New feature: The Oxbridge sex workers

// 12 May 2008

Laurie Penny considers why so many Oxbridge students are going into prostitution and stripping, and the impact the media coverage of their stories has on women in less privileged positions

Teacups are tinkling in outrage as an army of Oxbridge-educated prostitutes terrorises the Home Counties. Maths prodigy Sufiah Yusof has been outed as the latest Oxbridge girl-genius to exchange her blue stockings for suspenders and a push-up bra, while literary ‘happy hooker’ Ruth Fowler becomes the latest in a tired line of well-educated young beauties to land a book deal for her racy autobiography. The story, of course, is an old favourite just screaming to be partnered with extensive photographs of the scholars in various states of graphic undress. And the story is an old favourite precisely because of what it seems to say about women: even the highest-achieving and most privileged are still just whores who only really want to be fucked roughly for money after very expensive dinners.

The blogging revolution has led us to expect to get into our hookers’ heads as well as their knickers, but it’s still a tacky fantasy, far removed from the reality of prostitution for most women. Fowler and Yusof are not saying anything new. After the News of the World ratted Yusof out as a fallen child, she had the temerity and strength of character to stand up for her choices and declare herself more than a hapless victim of circumstance. Good for her. The message that she and Fowler have been complicit in sending, though, is neither groundbreaking nor feminist. This is all we’re good for – that’s the only sub-text every time a well-heeled young woman decides to rent her pert little academic arse at a hundred for hire. Johns everywhere must be rubbing their hands with glee: even the clever ones, the posh bitches who think they’re better than you, will turn into the willing nymphettes of your stickiest wet dreams at the flash of a fiver. We’ll let them into our elite universities, but under their scholar’s gowns they’ll always be slappers.

Read on here

Comments From You

Glitzfrau // Posted 12 May 2008 at 7:49 pm

that’s the only sub-text every time a well-heeled young woman decides to rent her pert little academic arse at a hundred for hire.

This rates among the most toxic, misogynist language I’ve read in my life. Your correspondent may have some valid and possibly even some feminist points to make among her sustained attacks on women’s choices (and this in the week when we are supposed to be in solidarity with women’s choices to have an abortion!) Nonetheless, any valid points are vitiated by the hate-filled tone of the language used here. I’ve been reading the F-Word for two years, but I won’t be doing so again.

Laura // Posted 12 May 2008 at 10:41 pm

Glitzfrau,

I read Laurie’s use of language as an effort to highlight and condemn the patriarchal male view of these women, not a vindication of their misogyny. Having said that, I think the comment you highlight is a little overkill, and the later implication that the women are “irresponsible” in their perpetuation of the happy hooker stereotype seems unfair to me, considering the social climate in which they made their choices (which Laurie highlights) and, in the case of Yusof, her unique and perhaps difficult background and upbringing.

It is no surprise that women make these choices in a society that values them primarily as sexual stimulants for men, so placing a higher monetary value on sex work than other forms of work a student could undertake. The blame for this – and for the abuse of less privileged women within the sex industry – should, in my opinion, lie firmly with centuries of male dominance and not with the privileged young women who “should know better” (ie are irresponsible).

Mary // Posted 12 May 2008 at 11:40 pm

I’m also pretty appalled by this article. There’s lots to say about the way that the sex industry markets women’s race, class, education &c in ways which mirror and make manifest the various forms of privilege and oppression in our society – and I know some pretty smart sex workers who can talk about that fluently and fascinatingly – but this article doesn’t analyse that, it perpetuates it. To take one example: considering you start this article talking about a woman of colour, “creamy thighs” strikes me pretty overtly racialised. If that’s a deliberate comment on racism in the sex industry, I think you need to flag it up a bit more than that.

But my bigger problem with this article is that it doesn’t make a sufficient distinction between the misogyny-driven media delight at the discovery of highly educated women in sex work, and the choices made by women themselves. Are you demanding that the media be held accountable for publicising the myth of the happy hooker, or that the women be? It sounds like the latter, and that’s one hell of a missed opportunity.

Claire // Posted 13 May 2008 at 12:40 am

I’m also disappointed and shocked at this article. The viciousness of Laurie Penny’s language here at times oversteps the bounds of irony and even seems to lash out at sex workers though that may not be her intention. Less importantly, as a current student at Oxford I feel uncomfortable with the sexual terms used throughout to describe my peers and me. We are not “nymphettes”, “slappers”, “pert-arsed”, “posh bitches” (many women here, like myself, are not posh or “high-class” at all, but students from wealthier backgrounds still never deserve the insult) or any other terms that I could pick out of the text. Again, the irony goes too far and overshadows Ms Penny’s better arguments.

Laurie Penny // Posted 13 May 2008 at 11:35 am

Right, okay. The use of visceral and graphic language was a deliberate ploy to emphasise what I feel is a persistent misogyny in media culture over the notion of ‘high-class’ sex work. It was designed to apall, because I reckon that media glee over Oxbridge-educated sex workers is utterly apalling. The tone is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, a dig at the hatred of women’s sexuality in mass media culture and not a vindication of that hatred. Having been a stripper myself (as I mention in the article) such a point would have been massively hypocritical – but maybe that irony didn’t come across well enough, and for that I apologise. Nevertheless, I used heated terminology when I’m angry, and I’m angry about this – not with female sex-workers themselves, never that, but with the demeaning way in which they are treated in the British press.

My intention was never to blame women for their choices. Hell, I don’t regret having stripped and would be massively angry if someone tried to outright forbid me or any of my friends from doing so again. My sole beef is with how those choices are presented, and the narrow sphere of social opportunities they represent, and I hoped that would come across in this piece.

Laurie Penny // Posted 13 May 2008 at 11:50 am

Claire -“We are not “nymphettes”, “slappers”, “pert-arsed”, “posh bitches” (many women here, like myself, are not posh or “high-class” at all, but students from wealthier backgrounds still never deserve the insult) or any other terms that I could pick out of the text.” – yes, absolutely. Of course we aren’t, and having been both an Oxford student and an Oxford stripper I’m very aware of that. But these things are precisely the implication of the media coverage, as I see it, and that’s what I wanted to reflect in my word-choices.

I’m really sorry if the language makes people feel overly uncomfortable, but it was designed to make people feel uncomfortable. As a feminist writer, I feel that that’s an important part of my job – not just to hilight issues but to ensure people come away from an article with distinct sour taste in their mouths, so that they don’t just forget about it and move on to the celebs page.

Having said that, the comments here hilight the fact that I need to be extra careful, in future, to make sure I draw a clear distinction between mocking the opinions of patriarchal media and expressing my own opinions. To me it’s very obvious that I don’t think Oxbridge girls are ‘slappers’ and ‘posh bitches’ – but to anyone else that might not have been clear, and that’s incredibly sloppy journalism.

Cara // Posted 13 May 2008 at 12:05 pm

Fwiw Laurie, it was obvious to me that your language was meant to be ironic.

I’m middle-class and went to a good uni (not Oxbridge though, sniff) but didn’t take offence at the “posh” type comments.

It’s obvious Oxbridge stands for class privelege, even though I’m sure we are all aware that not every student is from a priveleged background, *most* are. So obviously johns must have a sense of “ha ha, I can shag posh girls who wouldn’t look at me twice if I can pay” etc.

As for the misogynist language, it was clearly articulating what johns think of these women – not directed at sex workers themselves. I don’t blame them, either. I do passionately agree that the media presentation of the myth of the “happy hooker” has gone way, way too far. I am sick to the back teeth of it.

It may be a lark for some priveleged young girls, but most prostitutes don’t have their choices and are just doing it to survive.

Vinaigrette Girl // Posted 13 May 2008 at 1:03 pm

“I’m really sorry if the language makes people feel overly uncomfortable, but it was designed to make people feel uncomfortable. As a feminist writer, I feel that that’s an important part of my job – not just to hilight issues but to ensure people come away from an article with distinct sour taste in their mouths, so that they don’t just forget about it and move on to the celebs page.”

I see little difference between being patronised by the patriarchy and being patronised by a woman who thinks that if she doesn’t use immoderately unpleasant language, which leaves people with a sour taste in their mouths, her readers won’t get her message. This is self-indulgent shock journalism of a high order, not an ironic feminst attack on the patriarchal press. I’m sorry to have found this here.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 13 May 2008 at 2:55 pm

Laurie Penny very astutely shows that irrespective of whether or not a woman involved in prostitution is ‘high class’ or not they are the same which is whores for men to rape and sexually abuse with impunity. The sex industry needs stories of ‘high class whores’ because it needs a constant supply of new expendible women for men to rape and abuse. All these stories have one aim only and that is to present prostitution as a very easy way to earn vast sums of money for little or no effort. No need to highlight the realities of prostitution; the mundrane male violence women in prostitution have to endure. No need to examine how women in prostitution dissociate themselves from male violence in order to survive. No, instead we have a mythical paradise where every male John is like Richard Gere and every male John really just wants companionship. But behind all the myths is hidden the realities of women’s lives in prostitution. One of unremitting danger and male violence but hey we don’t want to read the truth do we. Far better to believe such male myths are fact. Of course ‘high class’ women are in demand because Johns themselves want the women to be the epitome of male sexual fantasies. The sex industry deliberately promotes a small cadre of women in prostitution as being ’empowered, powerful and most importantly making huge amounts of money.’ It is the carrot used to promote prostitution as just ‘another job’ because of course women in prostitution are quickly used up by male Johns so they need fresh merchandise. But take away the myths and we are faced with the reality that misogyny is rife, women and girls continue to be devalued and now of course a female’s only worth and value is her body and sexuality. Men are not reduced to sexualised commodities to be bought by women and then raped and sexually exploited, no that is one area wherein men continue to retain their sexual rights and autonomy. Men are not defined as either virgins or whores no that category is reserved for women only. Men can freely enact their sexual entitlement because it is their right and they will never be called a ‘whore.’ Yet this is precisely what these men are – whores. But that is what male power and male entitlement is about – the right to define and dehumanise one half of humanity because they happen to be female. Even the term ‘John’ does not really cover what these men are because men are not subjected to degrading sexualised insults or treated as women’s sexual property.

For a critical analysis of what the realities of prostitution are – go to http://rmott62.wordpress.com/ And especially http://rmott62.wordpress.com/category/anger because here you will read how the media deliberately divides women in prostitution as being either ‘worthy of pity’ or else as dehumanised whores who deserve no respect or compassion because they are whores.

Zenobia // Posted 13 May 2008 at 3:50 pm

I’m really sorry if the language makes people feel overly uncomfortable, but it was designed to make people feel uncomfortable. As a feminist writer, I feel that that’s an important part of my job – not just to hilight issues but to ensure people come away from an article with distinct sour taste in their mouths, so that they don’t just forget about it and move on to the celebs page.

Absolutely, since we’re talking about media representations here it’s essential to highlight the kind of language used, and it is vile language.

And absolutely, feminist writing should be uncomfortable because we’re supposed to be not shying away from uncomfortable issues. Occasionally I’ve felt you’ve been a little gratuitously provocative in your use of language – well, I know it can be hard to resist sometimes – but very rarely, and in this case not at all.

Also, while it’s important to listen, trust me, don’t go down the slippery slope of censoring yourself!

Shea // Posted 14 May 2008 at 12:01 am

I didn’t see the problem with Laurie’s language I thought the tone was suitably and obviously ironic. But then I’m no student of language/literature.

I agree with the gist of the argument, it diguises the reality of the situation for the majority of women. It is also unbearably depressing. Can’t we just be smart, intelligent academic women, does it always have to come with the caveat that we are supposed to be simultaneously gorgeous, perpetually titilating, sexual beings? It is like beating yourself over the head with a ton of bricks, no matter how great your achievements, how many Noble prizes or Fields medals, all that will ultimately matter is how great an arse you have. Sigh. Huge sigh. I wait in hope for humankind’s evolution to a higher plateau.

But a niggle persists– this idea that the options are be an impoverished academic or a stripper? Total crap— there are other choices. I scrubbed toilets and stacked shelves at University because I didn’t want to compromise my dignity by doing something I would feel uncomfortable with (that is a personal opinion, for some sex work is empowering and I respect that). But it seems these women would rather do something they hate than do the hard graft necessary to get by on and I’m afraid thats a position I find hard to respect.

m Andrea // Posted 19 May 2008 at 1:58 am

Hey there is no need to attack the author — you might hurt her feelings.

If you notice, claiming someone’s feelings is hurt (YOUR OWN) is a childlike way to change the subject. Grow up.

Also, I’m fed up with assuming that women have zero choices. Those choices may be limited, but there are still choices which can lead to a better outcome. Yes, I blame the stupid prostitute — she usually has other choices but she chose not to avail herself of them. Unless she is trafficked, she has other choices. Where is the gun at her head?

Laura // Posted 5 June 2008 at 11:45 pm

I found the tone of the article entirely appropriate and I don’t think the author should censor herself.

That said, prostitution (in all its forms) is a serious and complicated matter that deserves careful consideration. While the ubiquitous media’s representation of the subject is generally reprehensible, we should be careful in how we portray it ourselves. Let’s not demean or misrepresent sex workers – for instance – by painting them as (direct or indirect) slaves to an oppressive and abusive patriarchal society. (Certainly this is true to some degree, but that image can only take us so far.) In labeling female sex workers in this manner we ignore the all-important factor of individual choice… and in removing this factor from the equation all we are left with are powerless female automatons controlled by the patriarchal ‘programming’ framework within, and according to which they operate. You’ll probably find that such misrepresentations (which are all-too present in feminist literature relating to prostitution) are as harmful as those fed to us by the media.

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