There are lines we never willingly cross, but almost for that reason, we are fascinated by what lies on the other side.
We understand that there are things we can never know secondhand, experiences we wish we could learn from without having to live through them personally. I, for one, tend toward darkness, encounters that bring forth courage and endurance; war, torture, incarceration. Would they break me, make me insane? How would life be different afterward, assuming there was an afterward? Something in there fascinates me, but I don’t want to actually have it happen. For you it’s probably something else – a life like Mother Theresa’s perhaps, or maybe Michael Jackson’s. Whatever it is, we may wish we could reap the rewards, but not have to pay the price.
Then there is the fact that no matter how universal an event might be, we each experience it our own way. Just as we don’t really know a perfume’s true scent without application, since it smells different on everyone, we know that without firsthand experience, there are things we’ll never know.
We can read the best-written accounts and hope to glean insight, but we know the reality would change us in ways mere insights can’t. If life is more vital and immediate after a brush with death – I want that immediacy and vitality, but I don’t want to dash across a raging battle-field to get it.
As with war, I’ve observed that many people are at least a little curious about prostitution. It’s intriguing, perhaps, simply because it is one of those things you can never know second-hand, yet you’d never choose to do it yourself, certain that the costs would outweigh any satisfaction of curiosity. I used to be that way about heroin – merely because of reports that it’s so blissful you’re hooked after one dose, what could such pleasure be like? – but not anymore. I’ve had enough first-hand experience of junkies that such a potential for bliss no longer fascinates. So perhaps we can find enough satisfaction in prolonged exposure to others with first-hand experience to at least diminish the curiosity.
In the instance of prostitution, which everyone knows is a gritty reality, why such beguilement? After all, homelessness is gritty as well, but I don’t see it having the same allure. Ditto for working in a meat-packing plant.
I think that in part, we want to know where the line is. In our society, almost every human being, at some point, and more often than not, feels in some sense “prostituted”, that a sacred part of ourselves is being exploited, generally in exchange for some type of financial security. It feels inevitable, diminishing, sickening, and we wonder what it means about us personally that we allow it to happen. There really isn’t a bright line of distinction for prostitution, as evidenced by the many feminists who have pointed out that marriage is one form of it, and those who say unfulfilling jobs are another. But we don’t want to be whores, we don’t want to feel like whores, we don’t want to be seen as whores, and so we’d appreciate a line which we can feel certain we never have and never would cross. We want to be sure we’re ‘not that’ – which isn’t easy. It’s a relief, then, to have an obvious and clearly-defined example to juxtapose ourselves against. It’s nice when someone else can swoop in and wholly own a mantle we felt was inching uncomfortably close, eclipsing our private suspicions about ourselves.
Of course my ‘we’, in the above, is figurative. I can only project what I suspect a non-hooker feels, based on my pre-hooking years and my understanding of myself in relation to other despicable lines. For example, as a boss, one can’t always be sure you’re not accidentally becoming a Dickhead (especially in a Dickheaded hierarchical system), so I’m always, in a perverse way, relieved when an obvious Dickhead appropriates that mantle from me. It’s so much easier to project all my scorn his way, smug in my sureness that I’m nothing like that. But relative to prostitution, having once crossed that line and remained firmly on the other side long enough to have removed any possible doubt, my feelings about what it means and where it lies are different than yours. Because I relinquished the luxury of ambiguity.
The connection between money and sex is also bewitching. Sex is our cultural obsession, probably the most-thought-about topic in all of human history. And where sex is not ascendant, money is. Prostitution marries the two most irresistible topics of civilized life, directly, literally – how could we resist?
Sexual fantasy also turns to prostitution. Female or male, the fantasy of sex as a whore or sex with a whore has, I’ve been told often enough, a common allure, for which maybe, real experience on the ‘as a whore” side, is a kind of prophylactic – it’s a fantasy I’ve never had.
Then there is transgression. Prostitution is a breach, a willful disobedience, a violation of the contract which exists to preserve the social order. It is, by my personal reckoning, based on the experience of being me, the most atrocious of interpersonal sins aside from murder. And even murder has a myriad of special dispensations, conditions under which it is justified. Prostitution; being on the wrong side of that line once we figure out where to draw it, is not redeemable. It’s just not.
And lastly – prostitution, as with any taboo, is a secret. It belongs to a clandestine world, hidden from day-to-day reality, a parallel underground dimension, in which we can be sure that real people we believe we know secretly play out mystifyingly uncharacteristic roles, in which they reveal their secret selves to others we’ll never know.
That fascination is one reason for writing about such experiences – people want to know what it’s like, but don’t want to live it in person. And in fact, it’s still a fairly new memoir genre – there are very few books written on the subject first-hand, so there’s plenty of room for another.
That’s the first story that can be told here, a story about an adventure, (or trauma, disaster, fiasco, stupidity), a modern-day Dante’s journey through hell – however we come to characterize it.
Once upon a time, had I written this book then, that would have been my main purpose – to attempt to satisfy that curiosity, to share my experience of a secret world where you get to learn about people in a way you can’t anywhere else; it would have been an adventure story. Because once upon a time, I believed that’s why I had that adventure in the first place, my curiosity being stronger than most, and my fear of transgression weaker – I believed my insatiable craving for revelatory experience (my yearning for that fruit from the tree of knowledge that causes such trouble) was what drove me. Now I believe that was simply what enabled me, but the drive involved more than a lust for learning. That time has passed. Chosen memories are still vivid, but most have dissolved, their original shape now distilled away.
Beyond the pure sickly curiosity about spreading your lips and legs and butt cheeks to strange and not-always-pleasant men hour after hour, night after night, and the parallel story of what men reveal in your secret chambers which is never revealed elsewhere, one of the next questions a person wants to know (whether or not they have the guts to ask it out loud) when they hear that an apparently functional, self-respecting, intelligent woman was once a whore is – what made you do it? How did you end up there? People want to know causes – it’s the next best thing to control – if we know what makes it happen, maybe we can prevent it.
I want to know causes as well. I have read every contemporary personal account of prostitution I could get my hands on, and I have to say, the less I am told about the events leading up to the prostitution, the less satisfied I am with the account. Not just the immediate, trigger event, but further back. I, like everyone else, want to know – what, really, brought you there?
Of course, in many ways, that’s a harder story to tell, it makes sense that we can find fewer true versions of that story. One can never know the answer entirely (the unconscious being infinite), but even to know it enough to give clues requires reflection, introspection, a willingness to dig in the muck of the unconscious, to dredge up the past. That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, especially where pain and shame are involved. And even if it were, it takes time. Time and perspective. And in some ways, revealing what got you there feels even more exposed than telling the simple facts. ‘I did it, and I shared the experience, that should be enough. Now you want to know why – go to hell!’
Really, ‘why?’ is much more private.
It’s also a luxury many of us never have – mere survival being such a struggle for most of us.
The next question people want to know, assuming said whore has put some distance between herself and hooking, is – how did you recover? Or, how much have you recovered? Or, what is it in you that enabled you to recover? An even rarer story, because first some healing would be necessary (in itself rare in a world where even survival is not a given). And I’ll tell you now, the healing called for is as much, if not more, about healing the stigma and diminished sense of self that comes from wearing society’s projections than from the actual experience. And to the degree that is true, telling the story would mean not merely revisiting the old trauma, which is often part of a healing process, but actually inviting a repeat of the experience, a re-inhabiting of a wounding persona – not merely ‘wounded’ (past tense) but being newly wounded all over again – willing to take on that stigma once more. Telling the story at all means inviting a fresh blow to the self.
That fact leads to the next question, one I face now that I’ve decided to ‘come out’ thirty years later, after having achieved a measure of healing and a far more successful and acceptable persona, which is why on earth would one want to tell people about it at this late date? It seems downright perverse to dredge it all up now, after I’ve proven myself to be far more than a whore. Why would I choose to go backwards and pick up that mantle – knowing that doing so will shroud everything else I have worked so hard to become? Knowing that doing so will make me (again) a one-dimensional pariah (in other’s eyes), knowing I will have to endure a fresh set of attacks to recover from. That is another story in itself.
And last, the question no-one ever asks, not really, though it lies deep beneath every effort to get me to take a moral stance about the topic; the question that at this point in my life has me captivated, the question that right now seemingly lies under every other question of my existence, the question I once threw myself under a bus to get an answer to – what is the purpose of prostitution (as opposed to the cause)? What does it serve? Why does it exist? Why is it that no answer ever satisfies me?
For me, prostitution happened thirty years ago; it has been baked and digested, excreted and assimilated. And that in itself is another kind of story that could be told.
Because I’ll tell you – I have dug deep into causes and I can spell a myriad of them out in great gut-wrenching detail, but something still eludes that perspective. There was something I was looking for, back when I made that life-shattering decision, which no understanding of causes delivers, something that no amount of philosophy, psychology, science, economics, or spirituality provides, something which only by exploring all of those things while juxtaposing them against my own sense of truth coming from my body and soul, over the course of 30 years, has begun to provide some little clues to – something resembling meaning, something bigger than myself, something akin to a sense of purpose.
So what does that give us? What possible stories could we be heading into here? What story have I intended to write? It’s only fair to forewarn you.
Here, to recap, are our options: The story of illicit adventure; the story of causes; the story of healing; the story of disclosure (or the impact of secrets); and the story of conclusions (or purpose, the Big Picture).
Which will this be? One of the first things you should know, if you propose to join in this next adventure with me, is that I tend to bite off, well, too much. I’m the person in your English class to whom the professor will say ‘You’re trying to write the history of the world in three pages – it can’t be done, you need to narrow your focus.” I’m also the person who will sincerely try to comply with good advice (about things other than how to live my life – that realm is off-limits), but even so, having honestly thought I did as I was told, will return with my three pages and watch the professor read, blink a few times, and then say ‘Well, I said it couldn’t be done, but, somehow, you did it.’ And then on the flip side, I may take two minutes at a lunch counter, trapped in the wrong kind of eye contact and turn it into a 160+ page psychic romp thru my own private 9 layers of hell, wrapped in a personal-is-political discourse on gender and privilege and the collapse of civilization. Whatever I do, it’s bound to be disproportionate.
Fact is, I wouldn’t have told you there was a story option here if I didn’t intend to tell it. The thing that’s interesting to me about any of them is the whole that they make when fit together, a whole which, to me, is greater than the sum of its parts. Remove any one of the stories and I’ll get bored (which, I assure you, is rare, but no fun). I know simplicity is all the vogue these days, a mantra in both business and academia (I’ve been urged to befriend it often enough), and I know that some may consider it a mental illness, but I’m too old to care what they think – I thrive on complexity.
True, pure, crystalline clarity is breathtaking, but if it’s not inherent, I can’t see the point in hacking away at reality in an effort to falsely achieve it. I enjoy a lot going on at once. I hope you do too.