Muller, Nadine, “The (Feminist) Politics of Sex Work in Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White“, Sexuality in Contemporary Literature, ed. by Joel Gwynne and Angelia Poon (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2012), pp.39-60
Below you can find the introduction to this chapter as well as access to the Foreword (Feona Attwood) and the introduction (Joel Gwynne and Angelia Poon). You can order the collection here. If you would like a pdf copy of my chapter, please email me.
As Victorianist scholar Miriam Elizabeth Burstein observes in her blog The Little Professor: Things Victorian and Academic, the prostitute has become a requisite character in the ever increasing amount of neo-Victorian fiction published since the 1990s.[i] According to the sixth of Burstein’s ten comical ‘Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels’, ‘there must be at least one Prostitute, who will be an Alcoholic and/or have a Heart of Gold. If the novel is about a prostitute, however, she will have at least one Unusual Talent not related to her line of work’ (Burstein, ‘The Prostitute’s Progress’). In Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White (2002), sex – and, for that matter, almost everything and everyone in the novel – functions primarily as a commodity which can be exchanged or exploited for material profit and/or personal benefit, not least in the form of his skilled prostitute protagonist, Sugar. Set in 1870s London against the backdrop of a rising capitalist consumer culture drawn to the enticing facades of new department stores and the alluring messages of large-scale advertising campaigns, Faber’s anti-heroine, who is also – in line with Burstein’s rule – an aspiring author, ascends from her mother’s brothel among the poverty of St. Giles to becoming, first, the mistress of her infatuated client William Rackham and, later, the governess of Rackham’s daughter Sophie (a position in which we discover her obligatory ‘heart of gold’).
But while the novel’s historical setting may well illustrate a certain ‘delight in the new consumer culture of the 1870s’ (Louttit 329), it does also serve a much more elaborate and indeed more critical and contemporary purpose than to unquestioningly demonstrate a ‘more positive sense of the possibilities of the market’ (Louttit 329), particularly regarding the sex trade and the positions Faber’s fittingly named fictional product – Sugar – and her fellow prostitutes occupy in it. The Contagious Diseases Acts introduced in Britain between 1865 and 1869 were repealed in 1886,[ii] but the legal, medical and moral discourses and controversies they promoted have largely endured, including, for example, the association of prostitution with physical, moral and environmental pollution and contagion,[iii] as well as its ambiguous and contradictory status in current legislation.[iv] In light of not only the persistence and extraordinary expansion and diversification of the sexual marketplace since the nineteenth century but, moreover, these continuing issues surrounding prostitution and women’s (sexual) exploitation, The Crimson Petal’s status as both a comment on and product of the sexual politicsand economies of the contemporary literary and feminist landscape is undeniable.
Examining the fictional plethora of sexual transactions and abuses within Faber’s novel as well as his likening of the relationship between writer and reader to that of prostitute and punter, this essay seeks to consider to what extent these representations illustrate and explore a variety of feminist issues prominent not only in Victorian but also in contemporary prostitution. How do Faber’s female characters illuminate the limitations and potentials of freedom of choice, and how do they exploit – or are exploited by – the gendered economics of sexuality? To what extent can Faber’s work of historical fiction be considered as a product of and a response to contemporary sexual politics and economies of prostitution as well as of literary marketplace? While Faber, I argue, illuminates and even critically investigates some of the problematics which characterised the sex trade in the nineteenth century and which continue to pertain to it the twenty-first century, his fictional return to Victorian prostitution exemplifies the objectification of female sexuality in the sex industry and in the literary market place as much as it explores the oppressive as well as liberatory potentials of prostitution. At the same time as The Crimson Petal’s historical narrative hints at women’s complex positions within the twenty-first century sex trade, its author also renders himself the pimp and his readers the punters of his fictional commodity, his prostitute protagonist.
[i] The term ‘neo-Victorianism’ has been the subject of much discussion and remains, to date, only loosely defined. For the purposes of this essay it will suffice to say that, in its widest sense, ‘neo-Victorianism’ refers to works (of literature, film, art, television, etc.) which have been conceived after the 1910s and which re-imagine, adapt or rewrite the long nineteenth century, its culture and/or literature. For detailed and more critical investigations into the terminology and definition(s) of the term and of the artistic and scholarly works it refers to, see: Heilmann and Llewellyn, Neo-Victorianism: The Victorians in the Twenty-First Century, 1999-2009, pp.1-42; Kohlke, ‘Introduction: Speculations in and on the Neo-Victorian Encounter’; and Llewellyn, ‘What is Neo-Victorian Studies’.
[ii] The Acts formalised an already existing link between female sex workers, pollution and contamination since they characterised prostitution as a health hazard and hence caused women in the sex trade to be seen, by many, not as endangered victims of their male clients’ diseases, but instead as the root cause for the spreading of diseases. For the middle classes in particular this physical threat was intrinsically linked to a moral hazard: the danger that the corruption and deviance they associated with unregulated female sexuality and, thus, with prostitutes could contaminate their domestic realm through husbands’ and fathers’ use of what they considered to be physically and morally ‘polluted’ women. Male sexuality and men’s use of prostitutes remained largely unchallenged and was perceived to have entirely natural and unavoidable causes, while women were subject to both physical and geographical regulation.
[iii] See: Jones, ‘Prostitution’; Kantola and Squires, ‘Prostitution Policies in Britain, 1982-2000’; and Outshoorn, ‘Introduction: Prostitution, Women’s Movements and Democratic Politics’.
[iv] See: Howell, Beckingham and Moore, ‘Managed Zones for Sex Workers in Liverpool: Contemporary Proposals, Victorian Parallels’; Matthews, ‘Policing Prostitution: Ten Years On’; and O’Neill, Prostitution and Feminism: Towards a Politics of Feeling.
Free online access to Foreword and Introduction