Before she could hustle the prostitutes on her books, Sydney Biddle Barrows needed to see them undress, to examine their naked bodies for potential marks or “imperfections” so she could ensure that her clients were getting the best slabs of womanhood available. She also needed them to be sent out with an enthusiastic willingness to accept their purpose as sexual instrument, and without even the protective embellishment of a condom. Sydney’s girls had to please the johns, and their “sexual health” was a tertiary concern.
However mercenary their approach, there is always an enthusiastic audience for prostitute profiteers like Barrows (also known as “The Mayflower Madam”). She is just one of a number of media madams whose shallow tendencies seem to inure audiences to them — these glamorous, sparkly, worldly women — circus masters to young whores and strumpets everywhere: Sydney in her sharp suits and simple make-up; Sydney with her delicate handling of a phone call; Sydney with her blue blood past; Sydney who would never get sent out herself.
Indeed she ignited public interest, not simply due to her good-stock family background, but to the elegant appeal of her operations; her escort agency became infamous for the “quality” of her “ladies” and the price tag that came with their rental.
In a profile at the Observer, Charlotte Hays writes:
“She and her friend Lucy decided to open up shop, and Ms. Barrows set about hiring the right women. She asked prospective employees to come for an interview ‘dressed as if your grandfather was taking you to lunch at 21.’ She regularly improved the taste of her ‘young ladies’ through trips to Saks and Macy’s. She named her service Cachet, cleverly chosen to weed out men who couldn’t pronounce it.”
Barrows was able to get top dollar for her “ladies” due to her understanding of the ways in which the superficial accoutrements of wealth can assuage johns who imagine themselves to be high class gentlemen. As such, she is seen as a marketing guru, advising dentists to paint clouds on their ceilings and cosmetic surgeons to avoid the use of Bic pens. (It seems a surgeon slicing into a rich lady’s apparently not-good-enough face needs a Montblanc.)
Perhaps such elitist affectations make sense if a surgeon or dentist is considered at the top of their field. A back alley butcher cannot charge exorbitant amounts for long, as no woman would be foolish enough to pay $30,000 for a face lift simply because the surgeon wields a $300 pen.
There are no such metrics in prostitution, or if there are, they are arbitrary at best. Yes, to work for a high falutin brand like Cachet, a woman has to be young, slim, and not look out of place on either a college campus or in the office of one of the aforementioned fancy pen surgery clinics. But young, slim, hopeful, women cut across the echelons of the industry. In my experience “ladies” slip up and down the scales of prostitution like plastic pieces in a fairly cruel game of Snakes and Ladders. I recall meeting one woman at a low rent brothel, who could easily have fallen through the canvas of Manet’s Olympia, but who could not always depend on her £350 an hour escort work, so had to skulk about in the red lit scum of the brothel to make ends meet. This wasn’t especially unusual.
But making claims to a classed structure in prostitution is one way in which Barrows and others like her seek to legitimize it. This way, she is able to claim it is not prostitution that is the problem, but rather some of its ostensibly less foxy manifestations. The fact that those “better” manifestations may be make-upped, anointed, or fashioned out of only slices of the truth is roundly ignored. What these classed symbols seem to point to, though, is a more or less explicit preference for prostitutes who we believe (or are persuaded to believe) have had to engage in limited sex acts, with few men, for a lot of money. Hence company names (both for escort agencies and for prostitute confessionals and other media) like High Class Call Girl or even Courtesan (the use of the latter stems from a false belief that Courtesans served only a small number of highly wealthy patrons, when in fact many also had to work “by the hour” for most or part of their “careers”).
Madams profit from these illusions most of all, since they shave off up to 50 per cent of the earnings of every woman they get into their brothels or onto their books, resulting in a collective potential earnings far outstripping any individual prostitute’s.
Indeed, the mythology of high class madams (or high class prostitutes) is potentially very enticing to a contemporary female audience. Female labour (domesticity, beautification, emotionality) is a hard, onerous, and ongoing task, with the material rewards being flimsy or nonexistent. The notion of a certain kind of woman whose female labour is cordoned off to a specific realm (pleasing johns) for short periods of time and for very distinct rewards (by the hour) could be very seductive, especially when rare individuals like Barrows accrue an amount of cultural appreciation for their “toils.” And if indeed our preference is for prostitutes who see the fewest number of johns for the highest amount of money, then madams are especially seductive, fitting this description best of all. Indeed, Barrows mastered the art of the feminized American dream.
But Barrows is just one female pimp among many in modern and old history, in life and in fiction, who have given prostitution a sheen of urban success. They are the soft female face of the commodified pandering of bodies. Today, the ribald interest in these figures is beginning to translate into political power housing — the idea of collective houses of female sexual empowerment has been aided by the positioning of these figures as paragons of female success within a gendered economy.
Madams (more loosely and conveniently termed, “sex workers” by liberals and industry advocates), are presented as victims of any form of criminalization policy. The pragmatism of political bystanders is massaged using rhetorical twists like, “women should be able to work together for safety.” The fact that many brothels in “liberalized” countries don’t look anything like these imagined female collectives is more or less ignored. Indeed, given the free market nature of the sex industry lobby’s political agenda, the libertarian inflections of their slogans, and the presence of madams and pimps within their “movement,” it is hard not to read their self-proclaimed “progressive” status as problematic. If you add this to reports of prostitutes and ex-prostitutes being targeted and harassed for criticizing the sex trade under decriminalization, you will find yourself enmeshed within a very cynical debate indeed.
Though often complex figures with histories of abuse and neglect, my experience with madams is at best somewhat ambivalent — any of the positive perceptions I had developed via the cultural positioning of these women as gold-hearted matriarchs became atrophied by experience. When one spends any time in the industry, and regularly encounters jaded women (and men in some cases) who are struggling to beat down addictions and health issues in order to function, the notion of trying to make money from them seems implausible to anyone with a shred of empathy. Indeed, in order to be very financially successful in this industry, empathy would be nothing but a burden. If a prostitute showed any frivolity, weakness, or difficultness, then she would be hampering profits.
I would not turn down awful or rude customers, because that would also mean turning down Madam’s 50 per cent. I would not complain when a john was not banned despite pulling off condoms or being aggressive, because it was one of Madam’s oldest “clients.” I would only complain somewhat when a john with a prior history of rape tried to pull off my underwear so he could “try before he buys” because Madam didn’t think she could feasibly ban him from rebooking appointments from a different number. I quietly stewed when Madam said to cut down on showers for the shorter appointment punters (often the most likely to be dirty) to save on utilities, or when she said I could not take the day off to go to the hospital with my boyfriend when he had a accident. I quietly left the brothel and didn’t come back when Madam said the brothel’s real owner — her controlling boyfriend — would beat the shit out of me or anyone else who went home with their commissions. I made up some hyperbolic lie to excuse my forgetting to pay my last commission to an escort agency madam who sent me an avalanche of messages threatening to come to my house to collect it — a measly £40 — by any means necessary.
It is not surprising that I wince when I encounter the nullification of exploitation that happens when lady pimps are glamorized or when the differences between prostitutes and madams is undifferentiated.
Some may wonder why I focus on female brothel owners as opposed to their often (but not always) more explicitly violent male counterparts. Indeed, the fact that male pimps are capable of proffering a pseudo romantic relationship with prostitutes gives them an ability to abuse in way that is especially powerful. But it is because of a deficit between the public image of madams (even the term is rather ameliorating) and some of the manifold realities — and because of that image’s usefulness in the push to decriminalize brothels — that this cultural phenomenon needs to be teased out.
Some madams have been prostitutes themselves, others are co-ordinates of larger criminal chains, and some are the misguided female counterparts of sociopathic male pimps. Abused or otherwise exploited people can become more moderate functionaries of the very system that sucked profits out of them, as they try and regain some of the ground that they lost (or in fact never had). In order to do so, they need first to identify with that system and come to believe it to be a fair one, effectively negating their own experiences. One particularly greedy brothel madam I worked for referred to us as the Tits and Arse and held a fairly savage opinion of our frailties, vulnerabilities, and addictions. She had been a prostitute (and an addict) herself for many years.
The prostitution industry is formulated around structures of usage and surplus, interfaced with messy domestic and sexual entanglements re-imagined — using the notions of elegant, matriarchal, compassionate madams or high class hookers — to be a fantasy breeding ground of female empowerment. It is this re-imagining that has contributed to the conceptualization of prostitution as a benign, feminine industry.
The great and bitter irony of course, is that under permissible industry policies some of the biggest and most successful profiteers in prostitution are men, with mega brothels both making or inflating the wealth and material comfort of a small number. In Germany, a chain of gargantuan brothels called Paradise — the latest of which cost 4.5 million Euro to open (an investment amount way beyond Barrows) — demands prostitutes rent rooms, which means they need to “see” four men just to break even.
Sex work lobbyists like to point out, rather smugly, that they don’t want legalization, like they have in Germany, but the only superficially different system of full decriminalization that exists in New Zealand. However, one would have to be a real Pollyanna to believe that decriminalization has resulted in a utopia of female-run prostitution co-operatives. One of the most successful chains of “sex clubs” in New Zealand is run by The Chow Brothers, multi-millionaires who own 70 per cent of the trade in Wellington, and who have made inroads into Auckland. One wonders if they made any into the mega brothel I worked at, with its many rooms, bars, and rota of up to 50 women per night, also run by a wealthy man.
As ever, the discourse of personal empowerment in prostitution has empowered sex industry oligarchs. The Chow Brothers’ sex clubs are said to service the wants of athletes, politicians, and other male elites. The argument is that law changes will give the reins to those currently in the industry. Included in that fantasy equation are the madams running the small town brothels, whose often petty callousness is, to varying degrees, forgiven by their own sorry stories and personal impoverishments. But like a number of mega brothel owners, the Chow’s empire began with property development, not the sex trade. A full decriminalization of profiteering will not solely emancipate those currently pimping women, it will provide new avenues for “wealth creators” to expand their current businesses. Indeed, with the hefty startup costs of property, business rates, and non-prostituted staff (waiters, drivers, maids) success will be beyond the reach of many currently running small operations from private premises.
There is no logical argument that can claim decriminalizing the sex industry benefits those most vulnerable within it. It is also seriously questionable that those petite bourgeois madams will triumph either, should the lobby win out. After researching the trade in Germany, Nishau Lilia Diu wrote:
“Back in 2002, the liberal left imagined a sex industry in which responsible managers would push out exploitative pimps. Empowered prostitutes would work in safety and the money from this hitherto black market would go into pension pots and the German treasury. Well, they got their taxes.”
Indeed if there is any imperative for any government to soften the laws on prostitution profiteering, it will not be for the benefit of prostitutes. The claim made by purported progressives who say that prostitution is work like any other and an operation in capitalism like all others rings sinister when one realizes it accompanies a desire to subject the sex trade to that system in the most extreme way, further elevating prostitution from parochial, local trading to global, hyper trading.
Wishful leftists continue to get into to bed with libertarians in part because of this manipulated depiction of a middle class prostitution and its sanctified female dignitaries: the madams. But these figures — the lady pimps and the organizers of small scale brothels and agencies — will not be the great success stories of full decriminalization.
Indeed, brothels will be built on the graves of those near mythological madams — hot factories of female body commerce suctioned up into the iron grip of the male business pimps. And underneath those graves will lay the battered and dilapidated mausoleum of the hundreds of thousands of prostituted people that history will not even bother to note down.
Rae Story is a part time freelance writer living in the UK. She describes herself as “sex industry critical” after having worked industry for over 10 years, in various capacities and countries. She completed her Masters in Film Studies from the University of Exeter. As well as prostitution, she has interests in feminist film theory, socialist feminism, and women and addiction. Rae blogs at In Permanent Opposition.