The Life’s unglorified look at the problems of our age

May 6, 2017

When I first saw the musical The Life on Broadway 20 years ago – nominated back then for 12 Tony Awards – I remember being stunned not just by its artistic achievement but also its honest portrayal of prostitution.

The Life pulls no punches and eschews the sort of soft focus usually applied to the subject – such as in the movie Pretty Woman. So two decades on, I was honoured to join the production team to co-produce the revival of this almost forgotten gem.

I am saddened by the energy projected by the prostitutes one sometimes sees in London. One of the most challenging yet subtle aspects of prostitution is the slow decline of the connection between body and soul. The void that results from this diminishing self-affinity cannot be filled by any financial reward or substitute. Prostitutes basically trade a piece of their soul for “easy money.”

There are complex reasons why prostitution has always existed. The Life begins with a group of working girls lined up on stage in provocative poses inviting the audience to “check it out!” It ends with a different group of prostitutes repeating the same poses and phrases. It gave me goose-bumps. It’s a never-ending cycle.

While co-producing the musical, I undertook research to understand the struggles that prostitutes face; I looked into the services that charities offered and got a saddening glimpse of the life that many prostitutes lead.

A recent study showed that violence from clients was frequently reported as a motivating factor for women to exit prostitution: 61 per cent reported having been subjected to violence.

Unfortunately, there are many barriers preventing them from leaving. Having a criminal conviction was a major impediment; some 49 per cent of the women surveyed had convictions for prostitution-related offences. Childhood violence, entry into prostitution at young age, mental-health issues, lack of skills and training, alcohol and drug use, housing problems and debt were all interrelated and huge obstacles to overcome.

I found, too, some excellent initiatives to set against these problems. In the UK, Beyond the Streets is a charity dedicated to ending sexual exploitation by offering reliable information and support to women involved. It offers a non-judgmental telephone helpline and facilitates an online forum called Gathered Voices. Crucially, it offers practical advice in achievable steps; a chance to focus on the future, not the past.

Door of Hope is another UK charity which provides very practical support, including advocacy and referrals to specialist organisations and agencies, as well as befriending and mentoring. Staff and volunteers go out on the street to offer hot drinks, sexual-health support and signposting to local services.

What I found most encouraging was the evidence that, given appropriate help, women who wanted to exit the business could do so effectively.

In one of the audience’s favourite scenes in The Life, one ageing prostitute, tired, weary and worn out, sings: “I am getting too old for the oldest profession. I am getting too old for the life.”

Despite such hardships, it is never too old or too late to change. There is still hope – and the potential for a happy ending.

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation