Working: My Life as a Prostitute, by Dolores French

Amsterdam’s Red Light District, visited & worked by French during her career.

I picked up my copy of Working from a charity bookstore, paying 50p for the yellowing and dog-eared copy that now graces my bookshelf. It gave me the impression of a book that’s been read and re-read, providing the reader with a great deal of pleasure. An excellent life for a book all about the topic of pleasure. Sexual pleasure, that is. And the pleasure that the author gained from their unconventional life.

One of the reasons I chose to read this book is in preparation for an article on prostitution. It’s been a long time in the making, because it’s something of which I have no personal experience, and I am keen to understand the reality of sex work — not just what the popular press want us to believe. Whenever I write, I want my words to be as authentic as possible, and to seek the truth no matter where the quest takes me. Working is a tale of prostitution, intimately told by someone who has lived the life.

Admittedly, this book is thirty years old, and the world is a different place now. But some things have changed, and others have not. The descriptions of living in general, and living as a sex worker, are still relatable as the author describes situations in just the right level of detail. We can recognise the world that she inhabits, even if we were not even born then. Much of this is related to this memoir itself dating back to the early 1970s, with the original publication intended for an audience to hear of the author’s exploits looking back at the previous twenty years.

The book is not dated, however, and is engaging and realistic. There are tales of danger, excitement, and the mundane. Even those living a secretive life must file their taxes and do their laundry. The story is told in a linear fashion, and is an easy read. It’s not overly simplistic, but it is written in such a way that it is suitable for a broad audience, and readers of various abilities. The language used is eloquent yet simple — this story is told in plain English, and it is the quality of the writing that makes it a worthwhile read. There is no need for the author to use overly-florid language as their storytelling speaks for itself.

In terms of the actual detail of the author’s work, she is candid and matter-of-fact about her encounters with clients, agents, and other sex workers. She gives us a glimpse into scenarios we might never imagine ourselves — and there is always a reason for recanting each tale. No words are wasted, and there is a lot packed in to this paperback of average length. Sex acts are described in some detail, but the author is not vulgar. Where explicit language is used, it is always relevant and appropriate, and is frankly necessary in a book about prostitution.

This book does not set out to titillate, but it still keeps the reader hooked because it is just so interesting. The author herself is an educated woman, who made an informed decision to choose the life of a sex worker. It is clear from her retelling that she is a professional, good at her job and proud of it.

The only criticism I have is that the story focuses strongly on the positives, perhaps omitting some of the grubbier elements of sex work. However, this criticism may not be justified, as I am basing my assumption on what I hear in the media about prostitution — that it is dirty and exploitative. But that is also a reason for telling stories like French’s. She shows us the side of sex work that the media doesn’t.

Perhaps my concern is also a little off the mark as she does talk about times when she has had to extract herself from dangerous encounters, or when other sex workers ignored her advice and ran into trouble. The author is obviously streetwise and knows how to keep herself safe and only does the type of work she chooses to do. Maybe Working could even be used as a cautionary tale — the author was smart enough and lucky enough to not experience some of the worst things that can happen to sex workers — but there are no guarantees. It is clearly a life suitable only for a certain type of person, which comes across in the author’s words. We really get to feel what it is like to be her, to understand how her mind and life work.

The author also gives us an insight into the politics of decriminalisation and legalisation — there is a difference between the two. She has worked with other prostitutes to form unions, has spoken in support of prostitution as a legitimate trade, and sees sex work as something that can financially liberate women (and male sex workers). Her views are unique, and completely understandable if you choose to engage with her work.

Working is an incredibly valuable text, and it has provided me with some of the insight that I was missing, bringing me one step closer to completing my article on sex work. But it also gave me more than simple reference material; it is an excellent read, and I, too, gained a lot of pleasure from it. I’m sure that that was always the author’s intention.