Saturday, March 07 2015
Sex work, and the women who engage in it, has been a recurring theme in the history of rock, pop, and hip hop music. Classic 70s songs such as The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” detail the yearning and nostalgia of the sex workers’ clients, while songs such as Nick Glider’s “Hot Child in the City” and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” are cautionary tales about young girls ensnared in the sex trade. The 90s and early 00s brought us songs that glorified pimping and denigrated sex workers, such as Ice-T’s “Pimp Anthem” and 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P”, and in the last couple of years we heard Lana Del Ray’s sad ode to a sex worker, “Carmen.” No matter the genre, few songs have told us stories from the sex worker’s perspective, but when they have, they have illustrated the social ills that make the sex industry thrive.
In 1970, Bobby Gentry wrote and sang “Fancy”, a moody song about a teenage girl forced into prostitution by her ailing, impoverished mother in an effort to save Fancy from being forced into the streets. The first-person narrative perfectly describes the exploitative nature of survival sex. Faced with starvation, lack of social support, and most importantly, lack of money, Fancy enters the sex trade, naively believing she will only be dancing with men. She soon realizes the truth, but with no other options or opportunities in sight, she resigns herself to the life. By the end of the song Fancy has gained a measure of material success and prestige, but is haunted by the desperation in her mother’s words. The listener can’t help but wonder what Fancy may have achieved given the privilege of choice.
In sharp contrast, the recent song “Beg For It” by Australian rapper Iggy Azalea describes the conflation of sexuality with social and economic power. Though Iggy may not engage in sex work outside of her songs, the character in the song is wealthy, talented, and well-dressed, it is implied that she uses sex work to keep the money rolling in. However, it becomes clear that she is focused not on money, but on gaining and denying male approval and attention by teasing them sexually, giving in only when they pay her a significant amount of money. Iggy’s character believes she holds the power in this situation, but in reality, she is exploited by the same age-old social structure of male dominance that Fancy was forced to succumb to by necessity. The two women may sit at the opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, but their experiences are the same. The balance of power lies outside of these women. Where this imbalance exists, exploitation thrives.