The whore is despised by the hypocritical world because she has made a realistic assessment of her assets and does not have to rely on fraud to make a living. – Angela Carter
Because of the stigma against it, sex work is often taken up by women whose choices are otherwise limited; in other words, it is often the best of a limited range of options. And for much of recent history, it was virtually the only worthwhile option available to women viewed as sexually “soiled” or “ruined”, often through no fault of their own.
Take Mary Elizabeth Haley, for example. She was born in Belton, Texas in 1855 to James and Mary Haley, a fairly well-to-do couple. Unfortunately for Libby (as she was called), if her family hadn’t had bad luck it would’ve had none at all; first they were financially ruined by the Civil War, and then the nine-year-old was abducted by Comanche Indians in 1864. It took her father three years to raise the ransom the Comanches demanded, and even after she was released her ordeal was far from over: “civilized” whites assumed she had been raped by the Indians, and her parents found themselves with an unmarriageable daughter. Her father seems to have been deeply in denial about her ostracism, however; when young Libby’s looks and personality attracted a suitor mature enough not to care about her “reputation”, her father responded by shooting the man to death because he was too old.
Libby was both intelligent and pragmatic, and thus understood that her hotheaded father would either murder or frighten away any man willing to overlook her history, so at 14 she ran away to Abilene, Kansas and became a dance-hall prostitute. Nobody in the boomtown knew anything about her, so it wasn’t difficult for her to find a boyfriend: a professional gambler and sometimes-cowboy named Billy Thompson, younger brother of the gunslinger Ben Thompson. From 1870 to 1876, the couple drifted across (mostly) Kansas and Texas, following the cattle drives or running from the law and/or people Billy had cheated; each brought in money by their professional skills, and they were married in 1873 after the birth of their first child.
Near the end of 1876, however, their luck began to change. In October, Billy was arrested by Texas Rangers and extradited to Kansas to stand trial for the 1873 murder of Sheriff Chauncey Whitney; miraculously, he was acquitted, and for the first time they felt as though they might actually settle somewhere. Both Billy and Libby were quite good at their professions, and had put aside a sizable stake; they purchased a ranch and a dance hall/brothel in Sweetwater, Texas, and moved into management (Billy as a rancher, Libby as a madam). During the years they had spent much of their time on the range, Libby had developed a fondness for prairie dogs; now that they lived in town she started keeping them as pets (some said she even walked them on leashes). From this and the prominent gap between her front teeth, Libby at last gained the name by which she is known to history: Squirrel Tooth Alice.
The next twenty years went quite well for them; both businesses prospered (especially the brothel), and Alice’s fame spread across the West. They had nine children in all and their marriage lasted for 24 years, until Billy died of some sort of stomach condition in 1897. Alice continued to run the brothel until she retired in 1921 at the age of 66. Alas, her declining years were not as happy as they could have been; though several of her daughters followed their mother into our honorable profession, several of her sons inherited their father’s worse characteristics and turned to crime. Alice lived in the homes of several of her children who had settled in Palmdale, California, and when she became too ill to care for themselves she moved into the Sunbeam Rest Home in Los Angeles. There she died on April 13, 1953, at the ripe old age of 98.
Prohibitionists are fond of pretending that because sex work is often a constrained choice, that this is an argument for criminalizing it (as though it made any moral or logical sense to remove the best choice from a limited range of options!) How would it have helped young Libby Haley to cut off the means of her escape from the narrow-minded bigots of her home town? Prostitution not only allowed her to make a living, but also to find love, acceptance, fame and personal satisfaction; I guess the prohibitionists would prefer she had died a lonely charity case, unsullied by either men or money.