Sunday, 2 May 2010

Working Girls

The girls were all in their early twenties, some tall, some short, all Asian. They were walking in front of my daughter and me, a little awkward in their short skirts and high heels, swinging their arms, talking. A middle-aged woman on the opposite side of the road raked them with her eyes as she passed. She scowled and pulled her headscarf a little further down on her head.

"They're so pretty," my daughter whispered. I felt a pang. Fat lot of good their beauty was doing them.

"Those shoes must hurt," I ventured. We stared at their feet. You couldn't run in shoes like that. You couldn't kick a ball or hike up a hill or jump up and down.

The girls turned the corner and disappeared into a house that we still think of as the Khans'. The Khans are an elderly Pakistani couple from the U.K., very refined, well educated and generous. Earlier this year I got a call from Mrs. Khan who told me that they had decided to stay in England this year and rent out their house. Had we by chance seen the new tenants?

As it happened, we'd run into the new tenants a few days earlier when they were moving in. "What are they like?" Mrs. Khan wanted to know. "Are they a family?"

Neither my husband nor I had the courage to tell them that their house had been rented to a group of prostitutes and a couple of thuggish looking men who seemed to be their escorts. They were only in the house for a few days. I saw some of the girls at the local swimming pool a few times, but they never returned my greetings.

Now the Khans' house was being rented again. Two or three times we saw scary-looking men standing outside in the garden, smoking, thuggish fellows who looked like they carried knuckle dusters and guns and had no qualms about using them. The girls seemed to come and go freely, but when they passed people on the street, they never looked them in the eye.

I have complicated feelings about what these girls do for a living. On one hand, it incenses me when people treat them with disrespect; on the other, I'm convinced there must be better ways for them to earn money. Clearly, there will always be a demand for what they offer, but I know that if this world were more just, these girls would be able to find better employment. If they had been born into a just world with plenty of reasonable vocational options, but still found prostitution to their liking, I could breathe a sigh of relief and leave these young women to their fate. But that is not the case, is it? Many of these girls have been born into real poverty, with no education, no guidance, and no prospects. The current world slump has made a difficult situation impossible, but the 'nightclubs' here are always looking for fresh talent.

A few months ago, there was a flash flood and the bottom floor of the Khans' house was flooded. The Khans didn't have the new tenants' phone number, so they asked my husband to go over and see how bad the damage was.

"Were the girls okay?" I asked when he got back.

"They looked okay. They didn't look like anyone was holding them there against their will." That has been my biggest worry, so it was a little reassuring. From time to time, a different group of prostitutes comes to our local supermarket in a garishly pink van decorated with lurid purple flowers. They are noisy and shameless and full of life, and I can't help being a little cheered: they are obviously well fed and at least they look happy.

A few days ago, my daughter and I ran into a fresh batch of girls on our way to buy raisins. The girls were wearing newish-looking clothes of cheap, shiny material, teetering on their high heels, working hard not to step in potholes. I felt their eyes on us. I wondered if any of them would have liked to be on the way to buy raisins with their mothers, trying to decide what kind of cookies to bake.

As we passed them, the girls grew quiet. Girls hardly older than our eldest daughter who is now at university. Girls who could so easily be my wonderful students from former Soviet bloc countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan. Who could be spending their days attending classes, going shopping with friends, visiting each other to swap notes and gossip.

"Good evening," I called out over my shoulder. But the girls kept their eyes on the ground and if they heard me, they gave no sign.


Marian said...

Mixed feelings about prostitution. On the one hand, it should never be something a woman (or girl) is forced into, and she should be aware of all the risks involved.

On the other hand, I know what it's like to be in such desperate straits that you'll do anything. Always best not to judge why someone's doing it, if she hasn't been forced into it.

Robin said...

How sad! I would have been thinking the same thing - I'll bet they'd like to be shopping for raisins with their mom.

That's always been hard for me when it comes to working with kids who have had such a hard life. I think of how much opportunity my own kids have. It makes me feel so sad and guilty. (Then I get mad at my kids for being such entitled little brats, and it never works out very well.)

Bish Denham said...

It's very sad that young girls have to sell themselves. It's very sad that there are people out there who want to buy them. I have no problem with consenting adults do, but I do wonder about young girls and their ability to really choose. If they could live another way, would they do so?

And also...

It's odd that as long as we give it away for free it's okay but if we sell it it's wrong.

Mary Witzl said...

Marian -- I agree. I just wonder how we can know whether girls really are able to choose freely. I wonder if all of the girls who are recruited here know what they're getting into, or the risks.

So many women who have lived in terrible poverty or through desperate times have been forced to sell themselves. I wonder if the people who choose to judge them have any idea what circumstances led them to do what they do.

Robin -- I have the same problem! It's hard, isn't it, knowing how unfair the world is, seeing obvious examples of it at work, then coming home to find your own coddled, comfortable, well-nourished kids. Last term, I taught a couple of boys who could not afford to buy vegetables or fruit, and a girl who knew she would have to go back to her village to marry if she didn't pass her final exams. I hate to make my kids feel spoiled, but the truth is, they are.

Bish -- My daughter knew a few girls last year who felt the opposite: that any girl dumb enough to bestow her favors for free wasn't worth the time of day. They scorned one girl who was a little too free with her charms. When you think about the whole thing, it's just nonsense.

Kim Ayres said...

I find myself thinking in pragmatic terms over the issues - probably because I can't quite cope with all the emotional conflicts and fears that well up if I think too closely on the matter.

But on a practical level, if it is accepted (as it widely is) that this form of work will always be about (as it always has been), then surely the best thing is for it to be legalised, regulated and proper workers rights put in place. They need the law on their side, not against them.

When we condemn those in poor situations and circumstances, we don't improve their lot or make their lives any better. It's like kicking a person when they are down - it doesn't actually help them get up.

Vijaya said...

Sigh. I remember a quote by David Warren: "If men were good, women would be loved." And of course, this means women wouldn't have to prostitute themselves.

Here's the article he wrote for Valentine's Day:

AnneB said...

Once again I had to google, this time "knuckle dusters." They turned out to be what I thought they might be. Mary has obviously had a much broader education than I.

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert the Skeptic said...

I saw a very scary and sad documentary about Soviet Bloc women who were lured to Turkey with the promise of jobs then are sold into prostitution. One man was trying to locate his wife and negotiate purchase of her return.

I cannot help but feel (hope) that were prostitution legal (and therefore more open) it would lead to safer conditions for all involved. It is a very basic and normal human need; it is so stupid to force it into the shadows of the underworld.

Miss Footloose said...

You got a lot of great insightful and compassionate replies here, Mary, and there's nothing new her I can add.

One thing you learn when you travel with your eyes and heart open is not to judge and to realize how fortunate we are ourselves to have grown up with opportunities and possibilities to create a good life for ourselves.

I have always been grateful to be able to take care of my children without having to worry about feeding them and keeping them safe.

In some places parents are so desperate they sell their young daughters into slavery (often deceived to think they're doing the right thing.)

It must not be easy for you to see these girls so close up in your neighborhood and feeling helpless.

Carole said...

You paint a very real, very tragic picture of hurting hearts. This is what your writing does for me. Paints such clear pictures that produce emotional responses from my insides.

What I like most is you don't close your eyes. You don't walk another way to the store. You don't hide your daughters from life. You see it. You share it. You help me think.

Falak said...

Its easy for people like the middle aged woman you mentioned to draw conclusions about those girls. Only they know what they must be going through. Standing outside their world we can only wonder. Not a big suprise that they never look anybody in the eyes because who ever would like to see themselves being judged by someone who has no clue about their conditions?

Charlie said...

My comment is solely about girls who willingly prostitute themselves.

When I was working with addicted women one of the office staff, in her late forties, was a retired streetwalker. She told me that every single girl on (she named a street) had been physically and sexually abused--as in incestuous abuse. The woman told me she could guarantee it.

These girls have zero (or less) self-esteem, which explains why they cannot look you in the eye.
They typically blame themselves for the abuse, and they feel that the only useful thing they have are their bodies.

Very sad stuff.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- As a woman with daughters, I find prostitution a hard issue to think about too. When I look at girls my daughters' age or younger who are already prostitutes, I can't help feeling like their mothers. If they were babies when my girls were babies, why didn't they have had better opportunities? There are times the injustices of the world are almost too much to bear.

But I agree with you: we've got this world, and as long as there is a demand, there is going to be a supply, especially when there is a world recession. So we should make sure that the most vulnerable people are protected, that they have decent living conditions and pay -- and the opportunity to be educated so they can, if they wish, choose a different lifestyle.

Vijaya -- I know it's arrogant of me, but I often wish I could have at least been consulted when the world and everything in it were created. Wouldn't it be so great if everyone respected everyone else and practiced the golden rule?

I will follow that link when I get home from work tonight -- thank you for it.

AnneB -- As soon as I posted this, I thought, "Oh shoot -- brass knuckles!" I'm now familiar with both terms for the same awful thing, and I can't remember when to use which. Then again, I get commenters from both sides of the pond, so I'd be bound to confuse someone!

You should see these guys (shiver). Just as dealers are a great argument against using drugs, pimps and thugs are a great argument against prostitution. But I suppose they're all some mothers' sons... :o)

Robert -- I agree that we shouldn't penalize prostitutes, but I do feel that the people who choose to work in this industry should have access to counseling, information, benefits, and health care. I can't believe that most of the girls (and boys) who choose to do this job do so because the nature of the work appeals to them.

I saw a similar documentary a few years ago and it chilled me. I never realized just how widespread the problem was until we came here.

Miss Footloose -- I feel the same incredible gratitude: how fortunate we are to be able to provide our children with opportunities and to keep them safe and happy. But it seems so wrong and unfair that all parents can't do this, and that these girls who could be my daughters have to make such difficult choices in order to feed themselves (and in some cases, their families). And yes, it is too easy to judge -- to think that nothing in the world could reduce us to such depths when we've never known real hunger or crushing poverty.

Carole -- Thank you for those kind words.

There are so many of these girls here that I couldn't ignore them if I wanted to. I want my daughters to try and understand their position: what they have to cope with at such a young age -- and to view them with respect and compassion, not disdain and pity. It could so easily be any of us.

Falak -- A lot of people see these girls as immoral, I know. I'll probably never get to know any of them myself, but I will reserve judgment until I do.

Charlie -- I can easily believe that. It is just heartbreaking, and it makes me feel even worse about them.

The first year I lived in Japan, I happened to meet a couple of women who claimed that they were prostitutes for a few months every year. They assured me that they were perfectly happy to do this for a living and had chosen this lifestyle because it was well-paid and required few skills. They seemed to have a fair amount of self-esteem, and in many ways, they were probably suited to this lifestyle. I have no objection to people doing this if it is what they want to do. I just can't believe that the girls I've seen here have any other options.

Pat said...

Just recently I watched a
dramatisation of the murder of five young women from Ipswich who were working as prostitutes. The reason they were on the streets - all of them seemed to be decent but very vulnerable girls - but they had all got hooked on drugs and were at the mercy of the monsters supplying them.
One hopes that after the cases there was a greater understanding of the problem and that other young women would be given help to get off the drugs and be helped to earn their living in a less dangerous manner.

debra said...

Like you, Mary, I am a mother of young adult daughters. What if the circumstances of their lives were different? Would they be teetering on too high heels hoping for a better life? to stay alive? These girls have mothers, too. What must they think?

Ello said...

Mary - I've missed your blog! Now I can enjoy it again since I'm free from the semester. Yay!

And your post is heartbreaking to me. If they are young then they were forced into it. That's the reality. But what can we do? It is older than any other profession in the world and it will never go away. BUt it is heartbreaking to see the young girls captured in it.

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- Drug addiction seems to be one surefire way to keep prostitutes from looking for other ways to earn a living. It's so sad to see people end up like this. I'd like to think that the program you saw will make the general public more aware of this issue -- and more compassionate.

Debra -- What these girls' mothers think is something I'll probably never know, but like you, I can't help thinking about it.

Ello -- I've missed your blog too. I can hardly wait until I too am free of teaching -- three more weeks!

If I were rich or in a position of power, I'd start a business and employ girls like this. The girls I teach from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are invariably among my best students. It is so sad to think that the girls who've been recruited as prostitutes won't have their opportunities to grow and learn.

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