Is this all women are good for?


3:21 pm - April 14th 2008

by Laurie Penny    


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Maths prodigy Sufih Yusof outed herself last week as the latest girl-genius to hang up her blue stockings for suspenders and a push-up bra. Sufiah, an Oxbridge scholar at the age of thirteen, sold her story of academic destitution leading to high-class prostitution to several major tabloids after being outed by the News of the World.

The story, of course, is an old favourite just screaming to be partnered with extensive photographs of the economics PhD in various states of graphic undress, brandishing whips and dildos and pull-outs about loving sex with random strangers.

An it’s an old favourite precisely because of what it seems to say about women: even the highest-achieving and most privileged are really just whores who only really want to be fucked roughly for money after really expensive dinners.

And we’re even happy about it. Ms Yusof, who escaped Oxford at the age of 15, severing ties with the abusive, driven father who ripped apart her childhood, self-applies the term “happy hooker” and compares herself to Belle de Jour, claiming she feels “liberated”.

The attraction for me was complex. I graduated from Oxford 9 months ago, and during my time at university I spent several months stripping in a cabaret show. Peeling my clothes off on stage for a hooting crowd, it seemed at first that I was proving something, but is was ultimately a hollow empowerment. I’d proved nothing save that by whipping out my taut 20-year-old curves I could make people want to fuck me. That somehow this way I was worth more than just my high homework scores.

Two years older and wiser, I don’t regret those choices, nor do I find anything morally wrong with sex work to merit the extreme prejudice sex workers receive as a labour force.

The experience of stripping did more for my politics than it did for my self-esteem. It’s not enough for the tabloids to write this trend off as a glamorous ‘personal choice’; the very fact that so many young women are taking those choices should make the socially aware sit up and sniff.

As a nubile, naive and randy young student, the very easiest way to get people to like you is to take off at least some of your clothes. Combined with the financial crisis standart to contemporary student life even at Oxbridge, the desperate glamour of sex work becomes more and more appealing.

The Belle De Jour concept – to which Miss Yusof directly compares herself – is a staggering fallacy, of course, and far removed from the reality of most sex-work with a few lucky exceptions, but vulnerable young women are not to know that.

But take it from someone who’s done it, however briefly: pulling your panties down for cash or applause only gets you so far. After a while, you begin to internalise the soft expressions of disrespect on punters’ faces. You begin to feel vulnerable, rather than empowered. The rush of exhibitionism starts to lose its kick.
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This article has been edited down. We’ll link the full version once its published in the press.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism

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Reader comments


I would want to emphasise that just because someone has been abused doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to make poor personal choices, and what was obviously not right for you might well be better for someone else.

I also agree with the sentiment that the media coverage says much much much more about readers and editors than Sufiah. In the end, whether she is doing it for empowerment or because her highly educated mind has worked out that this is the least boring, and most efficient way of earning a good living doesn’t matter. The important thing is it is her choice.

All she needed was love…

It is sad that women can earn more as sex workers than as shop assistants or barmaid or whatever, but it’s also economic reality: there will always be more women prepared to be shop assistants and barmaids than sex workers, and therefore sex workers are more highly prized by the market.

Apart from hand-wringing, is there a point to your article? Can you offer a solution?

my ‘college mother’ at Oxford quit to become a stripper and high class hooker. Her reasoning was something along the same lines, apparently.

I didnt quite understand it myself, if only for economic reasons.

Since there are so many other things a clever girl can do then praise the contents of a strangers pants, other things – being oxbridge grads in the society we live in, after all – that pay bucketloads, unlike being forced to work at tescos for the rest of your life, why do something which will only be an earner for the few years between 18 and 23?

much better, no, to go and cream millions off fat cat millionaires in the city, instead of just getting their tips in seedy hotels?

There are indeed many other things a clever girl can do that don’t involve removal of clothing: lots of them end up working at Tescos anyway. When I last worked at Morrisons, about a third of the checkout staff had degrees, and most of the rest were students.

The relentless denigration of shop workers is part of the problem, IMHO.

Jennie, you’re completely spot on. A lot of the reason that prostitution is such an attractive line of work for some girls is that so many of the jobs on offer are harder physical work and pay well below a living wage. And this without proper protection or working rights for sex workers.

Ah, the invisible costs of short-term gain…

…maybe someone should tell the prime offender?

8. Kate Belgrave

Why does anybody feel that this kind of stuff is still even warrants discussion, or that it’s new in any way?

Nubile young bird whips knickers off for cash. Big hairy deal (so as to speak). I did it myself ten years ago when my pink bits were still worth looking at. And I wrote about it in a magazine, etc, etc. Nothing complex about it in the slightest. The money was good, and I knew it’d piss my mother off. Typical 20-something behaviour if you ask me. YAWN.

The mainstream press always picks up on this kind of story because it’s cheap and easy and there are still editors around who figure it’ll boost circulation just enough to cover the fact that in fact circulation is otherwise dwindling fast.

I have spoken.

Maybe because she’s brown there is added spice. Pun intended.

10. Kate Belgrave

… and No, this is not all that women are good for. I don’t know anybody who thinks that it is.

What in the name of arse is going on? Am I really the only reasonably attractive female Oxbridge graduate left on earth who has at no point felt the slightest need, financial or psychological, to take her clothes off for money? God, I feel boring.

12. Kate Belgrave

Don’t feel bad. I’m no good at maths.

If someone wants to pay for me to take my clothes off, I’m more than available.

14. Malcolm Stevas

“When I last worked at Morrisons, about a third of the checkout staff had degrees, and most of the rest were students.”
My God! I wonder which branch of Morrisons this could have been: at my local ex-Safeway-gone-downmarket I doubt if as many as a third have GCSEs, let alone degrees…

“The relentless denigration of shop workers is part of the problem, IMHO.”
As a former shopworker from 2-3 decades ago I have to say such denigration is mostly justified, given the general lack of professionalism, commitment, product knowledge, courtesy and so on that characterises the business. I also admit things have improved since my day, to the point where UK retail staff might be as much as 40% as good as their US equivalents.
I don’t understand Jenni’s point, actually: how is this “denigration” connected with graduates working in shops and/or female students getting their kit off for cash? And why would any half-way “clever girl” find herself working in a supermarket instead of doing something more stimulating& rewarding? Maybe I’m missing something. As for Sufih Yusof, I suspect she’ll tire of this game very quickly and marry a merchant banker, but in the meantime she’s an absolute cracker and jolly good luck to her.

15. kate belgrave

what’s yr number, septicsle?

What a very odd response – are you trying to sound appallingly arrogant and out-of-touch or am I just hopelessly misreading you? Don’t you think “clever girls” need to take jobs to pay the rent, like everybody else? I’d say most graduates have temped or done bar or shop work at one time or another, predominantly to support themselves while they jobhunt. It’s hardly news (except, it seems, to you). Jennie’s perfectly simple point, I believe, was that some girls look at the conditions, pay and so on in those lines of work and seek alternatives.

Sorry, that was to 14.

Malcolm, for a perfect example of the denigration of shop workers, you need look no further than your own comment:

“at my local ex-Safeway-gone-downmarket I doubt if as many as a third have GCSEs, let alone degrees… ”

I call troll.

I don’t have a magic hammer, unfortunately, but one of either yourself or Alix is correct, or a mixture of both.

why would any half-way “clever girl” find herself working in a supermarket instead of doing something more stimulating& rewarding

You assume that it’s not ever stimulating and rewarding, and that there are an infinite number of graduate jobs available within the area someone wishes to work and/or live?

Must be nice to be so lucky in life.

UK retail staff might be as much as 40% as good as their US equivalents.

Really? Strange, my experience in the States and over here found the complete opposite normally to be the case, guess we have completely opposed worldviews about what service is actually about.

Really? Strange, my experience in the States and over here found the complete opposite normally to be the case, guess we have completely opposed worldviews about what service is actually about.

Nah, I’m with Malcolm on this one – I’ve always found US customer service waaayyy better.

21. kate belgrave

Ok, guys – we’re moving into work-related issues here. Why would you deliver good customer service if you’re only paid a few quid an hour? I’ve always found the shocking customer service here very encouraging – it’s kind of like the people behind the till are on strike, but at work. It’s not even work-to-rule. It’s less than that. All power to them!

22. Margin4 Error

University life does not result in destitution – and being poor is certainly not the reason some students turn to prostitution.

My mum raised my sister and I in the 80s – she was often unemployed, always poor, but never a whore. And I’m talking about a woman who had to weigh up at times whether it would cost less to buy dinner for us at the end of the week, or to visit my nan who would undoubtedly cook something if we went.

Likewise students are loaned thousands of pounds a year to pay their way through uni – and the poorest (of which I was one) get a small but helpful grant. Yes student life is relatively poor for those without rich parents backing them – but its not destitution.

So why do girls really do this?

I fear it is because they enjoy the sense of fashionable pseudo-coercion that normal consensual sex doesn’t provide outside a loving S&M relationship. (Watch the original Belle de Jour for a good understanding of that.)

And if so what does that say about these girls for whom this form of exploitation and rape is just enjoyable sex? Even the BNP now kick members out for that attitude.

i agree with margin 4 error in many ways. But surely the point is this. Sure if this girl wants to take off her clothes for money, that’s her business, its a free world etc etc…but the problem I think is for her to go around promoting the sex industry as a form of liberation for bright young things in the national media. Most psychological surveys show that this kind of work has an enormous traumatic effect on self-esteem, not to mention the fact that it can be downright dangerous if you end up in bed with the wrong punter. The thing I object to is glamourising prostitution in the name of feminism….surely people must understand there is something rather contradictory about that?

Carol Vorderman!

25. Malcolm Stevas

“..most graduates have temped or done bar or shop work at one time or another, predominantly to support themselves while they jobhunt. It’s hardly news (except, it seems, to you). Jennie’s perfectly simple point, I believe, was that some girls look at the conditions, pay and so on in those lines of work and seek alternatives”

Maybe I’d had too much Scotch, failed to engage brain before hitting keyboard – apologies. Maybe also I got the impression Jennie referred to shop work as a genuine avenue for graduate employment, as opposed to a temporary expedient – which I certainly think would be silly. Yes, I’ve done it myself, and rose to the giddy heights of assistant manager in a biggish city for a national retail chain – ghastly! Crap pay, too – but some years after that I did a degree myself, and after that frankly I found even a taste of such jobs intolerable (managed 3 weeks working in a warehouse, end of my 2nd BA year) which is why I fail to understand how “clever girls” could end up in such occupations for more than a few weeks.

“You assume that it’s not ever stimulating and rewarding, and that there are an infinite number of graduate jobs available within the area someone wishes to work and/or live?”
Ah, “graduate jobs” – I’m afraid this raises the question of there being too many graduates, successive governments having plucked out of the air the arbitrary notion that, say, 50% of people should read for a degree. I suppose this means inevitably that many graduates will end up in menial jobs – though they’re the calibre of graduates who probably wouldn’t have been graduates anyway, if they hadn’t been force-fed into the higher-ed machine to read Media Studies or whatever.
Jennie is quite right about my denigrating shop workers, but I thought I’d made my opinion clear in the first place. It’s a vicious circle: retail is poorly valued here, and the beancounters who run our (very successful) retail chains can do zoomy marketing, merchandising etc (fairly well, at any rate) but lack the interest or imagination to create an interesting career structure in retail that rewards effort & attitude. So you get shops filled with bozos. Bit like catering: in Continental Europe, waiting at table can be a career! One gets a qualification, and it’s possible to earn decent money! The same does not apply in UK where it’s a crap job filled with surly temps. Just like retail.
Regards, Malcolm

26. Ryan Stephenson

I get sick and tired of people denegrating sex workers. Some girls spend their lives sticking objects up the botty holes of very old men. So what? We call them nurses. We don’t shout abuse at either them or the old men for what they get up to behind closed doors.

Now nurses in care homes don’t get paid a lot for what some would call their perverse activities. Probably the hourly rate is less than a tenth of what a prostitute would earn. But the nurse has to think about what she’s doing – you wouldn’t want a suppository in your urethra I can assure you! So for ten hours the care home nurse devotes herself to thinking about suppositories. The prostitute devotes herself to the botty holes of strange men for just one hour a day – for the other 10 hours she is free! Free! free! FREE! Work for 5years as a prozzie and take the next 50 years OFF!

And you think the prozzie is exploited! WRONG! Its YOU and ME!

27. Margin4 Error

Ryan

so sex for you is merely a financial concern? a body is a mere commodity akin to a big mac or dining room set to be sold to a person with the financial clout to enjoy it?

I tend to feel that people who see themselves in such callow terms need help to appreciate their own greater worth as a human being.

And thats before considering the emotional, mental and relationship anguish that many later suffer upon realising the greater worth they gave up.

@Ryan, scanning the thread, I really don’t think anyone was denigrating sex workers. I was (somewhat grumpily) denigrating girls who tourist in the industry in the hope that some perceived dangerous edgy glamour will rub off on them – which perception of dangerous edginess, by the way, suggests that they hold a none-too-rosy view of the sex industry themselves. As Kate says, of herself at the time and others, YAWN.

Malcolm

You’re exactly right on one point. My ex boyfriend is Brussels is a waiter. Being British, I guess I had lots of subconscious stereotypes about him being some cash-strapped loser. In fact, he was taking home 600 euros less a month than I did with my ‘government position’, for about half the hours I slaved in the office. He had a lovely life, enjoyed it thoroughly, and was saving his hard earned to become a resto owner himself.

That explains, I guess, why he always insisted on paying for dinner.

“so sex for you is merely a financial concern?”

Au contraire, M Margin 4 Error. Commerical sex is certainly best left to professionals. It is certainly not for the likes of those ladies who spent far too much time with their noses stuck firmly between the sheets of a good Bronté, forever waiting for their mythical Heathcliff to appear. Whilst I can assure you there is often a good deal of human romance to be found in the boudoir of the local strumpet, it has to be said that commercial sex favours those that prefer their meat rather “raw”. That, however, has little to do with the sex one might find with a lover – unless one has the misfortune of falling in love with ones commerical sex partner. It has certainly happened to me on many an occassion.

Quite what the release of ones sexual frustrations woud mean to gaining a personal understanding of ones “greater worth as a human being” I am not sure, but it seems to me that such a commercial transaction benefits both sides. For the street prostitute the commercial success of running her own business is very possibly a gateway out of a life of debt, destitution and drug taking. For the call girl it is very likely an escape from the drudgery of 50 years x 37 hours of work. For the punter it is likely an escape from years of frustration at ones pent up sexual desire, perhaps due to social or physical impairment.

To find ones own personal potential as a human being I can assure one must first be set free of the demands of ones animal needs – whether they be monetary or sexual.

31. Margin4 Error

Ryan

you seem to confuse ‘being set fre from’ and ‘indulging’

also – street prostitution is very often a route to debt, destitution and drug taking. So again I fear you under-estimate the impact this tends to have on people when they come to realise what they have reduced their self worth too.

Oddly enough, footballers earn more than shop workers, too. And they earn more than doctors, teachers, lecturers and probably just about anyone, really.

@Margin4Error: Women get into debt by prostituting themselves? That’s a new one on me…. Surely you are confusing cause and effect? Merely announcing your own prejudices on this subject perhaps? Well there is no need to be prejudiced anymore. This is the internet. Anonymous people will happily tell you all you want to know about the “scene” and what really goes on. They wouldn’t dream of challenging your prejudices to your face – prostitution relies on total discretion. Its all rather prosaic actually. But if you want to open your eyes to the realities of what happens then follow the link. It will take you to a forum where prostitutes and real punters discuss the mundane issues they have to deal with. There is no porn there – but sexual matters are sometimes discussed quite frankly. Join in, ask your questions. There is a mechanism by which you can contact the women that post there directly for a private discussion of issues that might bother you about the oldest profession in the world, and where you can be guaranteed frankness in the responses.

34. Sullivan

the soft disrespect, that rings a bell, I worked as a stripper in the 80’s, what I encountered in the pubs then seems to have come out into the streets now, the oldest profession is the game that is propagated, that we have any chance at all of having mutually respectful relationships, neither sex is winning.

35. douglas clark

Ryan,

Being so old that I fancy a fish supper somewhat more than sex – it’s coming to you too – sometime., I’d have thought that amateur sex, was the best game in town.

Professional sex is exploitative, both on the part of the drug addict that is offerirng it, and on the part of the prick that is ready to receive it. What? You think the women that offer men their wildest sexual fantasies are cute?

You are yet another libertarian with their brain cross wired. Try liberalising drugs and then see how many women offer themselves to you. I’d expect you’d be forced back into the amateur scene….

36. douglas clark

And Laurie Penny,

Two years older and wiser, I don’t regret those choices, nor do I find anything morally wrong with sex work to merit the extreme prejudice sex workers receive as a labour force.

You are two years older, but no wiser. You ought to regret your choices. There is, at the very least, an exploitative theme to your ‘work’. Getting men to get a hard on about your naked body is perhaps empowering for you. It just makes men look stupid.

We are stupid, thanks for confirming that.

We are all more stupid that we would ever care to admit publicly. We are also more excitable and suggestible.

Like the old duffer should have said – sex makes fools of us all.

Only a greater fool profits from another fool.

38. douglas clark

thomas,

Am I the old duffer? If so, I’d prefer the Aussie idea that I’m a a cattle rustler to your somewhat cack handed idea that it means whatever you think it means….

No doubt Laurrie Penny could excite us both. But it is frankly trivial sub-dom shit. An erection without a conclusion.

Anyway, do you prefer haddock or plaice in your fish supper? Now that is quite interesting…..

“The story, of course, is an old favourite just screaming to be partnered with extensive photographs of the economics PhD in various states of graphic undress, brandishing whips and dildos and pull-outs about loving sex with random strangers.”

Unlike your own “tastefully done” photograph of the young woman in question.

40. Matt Munro

Why does the fact that a stripper went to oxford make any difference – is a drop out from the local comp any better/worse ? A lot of female students turn to prostitution to top up the grant cheque, a choice that men don’t have, so are we supposed to be sympathetic or what ?

And why is everyone so convinced that prostitution is a route to drug addiction, it’s far more likely that drug addiction is a route to prostitution.


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