Category Archives: morality & sex work series

masters of sex, serial, and telling real people’s stories (morality and sex work part one)

“You pretended to have an orgasm? Is that a common practice among prostitutes?”

“It’s a common practice amongst anyone with a twat.[…]”

“But why, why would a woman lie about something like that?”

“Gawd almighty, this is… Okay, I’m gonna be honest with you but only cause I like you and you seem real dedicated about your project with your penguin suit and all, with the charts and the timer, but seriously, if you really want to learn about sex then you’re gonna have to get yourself a female partner.”

Masters of Sex, Pilot, 2013

I was just re-reading provisional diagnosis: prostitution because I was thinking about how I didn’t get around to the main point I originally intended to discuss when I began that post. I wanted to say something more about the ethics of telling real people’s stories. Since then, I’ve checked out a couple relevant items of pop culture my friends told me about and revisited two books I read over the summer:

1. the Showtime series, Masters of Sex (based on a book about revolutionary human sexuality researchers Masters and Johnson),

2. the new podcast series, Serial, which re-investigates the murder of a teenage girl in 1999,

3. Karen Abbott’s book, Sin in the Second City, a historical account of the Everleigh Club, the famous early 20th century-era Chicago brothel, and

4. Alexa Albert’s Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women.

I’ve only seen four episodes of Masters of Sex, and so far I’ve been drawn in by the subject matter, of course, but I’ve also been impressed by the show’s attention to the research itself. The exchange I quoted above, which occurs between Dr. Bill Masters and a woman he found in one of St. Louis’s brothels, illustrates just one important role sex workers played in his initial research. Although the TV version changes things a bit, according to Maier’s book, it was the suggestion of one college-educated woman “‘amplifying her income for an impending marriage’ by dabbling in the sex trade” that “changed everything” for Masters (82), opening his eyes to the importance of finding a female research partner. [Sidenote: I thought Lizzy Caplan was awesome in Mean Girls and True Blood, but she’s really a great match for this role, as Gini Johnson.] I love how the first few episodes highlight the simultaneous importance and difficulty of studying or talking about sex in a culture that is mostly square and/or opposed to women having sex outside the confines of marriage.

After listening to the first two episodes of Serial, I have been inspired by the production quality–Sarah Koenig’s storytelling is compelling and experiments with the podcast genre in cool ways–and I’ve also been drawn into the meta-level-story-about-the-story, which involves real life people. A recent article by Michelle Dean in The Guardian features the following commentary about the consequences of documenting the lives of living people:

“But in the post-listening haze, as I poked around myself and discovered the social media undergrowth amassing under it, I began to have questions about what I was participating in. Serial is, after all, not a work of fiction. It is about real people.”

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provisional diagnosis: prostitution

This patient absolutely vows that she does want to change her life. She says she has never been satisfied with it. She doesn’t feel its right to take the money from some of these poor men who have been her customers. She is ashamed of her life. She is ashamed, she says, when she faces other people. She said she would like to go to an LPN school. She likes to take care of the sick.

– Nevada State Hospital doctor, SSCO Files #913

As I mentioned in my last post, the SCSO Files contain one remarkable and unusual case detailing part of one woman’s life story as recorded by a male doctor when she was admitted to the Nevada State Hospital. He sent her record to the Wallace Chief of Police on January 14, 1966 (apparently before HIPAA in 1996, there was no comprehensive federal health privacy law), along with the following note:

This is a reply to your letter of January 12 regarding above-named person. She was committed to this hospital on a commitment for mental illness on February 24, 1965 and discharged March 22, 1965. At the hearing for commitment she stated that her husband was in the penitentiary in Montana and that her parents were in a mental institution in __________, Montana, however, it was later established that they worked in the hospital.

She was given an occupational assignment in our canteen and a job was obtained for her on the outside. However, she stayed there about two days and then left Reno stating that she was returning to Winnemucca, Nevada to resume her former occupation of prostitute.

A copy of her admission history is enclosed as a further source of information.

Within five months of her release, she would turn up in Wallace, working for Luoma Delmonte in the Jade Rooms, where she would remain for about five months before moving on. Her SCSO record indicates she had been “run out of town,” characterized as a “Hope Head” by the police (I think the intended phrase was “hophead,” aka addict):

officer notes on the file

officer notes on the file

It’s hard to tell whether or not this woman actually felt like it wasn’t right to take money from “these poor men who have been her customers,” or if that is doctor-added interpretation. I don’t know whether or not she was actually “ashamed” of her life or if she was just saying that to appease the doctor, who later goes on to write:

She has been told that her promises and her possible trying to impress the examiner mean nothing at all, that everything she does must be evidenced in her action—good ward behavior, willingness to work, some sort of a vow and sticking to it that she does really want to change her life and not just talk about it.

In the case of this woman, the doctor’s skeptical and parental tone barely covers what for me sounds like titillation as he takes down her life story.

But so many of the SCSO files also contain this sort of parental language and assessments of the women’s appearance and character. I imagine the women finishing their interviews with the madams and walking down the street to the sheriff’s office where they are “mugged and printed” in an impersonal, regulatory way as the police officers relish a personal preview of the incoming women who rotate in and out, ensuring variety for the customers (“fresh inventory,” as one person put it).

In more than a few cases, there is definitely a tinge of voyeurism in the commentary by the police officers doing the in-processing and out-processing. Maybe that’s just the inevitable outcome of treating a woman like a product that must be regulated.

Or maybe this is just what notes about real people sound like through the distancing lens of analysis.

In the case of this woman, I think it’s just the tone of the doctor’s voice that is upsetting to me, especially when he writes: “This young woman has had quite a career,” just before mentioning that “her father even carried on sex previously with her when she was a very young girl,” using the word “sex” instead of “rape,” as though she had been old enough as “a very young girl” to give her consent. (It’s possible that’s how she talked about it herself, but I still wish he’d been conscientious enough to make the distinction, regardless.) Later he writes, “One can go on and talk to this patient for half a day and continue to gather various material,” as though she is simply some fascinating object to study.

Or maybe it’s just that I am projecting my own fears: how am I any different? I ask myself, as I sift through my research. I guess that remains to be seen, but we have come a long way in terms of institutional research ethics and privacy, and I have been trying to ensure I respect my community’s willingness to participate in this work: I’ve taken courses on research ethics; I gained approval for my research from my university’s institutional review board; my research participants granted me informed consent or in some cases agreed to talk with me upon the conditions of anonymity.

Yet I still worry I might repeat the same violence of voyeurism. I remember finding out about “peeping toms” when I was growing up and feeling a paradoxical mixture of fear, confusion, indifference, and anger. But now, especially as I look back on my own research notes and try to write a narrative that brings my research to life, I sometimes wonder, where is the line between peeking into windows as opposed to sharing stories?

pages from my research notes

pages from my research notes

Maybe the difference is the tone and the motivation—tricky things to work with…


In the admission history, this woman is described as a “young blond,” who is “pleasant, perfectly oriented, she said she has been in the military organization as a Wave with an honorable discharge.” Military service is somewhat common for the women from this era. They joined the armed services in great numbers during WWII, sometimes prior to becoming sex workers, and in other cases the military provided a means of income/occupation sufficient to temporarily replace prostitution.

The doctor goes on to write that she “very frank, tells you all about her checkered career of prostitution, the various drugs she has been using. She is reasonably intelligent, pleasant, although when she had been sent back to the ward after the undersigned had interviewed her, she referred to him as an old something because he didn’t prescribe any medicine for her.”

Below, I include some additional chunks of this document with a bit of interpretation (all quotations sic):

The “Early Life” section reads:

She was brought up partly in her home and partly in the home of her grandparents. She had trouble with delinquency in the sense of running away when she was small but not shoplifting or stealing or other troubles.

Under “Schooling and General Knowledge” the doctor explains,

She went as far as the 10th grade. She has worked as an aide or an attendant at the ____________ Hospital, both when she was a high school student and later on for about a year afterward. She liked it. Names all the previous presidents, does well on President-King, Lie & Mistake, multiplies well except she misses 11 x 12, takes 7 from 100 for one subtraction and then fails. She is fairly familiar with world news. Her favorite funny paper are Peanuts and Beatle Bailey. She does well on both parts of the Cowboy Story.

[I have no idea what kind of tests President-King or Lie & Mistake are, and when I Google “the cowboy story mental health assessment” I pull up stories about football players…]

And then, as I mentioned earlier, there is the “Present Illness” section:

This young woman has had quite a career. She says that early in life she had sex; that her father even carried on sex previously with her when she was a very young girl and has tried since she has grown up but she will not let him do that any more. She has been engaged in prostitution for six years and has been taking drugs since she married her husband which was in 1961. She describes her husband as having been a criminal and drug addict for years. He had been married before, had no children. She had one child at the age of 14 and this child is with her mother at the present time and is now 8 years of age. It was OW [out of wedlock]. Patient started to work at prostitution in Montana; went from Montana to Vegas, Vegas to Winnemucca, Winnemucca back to Las Vegas, then up to Reno. She did no prostituting, however, in Vegas where she was only for a short time. While in Nevada she stayed in Winnemucca where she has done well, she says, in the hunting season.

On the first examination this patient says that she made as much as five and six and seven hundred dollars a day but when seen later she says the most she would make in a day for her own so-called ‘take home money’ would be about $150 or $165. The madam in the salons and houses takes 40% of the money. She got started on drugs from the husband, she claims, and from time to time she has used various drugs, Dilaudid, Morphine, Demerol, Cocaine, and Dolophine. In the beginning she says her husband was able to bring home plenty of drugs as he robbed drug stores. After that, however, she had to use her money from prostitution to go out and buy the drugs and while no attempt was made to get the name of the individual ckrokers [brokers?], most of her medication was obtained from doctors. … However, there was a doctor or two in Las Vegas who even knew she was nothing but an addict, continued to give her the drugs at $12 a visit, or give her the drugs to take. …

In the search for real psychotic material, there is none. The patient has never had any hallucinations, delusions, paranoid material or ideas of influence or reference. She says she knows she has been listed as a sociopath. She has done a little reading like most of the sociopaths have and is able to discuss her case, at least in a superficial fashion in a fair way. As to alcohol, she has done a good deal of drinking, too, in periods when she hasn’t been taking drugs. She even has taken drink before breakfast – Scotch for the most part. She has never had syphilis. She has had frequent blood tests. She has had Gonorrhea and been treated for it. She herself has never been in jail. She denies homosexuality. …

Provisional Diagnosis: Personality trait disturbance, emotionally unstable personality, with alcoholism and drug addiction and prostitution.”

In general, the doctor [perhaps unintentionally] minimizes the impact of systemic or male-caused problems where they appear to have affected her life. That’s most obvious in his language reducing paternal rape to incest, but is also apparent in the skeptical tone invoked as he comments on her interpretation of events: “she has done well, she says, in the hunting season,” or “She got started on drugs from the husband, she claims,” or where he reduces her to “nothing but an addict” while noting how it appears clear that doctors are knowingly enabling her habit.

I’m not sure what’s going on with the language questioning her sexual orientation, if that’s what it amounts to when he writes that “she denies homosexuality.” Seems like a strange way to put it…

Her file indicates that after leaving Wallace she returned to Montana. In a letter from the Miles City Police Chief to the Wallace Police Chief, we find out that she was “run out of town” there, too. The Miles City officer goes on to say, “I heard last week a couple of her girl-friends worked her over in Billings, Montana and put her in the hospital.”

quick thoughts on the nature of this beast

So last night I was telling someone I’d just met about the work I did over the summer (I hadn’t seen our mutual friend since I’d gotten back into town and he’d asked about it). I mentioned how I’m interested in looking more at the connection between rhetoric, economics, and how we create our values as communities. He said he didn’t understand the economics connection. I was kind of surprised by this. I said that, because sex work is an underground economy that is also stigmatized the prices are high enough so as to coerce women into the profession. Since I study rhetoric, I’m interested in that line between persuasion and coercion, in a theoretical sort of way.

“I mean, the price probably *should* be high, but the underground, stigmatized nature makes it so that the value is increased even more,” I said, “so the line between choice and economic coercion very fuzzy.”

As a result, within something like ten minutes of meeting me, this guy says,

“So what is your price?”

I said I didn’t know. Maybe I should have a better answer to this by now. It’s interesting to hear what people think.

(Sidenote–wonder how many women have been commodified by complete strangers, whether they are sex workers or not, doing research on it or not. It has an effect on you, even if you think it doesn’t. I was once offered four hundred dollar bills by a complete stranger on the street, while with another guy. [Remember, Dom, he even pulled them out and showed them to us?])

“You don’t have a price? Everyone’s got a price. What’s yours, to sleep with me? Two thousand dollars? We would have a good time.”

“Sure.” I say. Of course, I’d like to think I’m priceless. Later on that evening, he tries to get me to sleep with him for free. When I was younger, I thought that was what priceless meant.

This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I was thinking about that price–two thousand dollars–specifically. I have a PhD. The price he named is not as much as my monthly take-home pay, but it is more than what I make in two weeks.

I think about how much work I put into my job and how much of a difference two thousand dollars would make.

Then, as I was driving to work, I heard a story on the radio that reminded me of the class discussion we had in the Cyber Security class I guest taught the other day. At my institution, they censor the web content (yes, like they do in China), and in class we were discussing the balance between internet security, freedom, and privacy. The students told me that even though they are not allowed to access content the university deems unacceptable on the school network, they still access it from their smartphones if they want. So in this case censorship does not actually prevent the behavior, it just drives it underground, stigmatizes it, and limits access to those who can afford smartphones and a data plan. It also creates an alternative economy made up of those who are motivated enough to sidestep the restrictions. Essentially, whatever is censored or forbidden becomes more valuable. Duh, but so why do we persist in banning things when we know this is the effect? This economy self-selects those who either value the content so much they will disregard the risks involved (due to need or desire), or are attracted to profiting off of the underground nature of the beast (due to need or desire).

I don’t know why I care about that line between need and desire. It’s an illusion anyway.

But it’s an illusion that moves us from choice (the realm of freedom, the realm of persuasion) into coercion (the realm of pressured “choice,” the realm of brainwashing and abuse, the realm of con artistry and manipulation), and it’s an illusion that matters across professions, of course…