High-End Prostitution: How 'Dirty Money' Complicates Notions of Women's Agency

05/16/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the first and second wave feminist movements, social progress and women's empowerment appeared to be cut and dry: give us equal rights and opportunities, give us the vote, give us the choice, and treat us with respect. In these terms, we seem to have come quite a long way as we increasingly bridge the gender gaps that remain.

Yet some challenging questions and issues have reemerged, and are often re-packaged for additional consideration and critical analysis. Ah yes, how twisted is progress when we are so near to getting what we want just in time to reconsider the things we fought against!

A recent televised program on CNBC called 'Dirty Money: The Business of High-End Prostitution' headlines a topic that most of us would rather ignore. How a great number of women are selling themselves in every way that they can -- at high prices to be sure. How men are paying for it. How educated women with graduate degrees are doing it. How we have a new generation of bona fide courtesans and geishas who are simply on the down low.

How intrigued, disturbed, and confounded we find ourselves now as we confront the reality before us. The reality that has always been there -- the reality that has proliferated with the times, the technology, the internet, and ridden on the coattails of women's empowerment and freedom of choice.

The oldest profession in the world: prostitution. No longer confined to lurking in dark corners, it now appears to be thriving despite a severely wounded economy. Which begs a storm of questions: how does it work, who is behind it, and how do we feel about it? And for those who consider themselves feminists: how does this affect the well-being of women? The well-being of society?

Feminists are not just feminists anymore. While there are those who promote, support, and believe in equality and women's empowerment and are terrified of adopting the label for themselves, there are also those who publicly self-identify as a member of one or multiple subdivisions of the movement. Liberal feminists, radical feminists, eco-feminists, socialist feminists, and the list goes on.

And then we consider the individual issues where feminists are divided even further: pro and anti-porn feminists, pro and anti-stripper feminists, pro-prostitution feminists . . . and anti-prostitution feminists.

Of all the issues that complicate our vision of a perfect free and peaceful world, we focus now on prostitution. Why indeed does society hate it and support it at the same time? Is it good or is it bad for women? For men? And would legalizing it be a great or terrible idea?

Strangely enough, though the profession has been tragic and gruesome for many sex workers over the years, prostitutes have not always been the dregs of society as described by the historical blockbuster film Dangerous Beauty in 1998. Performed by Catherine McCormack, the character of famed Venetian courtesan Veronica Franco is portrayed in a context of conflict, beauty, and ultimate power as the role of high-class medieval escorts is revealed to have entitled women to education and empowerment unparalleled by their married counterparts. An echo of even older 'herstories,' records of antiquity are filled with stories, myths, and legends about prostitutes who were considered to be sacred aspects of divinity in various civilizations.

Now fast forward to the modern day, where women can be educated, accomplished, and successful without having to sell their sex. Yet, some educated women will still choose to be an escort nevertheless.

Fascinatingly, many of us from all points of the political spectrum can have the same opinion about this conundrum. A conservative can easily agree with a liberal that prostitution degrades women and erodes our dreams of a healthy community. Yet at the same time, like marijuana, we know that prostitution will probably never go away -- and some women freely choose this option, derive great satisfaction from it, and feel significantly empowered by what they do. Are they wrong?

As described in the program 'Dirty Money', a great many expensive escorts are exceedingly educated women with passions outside the realm of sex work and simply indulge in the trade for the money. Which leads us to wonder: if such women had better opportunities to earn an ample living working in pursuit of their original interests, wouldn't their position as a prostitute become a sad alternative rather than an unorthodox and empowering choice? If there are any other viable options at all thanks to say, a college degree or even a relentless work ethic, would prostitution still be an unfortunate choice anyway? Perhaps.

To be fair though, most of us cannot seem to find a way to do what we love for a living and therefore resort to our second and third choices of employment in other sectors. So we must ask ourselves: Is a wannabe actress a prostitute to serving at a restaurant? Is that person disempowered by the way she earns her tips solely because it is not her first choice? How about the accountant who would have rather been an environmental activist? Are these people doing a disservice to themselves and to society?

As with anything controversial, both sides oftentimes contribute excellent points. Paradoxically, the truth always somehow manages to be both universal and personal at the same time. While some hate prostitution and support its rights anyway, others will despise it and protest its existence. Still, others will wholeheartedly love everything about it. Then there are the ones who privately indulge in sexual services and publicly decry its bane on the world.

Either way, we cannot ignore the obvious. One day, we just might find ourselves evaluating the pros and cons of this profession in a way that repudiates or accepts it for the highest good of freedom, women, and the community.