“I spoke to a sex worker who studied Marxism”

30 Apr|Tom Hodgkinson

Photo by Max Crockett

Tom Hodgkinson meets the author and stand-up. They talk about masturbation and the pros and cons of sex work.

Sara Pascoe’s stock-in-trade is sex and relationships. Her book Animal is a spirited jaunt through her own history of boyfriends mixed in with her scientific research on attraction, evolution and so on. How like animals are we humans! We meet at the café in an arts centre in Finsbury Park, near where she is now living. Like all comedians she is very serious about her work.

SARA PASCOE: I’ve been reading about [British doctor] William Acton at the moment. He gave all this advice to Victorians about masturbation. He’s the one who said men have sex for pleasure, while women have sex so that they can have children.

TOM HODGKINSON: That’s the thing about medieval attitudes to sex. They were very conscious of women’s pleasure.

SP: You’re absolutely right about that. The next stage became prudish and controlling. There was pleasure before. Then came  a period where they intended to, or did, forget that women have orgasms. All the books that appeared before then were much more about female pleasure.

TH: I think the 17th century was probably quite puritanical but the 18th century was much more free, not sexy but less prudish. Then the Victorians were a bit weird.

SP: That’s always what they say about a closeted society. There were still the same amount of things going on, it just wasn’t polite to talk about them or write about them. I’m reading a book about courtesans. They knew that people, men especially, were going to have sex outside of marriage and that was accepted.

TH: Being a courtesan was a career option for some people.

I spoke to a sex worker who had studied Marxism

SP: There was a connection between actresses and courtesans. Actresses were so frowned upon, you were understood to be a sex worker whether you were or not. If you were very beautiful or witty, men offered you money to woo you: “I’ll give you this much for a flat, or this much if you only see me.” If a richer man came along, you’d just switch allegiances. Then once you got to royalty, you were made! But what these women wore was so much more decadent than the rich women. They didn’t have to hide it. You could have all of this jewellery, worth millions of pounds, and you could sit in a box at the theatre, and everyone would be watching you – not the stage.


TH: Sex work is supposed to be well paid.

SP: Very well paid. I spoke to a sex worker who had studied Marxism. She really understood economics and erotic capital. She also highlighted the mundanity for most sex workers: “We sell our lives, but we all sell our lives – you might work in a supermarket, you might be a teacher – and I would rather have two customers a week, and earn £400 from that, and I used to work for Barclays”. It’s so reasonable, and it’s a choice. She works four hours a week and the rest of the time is hers. She studies. She also has a disability but she’s not on benefits – the same people who would complain about her being on benefits, would complain about her choice.

We see two extremes in the media about sex workers. The Belle du Jour, Secret Diary of a Call Girl, Pretty Woman. Then there’s the other side, where you see desperate people who have got into drug habits because of sex work. What you don’t see is the middle, the mums who have made an educated decision. They would rather do this. Some of them enjoy it, some of them don’t. But she hated working in Barclays more. The difference is the danger. Barclays has a very, very small chance of being held up, but sex workers are in danger when the punters give fake names because it’s illegal. Women can’t work together in this country because it’s seen as a brothel. There are lots of things that have to be done to make their work safer. This is what I’m finding out about. There are also lots of different opinions. There are sex workers who don’t want it to be decriminalised and there are sex workers who want the exact opposite.

Sara Pascoe is touring LadsLadsLads around the UK from September www.sarapascoe.com

A longer version of this interview appears in Idler 60. Buy a copy here or sign up to our Digital membership to read it on your device.