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How to be a hooker like Belle on the box

September 28th, 2007

Dr Petra

Yesterday evening ITV2 began a new series ‘Secret diary of a call girl’ starring Billie Piper. The programme is based around the books by Belle de Jour which were sparked by a blog by Belle about her exploits as a high class call girl. The blog gained a lot of media attention and lengthy ‘is she or isn’t she?’ debates about whether Belle was a call girl, or even a girl at all.

In terms of publicity, having the new series has most certainly given ITV2 a lot of attention. There have been debates about the programme itself, discussions about prostitution, spin off series on ITV about high class hookers and endless debates within the press about prostitution and the coverage of sex in the media. You can also stand by for women’s magazines to provide style and sex guides so you too can entertain your man like a courtesan.

It’s all been very interesting to watch unfold. For many media pundits, concern has been expressed about exploitation. Not about prostitution you understand (that angle’s been saved for anti prostitution campaigners). Critics have been more concerned how the programme is really a cynical way to boost ratings on a channel that’s struggling. Having a saucy new series and a glamorous star most certain could bring in the viewers. Many critics have complained the series, while well shot and beautifully costumed, is not particularly well acted nor all that convincing. Or sexy.

Elsewhere the popular press has been veering from breathy ‘oooh isn’t high class prostitution glamorous? You get to wear such saucy underwear and you always know how to turn a man on and feel terribly sexy’ to ‘isn’t prostitution terrible? Nobody wants to do it, prostitutes are all from broken homes, have drug problems and are forced into it against their will. They don’t even like the sex’. Of course the press have been pretty careful to delineate between ‘high class’ prostitution (desirable and exciting) to all other forms of prostitution (grim and dangerous). We should all feel very sorry for those who aren’t high class hookers, but wish we could be as sexually skilled as those who are.

Within this there has been plenty of scope for the rehearsal of those old familiar narratives – prostitution is the oldest profession, thousands of women are trafficked, women have the right to choose to be sex workers, let’s legalise brothels, we should copy Sweden/Amsterdam/the US in how we manage prostitution, it’s all about drugs/disease/danger.

Predictably there’s been virtually no discussion about those who see prostitutes and relatively little about pimps. Prostitutes have universally been described as female, no discussions of rent boys here. When discussion has focused on punters it’s mostly constructed them as sad and harmless men who can’t get a girlfriend, or violent psychopaths who want all women dead. Unless, that is, they’re seeing a high class call girl in which case they’re described as incredibly good looking and even someone you’d want to have sex with without them having to pay for it.

I’ve heard from several women’s magazines all eager to write features based around what lingerie to buy so you can ‘be like Belle’ as well as revealing top sex worker sex tips you can apply to your man so he’ll only want you and will never want another woman (particularly a prostitute).

With all of this coverage there’s really been very little discussion of what prostitutes actually do (apart from wear very expensive undies in the case of high class hookers and get beaten up in the case of all other prostitutes). Giving far more credit to the programme than it’s really due the series has also spawned features suggesting the fuss made about it is due to our inability to talk about sex (rather than clever marketing at ITV2).

From the media coverage you’d have thought ITV2 are doing something revolutionary in their new series, whereas all they’re doing is reinforcing stereotypical myths about sex work. In turn it’s led to the media continuing to further these discussions in ways that mean while the topic of prostitution is central the real lives of prostitutes are somehow completely overlooked.

There are plenty of issues about prostitution needing to be discussed, but retreating into familiar themes isn’t going to help us. The saddest thing about this whole fuss is that we’ve heard from journalists, actresses, politicians and activists about their views of prostitution, but we’ve heard pretty much nothing from prostitutes themselves. Which is fairly typical of the media who love to tell sex workers stories, but rarely want to hear prostitutes speak for themselves.

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