October 29, 2008

Even the Sex Is Better in London

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I’m gonna go out on a limb here and just say this: I am not against prostitution. In fact, I think it should be legalized.
There, I said it. Some of you may have gasped, because the idea of anyone selling sex for money sounds preposterous. Some of you probably rolled your eyes, hopefully because you don’t find it all that shocking but think I’m being melodramatic. Some of you probably aren’t really paying attention. Still, there you go. I have put it out there, in print and on the internet. It’s permanent, and it can’t be erased. Luckily, I don’t want to go into politics or be a nun.
My reasons for believing prostitution should be legalized are far too extensivefor a column that’s supposed to be about a television show, so here’s the shorthand: Sex, like everything else, is about personal choice. And just like it’s bullshit for anyone to ever be coerced into making a choice they don’t want to make, the same goes for the opposite belief that we should be able to their choices for them.
The issue is complicated for sure, and the system tends to lean largely towards abuse and forced prostitution, drugs and sex slavery and every stupid thing you’ve ever seen on Law and Order: SVU, but that’s because the system is largely screwed up and chauvinistic, and not because the institutions built upon the system (prostitution being one of those) are necessarily corrupt. Rather, legalizing prostitution would allow for stronger regulation of the system (i.e. more people getting fucked, less people getting fucked over).
All of this is a roundabout, way-too-long way of talking about how much I love Secret Diary of a Call Girl — and why I think most people don’t.
Originally aired on Britain’s ITV and then syndicated by my beloved Showtime, Secret Diary of a Call Girl is a televised retelling of the supposedly true diaries of Belle de Jour, the nomme de plume of a real, middle-class, educated London call girl. It follows Belle/Hannah (the whore and given name, respectively, of Billie Piper’s character) through the ups-and-downs of her trade.
It’s Belle/Hannah’s ability to compartmentalize her life — an important trait for any aspiring businesswoman — that have been really and truly fucking her over this season (a season, to be fair, that I’ve been watching through less than legal means. Ruh-roh). She’s super adept at her job, but doesn’t want to take it home — and yet, like any other job, it keeps following her home, ringing her doorbell and biting her in the ass. Honestly, the only difference between her and us is that she has a career most people would judge her for. Prostitution may be legal in the U.K., but that doesn’t make it any less taboo.
Secret Diary’s greatest asset — and perhaps it’s greatest disadvantage when appealing to an American audience — is not in how glamorous or clandestine Belle’s life is, but how normal it is. I think that’s probably why so many friends I’ve tried to turn onto the show just haven’t enjoyed it.
Frankly, the humor is pretty subtle (most Brit humor is), and the sex / prostitution tips are interesting, but otherwise it could just be another show about a woman trying to balance career and home life … albeit with much better writing and acting than other shows. It’s not some big, scandalous, glamorous life, and she really doesn’t seem so Other (unless you include the fact that she makes more money in one day that I probably will see in six months) — her life is pretty mundane.
Work issues, family issues, friend issues, relationship issues, loneliness and intimacy issues … it’s no different from most of our lives, and most of what we see on television. And that’s not what people want, because people are expecting cocaine and abuse and serial killers and really intensely crazy sexual acts — as opposed to the stuff we get, which is no worse, and certainly better, than anything that was ever shown on Sex and the City. (In fact, the voice-overs are far less obnoxious.)
When you watch the show, you want to see Belle exoticized and, for as potentially unrealistic the show is (in the first season, she is forced to turn down a threesome with her favorite author because her sister is in labor); when she isn’t, people feel cheated. If you’re looking for a combination of Happy Hooker and True Life: I’m a prostitute with a drug problem who gets raped and beat up by my pimp and, oh, P.S.: I have herpes!, you’re looking to the wrong place.
I think that’s America’s issue when looking at prostitutes. We want to see Julia Roberts saved from her dirty, depressing life by Richard Gere; we are drawn in when another prostitute is found dead on SVU; and Sam Seaborn’s hooker-girlfriend is only acceptable because she’s trying to pay her way through law school. Prostitution is either the result of a really screwed up life, or it’s a pit stop on the way to something more.
We can’t seem to accept that, bottom line, prostitution may not be all that different from any other service (ahem) job with The Man, and moreso, that non-screwed up people may enjoy doing it. One of Belle’s greatest struggles is convincing her friends and boyfriend that she likes her job and doesn’t need to be saved. And really, who are we to try? Seems like the Brits, with their prostitution laws and Secret Diary, got two more things right.