Prostitution — along with other forms of sex work — is one of those realities that we tend to push to the side and pretend doesn’t exist. It’s hard to have any sort of sensible discussion about it; along with the usual hand-wringing that surrounds any sort of vice the whole subject of sex still sends grown adults into fits of nervous giggles. It’s a credit to Michael Glawogger that he’s able to step into this world and bring us a calm, objective view in his triptych, Whores’ Glory — I certainly wouldn’t know where to even begin building the credibility he must have had to get these interviews — but for all the voyeuristic thrill of looking into a culture normally off-limits to me, it’s not apparent what he has to say.
In Bangkok, Thailand, Glawogger focuses on The Fishtank brothel. Situated on a side street, it’s made of too much neon and aluminum, but otherwise is nothing like you might expect from such an establishment. After punching their time cards and having their hair and makeup done, the girls sit on a dais behind a glass partition. Numbered buttons identify them to the clients on the other side. A price around 1800 baht plus tip — about $60, enough to buy decent lunches for a month — buys two hours of “everything”, including a bath and sometimes a massage.
The girls’ conversations sound pretty much like those between workers in any other service industry. It’s not the most dignified work, but it pays the bills and doesn’t have quite the negative connotation it would here. And it’s not limited to women; the girls from The Fishtank often spend their off-hours with guys that they, too pay for their company.
The situation is rather bleaker in Faridpur, Bangladesh, where Glawogger haunts the narrow halls of the “City of Joy” in the red-light district. Numerous madams have set up shop here, installing a handful of girls each into their own rooms. Men walk the halls, grabbing or being grabbed by girls; the whole thing has the chaotic air of an open-air bazaar, though rather seedier. The higher end going rate is 300 taka — about $3.75, enough for a draught beer — for sex; 600 taka gets you two times in an hour.
This isn’t a job; it’s a life. Girls are bought by madams for 5000 taka, obligating them to a year’s employment. They can and do stay after that period, since few have anywhere else to go. The girls put on brave faces, but most admit that a little laughter masks a huge amount of suffering and pain.
In Reynosa, Mexico, Glawogger finds The Zone: more of a diffuse neighborhood saturated with sex and drugs than an organized brothel of any sort. Women — the average age here is significantly higher — stand in their doorways at night as men in their cars slowly cruise down the block. The prices here come on sliding scales: 100 pesos — about $7.50, enough for a cheap bottle of wine — buys oral sex; it’s another hundred for missionary, and another hundred for different positions.
There’s no coercion here, at least not explicitly. Nobody is being bought and sold as in Faridpur, but it’s not a job the way it is in Bangkok. Instead, The Zone seems to be an urban sump, where women end up because they’ve given up on any other life.
Where Glawogger fails to connect is in the lack of any sort of analysis. It’s all well and good to look, but what does any of it mean? What is it about the Thai, Bangladeshi, or Mexican culture that makes prostitution look so different in each? If it’s going to happen anyway, is there a way to make the sex trade look more like The Fishtank than the City of Joy? Whores’ Glory is great at documenting what’s happening, but it fizzles out quickly, and we all avert our eyes once more.
Worth It: not on its own.
Bechdel Test: if it applies to documentaries, pass.