women they wish to save? Easy. They use the term 'prostituted women' - meaning that nobody is doing such work voluntarily. Taking their cue from the Victorian social reformers, they believe that no woman would choose to work in the sex trade, all women being forced via economic or social circumstances beyond their control.

Marshall blames the 'normalisation' of the sex trade for the murders. What utter crock. What of the women murdered by partners and men who they know, women who are not sex workers? What is to blame for that? Monogamy? Marhsall praises the 'good old days' when "it used to be taboo to go with a prostitute, something to be done furtively, something that brought shame if you were found out". Aah, the joys of English puritanism. So it is somehow not so bad if it remains a dirty secret, Ms Marshall, so as to protect the virtue of decent ladies like yourself? It is better that sex workers remain stigmatised, the lowest of the low, so as to seperate themselves from respectable women.

Please don't think that Marshall's project to rescue sex slaves is anything new or remotely radical. It isn't. Victorian groups consisting of middle class women very often indulged in such projects - providing safe houses for fallen women who wished to leave the trade. The 'female mission for the fallen' distributed tracts outside brothels protesting the exploitation of women. Dickens himself was involved in such a project.

Predictably Harrison does not interview any sex workers themselves, only police, charities, and their self appointed redeemers Ms Marshall and a group named "Women for Justice' - who claim that drug addiction, homeless rape and murder are occupational hazards of the sex trade, therefore it is hardly a career choice. Yet they don't consider the possibility that criminalisation may have something to do with this. Oh, no. If they were really worried about the safety of sex workers they would call for policy to help protect them. But they prefer they be criminalised, hence running greater risks to their safety. Nay, they and their ilk call for heavier criminalisation. Which shows their real concern is not the safety of prostitutes but rather the virtue of decent ladies like themselves.

Harrison concludes by saying that 'the world's oldest profession is really the oldest oppression'. With his social conservatism (writing for the Torygraph) and his questionable sources, along with his patronising attitude towards women and his failure to speak to any prostitutes themselves it is not surprising that he says this.

Many middle class (decent and respectable) women give sex in exchange for something, be it security ( often dressed as commitment) or status. The prostitute is a threat to the middle class lady as she direcly asks for money, hence blowing the cover and thus the facade of decency. This exposes the hypocrisy of conventional morality - and the morality of puritanical 'feminists' and their buddies on the right.

It is interesting the way the Torygraph has dropped it's rhetoric of traditional values, public morality, etc and adopted the Graun's rhetoric about the exploitation of women. I guess it puts a better and more modern sounding spin on what is ultimately conventional morality.

To conclude my heart goes out to the murder victims in Ipswich and their relatives - and I am sorry that their deaths are being exploited in this way by the usual suspects.


Gracchi said...

You are right. Puritanism does produce some uncomfortable alliances. I like your article- afterall all of us men and women exchange sex for other things in our lives. I also think you can't just reduce all prostitutes to something- you can't really ever reduce all anythings to something concrete- you always make errors. I do also agree that there is a major problem with equality that this is masking and with possibly prohibition- though I am less sure about that. Good article.

james higham said...

I think US society is far more puritanical. Their are eccentricities in Britain which you'd never get away with, even in California.

Liz said...

Thanks for the comments. I agree, James, that US society can be even more puritanical, I put much of that down to the anglo legacy (hence why I mentioned the Clinton scandal!) I doubt that a British PM would have the opposition attempt to impeach him for that, although it would count as a black mark for sure.