04.21.2013

Whores’ Glory

The reaction to a new film about sex workers tells us more about liberal reviewers than the workers themselves.

Bangladesh is one of the planet’s poorest nations, with nearly half of its population living under the poverty line. According to the UN, 18 percent of the country’s women are “acutely malnourished” and more than two in three girls are married before they turn eighteen. There is no law against marital rape. Divorce often results in homelessness for the former wife. Child labor is common and found in unregulated, toxic industries. The country has been on the UN’s Least Developed Countries List for over thirty years and recently has appeared in the American media because of deadly garment-factory fires. The executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a US-based NGO, described Bangladesh as having “the worst labor rights record, lowest wages, and most dangerous factories.”

The documentary Whores’ Glory is not about garment factories, but it is about labor in Bangladesh, as well as in Thailand and Mexico. But because the labor covered in the film is sex work, American reviewers have uniformly lamented its grotesquery and ignored any deeper insights. A film about women using their bodies for physical labor — at least this type of physical labor — was, as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir put it, almost “too difficult to sit through.”

Though the film was consistently praised as “nonjudgmental,” it yielded nothing but judgment from these audience members. “The fly-on-the-wall technique makes clear that what attracts flies usually stinks,” wrote Michael O’Sullivan for the Washington Post, while Stephen Holden of the New York Times declared that it “begins in an outer circle of hell ” — presumably Thailand, where the film opens — “and works its way to the depths” — presumably Mexico, where it ends. After acknowledging that “most of the women interviewed . . . are relatively cheerful about their occupation,” Mark Feeney of the Boston Globe concluded that “views of prostitutes differ, but all prove depressing.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle declared it “as sad a film as you can possibly see,” depicting “a human tragedy of enormous scale,” and added that “to experience it is to be haunted by the bleakness and ugliness of prostitution, the hopeless trap of it.” In case the message hadn’t come across, LaSalle further clarified that prostitution is “a life-destroying catastrophe.”

There’s no denying that Whores’ Glory captures some harsh realities, most notably that of the adolescent girls indentured into service at a large brothel in Bangladesh. In interviews, director Michael Glowager claimed that the rule was that a girl must have her period before she can start working. The film utilizes no narration, so viewers can only guess how old the girls are. Some looked as young as ten or eleven. But critics also recoiled at the drug use of “middle-aged” (late twenties to late thirties) Mexican prostitutes, and the display mode favored by the Thai brothel, which sequesters workers behind a pane of glass, like bank tellers. For these reviewers, all of the film’s revelations are best understood as part of a long litany of degradation.

The film contains only one brief sex scene, and the majority of the footage is of women joking, hustling, and talking to the camera about their lives. They brag about their prowess, tease each other about work, and speculate on the odds of making good money during their shifts. One Bangladeshi woman details the variety of men she’s seen that day, noting that only one of the ten men mistreated her, and she forced him to leave. (One customer, she sees fit to add, was very good looking and a perfect gentleman.)

In Thailand, three working girls eat dinner as they discuss the pros and cons of working as a masseuse. “I always give sex, too. I don’t do just massage. Massage makes me tired and frustrated,” says one. These women are, for the most part, savvy, capable, and adept at navigating their jobs.

While one hopes that anyone watching the documentary would be appalled by child labor and indentured servitude, those elements of the documentary aren’t singled out as particularly horrific; instead, the entire film is smeared with one dirty brush. If the reviews are to be believed, the plight of Bangladeshi children forced to work for shelter is comparable to that of grown Thai women coming and going freely from their brothel and taking home the majority of their earnings.

For American reviewers, the difference is one only of degree, and the source of any and all anguish is prostitution itself, existing somehow independently from larger, intersecting, international challenges of alienation, child labor, scarcity, and drug addiction. They’re confident about making conclusions devoid of context. Adopting this attitude means that the brothel in Bangladesh has no running water not because much of Bangladesh has no running water, but because it is a space for prostitutes, necessarily squalid and “ghastly.” Similarly, the Mexican prostitutes rhapsodize about Santa Muerte, a feminine death saint, not because she’s a potent legacy of Mesoamerican native folklore speaking to many of Mexico’s poor but because, as one reviewer put it, they “openly long” for a literal death to deliver them from their wretched lives.

So it’s no surprise that when one girl in Bangladesh asks the camera why women must suffer so much, reviewers seized upon it as proof of the unique pain intrinsic to prostitution. They ignored the line that immediately preceded it: “It is very hard to survive as a woman.” Nor did the reviewers I came across see fit to mention a house mother’s scene minutes earlier, in which she details the cycle of stigma that will most likely lead to her baby daughter either becoming a whore or being homeless. In this complex equation of poverty, stigma, and unequal rights, it’s unclear what removing prostitution would achieve. Does it make poverty acceptable? Does it make the unequal status of women less maddening? Is it preferable to our American sensibilities that these foreign women go homeless rather than work as prostitutes? These are not facetious questions.

To struggle with and suffer in the course of one’s work is not always taken as a sign that the work itself is inherently “soul-destroying.” Michael Glowager’s previous film, titled Workingman’s Death, also focused on physical, brutal work, but with male bodies on the line. In spite of the bleak title, reviewers like Stephen Holden at the New York Times found cause for celebration: “You are struck by [the workers’] exuberance, vitality, teamwork and satisfaction in discharging backbreaking duties with a minimum of complaint.” We see several women in Whores’ Glory take pride in their work, and almost all of them rely on one another for support, but this is apparently not deemed worthy of comment.

In interviews, Glowager regularly says that the Mexican prostitutes — those most pitied by reviewers, for their age and their drug use — felt grateful not to work in either of the other countries. (He translated their sentiments as, “Thank God we live in Mexico, because our kind of prostitution has heart.”) The labor in Workingman’s Death, because men carry it out, made highly dangerous work a well-earned source of pride and a testament to the human spirit. The San Francisco Chronicle regarded its depiction of body-breaking labor as a “message, implicit but unmistakable, about the laborers’ dignity and the injustice of their compensation.”

Glowager, to his credit, admits that his gender creates a disconnect in his ability to fully understand the subjects of his film: “I think it is obvious that this film was made by a man, a man who looks at working girls and tries to understand.” Though he’s well aware of the rich, multi-dimensional humanity of each of his subjects, and so resists describing them as victims in interviews, the film itself tends to paint the women as tragic, in part because of the choice of sad, moody music.

Elegies and rants by CocoRosie and PJ Harvey cast a pall over the proceedings even when we’ve no indication the participants are in any type of anguish. This clash is particularly obvious in Thailand, where the sex workers are savvy businesswomen when speaking for themselves, but seem to transform into emotionally fragile girls the moment the camera pulls back and Antony and the Johnsons kick in.

It’s no coincidence that Bangkok, the wealthiest and most developed of the film’s locations, also showcases the prostitutes who best pass as middle class. (As a whole, Mexico is slightly richer than Thailand, but scenes there are shot in the comparatively desolate border town of Nuevo Laredo, which has a population less than one-twentieth of Bangkok’s.) Here, brothel workers pray fervently for many clients who will “give us money,” the better to become “rich and successful.” The workers have disposable income, a supportive community, and seem content with their jobs. They even agree that they prefer being at the brothel to being at home, asserting that making their own income is preferable to being given money by relatives. They are clear-headed and income-oriented as they evaluate the ratio of clients to women in the club that night, and instruct the resident beauticians on how their hair and makeup should be done.

And they are, understandably, as calculating towards their clients as we are to believe their clients are towards them. “One john per shift won’t even pay for my bus ticket,” a woman complains, articulating the mental math typical of a freelancer. It’s worth noting that Thai prostitutes are the only women we see hired (occasionally) by foreign men. Though the film was marketed as part three in Glowager’s “globalization trilogy,” the brothels he fixes his cameras on are emphatically domestic, established neighborhood institutions serving local men and populated by local women. Of the clients he interviews in Bangladesh, several claim to visit the brothel once or twice a day, and the women and men there sometimes have relationships that closely resemble that of girlfriend and boyfriend. One young egg seller speaks simply and specifically about the beauty of the prostitute he most regularly sees, explaining that he loves her and that she’ll come fetch him from the beds of other prostitutes if he dares to see one while they’re fighting. Another fact that goes unmentioned by reviewers is that the boys patronizing the Bangladeshi brothel often appear to be teenagers themselves.

Again, there’s no doubt that the youths working in the Bangladeshi brothel are being exploited, and because of that, the intensity and tenacity of their behavior can be shocking. They corner men in the halls of the complex, demanding to be hired. They grab shirt collars, bully former customers into another round, and physically force men into their quarters after which a friend helps to hold closed the door. If we hope to bear responsible witness to what Whores’ Glory shows us, there must be a way to acknowledge their fierceness and the injustice of their situation simultaneously. The standard vocabulary of “tragedy” and “victim” do nothing to illuminate the nuances of their lives or their humanity. Former prostitute Tracy Quan was one of the few journalists to draw this point out by centering her coverage of the film on the history of Bangladeshi sex workers fighting, often physically, to protect their brothels and livelihoods. (Their efforts paid off with the legalization of prostitution in 2000.)

It’s true that the men quoted above are only movie critics, not social justice experts, not human rights lawyers, and not sex workers’ rights advocates. They can be forgiven a degree of ignorance, but it’s disturbing that after two hours , their prejudices still obscure the first-person stories of real human beings. Mick LaSalle, the most hyperbolic but perhaps most honest of Whores’ Glory’s reviewers, explained it like this: “The Mexican brothel is so ghastly, degraded, and impoverished that it’s difficult to imagine anyone in this environment thinking . . . in erotic terms.” When impoverished women work as prostitutes, those observing from a distance may wrongly conclude that the hallmarks of poverty are instead the intrinsic qualities of work in the sex trade. But people have sex in slums in the United States, too, for pay and for free, on dirty mattresses and on no mattress at all. While revulsion on the part of wealthier observers might be understandable, it’s unethical when it masquerades as morality.

Comparably ugly, thoughtless, and biased reactions to prostitution are the stuff of our foreign and domestic policies, which burden and endanger countless working women around the world. Whores’ Glory could and should have been a film to open the eyes of uninformed viewers, but it seems instead to have sewn some shut. These irresponsible reactions matter; they hinder practical thinking about how to alleviate suffering and improve quality of life across societies.

Is it possible that the nakedness of transactional sex and its effect on the male ego was also a factor in the reviewers’ treatment of prostitution as humanity’s greatest failure? Did it sting these men when one prostitute said to another: “At work, it’s over in 30 minutes or a couple hours. At home, they never leave you alone”?

Whatever the emotional source, there’s a deep perversity in men condemning the women who labor in an industry that exists because of male desire — even if that condemnation comes under the guise of compassion. It’s mostly men who hire sex workers, mostly men who engineer the laws and stigmas that keep their circumstances so limited, and mostly men who declare women ruined for having worked under those conditions. As viewers, we may not have the immediate power to change those conditions, but we certainly can have the decency to acknowledge the fundamental dignity and strength of our fellow workers.