Sex Review – City Of Sin

August 11th, 2010

catharine_arnold_city_of_sinIn 2003 Belle de Jour began her blog, Diary of a London Call Girl. For six years no one discovered her identity – only disclosed when Belle was threatened with exposure by the Daily Mail.

Belle turned out to be Brooke Magnanti, an intelligent and glamorous research scientist funding her PhD – and with a name like hers, she belonged in the category of grandes horizontales – expensive women both desirable and discreet, who have taken cash for sexual services for as long as there has been such a thing as cash.

The goddess Venus rules love and money, and despite the best efforts of god-fearing reformers, feminists, social hygiene hysterics and even free love – where we are all supposed to be available to each other in the spirit of sexual enlightenment – the oldest profession has survived and thrived.

The bottom line, if I can call it that, seems to be that men enjoy paying for sex. Why that should be so remains the subject of endless fascination or indignant denunciation. Catharine Arnold does not dwell on the theory – instead she takes us on a see for yourself tour of London from the days of the Roman bathhouses, not much different from their modern re-plumbing in gay San Francisco, until we end up in Swinging Soho in the 1960’s and forwards with Belle de Jour.

Here are the park walkers, the streetwalkers, the trade in virgins, including the ones with a syringe of blood to spray over the sheets after every encounter. Here are the molly-boys in make-up, so popular with eighteenth century rakes, the knackered tarts in Gropecunt Lane, the nice girls tempted out for a new bonnet, and the Madams who ran brothels on Bankside in Elizabethan times. Here is modern Madam Cynthia Payne, known as Madam Cyn, and her ‘parties’ in Streatham in the 1970’s.

As late as 2009 the police raided a brothel in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair, one of the oldest of London’s sex sites, and Westminster Council tried to evict the girls on the grounds of ‘change of use from residential accommodation.’ Amusing though this is, as ever, it is the women who are the guilty ones, although it is the men who are doing the buying. We may not understand why men like to pay for sex, whether or not it is available for free, but for women who sell sex, the economic imperative is uppermost. The sex trade is dangerous, but for women who need money, it is guaranteed employment.

While women who sell sex have always had trouble from the police, those women who have pursued sex for its own sake – as men do – fare very badly at the hands of the morality police. Selling yourself is bad enough, but pleasuring yourself is worse.

The two big sex scandals of the 1960’s were cabinet minister, John Profumo with call girl Christine Keeler, and the infamous Duchess of Argyle; the sex-mad toff who lost her money and her marriage for no better reason than chasing after scores of men. Read together, these tabloid scandals highlight very different attitudes to sex between the sexes.

Profumo had to resign of course, but there was plenty of sympathy for him among high-powered men who had no intention of giving up their tarts or their mistresses. Margaret, Duchess of Argyle, was called by the judge in her divorce. ‘a completely promiscuous woman’, who had ‘indulged in disgusting sexual activities.’ That seemed to refer to the photos of her wearing nothing but a string of pearls and enjoying fellatio with an unknown male, (probably Douglas Fairbanks Jnr).

Nell Gwynn, the rags to riches mistress of Charles the Second, was celebrated in bawdy verse for her skills with the King’s ‘pole’, but Marg of Arg, as she was known, was the victim of a vicious double-standard that even Puritan England never managed,

It was the Victorians who made life impossible for women sexually, as a rigid morality decreed that women were pure and did not enjoy sex, and those who did were immoral. Tortured men, whose wives must not show desire or arousal, naturally preferred prostitutes for recreational sex. The double standard this imposed on everyone left women to pay the price of men who paid for sex.

Guilt means punishment, and the Victorian male punished women both for having sex and for not having sex. Jack the Ripper, like the Yorkshire Ripper a century later, murdered prostitutes, but reformers like the British Prime Minister Gladstone publicly maintained that for an honest woman sex was a duty, not a pleasure.
Given that few women had their own money, sex and exchange could not be separated. Henry Mayhew, whose classic work London Labour and the London Poor, (1852 – 1861) included much on prostitution, heard plenty of stories from servant girls and poor wives who concluded that it was better to sell what was otherwise expected for free.

Sometimes not even sex was required. The Romans had a kind of gladiatorial warm-up where a woman would stand on her head and let the crowd throw coins in between her open legs. An enterprising prostitute revived this practice in the seventeenth century when she opened Priss Fotheringham’s Chuck Office. By some gymnastic ability she was able to open her ‘commoditie’ as she called it, like a fish mouth, while whooping punters chucked in half-crowns. Truly a Renaissance woman.

Down the road from the Chuck Office, in Moorfields, was the Prick Office, which specialised in hand jobs and blowjobs, and became popular because it was thought to be very clean. Disease and infection were always a problem, and so when Colonel Condom invented his namesake from sheep gut in 1665, the new sheaths sold at a high price until people worked out how to make their own. Unlike modern condoms, the sheep kind were emptied and washed after use. They were tied onto the base of the penis with a trademark red ribbon.

Boswell, friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson, always carried his ‘armour’ with him, keeping it slightly damp so that it could be stretched at need.

The trade in boys made good use of the condom, with some Molly Houses blowing them up and hanging them outside to show that they were open for business

What is clear from reading Catherine Arnold’s hugely entertaining sex tour of London, is that the capital city now is not some latter day Sodom and Gomorrah, as moralists would have us believe, but a far more wholesome place than it has ever been in its history. London has been a wallow of sex of every kind, but the worst kinds, the sickening exploitation of children, and the routine torture of the ‘specialists’, are no longer available or acceptable in a way that was once very common, even ordinary.

Children of eleven upwards were routinely used for sex on the streets. Paedophilia was not a crime – it was a peccadillo. Orphans, or poor children from the country looking for work, were regularly picked up by older women and immediately forced on the game. The alternative was to starve. Hogarth’s famous series of drawings – The Harlot’s Progress – begins with just such a scene, as Mother Needham watches girls arrive in the big city while one of her clients watches, half-aroused, from a doorway.

City of Sin is full of useful bawdy information – who knew that the favourite Bible word, ‘fornication’, comes from the Latin ‘fornices’, for arches, because under the arches is where the sex trade took place in Rome and in Roman London. The Teutons, swarming in after the Romans had gone, called fornication ‘vokken’, and this is the origin of our modern slang, ‘fucking.’

Although monarchs like Henry Eighth occasionally introduced laws against practices like buggery – not against homosexuals as it happens, but against the Catholic clergy, which then as now, unfortunately tells us a lot about the Catholic clergy, England, and London especially, was sex-tolerant until Cromwell. The Puritans introduced laws against everything – closing the theatres not because they disliked plays but because so many prostitutes worked the sites. But it was not until the nineteenth century that sex in all its forms became the moral problem.

Unsurprisingly, the more it was about morality, the more sex became a problem, and the more it became a problem, the greater the punishments and penalties.

Catherine Arnold is never judgemental, and she is a delightful travelling companion through centuries of the city of sin, pointing out the sites, and leaving us to understand the despair and the hypocrisy, as well as the pleasure, that inevitably seems to surround sex.

Why this should be so, even now, in a secular society is a mystery, but London’s nightlife is as flourishing as ever. It seems that nothing we do will put an end to the sex trade, and really, why would we want it to end?

Why we still police it as we do is another matter. Perhaps it would be better accept that life is as it – at where the old pleasures of sex for sale are concerned.

Times Books August 2010