It is time for a grown-up debate about sexuality, says Howard Jacobson, winner of the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Memoirs by high-class hookers may be cartoonish, but no less so than accounts that cast prostitutes as victims of rapacious male sexuality
“The first thing you should know is that I’m a whore.”
Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl (Phoenix)
“A field study in nine countries showed that between 60 and 75 per cent of women in prostitution had been raped, between 70 and 95 per cent had been physically assaulted, and 68 per cent displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as combat veterans and victims of torture.”
Joan Smith, The Independent, 27th December 2007
“Another thing that distinguishes a ladylike working girl is her groomed and tidy muff. Clients know you make your money with your pussy, but a freshly waxed, beautifully maintained pussy sends a message: You spend money on your pussy.”
Tracy Quan, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl (HarperPerennial)
Georges Bataille’s outlined sequel to his erotic novel Story of the Eye is pitilessly direct: “After fifteen years of more and more serious debauchery, Simone ends up in a torture camp… She dies as though making love… fever and agony transfigure her.” Pauline Réage, author of Story of O, likewise envisaged death as an alternative ending to O’s exalted degradation. But it isn’t really an alternative ending. It is the only ending. There is nowhere else for O’s eroticism to go.
You can’t mess around with sex, in life or in literature. It is never not serious. When a man denies the significance of an adultery with the line, “It didn’t matter to me,” and the wronged woman replies, “Then why did you do it?”, they both miss the point. Everything in sex matters, including the experience of its not mattering. Isn’t that what O pursues, the sensation of nothing mattering, least of all herself? And isn’t that why some men visit prostitutes, for the intense experience of abnegation associated with payment, for which next to nothing is given and next to nothing is felt?
So I attend to people like Joan Smith, as well as Fiona Mactaggart (see her debate on prostitution with Julia O’Connell Davidson) when they insist we treat prostitution as a life and death matter. Where I part company from them is in their smuggled assumption that what makes it so is the single-minded murderousness of men. It isn’t only to satisfy male sadism that Simone and O go where they go. Nor are the men who get to taste death from their bodies the only sort of men there are. And every sort of man pays his dues to prostitution at one time or another.
Two conflicting but equally sentimental narratives of the lives of prostitutes—and by implication the men who pay for their services—confront each other at the moment. The first describes the prostitute as abused victim, incidentally of global capitalism and the free market, but essentially of the violence of men. In this narrative, the idea that the prostitute might choose of her own free will to sell her body for profit or for pleasure, or for both, is derided. A battery of statistics proves her miserable condition: her low self-esteem and life expectancy, the dangers to which she is exposed, the rape, contumely and criminality which form the consistent scenery of her abbreviated existence. Therefore—no ifs or buts—we must criminalise the man who uses her. (I italicise the word to show that I mean to be more careful with it than are the criminalisers.)
The second narrative tells of snazzy, Sex in the City hookerdom, fucking and shopping exactly in the spirit and prose of women’s blockbusters of 20 years ago, only now the fucking pays for the shopping. Tracy Quan’s Manhattan whore is into Prada and Bulgari talk even before the fucking starts. Belle de Jour will tell you what she’s been buying at the chemist’s—”tampons, vaginal pessary (for irritation), condoms, sugarless breath mints, lubricant, individual post-waxing wipes, self-tanning liquid, razor blades, potassium citrate granules (for cystitis).” Too much information, as they say. But too much information has been the staple of books for girls ever since the first fictional confession of a period or a crush. These girls might be hookers, but otherwise they are as they have always been, their hookerdom a simple extension—psychologically unexplored—of that right to live and talk dirty which 1960s feminism conferred on the modern woman.
“Today I want to give it to you from behind,” announces the john on the opening page of Bruna Surfistinha’s The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl (Bloomsbury). To which the heroine asks the only question a self-respecting working girl can ask—”But do you want my cunt or my arsehole?” And when he whispers “Everything” (though I’d have thought the proper answer to that is “both”), everything he is given—the all-round satisfactory nature of the transaction attested to by her coming several times (“It’s really good,” she confides), and his doing the same (by prior, mutual agreement) in her mouth. If we didn’t know better, we would call it love.
He comes, she comes, sometimes he doesn’t, sometimes she doesn’t. In the words of Tracy Quan, “In the business, there are too many days when the sex doesn’t go the way you hope it will. A hard-on falters, a dollop of K-Y is just not as much as you need.” But that’s about as deep as disappointment or despondency cuts. Sometimes a faint compunction stirs, as when Valérie Tasso, author of Insatiable: The Erotic Adventures of a French Girl in Spain (Corgi), wonders if the marauding search for men which led her into prostitution “was the symptom of a terrible sickness: silence, solitude, lack of communication.” The genre, however, can’t afford to run to self-questioning introspection of that magnitude for long. “The time I spent in the brothel,” Tasso concludes, on a second thought, “gave me some of the happiest moments of my life.” Belle de Jour would agree with her. “There is someone in London who just paid to lick… my arse for one hour,” is one such moment of happiness I pluck at random. “Isn’t that what everyone wants in life,” she asks, “someone who’ll kiss your grits and enjoy it?” And only a killjoy, or a woman self-conscious about her haemorrhoids, would disagree.
Why bite the hand that feeds you? Were they to ponder more closely the nature of pleasure, or the state of mind and soul of those who choose to make a risky business of it—”I always loved sex, always enjoyed meeting people,” Belle says, as though prostitution is simply the natural consequence of a sociable personality—they’d only be cutting their own throats. True to the optimistic spirit of the blogs in which they originated, these diaries hold out the promise of an eternity of lewd confidence. Sequels are of the essence, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl having already dissolved into Diary of a Married Call Girl; Diary of a Divorced Call Girl and Diary of a Married Second Time Around Call Girl being only a matter of time.
They have, on all counts, their detractors. “So this Belle de Jour is supposed to be on the game, is she?” wrote Cynthia Payne, the celebrated Streatham madam, in the Guardian in 2004. “I’m not convinced.” The two things that fail to convince her most being the bookish chat exchanged between Belle and her clients—Amis talk, Julie Burchill talk, John P Marquand talk—and the fact of men wanting to write their name on her in come. “All the girls I know on the game would be appalled by this behaviour from a client,” Payne says, which I presume refers to writing their name in come, not talking about Julie Burchill. But that only proves that erotic etiquette in Streatham is not what it is in Mayfair or Manhattan. Or in Soho, come to that.
We have to be careful, with sex, what we don’t believe. Jean Genet never accepted that Story of O was written by a woman. No woman had a sufficient understanding of sexual degeneracy, he thought. The more fool him. And the more fool those who lambast Belle and Bruna, not for being shallow, but for telling lies. “It’s a fantasy,” wrote Madeleine Bunting in the Guardian when The Secret Diary of a Call Girl was shown on ITV. Rosie Boycott, writing in the Daily Mail, said the same. For both, what made the programme nonsense were the 68 per cent of prostitutes suffering stress disorder equivalent to a combat veteran’s that it didn’t show—even though that’s the street, and Belle de Jour doesn’t work the street. But so what? The prostitute might change her place of business but male desire remains forever male desire. What Belle de Jour does, in Bunting’s view, is “buttress men’s sense of entitlement to use a prostitute.” “Use.” Not visit, not hire; “use.” That is, depersonalise and do violence to her.
Nothing new about this. No one’s had a decent word to say for men’s sexuality since circa 1972. But if we are going to have a grown-up debate about what we are entitled to do with our bodies, then each sex is going to have to think a touch more philosophically about the other. They are not the stuff of male desire, these waxed and lubricated porno-lite confections; they are a long way from the odalisques langoureuses or rich-brocaded courtesans who tease the minds of men. But should any male mistake the signals and pick up a volume of these memoirs, we would want him not to buy into the sex-without-consequences adventures of a Bruna Surfistinha, never more the happy hooker than when she’s got one client up her cunt, another up her arsehole and she’s licking—unless I’m conflating—a further client’s balls. Reciprocally, and whatever the statistics relating to back-street couplings, we would want women to make a better job than the criminalisers manage of understanding why men do what they do.
The sexual instinct will not stay still for anybody. It would be foolish to deny that the transactional nature of sex with a prostitute will encourage some men to act brutally, but violence is by no means intrinsic to the transaction. Some men visit prostitutes to “use,” others to be used. There isn’t one of these diarists who doesn’t joke about the submissives and quiescents that make up much of her client list. “Do they do this just to get on your nerves?” Tracy Quan wonders, unable to bear for another minute the sight of client Colin on his knees, whimpering, “Yes, Mistress, yes, Mistress.” The exchange of money is freighted with meaning; for one man it will confer rights, for another it will take all rights away, make not her but him cheap, signal his desire to abjure his masculinity. Others go because they’re desperate, because, like Stephen in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, they don’t know how else to find initiation into adulthood. Loneliness will make a man pay for sex, as will sorrow, confusion, the longing to enjoy erotic company for a brief hour or less. As well, yes, as plain old pleasure-seeking, because you have money in your pocket and not much else to do, and she is there and happy to take it, and whatever you both think about yourselves the next day, pleasure without a single impulse to cause suffering is what you’re after.
If it is inhumane to belittle the miseries of the prostitute, it is no less inhumane to minimise the miseries that make some men their clients. There is at least this to be said about the Prada call girls with their obliging mouths and vaginas—along with the freedoms they insist on for themselves, they grant men the freedom to be creatures of desire. Why, when all is said and done, should a prostitute not be touched by a man’s shyness or ineptitude or sadness, or made curious by his turning up in her room looking for he doesn’t know what, or excited when on rare occasions what he does want coincides with what she does? Is the battlefield so unforgiving that none of this is conceivable, and that any man who goes out looking for such an eventuality must be treated as a criminal?
And does it not demean a woman, every bit as much as it demeans a man, to position her either as victim of men’s appetites or as fantasist of them?