If you peruse the titles at any video rental store, you're bound to find a wide selection of films that are related to this very concept. It usually goes something like this: a dorky/bored/down n' out/naive/depressed/lonely/successful-yet-unfulfilled guy meets and falls for a beautiful, smart, seductive woman who happens to work in the sex industry and is therefore completely unavailable for a monogamous, romantic relationship. Even though he's aware that his chances are slim to none, the guy tries his darnedest to save her from what he perceives to be a horrible existence and win her heart. And through the magic of cinema (not reality) he usually achieves this goal. We've seen this same plot done and redone in a variety of ways and in practically every genre, from comedy to tragedy and even as a musical. From the light-hearted romantic comedies "Pretty Woman" and "The Girl Next Door" to the dark and depressing "Taxi Driver" and "Leaving Las Vegas", from the theatrical splendor of "Moulin Rouge" to the all out hilarity of "Risky Business"—we've pretty much seen it all.
After watching a few of these movies, you might start to wonder, "What's up with America's (and the rest of the world's) fascination with prostitutes?" We've been wondering the same thing. Here's a few possible answers. The prostitution and sex industry (including pornography, erotica, exotic dancers, and sexual paraphernalia) have flourished on the fringes of societies for pretty much as long as these societies have existed. Consider the coitus-centered creation myths of the peoples of the Fertile Crescent, the explicit friezes on the walls of brothels found in the volcanic ruins of Pompeii or the dirty little Victorian booklets of erotic literature in the 1800s. It seems that we have been, for a long time, a species obsessed with sex.
With the rise of the great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), however, the libertine attitudes about sex that had sometimes dominated in ancient times began to give way to a new social order in which sexual expression was much more carefully regulated. Orthodox strains of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all established firm rules against most forms of sexual activity other than heterosexual marriage. (Take a close read of the book of Leviticus sometime to check out the wide variety of things you could do to earn the death penalty under Old Testament law.)
At the same time, though, even as the powers that be sought to restrict human sexuality, you could bet that an equally aggressive prostitution industry (comprised mainly of female workers and male bosses) was riding its coattails. How did this come to be?
To find the first clue, we need to take a look into our own DNA. Humans can be jealous, vengeful creatures. And while both men and women possess the capacity to be enormously envious (no one wants to be standing in the warpath of a woman scorned), many scientists believe that men are programmed by their biology to try to restrict their women from sleeping around. Sounds kind of far-fetched, but let us explain. The reason lies in the fact that our most aggressive natural instinct as humans (and animals) is to make sure that our genes survive into the next generation. Natural selection, evolution, pride, immortality, whatever you want to call it, it is the driving force behind much of human behavior. It's what leads women to instinctively seek a stable, healthy man to help raise her kids—the highest chance for many of her children to survive and then reproduce. It also can lead a man to look for the opportunity to spread his seed among as many women as possible, while keeping these women from sleeping with others—the highest (and quickest) chance of his genes passing to many kids to, again, survive and reproduce.
This paradoxical tendency of men to try to repress women sexually, while at the same time trying wanting to sleep around, has created a gender paradox in civilized society. Women are sluts if they sleep around while men are studs. Female sexual freedom has been on lockdown for millennia but it has been common in many cultures for men to have multiple wives, mistresses, and concubines.
(Of course, we are not arguing here that us humans are simply slaves to our biology and can't do anything about it. If that were true, society as we know it would not exist. The world is full of excellent brothers, husbands, fathers, step-fathers, adoptive fathers, etc., who treat women with respect and embrace faithfulness with gusto; meanwhile, many women don't need male providers and are perfectly capable to raise kids on their own.)
The biological imperative does remain, however, and prostitution exists to serve it. The sex industry is forever caught in the middle of this raging battle between nature and nurture: condemned by the very same men who seek it out (Elliot Spitzer, anyone?). One interesting consequence of men seeking out prostitutes, however, is that the human capacity for compassion doesn't entirely vanish. While some men are just looking for a cheap, sexual thrill, others are more in tune with that other biologically attractive alternative: monogamy. Even though men don't necessarily suffer evolutionarily if they sleep around and remain bachelors, if they fall in love and stay faithful to the mother of their children, it does increase the chances of this particular batch of offspring surviving. And biology aside, don't we all just want to be loved and love somebody? Talk about a topic for songs.
Think back to all those movies again. It's almost become a cliché in our culture: Man visits prostitute for a cheap (or expensive) thrill. Man begins to see prostitute as a human being, and is overcome by a complex mixture of guilt and activism. Man seeks to rescue prostitute from a life of sexual commodification by showing her true love. Man wants to believe that just maybe the prostitute loves him back. That's the emotional, cognitive response to our animal instincts. And that's "Roxanne" in a nutshell.
When The Police were on the road, they stopped in Paris to play a couple of gigs at the Nashville Theater. Their hotel happened to be near the city's red-light district, the Pigalle (during World War II American soldiers taking advantage of what was on sale there started calling it "Pig Alley"). Inspired by the prostitutes he saw hanging around the seedy area, as well as an old poster of Cyrano de Bergerac hanging in the hotel lobby, Sting penned the song in honor of an imaginary prostitute named Roxanne. The whole song is basically the speaker's attempt to convince the girl to give up sex work, and to be with him and him only. He doesn't want to share her, he's loved her ever since he met her, and he insists over and over again that she doesn't "have to put on the red light." Which is all well and good. But even assuming our fictional Roxanne could leave the profession if she wanted to (there's a lot of coercion and violence in the sex industry)… would she? We can never know. Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps she's one of those women who feels liberated through sex, or maybe she considers her body a marketable skill set like typing or translating, and doesn't feel particularly damaged by the whole thing. Maybe she recognizes the incredibly potent power she has over men simply because of her femininity and, like Penelope weaving and unraveling her tapestry every night, she milks it for all it's worth. Perhaps the money is just too good and she doesn't think she could make the same amount doing something else. Maybe she's doing exactly what she wants, and the last thing she needs is to be rescued. Or maybe she does want out and is looking for her knight in shining armor (like Julia Roberts's iconic character in "Pretty Woman.")
The most interesting thing about "Roxanne" might just be that we never get to hear her answer. Is Sting really going to be save her, or is he just another john with delusions of grandeur?
Whether or not this one fictional Roxanne decides to put out her red light, though, it seems safe to say that prostitution as an institution is here to stay. When biological imperatives clash with societal regulation, finding a resolution can be downright impossible. What we're left with is a cycle of mutual usage: men who use women for sex who use men for money. Pimps who use prostitutes for cash and prostitutes who use pimps for housing and protection, while the police turn a blind eye. It just so happens that another group of "The Police" decided to pay attention. C'est la vie.