Ridgeway Gets it Wrong

Links to a.d.sullivan & info on Susan Walsh

 

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When I read "Redlight" for the first time, I was struck by two odd

inconsistencies, a push and pull in the text itself between trying to be

hip and trying to be serious.

 

This was an aspect of Sue's creative output from the day I first met her

at college, but had reached an almost schezophrenic pitch in "Redlight."

Some passages read like a text book for a sociology course, some read

like passages straight out of Screw Magazine, and somehow, despite

clever transitions and brilliant photography, the volume lacks an

overall vision of the industry it is seeking to document. In many ways,

"Redlight" is little more than back to back articles strung together

into a volume, given chapter headings, without any real vision, or

history, or prognostication for the future.

 

In other words, "Redlight" very much reflected Sue's limited vision, and

each character displayed in it, from each aspect of the New York Sex

scene, has Sue's indelible finger print. All the characters are

sympathetic. All are victims of some greater social evil they cannot

explain. All are helpless to do anything else but what they are doing,

all struggling on "nobly" to survive in an unfair world.

 

While the volume has sold nearly 100,000, a year after its publication,

it lacks another important ingredient straight-world reviewers seemed to

miss. The book does not have anything to say that hasn't already been

said better and more substantially in other books of its kind.

 

The evil, which truly does exist in this dark world where Sue wandered,

never took on a face. It was always some hazy force just beyond human

vision or just around the next corner, never bearing any particular

personality -- except as to threaten these poor souls caught up in the

industry.

 

"Redlight" fails largely because its limited vision is filtered through

Sue's eyes and reflects her own pathetic point of view, she putting

herself in the place of those she has interviewed, hiding those aspects

of her character which actually define the world of the sex trade. Where

were the rivalries that all too often occurred among the players in

these scenes, the betrayals and the competitions of a world full of pain

and desire?

 

This sterility struck me hard the first time I read the book because I

presumed a professional journalist like Ridgeway would know that the

heart of an environment is often defined by its conflicts. Only later,

after numerous other readings -- and the realization that Sue wrote the

book, not Ridgeway -- did I come to understand, this book was designed

to justify life in the sex trade, not examine it.

 

Because Ridgeway relied so heavily on Sue as his source, he apparently

missed this distortion. Until later, when he refused to help Sue with

her story on vampires -- a chapter of which is included in this volume

-- did Ridgeway begin to understand his mistake. By then, however, the

blues to the book had arrived, and he could not afford to take time to

untangle it, leaving the flawed book to go to press, hoping no one would

notice.

 

From 1992 until late 1995, Sue set up interviews and photo shoots,

acting in her role as Tour Guide through the scene, as she herself had

experienced it since her return to it in 1989. Like her articles for

Screw Magazine, Sue was taking a sympathetic photograph of an

essentially evil world, using other people as mouth pieces for her own

point of view. And each chapter is the story of her personal descent

into hell, and her justifying her involvement from massage pallor to

street hooker.

 

To the unwary reader, Sue's portrayal of the underworld has a very

romantic appeal. Much of it comes from predigested rhetoric she first

developed in school. Maybe even then, she was trying to justify her

place in that society, trying to tell herself that the people she met

there and the things she did there were hardly as terrible as society

seemed to think. Perhaps she had developed her vision from her repeated

writings for Screw which saw no immorality in conceptual sex, despite

the desperation, drugs, alcohol or family violence driving many women

into the scene.

 

But Sue in "Redlight" went far beyond Screw's limited vision, creating

an underclass revolutionary society of sex providers who secretly

conspired against those they served, hating the men who paid them for

sex, shaping their world around the idea of survival. In college, we

called this "Sue's feminist rap," although "Redlight" -- except for a

few sparse passages -- lacked the bite Sue gave this when she preached

this philosophy in the college pub. This toning down of Sue's rhetoric,

may have been Ridgeway's chief contribution to the book, an artificial

objectivity imposed from above by someone too ignorant of the subject to

have a more meaningful contribution to make.

 

While "Redlight" received a boost in sales from a positive New York

Times review, the book maintained Sue's juvenile sense of intellectual

hype she first developed in college, a kind of sociological voice she

used to create an artificial distance between her personal experiences

in the sex trade and those she was writing about, making up for her lack

of objectivity.

 

Sue sold Ridgeway a bill of goods, especially highlighting the idea that

the sex industry somehow "reinforces the mainstream," giving the whore

and the pimp more credibility than either deserved, shaping them into

vital parts of the social fabric, when both are symptoms of a greater

disease.

 

The problem in believing Sue's philosophy on sex, is the lack of depth,

a lack that spills over into the book. "Redlight," -- while serving as a

kind of map to the places Sue has visited during her long career in the

underworld -- lacked anything new to say. It said less well things many

other books already uncovered, material gleaned in the way Sue gleaned

all her material, a little from this source, a little from that.

 

One school mate called Sue "a remarkable compiler," one who can build up

a epic from other people's ideas, but lacks any sense of originality

herself. In "Redlight" Sue skimmed the surface, polishing well-rehearsed

rhetoric she'd gathered over the years, and struggled to build a

philosophy around these patches of material, taking whole passages from

her already distorted diaries to lend depth to the book. In the end, Sue

managed to create a justification for the sins of her own life, claiming

that her dark world had some greater impact on the upper world,

reinforcing the norms of the society. In other ways, Sue falls back on

the old adage that in order to have "good" you must have its opposite,

and without "bad," you have nothing.

 

Sue -- as victim -- could never understand the actual workings of the

sex industry because she never really understood the world on the upside

of the edge. Dancing, porno videos and magazines, prostitution, 1970s

sex clubs, 1990s S & M, weren't just mirror images of the "good" world

(though in shaping Sue's relationship to the Edge, even I fell into this

mode of expression), these things are part of mainstream, the darker

colors of a spectrum that has the church at one extreme and the whole

house at the other.

 

In a capitalistic society (though almost every other society also had

its whores) sex is the most significant product, by far outshining GM or

Microsoft. It is the great American industry, touching every aspect of

our lives from food to fashion. Providing sex has become as much of an

institution as providing substance or shelter. Across America, a whole

structure has developed for the sale of sex, from the religious socials

designed to bring the proper partners together to escort services which

do the same for a much shorter time. Our society has codified rules on

how to get from hand-holding to ruffling the bed.

 

Feminists have long pointed out that a woman often sells herself as much

in marriage as she does in the street corner dickering. A woman sets a

price on herself then goes out and sees how much she can get. Often

payment is disguised in the shape of a washer and dryer, or as obvious

as a straight cash transaction. Parents often send their daughters to

enhance their value in this market place, keeping them from sinking to

the level of mere prostitutes. To make a distinction between the middle

class neighborhood pub with a Wednesday showing of Chip & Dales from a

go-go bar is a distinction in degree, not kind. Each bar caters to a

specific level of society. Using clothing as an analogy, you can look on

marriage as a tailor made suit, where measurement, choosing the fabric,

cost and such, equal the rituals for preparing a girl for bed. Picking

up a girl in a rock & roll club might easily be seen as buying a suit

off the rack, a motel stay with a street walker might be seen a buying

second hand. You can trace the social structures along that continuum,

from street walker, go go bar, night club, private party, all the way up

to church social gathering. All of it designed to provide for the same

experience. Only the moralists set standards on which level of purchase

is socially acceptable.

 

Morality clouds the issue, making people forget that the sex urge is as

viable as the hunger urge or the urge for survival. Abstinence in any of

these aspects is unnatural. People who are hungry eat. People who fear

for the lives, flee; people, who carve sex, find it -- if not through

acceptable socially viable means, then by any means possible.

 

What is evil in the sex industry is evil in all other aspects of our

society. Just as most people can't afford a hand-made suit, most people

cannot afford the costly rituals of courtship and marriage, the literal

rip off that surrounds the marketing of wedding wear, wedding

receptions, honeymoons and the like. Marriage is a status symbol, and

like many status symbols from clothing to cars, people go crazy in

attempt to achieve them, ruining their chances at a successful marriage,

by plunging themselves in debt to pay for these things. For what some

people pay for a wedding they could have as a downpayment on a house.

But the churches, catering halls, clothing stores, bridal magazines and

such, each get their piece of this enormous pie. But that side is only

the top of an immense ice berg. Feeding the sex urge is a multi-billion

dollar industry that touches every other aspect of American life. We

sell cars, clothing, diets, houses, education, and other things all with

the idea of attraction. Men who drive Trans Ams have a different sexual

message to convey than men who drive BMWs, but they both transmit the

message. But in the end, we sell ourselves, either via a show at a local

pickup joint or personal ads in the newspaper, and both bars and

newspapers scramble to maintain available bodies.

 

In economic terms, the continuum between marriage and street

prostitution generally equates to the distance between manufacturer and

retail purchase. In marriage, the woman is largely selling herself,

seeking the best quality of life she can through a self-marketing

campaign, looking for options, models of husband, kind of life she might

expect with each. The fringe benefits of such a sale might include a

house or country club, two cars or a swimming pool, or a package deal

which includes a variety of options. She has control over the final

sale. She can refuse to sign the contract, or sue later for divorce when

the man fails to live up to his part of the bargain. Each step away from

the marriage option is a step away from total control, leaving women

with many less options the nearer they come to the edge, and giving

other pemanufacturer and retail purchase. In marriage, the woman is

largely selling herself, seeking the best quality of life she can

through a self-marketing campaign, looking for options, models of

husband, kind of life she might expect with each. The fringe benefits of

such a sale might include a house or country club, two cars or a

swimming pool, or a package deal which includes a variety of options.

She has co

 

To fill the vast need for sex, clever marketing people sell bodies on

all levels, luring women into marriage with promises of a big house or a

fine car, but the system is always seeking to lure women into those

positions where they have less and less choice about their own lives,

and become the general fodder for filling the sexual desires of paying

customers. Women like my girlfriend in Los Angeles in 1970 and Sue who

fell into the underworld in the 1980s, both believed they had more

choices than they did, getting into the system as a challenge. Sue knew

better about the dangers, and thought she could defy them, skimming

along immune to the tugging of the lower orders.

 

Many women get into the game on that level for fun and profit, believing

they can dip down, make money and escape again without any permanent

harm. Indeed pretty young women can demand an incredible price in the

underworld. Big tits, blonde hair, a pretty face are in demand on every

level of society, but such women delude themselves, and instantly become

tainted goods. Even though they make good money for awhile, their price

declines with age, not to mention drug or alcohol use.

 

Sex sales

 

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