Book Review - Call Me Elizabeth and Callgirl

Call Me Elizabeth: Wife, mother, escort A true story by Dawn Annandale (Time Warner 2005). Callgirl: Confessions of a double life by Jeanette Angell (Schwartz, 2005)

It’s a big year for books on prostitution, with Call Me Elizabeth and Callgirl only some of the volumes weighing down gender studies shelves across the nation. At the start of Callgirl Angell gives us an inkling as to the cause of the current obsession when she writes that “people look at me and get a little scared. I could be – I am – one of them. I am their sister, their neighbour, their girlfriend. I’m nobody’s idea of what a whore looks like. Maybe that’s why I’m scary. They want callgirls to be different, identifiable. That keeps them safe.” Thirty-five years after second-wave feminism and in the midst of rising divorce rates, declining fertility and increasing numbers of women willing and able – should a suitable male fail to appear – to go motherhood alone, many of us are confused not just about what women want, but who women really are. Exposes of the secret worlds of women who appear average or even respectable on the outside tantalises us with the prospect of finding out.

In important ways, the stories of both women – one British, the other American – and the first-person narrative form in which they tell them, are strikingly similar. Women facing fiscal ruin from good-for-nothing men, and making peanuts in their day job, give into the lure of the $200USD or 125 pounds per hour pay rate for women willing to have sex with strangers. From their first encounter to the ongoing maintenance of their sanity, physical health and secrecy as they pursue their alternative career through long gruelling nights, both Call Me Elizabeth and Callgirl provide a straightforward and informative trek through the comforts, tedium and insult of selling one’s body for a living.

But here’s where the similarities end. Call Me Elizabeth reads like one long mea culpa from the incarnated stereotype of a whore with the heart of gold. Annandale claims that the only reason she works as an escort is to save her children being “destabalised” by changes to home and school that would accompany the family’s financial ruin. For Annandale, prostitution is never anything but “exhausting, awful, degrading” but necessary for a woman with a drawerful of bills and an selfless commitment to doing whatever it takes to protect her family. Indeed, she desperate is Annandale for us to see her as a good mother that she not only repeats her family-oriented motives ad nauseum, but quotes others who understand her behaviourthis way. At the end of her first night with her driver Kevin, for example, she tells how he helped her out of the car and said something that stayed with her:

[He] told me that he wished he had a mother like me, someone who had loved him in the way that I obviously loved my children. ‘Hold your head up, darlin’, you’re fuckin’ special, you are’. In contrast, Angell’s credentials as an academic sociologist lead her to attempt a more sophisticated analysis of prostitution, though with somewhat mixed success. In the early pages of the book, she pursues a prostitution-is-no-more-degrading-to-women-than-oppressive-low-paid-work and an all-sex-is-an-exchange-of-sorts line. Angell even suggests that her considerable sex drive and mastery at pleasuring others means her work offers a double bonus of sexual pleasure and pay. But by chapter 3 this switches – with no explanation – to a more matter-of-fact understanding of prostitution as wearing, degrading and at times dangerous work that women only undertake because they desperately needs the cash. “The fact is,” writes Angell, “it was prostitution. You can dress it up however you’d like; but for me to tell myself that earning my living as a prostitute was a situation that couldn’t get any better was at best a little naïve. At worst a little delusional.” A callgirl, Angell tells us, gets about as much excitement out of a call as she does going out to the supermarket.

I have no problem with the conclusion that prostitution is oppressive. Indeed, Angell’s blow-by-blow description of her clientele – some of whom manipulate, insult and even assault her – leaves little doubt as to how she arrived there. But I was left wondering how such a conclusion jived with her seeming rejection of classic feminist analysis of prostitution as degrading to women: a rejection she seems to transport into the undergraduate class she teaches on the history and sociology of prostitution. Or her assertion that prostitution ought to be legalised. And how do Angell’s repeated assertions that she’s “nobody’s idea of what a whore looks like” fit with her consistent line that any woman – our sisters, neighbours or girlfriends – could and may very well be callgirls? Add to this an exasperatingly posey and staccato prose style, and it seems unlikely those interested in a sustained and satisfying experiential exploration of prostitution will be satisfied with Callgirl.