Thursday, August 25, 2011

I Was (Almost) a Prostitute, Part 2

Writing part 1 of my response to the “Hipster Hooker” story and its aftermath was therapeutic, but I’m still dismayed at how slut-shaming remains such an extraordinarily effective strategy to keep women in line. I mean, really, even today if you want to be a respected writer, ladies, stay away from any whiff of sex or you’re ruined. That’s why this strategy works so beautifully. If “serious,” “respectable” people are scared into silence, then sexuality will continue to be dirty, forbidden and a great way to get at us in sly, subtle ways so we feel ashamed, don’t get feisty, and buy more stuff. Women will suffer for this because on the face of it they are designated as the more sexualized, vulnerable and inferior sex. But in spite of their alleged superiority and free rein with the libidinous impulses, men lose out in a sex-phobic society, too. Jessica Pilot’s article illustrates this point equally well.

While nominally about young women who make six-figure, tax-free salaries keeping company with prominent men, whether intentionally or not, Pilot’s article presents a grim picture of male sexuality. Pilot and her friends didn’t seem to have a very positive experience with sex with free-loading lovers. Pilot admits that at 22, all her dates and hookups hadn’t amounted to much, except to make her life more stressful. A call girl informant asked Pilot, and through her the reader as well, “How many men have you slept with who have turned out to be assholes? Well, let’s say you could get reimbursed for all the time you spent with them. Would you?” It’s easier to get compensated, says another. Sex with a boyfriend just isn’t worth it.

So, okay, guys, you’re going to have to make the bedroom more rewarding for your girlfriend, if you want to beat out the fellows willing to pay $2000 an hour!

If regular guys aren’t offering much pleasure in the sack, the “big-time artists,” “pro hockey players,” a “CFO at a major investment firm” mentioned in the article do seem to exert an appeal for Manhattan’s desirable young women. Of course Pilot can’t mention names, prostitution is illegal, but the necessity of being coy really underscored the depersonalization of the men. They become job titles, wallets, success objects. They might believe a long-time client relationship means there is genuine feeling, but Pilot’s pretty informants shake their heads and smile at that comforting illusion. If you happen to be in the mood to pity rich guys, you’ll find plenty of evidence here. Observes one call girl: “These guys are just lonely. And I know it’s hard to believe some of the big names we’ve been with would ever get that way, but believe me, they are. You have to have some sympathy for a man who works so hard to be successful and has no true love in his life. He has to get it by the hour.”

More than an expose of prostitution, Pilot’s article strikes me as warning about the costs of success and the worship of money as well. I’d guess a majority of people would not actively encourage their daughters to become prostitutes, even high-paid ones, but plenty of us encourage our sons to “succeed” without considering the price our elite professions exact. I was reminded of another great book I read last year called Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street by Karen Ho. Ho studies the culture of Wall Street and her findings would be sad if they weren’t so dangerous for our national economy. In brief summary, Wall Street firms indoctrinate their young recruits by forcing them to work hellish hours in a cutthroat environment, stringing them along with the promise of huge bonuses for putting profit above any other consideration. Does this harsh, blindered life take a toll on these young men (and just a few women who survive the gender hazing)?

Pilot’s article gives us an intriguing answer to that question. Naturally no article about high-end prostitution would be complete without glimpses into the kinky tastes of rich guys, and Pilot gives us a doozy with a peek into the erotic fetish of a “prominent hedge fund millionaire.” (Incidentally, according to a little web surfing, part of the pleasure of reading the article for New Yorkers was guessing identities). Is this kinky enough for you? One Wall Street master of the universe placed fifty one-hundred-dollar bills all over the bed then told “Olivia” to lie on top of them naked and (pretend to, she assures us) play with herself. He promised her the money would be all hers. Then he ejaculated on the money and stuck every bill to her body with his personal “glue.” After he pasted the last bill over her mouth, he said, “I told you it would be all yours.”  (Olivia collects the money in a baggie, washes and dries it, then gives it to her landlady for rent.  Is the dirty money still circulating?  If you deal in hundred-dollar-bills, beware of wrinkled, laundered-looking specimens!)

Okay, certainly one response to this scene, the most expected one, is EEEUUUWWW, men are so creepy and perverted, and obviously the richer you are, the more screwed up you are and the more you demean women and ohmygod this is so gross! That poor prostitute, she must have no self-respect to endure that.  Oh, and is there another example of the weird things these high-flyin' guys do?

I must admit, however, that my reaction was a bit different. Some argue that high-end call girls are more like therapists and in this case it couldn’t be truer. I can't help but wonder what has happened to this man in his life that would find erotic expression in this form? What humiliations did he have to endure for that dangling phallus of great wealth? What silence was required that felt to him like a mouth gagged by a hundred-dollar bill covered with a stranger’s semen?

Remember, this is a guy who has some serious power over our national economy, a success by any measure. Maybe we should stop worrying about our daughters and start taking a look at the way we compromise the souls of our sons?

One more thought about overlooked gems in Pilot’s article. One of her informant friends is supposedly confessing the downside of her job—that she feels depressed when she doesn’t have clients, that she calculates what she’d be earning with a john when she’s out with a boyfriend (as if busy businessmen aren’t always thinking about work as well). But she also confesses she feels close to some of her clients. “We’re both hiding a secret about ourselves, and in a very bizarre way that’s totally hot.” I wish Pilot had explored these intriguing insights further--our assumptions might have been challenged in an interesting way rather than, mostly, confirmed.

But I promised you a story of my own brief descent into prostitution, and I’m a girl who delivers. I won’t leave you your hotel room door, mouth gaping, deeply chagrined that a call girl took one look at your face and fled on you like the poor chubby guy Pilot rejected. (One can’t help but wonder what she would have done if Hugh Grant answered the door). Anyway, here goes.

In the summer of 1983, when I was just one year younger than Jessica Pilot, I lived in New York City for a few months. New York had always seemed so glamorous, all I could see was the neon and bustle, but I gradually became more familiar with its shadowy side—the young women in silk dresses lingering outside of midtown office buildings at day’s end, a friend of a friend who worked for the Mayflower Madam with fascinating, often poignant stories of her own. I glimpsed more depressing aspects of prostitution in New York as well. I didn’t write about my experiences then, but I did a few years ago in an autobiographical story entitled “Gotham Sex,” which was published in Maxim Jakubowski’s Sex and the City: New York.

I’ll let my narrator tell you the story:

Over the next year I did witness plenty of streetwalkers plying their trade on the sidewalk in front of my sister’s building. These women were not French fashion dolls like Anne, but clichés of another sort. Their bodies were dumpy and worn-looking under polyester halter tops and miniskirts. Most appeared to be in their thirties, bored-looking Puerto Ricans or chain-smoking peroxide blondes. There were exceptions. One day I spied two laughing men in their early twenties emerging from behind some cars in the parking lot at the corner. A woman about my age with kohl-rimmed eyes followed a few steps behind, tugging down her skirt.

She returned my gaze with an icy stare of contempt.

I looked away and hurried on as if I were the guilty one.

After a few months I was savvy enough to identify the regular customers, too. Cars cruised the block regularly—fat Cadillacs or big old Buicks with beefy, gray-haired drivers.

Sometimes, when I was feeling disgusted with my Ivy League classmates’ Wall Street ambitions, I wondered if a career in streetwalking might be a more honest way to make a living.

The August after graduation, I finally got my chance to try it.

I was strolling back from lunch with friends in the West Village, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt I picked up for a dollar in a thrift store. I walked very slowly, studying my sandaled feet. The symbolism of it struck me even at the time. Up to then I’d known exactly what my next step should be. Now my future was wide open, but too frightening to examine, like a deep, messy wound.

That’s when I sensed the big car shadowing me, its engine purring just a few feet away. My body seemed to know what was happening before my mind did, for my cheeks began to burn as if I’d gulped down a puckery old Manhattan cocktail.

Oh, God, he thinks I’m a streetwalker.

I bit back a giggle. But was it a joke? At that moment I did feel like a desperate woman with no direction in her life.

Here was opportunity at last. Obscene possibilities flashed into my head. I could see my own body leaning on the passenger’s window to haggle (how much should I ask for anyway?). The hurried ride to a secluded spot (wherever would that be in this all-too-public metropolis?). Me clutching the car upholstery with sweaty fingers, wondering if I could actually go through with it. Bending over to take his wrinkled, grandpa’s cock between my lips, but doing my best, because I always tried my best for older men.

With a shiver, I instinctively looked up and straight into the eyes of my suitor. I remember purplish, fleshy ears, a shock of white hair. Our gaze locked for a good three seconds. It seemed much longer, however, as I watched the eager curiosity in his stare turn to shame as ink stains clean water in a glass. Jerking his head around, he floored the gas pedal and tore away down the street, engine roaring.

I glanced around quickly, but no one had witnessed my conceptual fall from respectability.

I’d actually been an East Village streetwalker in his eyes, if only for fifteen seconds. Yet the moment I returned his gaze, he knew I wasn’t. And he knew I saw what he was.

Maybe I did have a future after all?

(End of excerpt).

So, there you go, folks, I was a prostitute for fifteen seconds in my own head. I’m not sure how long the old man saw me as such, but he sure got the message that I wasn't when he looked into my pure, not-quite-virginal, presumably respectable eyes. Or was it the Princeton shield on my running shorts? In any case, I will end my musings on Jessica Pilot and good-girl prostitutes with this thought.

Magazine articles about prostitution assume that the world they are “exposing” and their readers have little in common. Sex for pay is illegal and good people don’t break laws. It’s emotionally and physically risky and good people only have sex with people they love and trust. It’s an extreme and foreign thing, either fun and glamorous or depressing and seedy, but the complex issues it raises are not something ordinary people ever experience.

But what if we stop trying to reassure ourselves that this has nothing to do with us? That we recognize the whole project of dividing women into respectable ladies and sluts causes great harm to both the women and men who judge as well as the victims? That we acknowledge “success” as defined by our society comes at a great cost and it's not just prostitutes who make dangerous comprises in their work?  And that finally this great enforced silence about sexuality, such a vital part of the human experience, has serious consequences to our psyches and the quality of our lives?

Jessica Pilot’s story and article raise all of these issues, but most people were too busy being titillated or shocked to notice. My hope is that if “respectable” people keep talking and asking questions, this situation will change for the better.


Anonymous said...

Really great work here, Donna. I love how you weave together the Pilot story, Ho's anthropological work (I've been meaning to read that), an excerpt from your own writing, & your own provocative (in every sense of that word!) insights on it all.

Part I of your essay reminded me of The Mill on the Floss. Part II reminds me of something Gloria Steinem says, that we've mostly managed to de-eroticize rape, but haven't yet succeeded in eroticizing equality. I feel like you are moving that effort forward. Bravo.

Donna said...

Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Naomi. Your opinion means a lot to me! And thank you for that spot-on Gloria Steinem observation that we haven't yet succeeded in eroticizing equality. I'm going to put that on my to-do list for the sake of the kids (and I'm not totally kidding, either!)

I would really recommend Karen Ho's book, especially as she pays particular attention to Princeton students and graduates. Next time you're in the area, I'll lend you my copy :-).

Craig Sorensen said...

More than an expose of prostitution, Pilot’s article strikes me as warning about the costs of success and the worship of money as well.


I have met "powerful" men, that after shaking their hands, I've wanted to take a shower. Freshly showered and minty fresh breath, some of these are filthier than any semen-spewing bill-pasting can be.

It is possible for a person to sell their soul, and many do it. And the truth is, it is rarely about the money. Your point is a good one; it always runs deeper. The money is a salve, or at least meant to be.

It rarely, if ever, works.

Donna said...

Yes, Craig, I know exactly what you mean about the unctuous slime, spiritual bankruptcy is strangely palpable!

Excellent point that it is never really about the money. I don't think it is for the young women Jessica Pilot interviewed either. I really could have gone on and on about the issues hinted at in that article, but there was certainly a profound disappointment with relationships and intimacy on both sides. Not that it's easy, but maybe people expect, especially if they are beautiful women and rich men, that it's supposed to be?

Jo said...

Wonderful, Donna, that was a great read. It is a poignant (and scary) point you make about the souls of the men in charge of the economy. I think the proof is in the pudding, sadly.

Donna said...

Thanks so much for reading, Jo! It really did seem to me everyone was missing the really interesting parts about that article!

Emerald said...

Beautiful post, Donna. I'm way behind on blog and online reading, still feeling in the midst of fighting a cold, traveling, and unpacking after moving, but of course I knew I wanted to read these posts of yours as soon as I got a chance. I love this one—it brings up so many profound, and seemingly to me quite salient, considerations about prostitution, economics, society, and gender. Fabulous—thank you so much for sharing.

In fact, I feel like it intrigued me so much that I don't have an "immediate" response to many of the directions you broached—this is an exposition I feel like sitting with for a while.

Donna said...

Thank you, Emerald! It actually took me a while to organize my responses to the Pilot article, so I understand where you're coming from. But careful consideration is a good thing--I look forward to your thoughts :-).

Erobintica said...

Donna, what a great set of posts! I'll have to read the original article to see what sparked these.