News & Politics

Feminists and Prostitutes Gather, Fists Fly


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December 16, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 50

Sisterhood & prostitution
By Robin Reisig

Last weekend feminists met with the prostitutes they had always said were their sisters, the women who were the symbol of what the women’s movement was about — women as sex objects, women exploited by men.

At a two-day conference on prostitution held at Charles Evans Hughes High School, talk of women metaphorically prostituting themselves in their careers or in marriage was tame. By the time the weekend ended, many women from the audience had told how they “fucked men for dinner” — and for money; a prominent feminist had confessed that she once worked as a prostitute; and a prostitute who was speaker ended the conference ahead of schedule by slugging one of the event’s organizers.

It was a bewildering day for sisterhood.

The conference was a serious attempt to deal with a problem at the core of women’s lives, an attempt to erase “one of the lines that divide women” — good girl from bad.

“It was a difficult issue for feminists to get a clearcut position on because I think a lot of women were middle-class — straight would be a better word — and thought of prostitutes as fallen women,” said one of the organizers of the conference as she explained how some of the organizers’ attitudes changed before the conference. They discovered the gap to be bridged was not as wide as they had imagined.

The group of about 30 women who organized the conference — members of the Radical Feminists, the New Democratic Coalition, THE FEMINISTS, and the New Women Lawyers — discovered they included among themselves one woman who wouldn’t go to bed with her husband until he gave her half his week’s pay, two women who had worked as prostitutes, and a third — a Radical Feminist — who couldn’t come to the meetings because she was currently working as a prostitute and couldn’t deal with it.

“Some of us had turned some tricks,” the woman told me. “We felt in our careers as models, as actresses, we were hustling to get a job — blow a guy and go to summer stock. Several of us did it. I did, out of ambition. If I could do it out of ambition, I can understand how any woman could do it out of ambition. They aren’t ‘fallen women’ or different. They are people we can reach.”

This was said a few days before the conference. At that time no currently working prostitutes had confirmed that they would speak: “We got 12 women to talk about being raped. That was easy — you’re pure victim. In this there is complicity.” In the end, a number of prostitutes did come. Five spoke from the stage Sunday. The result was…

“Bullshit!” Screams of “Bullshit!” “We are not degraded.” “We are degraded.” “You’re jealous because your boyfriends come to us.” “We are sisters. I care about women.” “I’m going to kill her.” That was all from the same prostitute.

“I think it is wonderful,” said an elderly lady with a heavy European accent. “that ve come together and don’t know vat ve are talking about.”

Sunday’s panel began, as panels often do, with theory. It was supposed to be on the topic, “Toward the Elimination of Prostitution.” Pearl Schwartz of the New Democratic Coalition spoke about decriminalizing prostitution. Lyn Vincent of THE FEMINISTS spoke about decriminalizing prostituting for the prostitute and increasing the criminal penalty for the john “guilty of the crime of using women.” Kate Millett mentioned seeing a pimp, in Panther insignia, at the Philadelphia Panthers’ Constitutional Convention of Revolutionary People where, she added, black women tried but failed to get the Panthers to pass a resolution against pimping. And then the prostitutes began to speak.

They did not fit the stereotype of prostitute. One looked like an exotically dressed high-fashion type. The others looked like you and me. Most of them were middle-class prostitutes, high-priced prostitutes, white call girls with expensive habits. One had a master’s degree. Another had an Ivy League education. And they were, they said feminist prostitutes.

“Some people can’t deal with small incomes,” said Laura.

“What is the alternative for someone?” said Peggy, who has a master’s degree. “This seemed to me the most honest of a dishonest gamut of options. Yesterday women asked me, ‘What is it like? What does it feel like? What are the men like?’ One lady from the suburbs told me she’d always had the dream of doing it. My reaction to her is: go out and do it. There’s a lot of delusions and high expectations. She probably would have found she has been doing it a lot anyway. I know — from having lived with men — there are times you don’t want to but you do. Goddammit, I think every one of you has done it!

“One of the most shocking things,” she said, “was when a male writer in his 30s, whose books I’d read in school, came to my house. If I’d met him in a seminar in school I’d have been enraptured. He was married. All I could think was: what a shit! If he can get caught up in this, he’s not so bright.”

“Toward the Elimination of Prostitution?” “Decrminalization” of prostitution? “You cannot sit here, a panel of women not involved with it, and make decrees about how 50 to 100,000 women are going to change their lives,” said Donna, the exotically dressed prostitute. (Names are changed.) “It’s degrading and sexist, but so are a lot of things.”

No one — feminists or prostitutes — as for “legalization,” by which people generally mean licensing, with the city regulating and taxing the prostitutes, playing the role of the pimp. The women who were prostitutes also thought they were perhaps against decriminalization. “It would bring more women into the trade, and men would capitalize on this,” said Donna. Streetwalkers might be on the say to being obsolete, she said. “A whole new breed is coming out of the ranks of office workers and secretaries. This past year there has been a boom in ‘Massage parlors,’ and the men running them and the policemen protecting them have been capitalizing aplenty. I don’t want to say too much, but if you use your imagination about the controls behind this, you can imagine women in competition couldn’t stand up to it.”

Donna and another woman said they once had to fight off a pimp who wanted to inject them with heroin to get them under his control. They’ve banded with other women: “Get rid of the men.”

That wasn’t enough for the many feminists. They wanted to get rid of prostitution, not take it over.

“We have to get rid of it because it oppresses and degrades all of us,” said Lyn Vincent.

“Hisssss,” said some of the prostitutes. “Hisssss,” said some of the audience…

Then Barbara Mehrhof of THE FEMINISTS spoke. She is a strong woman whom I respect. Earlier she had been attacked for her “class” (“I come from Brooklyn. I’ve lived in four-room apartments all my life,” she pleaded, but no one seemed to hear). Now she tried to suggest that some of the women on the panel were trying to build up guilt. She was, several of the prostitutes informed her, “full of shit.”

“I’ve led a rotten, miserable life,” Barbara cried. “So have other women. I faced men every day. Some black women do. Sure factory women do. But I do too.”

As Barbara left crying, Donna said, “I exposed my tender ass to come here today. A lot of women have given up a lot of things. I have, but I care about the women who haven’t.”

And on that note of caring, she walked out.

As she walked down the aisle, she observed, “I was in radical politics. That was one of the reasons I got into prostitution, because the FBI made it so impossible for us to live.” She told other women that Weatherwomen had been in houses of prostitution that were busted. I don’t know if this is true or fantasy. She talked over and over of the “romantic” image the women had of prostitutes, of the “jealousy” they felt toward prostitutes, of the “hostility” of all the women on the stage. I almost believed I had heard hostile things I hadn’t heard, she was so hypersensitive to insult by others, so ready to insult others herself, so slow to pick up good intentions and quick to pick up bad ones. She must get many bad ones every day. “Are you willing to get rid of your men?” she challenged the few women who walked along with her, “because your men are the same men who come to us, your boyfriends, your bosses, your radical hip boyfriends who write for underground papers. We’re doing your dirty work.” There was a confused pause. “I don’t mean it’s dirty.”

Another moment she pleaded, “All of us — look at us — we feel destroyed. Why do you think we came here today if we didn’t feel the need for other women?” She talked of her feminism. She talked of the courage it took for her to come today. She saw a woman was tape-recording what she said, and other women took the tape from her tape-recorder and gave it to her. Furious, over and over she talked of the risk it was for her to come to the conference. “I risked myself.”

Minda Bikman of the Radical Feminists observed that we women took a risk giving the conference and that we risked ourselves starting the movement three years ago and…

WHAM! Donna slugged Minda.

She’s telling me she took a chance,” Donna screamed. “I want to kill her!”

Minda dissolved into tears. The conference dissolved into chaos.

Donna left, venting what was left of her anger on the woman with the tape recorder, a reporter who insisted the tapes were for her own private use and who had to be persuaded to give up earlier tapes she still had. One moment it was “Let’s beat her up,” and five women descended on the crying reporter, arms flaying. The next moment they were asking her to come listen to the tapes at their house if she liked. Minda was sobbing inside. Some of the working women — but never Donna — were sobbing outside.

Holly Tannen tried to comfort Minda, and to figure out what had happened. “They think they’re ripping off society in the radical left way, and we think prostitution is hurting all women and keeping society from changing. Is it rip-off or the…?”

Is it right to say, as one woman in the audience did, “If a person wants to be a slave, we won’t let them be?” Or is it smug and self-serving to say a variation of “As long as any man is a slave, I cannot be free”?

The feminists who organized the conference believe it is possible to achieve social change that would give women other opportunities and that would make it shameful for men who buy women’s bodies. They wanted to communicate with the prostitutes. They felt much more compassion than was credited, and were left with a sense of perplexity about what had happened.

As I walked out, Holly, sitting amid a litter of leaflets, was saying, “I thought we were going to talk about putting men in jail for buying women’s bodies.”

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]


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