Monday, March 29, 2010

Tennessee Williams Festival: Sex and the City - Prostitution


At the Tennessee Williams Festival, I attended a panel discussion titled "Sex and the City: The Oldest Profession in the City That Care Forgot." The moderator was Emily Toth, author of eleven books, many of them about women's lives. The panelists were three historians.

  • Alecia P. Long, author of The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race, and Respectability in New Orleans, 1865-1922
  • Judith K. Schafer, author of Brothels, Depravity, and Abandoned Women
  • Christine Wiltz, author of The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld

Below are highlights from the presentation as well as my own thoughts.

NORMA WALLACE. Norma Wallace is the subject of Christine Wiltz's book The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld. Norma is a legendary figure who ran a house of prostitution in the French Quarter from the 1920s to the 1960s. She is purported to have run a high-class establishment and to have treated her girls well. She was a very savvy and assertive businesswoman. I think I would like to read this book.

SEX SURVEY. Alecia Long teaches history and sexuality at Louisiana State University (LSU). She mentioned that a survey of women students at LSU had been conducted to find out for what reasons women students at LSU have sex. Among the reasons given was "To be polite."

As I think about this response, it seems possible that these women students felt compelled by a code of politeness to have sex in certain situations - situations in which the code dictated that refusal would be rude. It was important to these women students to be polite, so they had sex. They may not have really wanted to have sex.

This reminds me of a conversation years ago in which a friend told me that she had had sex for a reason very similar to "To be polite." My friend had been impressed with the dictum that, if a couple is on a date and the man becomes aroused, then it is only "fair" (polite?) that the woman allow the man to relieve his arousal by having intercourse with her; otherwise, she is being extremely "unfair" (rude?) to the man. My friend said that she felt unhappy about having had sex for this reason. She felt pressured by the code of fairness (or politeness) to have sex when she didn't want to. Perhaps she wanted to kiss, but then - Oops, now he's aroused, so I have to complete the sex act.

I would certainly want to find out more about those women students at LSU who had sex "to be polite." Does this survey indicate a need to break a code of politeness that compels a woman into unwanted sex? In a case of sex "to be polite," a woman does give her consent, so it can't be said that the man has forced her. Yet she was perhaps forced - by the code she has internalized.

SEXUAL MORALITY. This is a real bug-a-boo. In many ways, sexual morality seems to come from a comfortable middle-class mentality. It's easy to be moral when you can afford it.

I believe that the best context for sex is within a committed life-long monogamous relationship, such as marriage. Sex strengthens the love and trust bonds of the couple over the years. And yet . . .

And yet . . . I am aware that some people have a heightened sexuality that is hard to contain within a marriage. Some people feel sex as a fierce physical drive that needs to be fulfilled rather than as an intimate bonding act for a committed couple. Some people seem to thrive on a variety of sexual partners. Some people groove on three-somes. Some people groove on orgies.

It is easy for one who is deeply fulfilled within a marriage to point a condemning finger at those with other sexual practices. But if one is deeply fulfilled within a marriage, one doesn't experience the feelings of a person who seems to need more sex or more varied sex. If someone says that he or she finds orgies deeply satisfying, I just don't feel that I can respond that this is a perversion. Why is it a perversion? Because traditional morality forbids it and because I don't feel a need for it? One can make a case for immorality when someone is hurting another person, but when willing participants engage in mutually fulfilling sex acts, that argument disappears.

And yet . . . Those in power have often arranged society so that women have had very few options for making money. When a woman in such a society finds herself alone with children to support, she needs work that pays. Sometimes she turns as a last resort to prostitution to feed her children. This is not as far removed from us as we might think.

An audience member at the "Sex and the City" presentation told us about a woman she was aware of who had turned to prostitution after some financial reversals because this woman simply couldn't find work that paid enough to meet the needs of her children. One might say that there are always other options. I think that maybe sometimes for some women there really aren't. Of if there are, the woman in question can't see them.

And yet . . . There are women who are victims of sex slave trafficking. This exists even here in the United States. The panelist Alecia Long said that this often happens to Eastern European women who are tricked into accepting work positions abroad - and find themselves "working" as sex slaves. Not knowing the language, not having any friends or acquaintances, not having any financial resources, these women are truly trapped.

OVERALL. This was a valuable discussion. Even though I don't engage in sex, I certainly find the topic fascinating, important, and worthwhile.

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