A new look at the oldest profession

With Hugh Grant the latest high-profile customer of a prostitute, Rosalind Miles examines how the trade is changing
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From Profumo to Sir Allen Green, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, and now Hugh Grant, the discovery of a high-profile man with a prostitute has brought to the headlines a subject of growing concern. From Thailand to the Tottenham Court Road, prostitution is accepted as an international problem whose boundaries are no longer set by the limits of a streetwalker's patch.

The case of Hugh Grant is especially interesting because he is far from the stereotypical client - old, ugly, and inadequate. His encounter with the wildly ill-named "Divine" makes us ask again why is it that men feel the need to use prostitutes - why does the trade in sex appeal?

Until recently, it was assumed that in light of the sexual revolution and increased female emancipation, prostitution would inevitably reduce in scale, perhaps even become a thing of the past. Economists and feminists argued that when women controlled their own lives and were able to earn a decent wage, going "on the game" would cease to be their only option.

Social historians saw it as a question of status: with an improved place in society, no woman would need to sell her body when she could use her brain. In the last century, higher education for women, entry to the professions, the first woman doctor, lawyer, company secretary, rabbi, priest, have all come and gone without changing the nature or volume of this trade.

In fact, prostitution has proved itself adaptable to survive: no sooner had the first of the educated professsional governesses emerged in the 19th century than their flashier sisters aped them and the tools of their trade (switch, ferrule, dunce's cap).

In the wake of Freud, another reformist vision shifted the emphasis from the social to the psychological. Sexual repression was the key, with prostitution seen as a vast communal neurosis. As soon as men and women were free to express their sexuality, there would be no need for the huge underclass of sex-workers dealing with society's unacknowledged desires. Today, the western world has never been more free of the social, psychological, religious, moral and financial constraints that dogged our parents in the past. Yet men continue to buy sex, and women to supply it. Why?

Psychologists suggest that prostitution is less about sexual satisfaction than about power. The gains of modern feminism have been qualitative rather than quantitative. although creating a host of new words and ideas, feminism and the empowerment of women have yet to affect the way most men and women live.

And while society remains male-dominated, men continue to have the economic power which has always underpinned prostitution. Predominantly male legislatures continue to make laws which favour the punter over the prostitute and hence implicitly support the trade, as in the controversial campaign of the Eighties to weaken the original laws against kerb-crawling.

Legal curbs are increasingly looking beyond the street-walkers of London or other European countries to the "sex-tourism" trade. In many poorer nations, almost the only option for much of the population is some form of prostitution. Western entrepreneurs have exploited this economic vulnerability with openly advertised "sex holidays" which depend on a constant supply of women and girls virtually indentured to their employers in patterns of labour not seen in Europe since the Middle Ages.

Though Sweden is one of the world's most liberal nations, with legalised domestic prostitution, its courts frown on those who go abroad for "sex tourism" Swedish courts recently imprisoned a civil servant of sex offences against an 11-year-old boy committed in Thailand. In Britain, similar legislation will be debated by MPs next month when Lord Hylton's bill reaches the Commons. Without the backing of the Government, though, it is unlikely to become law. In Britain too, poverty plays its part in maintaining prostitution. For the unemployed or the female beggars with their children on the streets, the recession has increased the likelihood of women falling into prostitution as hard ties always do.

Men who go to prostitutes declare that it is the brevity, the anonymity of the contract that constitutes its appeal. While separatist feminists argue that this is abusive behaviour, part of men's nature, the men's movement declares, that men have been so threatened by feminism, they have to turn to weaker creatures to feel like men again.

Most prostitutes reject any such "victim" analysis, preferring to carry themselves as "working" or "business girls". Many carry electronic organisers, and call their punters pimps on mobile phones. They save their money and obtain mortgages, they even, like Lindi St Clair, claim tax concessions on their dungeon paraphernalia or other sex aids, and take the taxman to court for living on immoral earnings.

As powerful, self-determining women, prostitutes have figured in film and fiction as creatures to be reckoned with, even to be feared. The commonest portrayal is of the prostitute as a victim of her lifestyle or of the ill-advised love for one who cannot restore her to respectability or save her from her life, like the "broken blossom" Garbo in Camille.

What can it say about the world's attempts to take on prostitution in a more serious way that one of the most successful films of our time is the prostitute-as-princess saga, Pretty Woman? The Hollywood glamour machine, many felt, worked overtime in turning the story of a hooker into a Cinderella fantasy in which sweet and pretty Julia Roberts gets her man who proves to be a millionaire and a knight in a white Cadillac to boot. It is an ironic twist of the Hugh Grant story however, that when a celluloid hero takes a trip to meet the Pretty Woman's real-life equivalents, he ends up in a police station, with the world's media pondering his motivation and his future.

The writer is author of The Rights of Man: Love, Sex, Death and the Making of the Male.