"Why is it immoral to be paid for an act that is perfectly legal when done for free?"
~ Gloria Allred & Lisa Bloom (1994)
Mind Caviar, Vol. 3 Fall Issue, 2002
Books about sex workers have been around nearly as long as books have been around. Prostitutes are frequently mentioned in the eleventh century Japanese book, Tales of Genji and the second century Roman book, The Golden Ass. But while there have always been books about the lives of prostitutes, the pace of books by sex workers has dramatically accelerated in the last couple of years. A New York Times article mentioned that there have been at least a dozen books -- both fiction and non-fiction -- published in the last two years that explore the world of sex work. In addition to my non-fiction book, Turning Pro, there's Lily Burana's Strip City, Susan Griffin's The Book of the Courtesans, and Alexa Albert's Brothel: Mustang Ranch and Its Women. Fiction writers have been busy at work as well -- Tracy Quan's Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, Rick Whitaker's Assuming the Position, J. T. LeRoy's Sarah. Recently published memoirs include David Henry Starry's Chicken: Self Portrait of a Young Man for Rent and a reissue of the 1970's classic, The Happy Hooker, by Xaviera Hollander. Hollander's also been written a new book, her twentieth if I haven't missed counting, Child No More, a coming-of-age tale about discovering her sexuality.
You'd think that, surrounded by this embarrassment of riches, the last thing a person would want to do is add yet another sex work book to the already overcrowded shelf. The sex work genre has become trendy these days. That New York Times article compares the overflow of sex work books now to the explosion of prozac books in the 1990s or the cocaine-saturated fiction of the 1980s. Then again, this might be the golden decade for literate whores. I hadn't realized I was joining in on a trend.
An Early 21st Century Literary Trend
As I wrote my first book, I began to notice other sex work books popping up everywhere but attributed that to that common "gestalt moment" where you suddenly notice a word, item or concept that's been floating around for ages. In the months after I first learned what Occam's Razor was, it seemed as if the world was abuzz with talk of the theory. After I went to my first Grateful Dead concert, I noticed references to the band in novels, on T-shirts and in news articles. Having had this sort of experience repeat itself every time I was exposed to something new, I naturally assumed that there have always been dozens of sex work books published every year.
It wasn't until I read that article in the Times that I realized it wasn't just me and my newly opened perceptions. I was witnessing a new trend. By that point, I'd written my first book, signed a contract for my second non-fiction book and started writing a novel featuring prostitutes as main characters. The novel, admittedly, is a frivolous affair -- an attempt to meet the challenge of National Novel Writing Month. The novel challenge takes place every November when foolhardy souls who have signed up at www.nanowrimo.com attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days or less. It was while writing Pleasure is a Freedom Song that I found the article that informed me of the sex work literary trend. It seemed appropriate to learn that everyone else seems to be writing about prostitutes at the same time that I was part of another growing trend -- attempting to write a novel along with 5,000 other people.
I chose to write about prostitutes because speed-writing requires intimate familiarity with one's chosen topic. I've been intimately, obsessively fascinated with sex since I was a very small child, and my choice of a career in and fascination with prostitution and other forms of sex work has always seemed a logical development for me. I didn't expect to learn much about sex work while speed-writing my way through November, but I surprised myself. While elbow-deep in my month-long art-whore extravaganza, my perception of the relationship between art and life bounced back and forth like a pinball caught between two thumper bumpers on a Bally playfield.
Art Imitates Life
"Art imitates life," or so goes the truism. But there were times when I felt that my life was imitating the art I was attempting to create as well. I fed the ingredients of my life into the story -- all disabled or deformed clients and all clients I've known who were ashamed of the appearance of their genitals merged into a single character, Kurt, with severe hypospadias, a malformation of the penis. All women I've known who hated sex work but kept doing it for years because they were reluctant to give up the income, or had settled into a rut and weren't sure what else to do with themselves merged into the single character, Ginny. All true meeting of the minds I've had with clients melded into the interactions between another character, Joe, and Ginny's roommate, Sarah.
The story accepted those ingredients, chewed them up and spit back personal philosophies about sex work that I'd never articulated before, at least not so succinctly, even though I've been in the Biz for over a decade and a half. I didn't fully grasp how much my art was shaping my life until I finished the Nanowrimo challenge and took a couple of days to step back from the myopic scrabbling involved in hacking out a rough and dirty first draft. I took a day off from writing and then launched into another project: a history of my personal and sexual evolution, required by an educational institution I'm considering attending.
The assignment asked me to write a detailed and personal account of my sexual and emotional development, showing how my experiences and my interpretations of my life's sexual events have prepared me for a course of study that is quite sexual and extremely intimate. In the process of distilling my years of whoring and showing how they could lead to years of teaching sexual skills and communication techniques, I realized that my characters had explained the Art of Whore to me while I was writing Pleasure Is a Freedom Song. The Art of Whore can be distilled to three principals common to all highly successful prostitutes. More importantly, though, the Art of Whore outlines a path of personal success than is available to anyone, regardless of their occupation, regardless of the number of people they choose to bed.
It might seem that the most important quality for a successful sex worker is a supermodel body. In truth, most successful sex workers have physical flaws. Some of us even market our so-called flaws. It might seem that the most important quality is understanding mind-blowing sexual techniques, but a client may choose not to return, even if a worker gives the best blow job he's ever had, if he doesn't like her attitude.
What Makes a Whore Artful?
The three qualities that all artful whores hold in common are:
Artful whores want to help people reach their goals. They realize that being encouraging, helping and healing is the core of their job. Whether they're helping a client achieve orgasm, teaching him to perform oral sex with more confidence and competence, pulling a shy client out of his shell so that he can relax and enjoy the session he's paid for, reassuring a client that there's nothing wrong with the fact that he masturbates five times a day, or holding a weeping client when he breaks down after her gentle touch has opened the floodgates of his caged grief. Talented, successful and artful whores realize every day that they have embraced a helping profession, a career of institutionalized caring.
But for all that compassion and acceptance, giving and caring, the artful whore does not let go of her sense of enlightened self-interest. It is this healthy acceptance and nurturing of self that leads the successful sex worker to protect herself in many ways -- everything from maintaining strong sexual and emotional boundaries to promoting herself well so that she can earn a good living from her work. It is this self-interest that leads her to avoid dangerous working situations and to radiate the self-confidence that tells a client that he must treat her with respect and dignity.
The Art of Whore is the art of any socially philanthropic work carefully contemplated and lovingly executed. O.S. Marden, put it well: "No one can make a real masterpiece of life until he sees something infinitely greater in his vocation than bread and butter and shelter." Kahlil Gibran touched on the art of whoring too when he wrote, "in keeping yourself with labour you are in truth loving life, and to love life through labour is to be intimate with life's inmost secret ... and all work is empty save when there is love ... work is love made visible."
The difference between artful whoring and artful creation of music, architecture, writing, nursing or any work of visible love is that artful whoring manifests excellence through sexuality. Artful whoring is not necessarily Sacred Whoring; while art often rests on a spiritual foundation, the artful whore does not require a religious focus in order to elevate her craft to the level of art. The artist devoted to the art for its own sake bears her own brand of piety.
Of course, there are those who disagree. One such person is Christine Stolba. Stolba is a senior fellow at the Independent Women's Forum, a group with which I normally find myself in agreement. Stolba has no problem with the sexual content of the recent flurry of sex work literature, but speaks against the notion that these books could have a deeper value to them. "I don't think a fun book about being a prostitute is going to teach women, especially young women, anything of value," she said. I must respectfully disagree with Ms. Stolba. I have learned a great deal from the art of whore -- a great deal of valuable life teachings.
Maybe Ms. Stolba is partially right, though. Maybe the lessons of whoring are ideas that can only be of value and benefit to those who have lived through those teaching events. Maybe no one can learn the art of whore through reading about our lives. Maybe... but I'd hate to underestimate the general public like that. If I can learn valuable lessons about self-respect and living life with integrity through reading Chuck Norris's autobiography, even though I've never been a martial arts fighter or a movie star, maybe someone else can learn the lessons of the art of whore without ever accepting cash for their sexual favors. Maybe Ms. Stolba is selling women short by assuming that they can learn nothing from reading about the lives of prostitutes.
What Have I Learned From My Art?
What have I learned from the art of whore? Tolerance of clients has taught me tolerance of people in general. There was a time when I might be afraid of people who were different and avoid them. My experiences with clients have taught me that people who seem different at first glance are often more similar than I'd expected. I still keep my guard up if I'm in a vulnerable situation, but I'm not so quick to dismiss people who speak strangely, dress in ways that I don't understand or make choices I wouldn't make. As a result, I've had many wonderful conversations with intriguing people, some of which developed into personally enriching friendships.
Whether it's as a result of having spent my career in a helping profession or whether I was attracted to my career because of an innate desire to help others, my sex work has helped me to become a person who can be patient with others who want to change things about their lives. I've learned to be a catalyst in other people's lives; I've learned to back off when they don't need or want help. I think I could have learned these things from working as a nurse, a social worker or a police officer, as well. But even though I could have learned helping skills in other professions, I did learn them from working as a prostitute. Embracing the art of whore has increased my ability to be compassionate with others and, ultimately, with myself.
The biggest thing I've learned from whoring is to maintain personal boundaries and respect myself. This is also the lesson people seem most surprised that I could learn from sex work. In our culture, we're led to believe that prostitution is always a degrading, humiliating act that destroys a woman's boundaries. I'll be the first to admit that some women should not become prostitutes and many women go on to try it anyway only to find that the work and the lifestyle they adopt around the work destroys their life. But prostitution isn't always like that. Some women are well-suited for the work and are able to build a lifestyle while working that doesn't destroy them. As Tracy Quan said in a recent L.A. Times review of Xaviera Hollander's new book, "Perhaps some people are born to be prostitutes, the way some people are born to be athletes, writers or musicians, and no cautionary tale can dissuade such a person from pursuing her natural profession."
I consider myself to be one of those naturally suited for the work and I've found my self-confidence and self-respect increasing year after year. Sex work has taught me that I do have personal power, I do have the ability to make satisfying choices about my life and I do possess a genuine beauty that goes deeper than the shape of my body -- a beauty that clients still respond to as my body ages and changes.
There are very important things taught by the art of whore, things that can be learned through doing, or possibly learned through being made aware of them. The lessons of the art of whore are deep lessons, ones that we seem to maintain a need to learn, lessons that generation after generation must rediscover for themselves. Perhaps I will finish writing Pleasure Is a Freedom Song. Even a work of fiction can show a different way of life, a different way of thought. Sex worker literature may have become a cliché, but it's a cliché that is capable of teaching real, solid, valuable lessons. So long as the lessons of respect, compassion and self-esteem still need to be taught, I'll continue to write about sex work, cliché or not. The art of whore continues to exist because it is an art sorely needed in this weary and jaded world.
Copyright © 2002 Magdalene Meretrix. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole or in part.
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