The whore who decides to write her memoirs is not a new publishing phenomenon. Often such works inadvertently reflect the social concerns of their times. Harriet Wilson's picaresque autobiography gives a lively account of the social high-jinks of British aristocrats at the turn of the eighteenth century. Before the famous courtesan sent her book to press in 1825 she offered, for a fee, to omit stories concerning her more famous habitués. The Duke of Wellington, refusing to submit to blackmail, uttered his now immortal response, "Publish and be damned." Her gleeful account of personalities from the beau monde was in keeping with the silver-fork fiction and gossip columns of the era. Similarly, Xaviera Hollander's The Happy Hooker (1972) reflects the sexual permissiveness of the 1960s. Ostensibly to help her readers discover sensual bliss, Hollander described in detail some of the more inspired sexual practices that had kept men returning to her. She also appeared on television talk shows, looking confident, smiling beguilingly, and enjoying her celebrity.
At Home on the Stroll is very much a product of our times. The 1980s were preoccupied with business, identity politics, and the quality of neighbourhood life. Prostitution is a personal service that is not in itself illegal, but is unwelcome in most Canadian neighbourhoods. Indeed, David Foot and Daniel Stoffman discuss prostitution as an increasingly lucrative industry in Boom, Bust, & Echo, predicting that as boomer hookers retire and the world's oldest profession is taken up by members of the smaller, "echo" generation, demand and prices will rise. Alexandra Highcrest, now an advocate for prostitutes' rights, provides an indisputably informed discussion of the business.
The title of this book is misleading, because it is not a recollection of twenty years as a prostitute so much as an intelligent survey of some of the more recent issues surrounding this type of work. At Home on the Stroll is very much a rebuttal designed to debunk some of the myths and misconceptions about prostitution. Highcrest argues that it is an independent profession, a job. Revenue Canada always accepted her income tax cheques, accompanied by forms that listed her occupation as "escort" or "whore". She quite correctly believes that attempts to eliminate prostitution will drive it underground, and that the more regulated it is, the better for business. Moreover, this is a job less demeaning, in her view, than many McJobs that are dead-end in terms of status and job satisfaction. With hourly rates that can start at $100 in Toronto, it is one of the only occupations where women can make an hourly wage that is higher than most men's.
She defines "prostitute" so as to limit the word to people who do this as their occupation; teenagers on the street who engage in "survival sex" are a separate group and a genuine social problem. In a similar line of argument, she maintains that prostitution is not an adjunct to other criminal activities like illegal drugs. But she never denies that it has dangerous dimensions.
Highcrest was never actually "on the stroll", the trade's term for a street prostitute, the most hazardous type of work in the business. In her discussion of the hazards of courting violence, she argues that the same men who rape and murder women in general prey on prostitutes in particular. Hookers who work on the street are more vulnerable to attacks than the ones who do "in-calls" out of their homes. Similarly, call girls and bar prostitutes are less at risk from violence. For Highcrest, the men who are most violent with prostitutes are not pimps or customers, but rather, rogue cops, members of citizens' vigilante groups, and gay-bashers.
On the other hand, her accounts of the failure of internal police investigations into officers who have sexually assaulted hookers or extorted money or other favours from them are balanced by anecdotes of police officers who are tolerant, and may even feel prostitution should be decriminalized. Arresting hookers, although a reliable source of renewable arrest statistics, clearly does not solve the problem. Nor do fines and jail sentences, which only create a greater need for money and compel prostitutes to work harder. While a small minority of hookers work to support drug addictions, they are the exception. Most pros do what the younger Highcrest did: work out of their homes, or where feasible, separate "trick pads", and try to screen out the shady characters by telephone. Outside of her work, the young Highcrest led a normal life, going to university, doing domestic chores, and for a while trying a more sedate-but, alas, less lucrative-job running a store.
The Criminal Code makes it illegal for a prostitute to solicit in the street, to work for someone else, or to work out of a business location. It is also unlawful to live off the earnings of a prostitute. While this at first might seem to be a way to protect prostitutes from pimps and brothel owners, the law as it is interpreted can include in its reach the children of welfare mothers who may act as part-time hookers, and spouses and roommates. These laws create more problems than they prevent, and are used to justify police brutality. Prostitutes' rights groups, which developed in the 1980s, want the existing laws decriminalized and the work to be subjected to the same municipal zoning by-laws that regulate other commercial activities.
The 1980s were also a time when residents of certain Canadian neighbourhoods started to take collective action against area hookers. In her discussion of the actions of the residents of Parkdale (in Toronto) and other communities, Highcrest views the women as social scapegoats. Some homeowners allege that the presence of hookers in a neighbourhood lowers property values. Highcrest counters that the business has no effect on land economics. And this is no idle claim on her part. She called the Toronto Real Estate Board and inquired if houses could be obtained at less than market value in neighbourhoods known for having a stroll and was told that this business had no bearing on residential prices, which are determined by the available supply and the state of the provincial economy.
She thinks that family values and safety are the real issues for citizens' groups that want the removal from their districts of hookers and drug addicts. Highcrest does not believe that prostitution and drug addiction are associated. When, in the interests of AIDS prevention, she went out on the streets distributing free condoms and syringes, very few of the women in the business were interested in obtaining needles. The pernicious urban problems that residents object to would be remedied by increased police efforts in ticketing litter-bugs, arresting drunks, and discouraging rowdies. Criminal laws surrounding drug trafficking should be enforced to take care of pushers, not prostitutes.
Many readers will no doubt disagree with High-crest's views. But this book has several merits that, given its gratuitously titillating title, one might not expect. Perhaps the greatest strength of the work is its wide perspective. If any disciplines require a multifocal approach, one that would facilitate an understanding of the experiences and viewpoints of all groups in society, they are urban studies and criminology. Criminologists in their discussions of the behaviour of prostitutes represent them as deviant, sociologists see them as social casualties, and doctors and psychiatrists tend to treat them as pathological. At Home on the Stroll provides Canadian urban studies with a view of a social problem that is not written by an academic or a medical doctor. By articulating the concerns of those who share her occupation, Highcrest has done them a service. She shows how they protect themselves, look out for each other, and endeavour to control their work situation. Where possible she includes information about how Canadian cities other than Toronto have dealt with these issues. And in her few accounts of clients and their fetishes, she exhibits tolerance and a good sense of humour.
Whatever the Criminal Code may aim for, prostitution will always be part of our society. In Boom, Bust, & Echo, Foot and Stoffman prescribe training young people for fulfilling, meaningful work so fewer members of the rising echo generation will be tempted to select prostitution as their vocation. But for those who decide that the business has some particular allure, At Home on the Stroll will provide an invaluable guide to their chosen profession.
Belinda Beaton is a Toronto writer.