Last night's Downton Abbey saw Ethel Parks, a disgraced maid who ended up becoming a woman of the streets, sent away to be 'washed clean' of her shocking past. The stigma of sex work is still as present today as it was last century explains Dr Brooke Magnanti.
So farewell then, Downton Abbey maid Ethel Parks, who was sacked after having the bad luck to get caught sleeping with an Army major in series two, getting up the duff as a result of said cad, and spent most of series three plying her trade as a woman of the streets and crying in the rain. This culminated with her young son being shipped off to his grandparents, since after all, a mother who does whatever it takes to stay solvent in the face of professional and personal crisis is no kind of a role model, now is she?
The character trajectory of Amy Nuttall's character says a lot about Downton Abbey attitudes: a modern girl who likes looking at magazines gets punished with pregnancy, humiliation, living in a hut, losing her child, and then is pulled up by Isobel Crawley who magnanimously decides to hire her back into a life of service. Some people watch Downton Abbey and long for a time long past; I say, let's keep this kind of rubbish in the past where it belongs.
Last night's season finale revealed that Ethel is offered a fresh start elsewhere, [Isobel Crawley says her move to life as a maid in Cheadle will allow her to be “washed clean” of her past] which amounts more or less to 'let us never speak of this again, ok?' It's about as edifying as an evening spent watching paint dry, only with added shame.
Attitudes towards sex workers in the 21st century
The picture for sex workers today is hardly different to Downton Abbey whether they have children or not. Public shaming is the norm and losing your job far from rare. While I was lucky not to be fired when my past became known, I'm fully aware of how unusual that is (and what part significant public attention may have played in that). People who have capitalised on their erotic potential - whether in the present or firmly in the past - are still held up for general disgust and disapproval even now.
Decent estimates put the number of sex workers in Britain at about 80,000 (this includes men as well as women). With a high annual turnover in the industry, the number of ex-sex workers in this country numbers in the high hundreds of thousands, probably over a million. It's hard to know what percentage of prostitutes are also parents (one old study of streetwalkers in New York says 70 per cent), but it's reasonable to imagine that a large number are, and still more start families once they have left the industry behind them. Many of them live in fear of being exposed because of what it could mean not only to their current livelihoods but for their families.
Right now in Britain there are spiteful exes using a past in sex work against ex-partners in a bid to get their children taken away by social services. Sex work, let me remind you, is legal in this country. And while many consider it unethical, is that really a good reason to tear apart a family? We dislike bankers; no one would seriously suggest they should be denied a family life because of it. Being able to raise a family and juggle financial needs with time spent parenting is a huge factor in why people enter prostitution, as this recent campaign in Ireland emphasised.
Let's hit the roll call of children of prostitutes: Andrew Jackson, seventh President of the United States, Louis Armstrong, Richard Pryor, and iconic silent film actress Clara Bow. And let’s not forget loads of people in the Bible, including Jephthah and Boaz.
There probably won't be enough series of Downton Abbey to discover what becomes of Ethel's son Charlie, but I'm plumping for epoch-defining musician or Army general-turned-politician. May as well keep it true to life, after all.