Case Study: Pretty Woman

Pretty Woman has been fiercely criticised for its romanticisation of prostitution, and for allegedly persuading young girls that hooking is a good way to meet their fairy-tale prince. It is very true that the film stays well clear of issues of pimps, drugs and violence, that the character is too gentle and perhaps too attractive to be a street girl, and that few if any girls make it from the bottom to the top in a single bound like this. If, however, this criticism is generalised into the assertion that no prostitutes ever marry their clients, all this achieves is to betray the critics’ complete ignorance of the realities.

The true romanticisation here is not of prostitution, but of marriage; we appear to have forgotten the earlier feminist critiques of the latter as being not much different to the former.

Americans do so love to think in terms of black and white absolutes, but in fact human sexual arrangements form a continuous spectrum from the paid quickie at the one end to the full-spectrum life-partnership between two economically independent individuals at the other. In the middle we have personages such as the courtesan (who accepts gifts only from selected admirers), the kept mistress and the good-time girl. There exist “professional girlfriends” who never buy or rent any accommodation of their own, because they are always living with their current lover, and always have a reserve candidate ready for when they get kicked out; some men employ this strategy too. For some strange reason these women are considered respectable.

In fact prostitutes have always lived in hope of marrying a client, not least because so many of them do just that. People’s assumption that the wives of their family, friends, colleagues and business acquaintances can never be former prostitutes depends logically on their having an accurate idea of how many prostitutes there are in their society and who they are. This is by no means the case, even when they factor in all the unattractive men in Northern Europe with younger Thai wives, or their friends’ new partners who call themselves former models, or say they used to be in “entertainment” or “public relations”. Among other things, people assume that being a prostitute is always a permanent or full-time condition; whereas many girls work only for limited periods, to pay off debts and amass capital. Many British students work two days a week in licensed saunas to put themselves through college without being crippled by loans. Quite a high proportion of the UK’s future female lawyers will have done this, and anyone who marries such a lawyer will be marrying an ex-prostitute. Unless he’s an old client, he is unlikely to know; and she certainly won’t tell the neighbours.

No, the real problem with Pretty Woman is that there was no ethical dilemma involved. The Julia Roberts character held out for top dollar and got it; the Richard Gere character wasn’t doing anything else with his life anyway, and found himself a charming wife. In real life she would probably turn into just another rich bitch, run off with her personal trainer and take Gere for hundreds of millions in alimony, but the same applies to all fairy-tales.

The true dilemma comes when the prostitute is making good money and there is a sincere but thoroughly poor man who wants to marry her. As far as I know, we are still waiting for this movie.

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