Insightful, challenging and laugh-snort funny - read an exclusive chapter from Sex Power Money by Sara Pascoe
Writer, comedian, actor; Sara Pascoe is a bona fide triple threat. Having won numerous comedy awards for her stand-up shows, she published her first, hugely popular book Animal in 2016, and recently announced a forthcoming sitcom coming to BBC2
With Sex Power Money, Sara turns her attention to the things that really matter to humans - sex, power and money. Drawing on research, interviews, and anecdotal experiences her fresh approach to this oldest discussion is penetrating, bold and incredibly funny.
Sara has personally chosen an exclusive full chapter for Foyles, taken from the third section of the book called Sex Power Money Money Money
The strapline for Indecent Proposal was ‘What Would You Do for a Million Dollars?’ which is misleading. It should really be ‘Who Would You Do for a Million Dollars (and Is It Robert Redford)?’ ‘What Would You Do’ pretends the film is giving you options, but it isn’t. You can’t offer to wash his car for a year or name one of your children after him. This proposal is indecent. When the film came out there was a common joke. A woman in middle age would say, ‘A million quid to shag Robert Redford? I’d do it for free!’ Then everyone in the pub would laugh because the idea that a movie star would pay for sex with Audrey the pigeon-toed school teacher was absolute bants. This joke was responsible for 25 per cent of all humour in 1993. The other 75 per cent of jokes were provided by quoting Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Like if someone said, ‘Lend me your ears,’ you would pretend to throw your ears at them, and if you had a facial mole, you’d move it to a different place for every scene.
The ‘I’d do it for free’ sentiment is integral to Indecent Proposal remaining within the genre of ‘romantic comedy’. The film’s premise is a gushy ‘imagine if someone you were willing to have sex with made you a millionaire’, rather than ‘imagine a world where poor people are unable to refuse the whims of the rich’. Indecent Proposal could also be considered a dystopian horror: ‘imagine if billionaires could rape anyone they wanted as long as they paid husbands generous compensation’. So maybe that’s enough with the jokes, Audrey.
You really can take the fun out of everything.
Yep. Picture us in the cinema together. I’m yabbering on, telling you my theories and opinions, analysing subtexts, having memories, Googling facts I’ve forgotten – generally embarrassing you to the point of fury. But I bought the tickets, your Snickers ice cream and the popcorn – should you politely ignore my unreasonable and antisocial behaviour just because I paid? Can my money buy your compliance? What a great analogy: START THE FILM.
Indecent Proposal begins with a happy white couple called Diana and David Murphy. They have a cute back-and-forth catchphrase and got together at school. This detail is important – stressing that they’re long-term creates more tension when a strange man suggests he can buy the missus. If these guys had met three weeks ago on Plenty of Fish there would be far less at stake. ALSO, this plot point portrays the female character as sexually inexperienced. Her husband may be her only ever sexual partner. Her innocence and fidelity is crucial. If the couple were swingers or she was Samantha from Sex and the City the central dilemma would be far less important. Some billionaire offers a sweet mil for your wife and you’re like, ‘Sure, as soon as she’s finished banging the gardener.’
These two are sexy though. There’s an early scene where they argue about clothes. He’s messy and she’s picking up his shorts and being so furious that she throws a knife at him. In Hollywood, this kind of violent behaviour is a sign of passion. One minute you’re attempting to shank your lover, the next he’s bending you over the laundry basket. In real life (where we live), missiles, violence – these are signs of deep psychological instability and/or abusive relationships.
After the knife throwing, David and Diana bone on the floor. They are unrealistically attracted to each other for a long-term couple, they are too keen even for people hooking up on Grindr or having an affair. But I get it – this is fantasy. No one’s entertained by the grim reality of living with someone who leaves their dirty pants on the floor. You ignore them for a couple of days, thinking, ‘She’ll notice eventually,’ but she doesn’t. You concentrate on pretending you can’t see them, walking around them sighing at the exertion, until you’ve had enough – five days! You shouldn’t have to live like this, you’re a man, not a pig. ‘Why doesn’t she respect me?’ you think. ‘Why doesn’t she respect herself?’ you think even louder, seething with resentment, yet when she’s woken by the grinding of your teeth and asks what’s wrong you say, ‘I’m FINE,’ to clarify that you’re furious but will never speak of it to someone you cannot bear yet cannot leave because you share a mortgage.
David and Diana also have a mortgage and they cannot keep up the payments. David’s an architect, he’s built another house and doesn’t have money for that one either. The couple talk sadly about the economic downturn. This gives David a great opportunity to say something cool like ‘I can’t duck this recession like I did your knife’ but he doesn’t. We realise as an audience that the economy is the real enemy. Diana is scared: ‘What are we going to do?’ David reassures her that they will survive, he will drive a cab, wait tables. And this is
exactly what he does not interesting enough as a plot. This is not a film about a couple who behave sensibly when confronted with financial issues, this is a film about twerps. David borrows 5K off his dad and takes Diana to Las Vegas, not to sensibly work as cab drivers but to gamble their money.
Here’s the thing: if you have a small amount of cash you can swap it for no cash via a roulette wheel or pack of cards. And this is David’s plan. David is an architect, yes, of his own demise.
At the casino it’s all going great to start with. Diana steals some chocolates and finds a dress she likes in a boutique. She holds it up to her body but gasps at the price. A creepy guy strolls over and offers to buy it for her: ‘I’ve enjoyed watching you, you’ve earned it.’ Diana doesn’t have a knife handy to throw so she whips out some sass instead: ‘The dress is for sale, I’m not.’ This is called ‘foreshadowing’. We know what the film is about, it’s only David and Diana who don’t. They start gambling with some dice and win some money, then even more money. The creepy guy creepily watches them winning and kissing each other. Then it’s bedtime. David and Diana have $25,000 in cash. They are really thrilled and
go home to pay their mortgage have sex on the money.
In the morning David and Diana head back to the gambling games. They are trying to double their cash into $50,000 by winning but instead divide it down to $5000 by losing. Then they go to a sad cafe, which is my favourite scene. They are talking about how they promised they wouldn’t go below the five grand they arrived with. This would be a good time for David to say something cool like ‘This is my dad’s money, I should respect that and not chuck it down the toilet’ but he doesn’t. Instead they decide to risk everything, because what could be worse than only having $5000? Having no dollars. The waitress who is serving them coffee rolls her eyes like she’s seen it a million times. I’d like to see her backstory; when the recession hit she reassured her family, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes, I’ll wait tables or drive a cab.’ Then she actually did that. Her film is called Minimum Wage in Exchange for Labour Proposal and it ends with her driving the yellow taxi back to a house she still owns, then having sex with her husband on the few dollars she made in tips.
Surprise surprise, David and Diana lose all the money. This is where the waitress would come in to gloat if she wasn’t a one-scene character. Now, despite having no cash left and no reason to be there, the couple continue to hang around the casino waiting for plot to happen. They don’t have to wait long. As they wander around the tables of gamblers they see Robert Redford. They’re told his name is John Gage and that he is a BILLIONAIRE. David and Diana don’t ever forget and call him Robert Redford and I think this is very professional of them. Robert Redford is playing with chips that are worth $10,000 each, and he is throwing them around the table like they’re just little coloured bits of plastic.
I still don’t understand why D&D haven’t gone home. Maybe they think this rich man will leave money lying around they can have sex on? Or do they want some of the free refreshments I’ve heard casinos offer? Either way, I’m annoyed. John Gage spots them and asks David, ‘Would you mind lending me your wife?’ Not for sex (yet) but for luck. The man asks the other man if he can ‘borrow’ a woman, as if she were ketchup or an iPhone charger. David rightly points out that his wife is not an object and should be asked herself. She says yes, I don’t know why. I DON’T KNOW. She can’t believe she IS lucky, she just lost twenty-five grand in an afternoon. What is she up to?
Anyway, she kisses his dice. It’s all very charged and dramatic. The billionaire bets a million dollars and then wins another million dollars for free when the dice numbers roll correctly. Gage doesn’t punch the air or cry with joy, as he already has a thousand million, that’s what a billionaire is. This new million will simply join the others in an overcrowded bank account offshore somewhere.*
Gage must be happy, because he arranges a room for David and Diana and says to help themselves to whatever they want, all on his tab. Neither of them exclaims, ‘That’s a bit weird, we just met you,’ or ‘Must be off, we have to go get jobs as waiters.’ Perhaps they’re in shock, I’ll allow that. Being poor, but more especially battling with debt – it can lead to terrible decision making. It certainly did in my experience. After university I had two student overdrafts and two student credit cards that were charging me more in fines than my small income. I hated myself because it was my fault. Having bills, bank charges and loans hanging over you is a constant cloud; the worry shadows every thought. It felt like an unsolvable problem so I focused instead on forgetting, drinking or drugs or stupid men. I would go to sleep hoping I wouldn’t wake up. I became unable to make sensible choices because I thought I’d fucked things up so badly, that they were unfixable. So I’ll extend this out to David and Diana. Perhaps they are also experiencing that awful anxious madness.
David and Diana go to their new room and a box is delivered, it’s the dress that Diana was ogling in the foyer downstairs. David doesn’t freak out like I would if someone sent my boyfriend a dress. Cut to a party. David and Diana dance looking lovingly at one another. John Gage watches them, and we watch him, waiting to see how he’ll instigate the money-for-sex situation we’ve been promised. The men have a manly dad chat: ‘Where do you see yourself in ten years?’ David replies that he would like to be a billionaire one day. I laugh at him but he can’t hear me. Diana pointedly says that there are limits to what money can buy. I throw my shoes at the screen, yelling, ‘People who tell you money has no value are always the first to ask you for money!’ This is what my mum used to shout about my dad. ‘Money won’t make you happy,’ my dad said when my mum asked him to pay child maintenance as is the law. It was school dinners she was trying to buy, not happiness, but that was ages ago and now we’re all
friends still related.
‘Some things aren’t for sale,’ Diana explains in a dress that was. ‘You can’t buy people.’ I agree with her on this. The buying and selling of people used to be called slavery. Nowadays it’s referred to as trafficking and is illegal. It continues to happen, just like murder and other violent infringements of human rights. Restricting a person’s freedom, enforced labour or, in the case of sex trafficking, pimping someone to be raped for money are some of the worst crimes imaginable. Diana doesn’t mention this in her argument, probably because she doesn’t want to ruin the vibe of the party. Gage calls Diana’s response ‘naive’, a fun way of letting her know he doesn’t consider her an equal. Then he explains that the cliche ‘you can’t buy love’ is, in fact, a cliche.
‘It’s true,’ says Diana.
‘I agree,’ says David.
Now that everyone is likeminded that cliches are cliches but also true, it is time . . . the moment we’ve all been waiting for, the INDECENT PROPOSAL:
Let’s test the cliche. Suppose . . . I were to offer you a
million dollars . . . for one night with your wife?
As with the earlier ‘borrowing for luck’, Diana is not addressed. She is talked about, not to. Gage’s indecent proposal is to David, not Diana. Let’s imagine this was a direct exchange. Would the effect be different if the billionaire asked, ‘Diana, would you sleep with me if I pay you a million dollars?’
Diana would now be empowered to respond, positively or negatively, rather than having to prompt her husband to answer on her behalf. Simply by asking her the same question she would be gifted autonomy over herself. This is basic manners, isn’t it? If you want to pay someone for sex, please ensure you ask them personally. These ‘man-to-man’ conversations in the film subtly reinforce that men own female sexuality; it is the male to whom a man owes respect and from whom he requests permission. In real life we see this with the practice of asking a father’s permission to marry his daughter. I know everyone loves tradition – and I know that you hate me for even bringing this up – but it’s ridiculous. You going cap in hand to her daddy, ‘Can I have it?’ ‘Yes,’ says Daddy, ‘I’ll walk it down the aisle and drop it off for you.’
Some religions include gradients of belief that take patriarchal ownership literally. If you would like some chat to ruin any party’s vibe, research dowry deaths and bride burning. Thousands of women are murdered every year because the father who ‘owns’ them does not pay enough to their new keeper. Then there are irreligious heathens who simply enjoy doing ‘what is done’ and see no harm in it. But even while we’re playing, even when ‘permission’ is not given and taken in a real way, the game is still that a woman’s decisions are not her own, that they can be halted by a male relative if he desires. When freedoms for (some) women have been so hard won, why are we still performing and ENJOYING the role-play of subjugation?
I started this chapter describing a man who approached me for transactional sex. What’s different about his request and this one? Is it just the amount? In both instances a woman who has never had sex for money was asked if she would have sex for money please (to be fair to the murderer, at least he asked me directly). Gage doesn’t know the couple, he has made guests of them in order to manipulate this situation. Yet audiences have not interpreted his behaviour as predatory or even recognised his ‘indecent proposal’ as sex work. Perhaps it’s the size of the sum that creates a nonseedy atmosphere. Is it true that while I am insulted by an offer of £30 or £40 for intercourse, no one would be insulted when offered a million?
A billionaire makes this story otherworldly, a fairy tale. A million dollars makes this conversation surreal. I’d compare it to a tourist experience in Morocco or Tunisia, a family holiday interrupted by a local man, dusty and smiling, offering camels for a female relative. I don’t know if these guys are real or if they’re actors paid by Lonely Planet, but they are a vital part of the atmosphere. My mum had such a story, we all laughed about it. ‘I was tempted!’ her boyfriend said. ‘Five camels!’ But if camel is your currency it’s the same thing. We wouldn’t laugh if men offered money. It’s the ridiculousness of the mammal that makes that proposalsilly rather than indecent.
Huge discrepancy in wealth creates as much of a cultural divide as, well, culture. If Gage had offered a more usual $300 for the night we’d judge his character far more harshly, we’d be able to see his intentions unobscured by the hyperbolic figure. The million also means that Gage is not taken seriously at first.
I’d assume you’re kidding.
Let’s pretend I’m not. What would you say then?
He’d tell you to go to hell.
David is embarrassingly slow here, letting his wife answer for him when it was supposed to be the other way around.
Later, in bed, the couple can’t sleep. Diana worries that David wants her to accept Gage’s offer. She suggests that she would do it . . . for him. Love this technique, we’ve all been there. Getting your own way by pretending to believe it’s your partner’s most secret desire. ‘I thought you wanted me to leave the bins rotting in the kitchen,’ we say innocently, and the age-old ‘I got sacked from work for you.’ If Diana were self-interested, if she exclaimed, ‘I need the money, mate, so I’m gonna do it,’ audiences would not like her, they would judge her on her willingness to have sex for money. Even worse if she admitted sexual motivation, told her husband, ‘I fancy him, he looks like Robert Redford!’
Instead Diana considers the proposal (outwardly at least) as wifely duty. For Diana to be likeable yet sympathetic, she must balance between not actively wanting to shag the man and not being completely coerced against her will. This is the sweet spot: she isn’t keen, but neither is she traumatised. Diana is under financial pressure but not starving, this isn’t Les Misérables. This middle-class couple are in difficulty but have options like driving a cab, waiting tables or going back in time and putting that cash in the bank rather than underneath their rutting bodies. If this film began a year later in Diana and David’s narrative, when they’re homeless beggars; if John Gage stopped his car to offer a visibly destitute woman money for sex, would Audrey still quip, ‘I’d do him for free?’
So how desperate does a person have to be for sex work to become survival sex?
* The film doesn’t make it explicit that John Gage is taking advantage of tax loopholes, but I can tell he banks offshore from his haircut. I can always tell.
Sara Pascoe is a highly acclaimed comedian, writer and actor. Her extensive TV credits include the BBC solo stand-up special LadsLadsLads; BBC2's Frankie Boyle's New World Order, on which she is a weekly guest contributor; and Comedians Giving Lectures on Dave, which she hosts. She wrote and performed the BBC Radio 4 series Modern Monkey and the BBC2 short Sara Pascoe vs Monogamy, which was inspired by her first book Animal