I suppose the first question you may ask is: what do we mean by contract? Without turning to a dictionary, one would assume that a contract is an agreement between two consenting parties. This can be both written and verbal, but a written one does hold up better in a court of law. Using that general definition, we can begin to understand that whenever we engage in sex, we are drawing up a contract, we are agreeing to participate in these activates. This is a real mood killer so I don’t suggest you bring this up pre-coitus. What Abi Morgan’s new play, ‘The Mistress Contract’, explores and what we are here to discuss is the notion of a long term contract. It is based on a real couple and their thirty year contract, the idea of giving yourself entirely to one person, to be at their every sexual need in exchange for things and money.
The evening was chaired by broadcaster, journalist and theatre critic Libby Purves, her main duty was to keep academic and activist Lynne Segal’s answers short and ensuring the other panellists have their voices heard. The rest of the panel was made up of playwright Alecky Blythe, anthropologist Professor Sophie Day and human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The first time I had seen a token male on a panel! We begin with Alecky Blythe discussing her verbatim play ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, the drama is set in a brothel by the sea where mature women specialise in a caring and sympathetic service. This play bridges the gap between the girls brought into this country and sold into sex work and the gorgeous high end call girls. Sex work and sex contracts come in all shapes and sizes, just as women and men do. However, there is one universal truth; you cannot have a sex contract and love.
Well, you can. Then again, it feels like lazy comedy to say when you enter a marriage contract the sex ends. Ha. Ha. Ha. Sophie Day argues that a contract of any form is there to protect us; the contract and the law support the victim when that contract is broken. Where marriage and sex contracts differ is that love is limitless but sex contracts have their limits and this is what protects both or either parties involved. Both contracts transform us from savages to a civilised way of life; it is a social contract recognised by all and stops people being dragged into caves by their hair and doing things against their will.
Lynne Segal has had major publications in the area of feminist theory and politics, shifting understandings of femininity, masculinity and sexuality, alongside more recent work on attachments, belongings, the work of memory, social conflict and, most recently, the psychic paradoxes of ageing. So you can imagine what a riot she was. Before I continue, I would like to state that I did not like Lynne. She kept firing off clichés with startling precision, relying on stereotypes to make her point. She spoke about how every sexual relationship is unequal because the men’s needs come first and woman’s body is only used to achieve a male orgasm. This may be true in some cases but not all. She was the panel’s token feminist, a caricature of herself. If I asked you to draw a feminist, bingo, you’d draw her.
The token male, on the other hand, I liked. Peter Tatchell is a prominent campaigner and activist for human rights, democracy, LGBT freedom and global justice. He spoke of the dated concept of a marriage contract, if we started again from scratch, we would not see marriage as it is now. This one size fits all agreement does not suit all couples, we should be able to pick and choice our rights and responsibilities. Aside from sex trafficking, both parties have equal say in the majority of sex contract and enter into one for different reasons. There are individuals that feel they have no other choice or means of making money, but this is for unique reasons such as child care and education, not always drug addictions as we see in the media. Or, as is seen in ‘The Mistress Contract’, you want to detach yourself emotional and are owed financially.
The problem with these contracts, as Sophie points out, they are difficult to enforce. Prostitution and sex worker’s contracts are constructed verbally and in a short amount of time. If this contract does not fully support a party or it is broken, who is there to enforce it? You can’t run to the police. If it were decriminalised, then these people are able to turn to a wealth of supporting bodies when that contract is broken. In the brothel seen in ‘The Girlfriend Experience’, the girls had each other for support. They made smart choices such as working together under one roof and never being alone, making it their own business rather than working through a pimp or a madam.
Lynne notes that in a sex contract, one party gets sexual pleasure and the other party gets cash. We shouldn’t be putting a monetary value on our sexual being but, of course, there’s more to it than that. Alecky found that that was the girl’s in her brothel could do as older women and the younger girls couldn’t was to also offer companionship, they listened, they cuddled and they served pots of tea. At the end of the day, we are all human, and the majority of us associate sex with emotions. We do crave tenderness in sex which is why we still see a romantic plot in porn or at least a sense of compassion towards one another. It’s obviously acting but even in porn, it is sex and love together. This is the fly in the ointment for both ‘The Mistress Contract’ and ‘The Girlfriend Experience’.
I wish I could wrap this up in a nice easy conclusion but the fact is we are all unique. We all like different things and have different association with love and sex. A contract serves to protect, and if you feel you must protect yourself from your partner in your sex life, you may have bigger problems. And those that draw up sex contracts for money are not protected, again, if you feel you must enter into sex work to make these contracts for financial gain, then you have bigger problems. We shouldn’t be asking ‘Should we contract our sex lives?’ but be questioning why.