Law and Order

In lieu of books, recently, I’ve been watching old reruns of Law and Order, the very first ones from the nineties. Aside from the pure novelty/ memory of nineties hairstyles, clothes, and music, the show confronts social issues that the current iterations tend to skirt in favor of socially cleaner, but gorier material. The first few episodes cover race relations, abortion, and prostitution, to name a few. I love the way the show not only confronts these issues, but makes them messy and draws out the detective’s own beliefs during the investigations. The episode I’d like to talk about today is the one concerning a high class prostitution ring.

The detectives find a man, apparently mugged but alive in a park in New York. He dies in the hospital and it is discovered that he had a heart attack, likely previous to the blow to the head they found him with. A little sleuthing and they uncover ‘Poppy Catering’ a very expensive escort agency. I mean high end; five hundred an hour in the nineties seems high to me. The mistress is a famous young woman from old blood who mentors young women and tries to teach them how to be high class women and ‘gives them a future’ but what the detectives uncover and the prosecuting attorney point out, quite angrily, I might add, is that while the young women are routinely tested for STIs, any who turn up positive are kicked to the curb and none of the men were informed. It was the gross negligence that won the murder case and that causes outrage in the courtroom and in my own mind. We know how easy it is to contract such things, in this case it was the socially volatile AIDS virus, and also how easy it is to take simple precautions. What outraged me the most was 1: the mistress’s decision to allow unprotected sex in her brothel and 2: her failure to require testing of the men in the case of unprotected sex. That just seems like a bad business practice, much less callous disregard for safety. Watching the prosecuting attorney ream into the young woman at the height of her pride and watching her face fall as he points out that with the one and one half million dollars she made in the previous year, she failed to truly take care of what she called her little family. The realization that she was a monster, not because of her encouraging prostitution, but because of her selfish haughtiness took the wind from her sails. I love it when the villain realizes they’re screwed, don’t you? That moment when they finally realize that they are wrong.

I found it interesting that the episode used the illegality of prostitution as a tool to find true immorality, instead of making the ‘moral’ of the episode be the evils of sex work. The young lady at the center of the story, not the madame, is portrayed as not exactly helpless but not exactly fully culpable either. The young woman, Jolene, reminds me of a provider I know here in Seattle, with an elegant bearing, a calm surety, and a wisdom both youthful and mature. When she discovers that she has contracted the AIDS virus we watch her as hope slips away in a matter of seconds. We all know it was in essence a death sentence at that time and in fact another episode later addresses the issue of AIDS and suicide in the current social context. It seems that, while the madame was on the surface a mother to her little brood, she allowed her greed and arrogance destroy the lives and health of young women who had few choices and took the one that seemed so tempting. I can empathize with their decisions. Even if I were not as open to sexual experimentation and variety as I am, the ability to make as much in an hour as my friends make in a week is tempting and could easily sway many a young woman, were the option attractive enough. I think that’s what is giving our line of work such a bad name now. The threat of human trafficking and coercion, while inflated, is real and unfortunate. Be it your economic situation or another person, this business is an intimate one and only the best of actresses could fake it convincingly enough. Without approaching sex work with an open mind and a healthy attitude towards oneself and towards sex it can be intimidating and frightening and dangerous. I hate to think how a woman would feel about sex if she were reduced to a mechanical creature, dispensing it at the behest of another whether for money or social pressure. This is why I love this show: it provokes thought about a complex issue without simply painting it black and whit, right and wrong. It delves into motivation and complex causes and we get to see the responses of the detectives as they investigate crimes against people they may or may not sympathize with. I’m excited to get back to it and watch some more. TV just isn’t the same anymore :/