On the rare occasions that my sister and I find ourselves in dire economic straits, we typically joke about finding a pole and working it to make some quick money.
“I can be flexible when I need to be.”
“I can make this jelly roll.”
“I bet you dudes would pay us NOT to dance anymore.”
Then we erupt into a fit of cackles and figure out alternatives to solve our fiscal problems. My sister has a Masters in Physics. I’m a decent writer. Between the pair of us we can tutor or edit an article for pay, and none of that pathetic pole work becomes necessary. There are many women who are not so fortunate. Either by design or circumstances of birth, women all over the world are compelled to perform sex or sexually suggestive acts to ensure their survival or for the survival of their families. With a few exceptions, they are universally scorned for it by their communities.
The stain of that scorn and ridicule is often so terrible that many women who have never engaged in sex work find themselves paralyzed by the thought of being associated with it. Calling a woman who strives for any measure of respect in her sphere of influence a whore, prostitute, ashawo or any variation of the term is a very powerful silencing tool, primarily used by men to attack women who dare to buck the status quo. Here is are examples of two such attacks against Yvonne Nelson and Lydia Forson during the #DumsorMustStop campaigns.
NDC lapdog and blogger, Dela Coffie wrote an open letter to Lydia Forson in response to her comments about President Mahama’s performance in which he concluded:
“I am not sure if this your frequent throwing of tantrums is a menopausal irritability or a midlife issue. Whatever it is, I am sure President Mahama is ready to take an advise on morality but certainly not from a brothel.”
The bigger question for men like Dela Coffie is how they would know what is in the mind of brothel dwellers unless they frequent them and are therefore well acquainted with ho’ philosophy?
Yvonne Nelson also received a call from a man who attempted anonymity (he was later found out) when he called her on the phone to verbally abuse her. Listen to how he possessed he sounds as he calls her ashawo (prostitute) repeatedly.
All this because she wants to hold the presidency to the promises he gave during his election campaign.
There are numerous instances of men insinuating that a woman has done sex work and is therefore somehow less human. Watch as two of Ghana’s most popular boxers, Ayitey Powers and Bukom Banku slander Afia Schwarzenegger in this video.
It’s hard to make out if you are not familiar with the accent, but Ayitey Powers (the one dressed as the Mugatu from ‘Zoolander’) declares that even if Afia was the last woman on Earth, he’d never sleep with her. Ewww. The impudence of the man… to assume that any woman should desire to sleep with him because he feels entitled? Kai!
No one wants their work or existence debased by the idea that they may have had to “reduce” themselves by having sex for pay, especially in societies as conservative and patriarchal as Ghana and the American South. And yet many of our most beloved and influential members of the global community have had to do just that to get a foothold on the pedestals we’ve placed them on. Many of the world’s most talented people have either had to work in a brothel or were born in one.
To support her child, Maya Angelou took a variety of jobs including dancing in night clubs, cooking at a cafe, removing paint at a dent and body shop, and serving as madam and sometime prostitute at a San Diego brothel. She was later ousted by the Army because of her connections with the Communist party and smoked weed to dull the pain of her rejection. She would go on to attempt to secure more “respectable work”, but when jobs were few and far between, she engaged in illegal activity including selling stolen clothes for a drug junkie and work as an exotic dancer.
Richard Pryor, the comedian whose style influenced the work of many of the world’s greatest, was born in a brothel. It was owned by his grandmother and his mother worked in her establishment. Pryor’s storytelling ability was developed based on keen observations of men who came in and out of the brothel and pool hall he frequented and who used vulgarity like poetry devices. Had it not been for those colorful characters in his life, there would be no Pryor…the anti-Cosby.
On the way to Larteh by way of the Dodowa Road, there is a “spot” known as Tamara’s. I always wanted to stop there for a drink, but my dad and my uncles forbade it. Their justification was that Tamara got the money to build her establishment by doing “sexy dancing” in the ’70s. Why punish the woman for that? She used the money to build a business, instead of pissing it away on booze and babes like the average politician does! (This is a plug for Tamara’s, if you ever find yourself in the area.)
The urge to slut shame women based on her need/desire/obligation to do sex work is not a new one. It even goes back to Biblical days when Jesus was ridiculed for allowing a harlot to wash his feet. But guess who helped Joshua conquer Jericho? Rahab. Rahab the harlot did that when she let down her rope to help his forces to climb into the city. Not a pastor or an archbishop…a whore was instrumental in executing God’s plan.
In the melodrama Devdas, the main character for whom the film is named says this to the courtesan Chandramukhi, who finds herself smitten with him on sight.
“You are a woman, Chandramukhi. Realize who you are. Mother, sister, wife, friend. When a woman is none of these things, she is a whore.”
And yet it was that same ‘whore’ who pulled Devdas from the gutter and the same one whose halls he came crawling to when he needed reprieve from his pain from a broken heart!
The list of celebrities and public figures who have done sex work before their rise to the top is virtually endless. Jenny McCarthy, Joan Crawford, Pam Anderson…even Sylvester Stallone (acted in porn) and Al Pacino (traded sex for room and board while a struggling actor) have had to use it to survive.
Granted, there is an acute difference in the way we view Black bodies – particularly in Africa – and those we ascribe whiteness when it comes to having done sex work. We could look at the differences in the rewards and revulsion Kim Kardashian and Montana Fishburne have endured for that. That’s a political discussion for another day. But the next time someone calls a woman a whore, or denounces your ideas as having coming from a brothel, thank them! From where I sit, prostitutes are the bravest, most talented and selfless women (and men) that we could ever hope to commune with.