I haven’t heard how the big Brothel Tour in Great Falls went this past weekend. It was sponsored by the Downtown Chicks (businesswomen) who rented the GF Historic Trolley for the tour after the group gathered at a no-host bar. According to the GF Tribune, Michelle Chenoweth (don’t know whether she’s related to the Idaho Hen -- er, Chick) said, “We’ve done lots of research in the last several months. It’s an amazing amount of unheard stories that people are going to be thrilled to hear.” Chenoweth estimated that at its peak, Great Falls was home to between 40 to 50 brothels, although she said it’s hard to pin down an exact number.
“We really encompass this historically and also bring it up into the modern day,” she said, “(But) we want people to understand that we don’t condone in any way what has taken place. it happens and it’s a neat history that needs to be told, and that’s why we’re doing it.” Tickets are $25 and there is a waiting list for the next tour.
Right. What can she say when the fairly recent former mayor owned a “Really Windy” bar with a “private room” in back. But it was outside the city limits, so not on the tour. He and Ms. Chenoweth will be disappointed to realize that the federal government will not give grants to anyone who supports prostitution in any way. Not Planned Parenthood or any programs to help people with HIV-AIDS or all that other stuff. The churches can do it, if they want to, and the government will give THEM money, but -- I assume -- only if they aren’t of a faith system that includes temple whores.
I was in Fort Benton when their historian patriarch mentioned he was writing a book about the last whorehouse in that town. “How do you know?” I asked innocently.
He was startled. “What do you mean?”
“How do you know that was the last one? How do you know there’s not someone doing business now?” The women present all laughed and agreed. Finally, I took mercy. “Oh, it’s probably not a red plush love nest now -- more likely a phone number on a business card.” He still looked confused. To him prostitutes were Miss Kitty who never so much as kissed Marshall Dillon. (Amanda Blake, the actress who played Miss Kitty, died of AIDS contracted from her openly bisexual husband.) “Soiled doves” were a phenomenon of history like stagecoaches. Not the Asian massage parlors on today’s Tenth Avenue.
I’ve never asked around Valier about prostitution. I wouldn’t know how to define sexworkers in a small town. There are girls who “put out,” and couples that kind of trade around, but nothing very formal, I guess. Once someone thought it would be a good joke to put my house on Google as a “whore house.” No one was stupid enough to come knock on the door but if they had they would have found a very limited selection and a bad-tempered one at that.
But seriously, the US government is saying that no NGO dispensing funds for HIV-AIDS is allowed to use money to help prostitutes. This is like saying you can go swimming so long as you don’t go near the water. Who do they mean? I presume they mean people who allow intimate access to their bodies in exchange for profit, not necessarily profit for the person with the body.
Do they mean the little undocumented boys of color who will either clean your windshield or (ahem) an alternative for $5? Do they mean Polish teenaged girls kidnapped and trafficked or do they mean the ones from a Minneapolis mall pimped after running away? Have they considered guys for hire? Do they include “walkers,” the suits who “make nice” for old ladies with small dogs and diamonds? What is sex work and what is sex play and what is not sex at all anyway?
In 1961 in Great Falls I was attending my first Montana Education Association meeting. I couldn’t afford the Rainbow Hotel, which was the high end in the those days, but at day’s end after all the meetings, as I passed the “Silk and Saddle,” which was the lounge of the hotel, a man stepped out of the shadows and peed on my feet. Indignant but not afraid, I told him off and marched squishily on my way to my cheaper hotel. The shoes were tennie runners and went into the washing machine. It never occurred to me to report the incident. It was NOT sex work. It was perversion, but I didn’t even figure that out until years later.
Twenty years ago a tribal person told me that a prize-winning author (now dead) who had stayed with the family fifty years ago while writing a book about her ancient grandfather had molested the children of the household. That was NOT sex work. It was not literal pedo-philia in the sense of loving children. It was sexualized abuse of the vulnerable. Including the very old chief.
Occasionally one runs across women who are living with men they don’t love, cooking and cleaning for them and sleeping with them though they don’t enjoy it, because they don’t think they have any other way of earning a living. It’s an ancient situation but not necessarily illegal. Is it sex work? Does it depend on whether or not they are “married”? What about Clinton’s intern who wasn’t doing him for money but surely expected rewards? What about Prince Charles’ two women: one for heirs and one for comfort -- which one was doing sex work? Is it all right if one is important enough?
What is the difference between sex work that is paid for as a frank transaction of two people and sex work that is enforced by a third party? Is sex work inside marriage or some other legal arrangement (harems) different from free lance? Then what about Thomas Jefferson’s two families: one legal because of Christian marriage and the other one legal because of American law (slavery).
Or does it all hinge on male dynamics: something men pay for so they won’t owe anything except money and presumably won’t get emotionally involved, because to them sex must be separated from falling in love. For a lot of women it’s the romance that’s the compensation and what divides sex work from freely given intimacy. What an American idea. In Africa the custom had evolved of little circles of voluntary sexual relationships that included both men and women, married or not, children or not, all of them necessarily sharing the same HIV virus. No money was exchanged. Was this sex work?
We are totally confused about all this, particularly in terms of the larger social context and the obligation of the government to guide and protect citizens. We want prostitutes to be punished by just letting them die, but some are thriving better than the norm. We want prostitutes to be “other” and exotic, or maybe distanced by the past, but we want them to be accessible on demand and not powerful. Most of all, we want everything to be their fault, even as we beg them to tell about their customers. We very rarely prosecute the customers.
The Downtown Chicks would not like to be mistaken for Downtown Chippies, but they like to dress up like dance hall girls. They know Charlie Russell loved to hang out in brothels, but they skip over the part where he and Nancy were sterilized by VD infections and loyally claim he was only a friend to his ladies. Tickets on the Trollop Trolley are $25. Don’t expect a government subsidy.