“When people ask me what I do for a living,” writes Elizabeth Pisani in The Wisdom of Whores, “I say ‘Sex and drugs.'” Not only is it succinct, but it’s also a conversation starter as, she observes, “Everybody has something to say about sex and drugs.”
But seldom do people have anything as interesting, perspicacious and entertaining to say about these two things as Pisani in her book (and related website). As a bureau reporter turned epidemiologist, Pisani accidentally found herself in the right place at the right time just as an ominous new disease was spreading across the world – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Others before her have discussed what it meant to live on the crest of that deadly wave in the 1980s – back when it was called GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The Lancet called it the Gay Compromise Syndrome. The fear, stigma, judgment and ostracization; the horror of attending funerals of your friends every week. On an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Tom Hanks confessed that he still finds it traumatic to watch Philadelphia because so many of the people on screen have since died.
For Pisani, the impact was double – she witnessed its devastation first hand as a New Yorker in the early 1980s and she was just finishing up a degree as an epidemiologist in the mid 1990s when AIDS was finally becoming a matter of international public policy. The Wisdom of Whores is a fascinating account of those first few years when “AIDS” was no longer a dirty word (or at least, it had reached a point where politicians could actually say the word in public without fearing that its residual cooties might latch on to their pristine characters).
There is a sense of wonderment about the early pages as if Pisani still can’t believe that she and a bunch of other young punks were actually the ones calling the shots at UNAIDS as it set about trying to handle one of the greatest epidemics of our time with immense social consequences. You learn things about international bureaucracy and its functioning that makes you wonder: Is that really how the world is run?
It appears so. And it would be awesome if it didn’t leave you the teensiest bit queasy as you try to digest the implications. But the meat of the book comes later when Pisani sets down roots of a kind in Jakarta and begins to explore the local ground conditions. What she finds is that the theory she and her colleagues have spent all their time massaging to fit various governments (all at once, in that one-size-fits-all way of the United Nations) doesn’t always equal reality or as she puts it, “real people don’t have sex in boxes”.
The Indonesian man who brings about that realization is “a self-proclaimed heterosexual guy who has unpaid sex with a woman who sells sex to other men, while himself also selling sex to other men and buying sex from transgendered sex workers.” Does that sound like a person at risk for HIV? Can I have a “duh”? And yet, he didn’t fit a single one of the criteria on the questionnaire prepared by the Indonesian government to find out how many people in their country were at risk for the virus.
When it comes to AIDS, you quickly realize, it is not the disease itself that presents the biggest challenge – it is the baggage it brings with it. To mention just a few of her many examples:
- There are well-intentioned international church groups that block access to sex workers because NGOs that preach safe sex through condoms are messing with the church’s own plans to “re-educate” the women by teaching them vocations like baking. This in spite of the fact that the condoms save many more lives than the few converts who eventually start bakeries.
- Democracy is a wonderful thing but sometimes it brings religious fundamentalists into power like the Islamic political parties who tore down the centralized brothels sanctioned by the authoritarian government. That sent a strong statement about the new Indonesia, especially to the prostitutes who then had to move elsewhere without access to health clinics and the many benefits of living in a centralized neighborhood where the government kept a close watch on the activities.
- Morality says premarital sex is bad and is a sign of the West’s slutty influence. Except under the proper, puritanical ways of the old traditions, astonishing numbers of young men in Thailand were buying sex from workers with a high risk of AIDS who frequently sold sex without using condoms. As women began to get educated, they began to wait before getting married – but chose to have sex before. The young men who were now having sex with their girlfriends were still having sex without condoms but now their partners weren’t as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.
- In China, the government suppressed a painstakingly gathered report by international experts on the number of estimated Chinese citizens with AIDS. A massive Communist cover up in action? Sure. The Chinese didn’t want to kick off another round of international speculation about the validity of their methods due to possible draconian government interference when the estimated numbers came in below what an earlier, similarly controversial report sanctioned and carried out by the government had been published.
And if you think sex workers and horny young people from formerly cloistered societies have it hard, you should see the junkies. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, as the fairly kneejerk response to needle exchange programs prove, everybody’s cool with a junkie if he wants to die of AIDS.
The reasons governments around the world do what they do and the massive amounts of corruption and sheer bizarreness of the many groups that surround an easily and cheaply preventable disease, are legion. The Wisdom of Whores is part memoir, part expose about a significant event that’s taking place right now in your backyard. Perhaps even in your house.
At the same time it is also a witty, empathetic, fascinating window to a foreign world filled with characters so odd in circumstances so strange to most of us that they would strain credulity if presented as fiction. I couldn’t recommend it more.