“Everyone believes they know something about prostitution,” writes director Michael Glawogger, “particularly when he or she has never been to a brothel… Prostitution is not to be condemned or defended,” he argues, “prostitution simply is… It’s a dead end to say simply that it is bad. It’s way more interesting to ask why it exists, how it works, and what it does to all of us.”
And that is what he sets out to do in Whores’ Glory — to look at working girls and try “to understand how it feels to do this kind of work, day by day.” Specifically he looks at prostitution in three societies: Buddhist Thailand, Islamic Bangladesh, and Catholic Mexico. In Bangkok he studies the ‘Fish Tank,’ an upscale brothel run by Thai Chinese for clients with credit cards. In Faridpur he studies the ‘City of Joy,’ a claustrophobic compound in which over 600 prostitutes are confined. In Reynosa he studies a roadside strip, where hookers solicit drive-by customers from their doorways.
Whores’ Glory is the final film in Glawogger’s trilogy of documentaries on work in an increasingly globalized world. In Megacities (1998) he reported on marginal work in four of the world’s most crowded and complex centers — Bombay, Mexico City, Moscow and New York. In Workingman’s Death — which we screened in 2006 — he recorded the actual work of Ukrainian coal miners, Indonesian sulphur porters, Nigerian butchers, Pakistani ship breakers, and Chinese steelworkers: “One main reason for making [this film], he said, “was to show the act of working, especially its sensuousness. You hardly see that in films about workers, [in which] real working is hardly shown… Work is simply asserted. In Workingman’s Death … it’s people at work and little else.”
“Being about work,” the globalization trilogy is, as Studs Terkel would remind us, “by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as the body.” For Glawogger “all three films are simply about life on earth” — not the world as you think it might be but rather as it really is. What he observes about prostitution — “its violent and sad sides, human trafficking, drug addiction,” has less to do with fornication than with the commodification of sex and the culture of sex work: how women become working girls, how they relate to one another, how they feel about their work.
Glawogger intends Whores’ Glory to be “a gesture of respect towards the working girls of the world: not to condemn them, not to pity them, not to criminalize them, but to actually honor them for what they go through doing what they do.” Yet the working girls of the world continue to be condemned and criminalized and a global struggle is underway over the nature of sex work and the conditions of sex workers.
Sex work — including prostitution, pornography, exotic dancing, sex chat lines, modelling, adult toys and sex aids — is big business: in 2004 the global sex industry earned nearly 7 trillion dollars. In the US pornography alone is a bigger business than professional sports and generates more revenue than network television.
It is the magnitude of this industry that has focused world attention on sex workers and their work. At issue is whether sex work, especially prostitution, should be recognized as work; whether the sex industry should be considered a sector of the economy; whether its workers should be treated like other workers in terms of rights, protections and obligations.
In 1998 the UN’s International Labor Organization called for economic recognition of the sex sector on the basis of its growing impact on the economies of several Southeast Asian countries. Recognition would entail extending labor rights to sex workers — including the right to organize, improving their working conditions, providing health benefits and unemployment compensation, and subjecting the sex industry to taxation.
The ILO stopped short of recommending the decriminalization of prostitution, a widely inferred consequence of legitimating sex work. Decriminalization outrages those who want to abolish prostitution, an activity they consider to be inherently coerced as well as immoral. To prevent its growth these groups would strengthen prohibitions on sex work, and stigmatize and punish those involved in it.
Conflict between these perspectives even impeded debate on human trafficking at the UN General Assembly, with both sides invoking respect for human rights — one arguing that the rights of sex workers were human rights and the other protesting that prostitution was itself a violation of human rights.
Prostitution may be the world’s oldest profession and disagreement about whether to condemn or defend it may be the world’s oldest argument. If Whores’ Glory challenges whatever you thought you knew about it when you entered the theater, I believe the director would be pleased.
As you contemplate the images in Glawogger’s triptych on prostitution, as you weigh whether to condemn or defend sex work, I urge you to reflect on Bernard Shaw’s admonition that “Capitalism acts on women as a continual bribe to enter into sex relations for money, whether in or out of marriage.”