The Truth About Hooking
No matter how much we try to convince ourselves we’ve thrown off the shackles, prostitution is still the line you do not cross. When the subject is broached, it’s usually condemned with a broad stroke—high-class call girls and enterprising donors of happy endings are lumped in with sex slaves in Asia and kidnapped children in Eastern Europe. We are all victims. Up until lately, my reticence to discuss hooking was based more on what I consider to be the false picture most people have of it than on the experience itself. In the seventies, I spent about three years in ‘The Life,’ long enough to qualify me as a genuine pro, not just a dilettante taking a walk on the wild side. I don’t pretend to speak for the entire profession, but at the time, and no less so with the benefit of hindsight, it was an adventure, an exploration of the underworld.
We did not think of ourselves as victims. To the contrary, many of us then saw hooking as sheer defiance, a way to bust out of society—nay, civilization, one that “had been created over a period of nearly five centuries without women in mind,” as John Ralston Saul puts it in his masterwork of intellectual history, Voltaire’s Bastards. Perhaps our stance was more conscious, more overtly political, because it was the seventies, and a different kind of feminism was afoot than the one we recognize now. (For a definitive reference, please see The Female Eunuch, 1970, and its sequel, The Whole Woman, 2007, by Germaine Geer.) It had to do with sexual liberation. That may sound quaint, but for those of you who are significantly younger than I am, let me provide some context.
Up until the late sixties, society was still paying lip service to the value of female virginity, still encasing teenage girls in panty girdles and, later than that even, still imposing parietal hours on college women. It was called the double standard, and, I’m sure you’ve heard, what it did was infantilize women, especially bourgeois white women. I remember how that actually feels.
For example, in the mid-sixties, when I was a senior at a small quirky girls’ boarding school on Cape Cod, our then neighbor, Kurt Vonnegut, came to speak to the student body. He told us girls that perhaps someday someone among us might marry a writer and then went on to advise us on how to prepare for that vocation. His words scorched my soul, enough so that decades later, when I ran into him at a party with his wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, I found myself telling him how those words had wounded me. Even if he did not recall the evening as vividly as I did, he surprised me by apologizing without hesitation, clearly from the heart, readily admitting how wrong he had been. “My wife has taught me a lot,” he said. The following year at Bennington, the first college I attended, all the professors with a single exception were men, and all the students were women.
Back in the early seventies, long before the Internet and even before escort services, New York City whores who did not walk the streets and who worked without a pimp tended to frequent cathouses. Practically speaking, we whores depended on each other, trading johns to keep the clientele happy and business thriving. And then, without the benefit of cell phones or even, as far as I can remember, answering machines, it would have been just too boring to sit around all day waiting for the phone to ring. Cathouses were bawdy little enclaves, where lonely whoremongers often gathered simply to pass the time, as they did in nineteenth-century bordellos found in almost every French provincial city (beautifully captured by Flaubert’s protégé, Guy De Maupassant). Twentieth-century upper-east-side cathouses ran the gamut from understated and sophisticated to raucous. I had the right temperament for both entertaining johns at the bar and competing with other hustling young women to get the marks into the bedroom.
Usually, my intent was to turn the most efficient trick possible. This meant doing just enough to please the customer but in the process foregoing my own satisfaction. A good substitute for one’s own satisfaction, and a fair recompense for merely “witnessing the man’s process,” as Amy Schumer puts it, is money. The direct, upfront exchange of pleasure for money felt honest. Across the sexually liberated landscape that was the late sixties and seventies, too many women were foregoing their own satisfaction for free, and I did not want to be included in that number. As far as I was concerned, most “free love” was just another insidious version of the old double standard. In my private life, I explored and experimented, always hoping to achieve simultaneous orgasm with my partner, which I had discovered almost by accident was no myth. This allowed me to be generous during working hours. However, once in a great while even then I found myself enjoying it. The triumph of sexual chemistry over circumstance did happen. Contrary to popular belief, whores are far from obedient to anything, including the rule that only the john is supposed to enjoy it.
Circumstances, those wild times and my own psyche all converged to inspire me, or shall we say allow me, to cross the line. I was very angry with men, at society in general, which was amplified by my alcohol and drug problem. (But a lot of us didn’t think of drinking or drugs as problems back then—society was the problem, and everybody under thirty knew it.) I was rebelling against a double standard that had become patently ludicrous by the time I came of age. I was also curious. For millennia, women have been split between good and bad—and still are. I wanted to breach that divide, learn first hand what was the irrefutable difference between nice girls and the other socially damned variety. I sensed this division was a subliminal but effective way to keep us in line—the veiled threat being that if we didn’t behave, we would be cast out into a wilderness where we would be forced to live as irredeemable pariahs.
Women at the bottom end of society may sometimes feel they have little to lose, but women from my stratum don’t want to give up their privileged status. Outside of the occasional isolated adventure, we rarely risk it. “The Life” is completely forbidden to girls of my ilk, and I was highly attracted to the forbidden then. Also, the idea of being good so as to win an eligible man (and this was back when in order to live well, a woman had to marry well) was an anathema to me. At the time other outspoken women, such as the entirely brilliant and revolutionary Germaine Greer, supported my worldview by at least paying lip service to whoredom (which I took to heart). My rebellion was a kind of class suicide.
A lot of us in the seventies subscribed to the idea that sex is politics. There was an ongoing discussion about female orgasms, where they generate from, how to achieve them. In fact, I think there may have been greater attention paid to the satisfaction of the female then than now, although no one at the time or since has been willing to admit that in our culture, speaking broadly, men and women simply do not know how to make love. It’s a lost art.
The ancient theory, still alive in other cultures, that women are the more highly sexed gender, is nowhere in evidence these days in the West. It doesn’t jibe with late-night talk-show hosts making cracks about selfish husbands who last three minutes—like it’s supposed to be funny, and sure enough, who’s laughing louder than the beleaguered wives in the studio audience and presumably at home? I have never found that kind of remark funny—in fact, I think these jokesters paint an infuriating and profoundly bleak picture, in which one half of the human race is consigned to a life of frustration, tolerating oblivious husbands jerking off in them while they, in turn, fake orgasms.
I am also saddened when I hear fellow-progressives denounce prostitution. That stance can so easily be confused with puritanism, which is particularly hard on women. I hope they take this into account. I hope they understand that they may be inciting further stigma against an already shunned group. Do they really believe that transactional sex can never be genuinely mutual? Proscribing sex, making distinctions between what’s proper and what’s not, is nothing new, but I have come to believe this kind of censure inevitably affects all women on a deep level that is as yet unacknowledged. We are divided against ourselves. Despite our apparently anything-goes culture, inhibition among women is still widespread, spanning class, culture and every other way we are strangers to each other: inhibition unites us. I do not exempt professional sex workers from this, but I do think their “boots on the ground” experience could help us understand more about ourselves.
We could use an open dialogue between “good” and “bad” women: we need to join forces. And sooner or later, we are going to have to stop thinking of hookers as a threat to the basic fabric of society. It just doesn’t ring true anymore.
At a Q&A recently, a nice woman asked me whether I would like it if my daughter engaged in sex work. I said that my poor hypothetical daughter would most likely be afflicted with alcoholism, seeing as how she would be inheriting it from both sides of my family and probably her hypothetical father too, and that her addiction would be the cause of a lot more personal anguish than if she turned a few tricks to pay for grad school. Perhaps that was not the answer this woman was looking for, but it’s true. (For the record, I usually prefer the terms “whore” or “hooker” to “sex worker” because I think the latter is too drab, too corporate sounding, just the way I don’t like it when the waiter asks me if I’m still “working” on my dinner.)
Members of a particular African village that forgoes female genital cutting in a region where it is commonly practiced have been called frivolous by their neighbors. Female pleasure is, by definition, frivolous. We don’t need it to procreate after all. Maybe that’s another cause of inhibition—women’s satisfaction as part of intercourse has no apparent utility and therefore is frivolous, in other words not worth pursuing.
I for one do not want to live without frivolity, which I associate with freedom. Especially in these bleak times, we must fight for it and for joy. As Patti Smith said last March in a benefit concert for the Tibet House, which defends the culture of Tibetan Buddhists under attack at home and in diaspora, “Joy is a great weapon.” For those of us not subject to the torture of solitary confinement, joy includes physical pleasure, basic life-affirming pleasure, one area where women, both good and bad, cisgender and otherwise, may be ideally suited to lead us.
By Janet Capron, author of Blue Money, a mostly true memoir about New York street life in the seventies.
BLUE MONEY is in the window at Three Lives Books in The Village and on display face out on the main floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble, as well as available and on display at other bookstores in New York and nationwide and on Amazon.