Nothing brings out the self-righteous quite like prostitution. You can write about adulterous politicians, scummy bankers, violent mafia bosses, vicious drug peddlers, self-appointed gurus, hedonistic celebrities, whatever you like – and it’s likely there’ll be a few people out there who just want to express their outrage.
But bring up the hookers and suddenly hardly anybody wants to say anything other than make clear that A) They think prostitution is wrong B) They are not for it C) Shame on all people who say anything than the first two. Of course, these days the web has turned into a vast confessional (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) so there’ll be a few people who’ll also chip in that D) They’ve hired certain services – just once! – and don’t see why it’s anybody else’s damn business and E) Human trafficking is a big problem.
Lost in all of this will be the actual issue at hand. Take Steven Soderbergh’s latest movie The Girlfriend Experience, about a call girl who provides the fantasy of being the client’s girl-friend, complete with conversation, dinner date, and cuddling up in bed. Or Tracy Quan‘s latest article on The Daily Beast about male prostitution.
I found both (and Quan’s work in general) to be fascinating, exploring a world that has been depicted time and again on screen and in novels, fetishized in some cases (Bollywood’s Virgin Whore, for example), and yet what do we know about it? It might be the world’s oldest profession, but like any other profession, people who’ve never availed its services or worked in it or been connected to it in some other way know little about it other than its barest definition.
As ER neared its series finale this year, for example, people involved in its conception remarked that it was an eye opener in its time because the audience up till then had no real idea of what went on in a hospital emergency room. Now I would wager that we’ve all seen a lot more ER doctors than we have prostitutes, and yet what do we all know about hospitals really? Similarly, if you’d asked me what I knew about the sex trade, I would never have replied that perhaps men who buy the services of a call girl would like her to pretend to be their girlfriend.
In fact, I thought prostitution must be all slam bam goodbye – an impersonal transaction like that scene from Monster’s Ball where Billy Bob Thornton hires the town hooker who casually walks into the room and exchanges brief pleasantries before pulling down her skirt and bending over. He could have been buying a pack of cigarettes at the local gas station. So this idea, explored in both Quan’s article as well as Soderbergh’s movie, that there’s a strong element of fantasy and connection involved took me aback.
Now that I think about it, of course, it makes perfect sense to me that the clients would like it to be something more than straight up sex. After all, even porn has a fantasy element to it. What I find interesting is that the people responding to Quan’s articles or Soderbergh’s movie or their like have certain fantasies of their own.
In the male hooker piece, for example, there were people who refused to believe, or at least pretended not to believe, that women could possibly pay for sex. Women are apparently too smart, too nice, too powerful, too emotionally strong to pay for it. Completely overlooking the fact that they’re apparently not too smart, too nice, too powerful or too emotionally strong to provide it.
Then there are people who’ll read the whole thing but then feel compelled to judge the people involved – and it’s not always the morality of the act itself that’s in question. There are those, of course, who feel prostitution is a sin and shame on everyone involved, but then there are those who wonder how the sex trade in general ties in to human trafficking, those who object to certain details, who can see certain discrepancies in the business model…
Anything really, to avoid looking prostitution in the face.