Whoring In Utopia

Pat Califia


Even people who are supportive of sex workers' rights often assume that prostitution would somehow wither away if women achieved equality with men or industrial capitalism fell on its blemished, bloated face. Whoring, like other deviant and thus "problematic" sexual behavior, is assumed to be an artifact of sexism, American imperialism, racism, insane narcotics laws, Christianity, or whatever institutionalized inequity has the pontificator's knickers in a twist. While large and sweeping social change would probably alter the nature of sex work, the demographics of sex workers, and the wage scale, along with every other kind of human intimacy, I doubt very much that a just society would (or could) eliminate paying for pleasure.

Prostitutes, both male and female, have been with us from the earliest recorded time. The "art of prostitution" and "the cult of the prostitute" are two of the me (sacred treasures) given to the Sumerian goddess Inanna by her father Enki, the god of wisdom. When Inanna takes the me back to the city of Uruk in the boat of heaven, the people turn out in droves to cheer in gratitude. A hymn to Inanna which describes the people of Sumer parading before her says, "The male prostitutes comb their hair before you. They decorate the napes of their necks with colored scarves. They drape the cloak of the gods about their shoulders." These poems are thousands of years old. In fact, Sumer is the first civilization from which we have written texts. And there's no reason (other than a certain wistful prudishness) to think that commerce and sex won't continue to intersect as long as either has meaning or a place in human culture.

In America today, the sex industry is shaped by several negative forces. First of all, because the work itself is illegal or plays pretty close to that edge, it attracts people who are desperate, who believe they have few or no other choices, and people who embrace the identities of rebel, outsider, and criminal. Very few sex workers are able to be open with their children, lovers or spouses, friends, and families about how they earn their livings. This need to hide puts enormous stress on people who are paid for relieving the stress of their customers.

The existence of prostitution as we know it is based on the compartmentalizations of male sexuality and female identity. There are women whom men marry and with whom they have children, and there are women whom they screw for a set fee. The wife-and-mother class is not supposed to acknowledge the existence of the whore class because that would destroy the "good" woman's illusion that her faithful, loving husband does not have an alternate identity as a john. The opportunity for paid infidelity (as long as it is hidden and stigmatized) makes monogamous marriage a believable institution. Of course not every married man has sex with hookers, but enough of them do to keep the black-market sex economy booming.

The illicit sex trade interacts and overlaps with other underground economies such as stolen merchandise and the circulation of illegal aliens. But the most influential of such economies is the narcotics trade. Street prostitution is the only occupation that provides most female (and more than a few male) junkies with enough money to support addiction to the overpriced, adulterated narcotics that our "Just Say No" social policy on drugs has caused to flood the urban environment.

Also, as technology grows more complex and educational opportunities for workers constrict, prostitution has become one of the few forms of employment for unskilled laborers. (Another slot for unskilled laborers, which is generated by laws against solicitation, is on the vice squad. Cops are often the socioeconomic counterparts of the people they harass, blackmail, bust, and control.)

So what would happen to the sex industry if some of these shaping constraints were lifted? What if narcotics were decriminalized and addicts were able to get prescriptions for maintenance doses of good drugs at decent prices? What if prostitution itself were decriminalized and destigmatized? If women had the same buying power that men do? If racism no longer forced so many nonwhite citizens into second-class citizenship and poverty? If the virgin/whore dichotomy and the double standard melted away? If everybody had sex education, access to contraception and safe-sex prophylactics, and we no longer believed sex was toxic? Wouldn't the free citizens of this wonderful society be able to get all the sex they wanted from other free agents?

Of course not! One of the dominant myths of our culture is that everybody longs to participate in romantic heterosexual love; that it is romance which gives life meaning and purpose; and that sex is better when you do it with somebody you love. We are also taught to assume that romance and money are mutually exclusive, even though the heroes of romance novels and neogothics are almost always as wealthy as they are handsome. It would be foolish to deny the existence of romantic passion and lust, but it would be equally foolish to ignore the people who prefer to fuck as far away as possible from the trappings of Valentine's Day. These people don't enjoy the roller coaster ride of romantic love. And there will always be people who simply don't get turned on in the context of an ongoing, committed relationship. Some of these people make trustworthy and affectionate, permanent or long-term partners as long as they're not expected to radiate a lot of sexual heat. But in a more sex-positive society, these folks might be able to have both marriage and paid sex without the guilt and stigma of being diagnosed as psychologically "immature" or "incomplete."

It's also possible that prostitution would become romanticized and idealized. The relatively new reality of women as wage earners has generated enormous tension in heterosexual relationships. This hostility has been exacerbated by divorce laws which continue to force men to pay child support and alimony while depriving them of their homes and custody of their children. In a world of prenuptial agreements and lawsuits for breach of promise and sexual harassment, the "good" woman who was once valorized by men as a suitable candidate for marriage and motherhood is increasingly perceived as a leech and a liability. More men may come to believe that "nice girls" are revolted by sex and will take all their money, while "fallen women" like cock, like sex, and want only a hundred dollars or so. The current media obsession with supermodels needs only a little push to turn into an image blitz popularizing glamorous courtesans and hookers with hearts of gold and ever available cunts-without-commitment.

Even in a just society, there probably would be plenty of people who were simply too busy to engage in the ritual of courtship, dating, and seduction. A person with a job that requires a great deal of travel, for example, may not have a stable enough living situation to connect with and keep a steady lover or spouse. Some of these harried businesspeople will be women. While male sex workers--whether they identify as gay or straight--today service an overwhelmingly male market, I can't imagine what would stop women who could afford it from beckoning the prettiest boys that money can buy to their executive limos, helicopters, and hotel suites. This new job market would have a tremendous impact on the parameters of male heterosexuality, identity, and fashion. Straight men are currently defined mostly by the things that they do not do (wear dresses or bright colors, get fucked, suck dick). But in a buyer's market, proactive behavior is at a premium. Female customers would prefer to be serviced by men who actively demonstrate their ability to please women and their arousal at the thought of doing so. The word "slut" would lose its gender.

There will always be people who don't have the charm or social skill to woo a partner. In a society where mutual attraction and sexual reciprocity are the normal bases for bonding, what would happen to the unattractive people, those without the ability or interest to give as good as they get? Disabled people, folks with chronic or terminal illnesses, the elderly, and the sexually dysfunctional would continue to benefit (as they do now) from the ministrations of skilled sex workers who do not discriminate against these populations.

The requirements of fetishists can be very specific. People who have strong preferences for specific objects, acts, substances, or physical types would probably continue to find it easier to meet their sexual needs by hiring professionals with the appropriate wardrobes or toolboxes of paraphernalia. Furthermore, a great many prostitutes' customers have fetishes for paying for sex. It's the sight of that cash sliding into a bustier or a stocking top that makes their dicks get hard, not the cleavage or the shapely thigh. Many fetishist scripts are simply elaborate forms of sublimated and displaced masturbation that do not offer anything other than vicarious pleasure to the fetishist's partner. For example, a shoe fetishist's girlfriend may not be particularly upset about her or his need to be kicked with white patent leather pumps with thirteen straps and eight-inch heels, but performing this act is probably not going to make her come. Especially in utopia, there would be no reason for someone to play the martyr and try to be sexually satisfied by an act of charity. Cash would even the bargain and keep the fetishist from becoming an erotic welfare case.

The first experience one has with physical pleasure has a dramatic impact on the rest of one's life as a sexually active being. In a better world, virgins and novices would probably resort to prostitutes who specialized in rituals of initiation and education. A talented sex worker could introduce brand new players to all of their sexual options, show them appropriate ways to protect themselves from conception or disease, and teach them the skills they need to please more experienced partners. This is a sensible antidote to the traumatic rite of passage that "losing your cherry" often is today.

An encounter with a hooker is already a standard part of the traditional bachelor party. The groom must pay tribute to the wild woman and subsidize her freedom before he is allowed to lay claim to a bride he can domesticate. If whoring were not stigmatized, it could be used to celebrate all kinds of holidays. A visit with an especially desirable and skilled sex worker would probably make a great gift for grandma when she came out of mourning for her deceased husband. A pregnant wife could thank her husband for being supportive and patient by giving him a weekend with the girl or boy of his dreams. Paid vacations could include sexual services. Bar mitzvahs and other puberty rites would be obvious occasions for incorporating orgasms for hire.

Since human beings are a curious species, and many of us need adventure, risk, and excitement, I would hope that the sex industry would continue to be available to fulfill those needs in positive ways. The thrill of arranging several sexual encounters with people you don't know very well certainly seems more healthy to me than big-game hunting or full-contact sports, which are high-risk activities sanctioned by our society. The story of the hero who meets a beautiful stranger and wins her favors is archetypal. If we are fortunate, we encounter the anima/animus in our beloved. But until that magical moment, those of us who require refreshment, insight, and sexual nourishment could pay for receiving that blessing. We may have an innate human need to take that mystical journey of transformation into a stranger's arms.

Perhaps sex work would even find its spirituality restored. Those who wished to worship icons of womanhood, manhood, or intersexuality could perform these sacred obligations with sex workers who were guardians of the mysteries of the human heart and loins. The Great Rite, the ancient sacred marriage between earth and sky, teaches us to respect the ecology of the natural world. Perhaps the Sierra Club could sponsor an annual hieros gamos as part of its major fundraising drive. Of course, the performers in such a majestic pageant would have to be compensated for their efforts.

It's obvious that the range of people who sought out sex for money would change dramatically in a kinder, gentler world. But what about the people who would do sex work? I wonder if the boundaries between whore and client might not become more permeable. The prostitute's identity is currently rather rigid, partly because once you have been "soiled" by that work you are never supposed to be able to escape the stigma, but also because such rigidity creates clarity for the heterosexual male. He is what the prostitute is not (male, moneyed, in charge, legitimate, normal). In a world where women were as likely to be clients as men; sex workers were well paid and in charge of their own lives; and prostitute were as valid a social identity as Senate majority whip, there would be less need for the high walls between "good" and "bad" people, "men" and "women." Everybody might expect to spend a portion of her or his life as a sex worker before getting married, if she or he didn't want to be thought of as sexually gauche. Perhaps there would be collective brothels where people could perform community service to work off parking tickets or student loans. A stint in the community pleasure house might be analogous to going on retreat.

The people who took up sex work as a profession would be more likely to pursue the erotic arts as vocations, just as priests and artists do today for their professions. They would be teachers, healers, adventurous souls--tolerant and compassionate. Prostitutes are all of those things today, but they perform their acts of kindness and virtue in a milieu of ingratitude. The profession would attract people who like working for themselves, who are easily bored, who want a lot of social contact and stimulation. It would also attract dramatic, exhibitionist performers and storytellers. As computer technology is used for sexual purposes, sex workers will need to be computer literate. The ideal sex worker might be somebody skilled at creating virtual realities, programming environments, characters, plots, and sensations for the client. This programming ability might become more compellingly sexy than a pair of big tits or a ten-inch dick.

Sex work would also attract stone butches of all genders and sexual orientations--people who want to run the fuck but are not interested in experiencing their own sexual vulnerability and pleasure. Often these people are the most adept at manipulating other people's experiences. They are more objective about their partners' fantasies and do not become distracted by their own desires, since their needs to remain remote and in control are already being fulfilled.

There are other social changes which would continue to alter the dynamics of the sex industry. In a society where everybody was doing work they enjoyed for fair wages, the meaning of money (and work itself) would change. It would cease to be a gender marker, for one thing (I am male, so I earn a paycheck; you are female, so men give you money). This change is already underway. In a postindustrial society where power was cheap or free and survival was no longer an issue, money might even cease to be a marker for social class. I believe human beings would still have the need to group themselves into smaller tribes or social units based on affinity and common interests, but the parameters of these groups would change. People would have new, now unforeseen, ecological slots as "those who pay/give" or "those who get paid/receive" for possessing certain characteristics or performing different activities.

Unfortunately, it's doubtful that any of these visions will be realized. As AIDS paranoia grows and nation-states continue to consolidate and extend their power, it's much more likely that sex workers will face harsher penalties and stepped-up law enforcement campaigns. In a few radical locales, prostitution might be legalized and subjected to strict government regulation as a social experiment to control AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. People seem to be suckers for anything that promises to make them safer, whether it's motorcycle-helmet laws or the Brady bill. But there is no guarantee that making the federal government the greatest pimp of all would do a goddamned thing to make sex work a better career or to protect the health and safety of the customer. In such a system, prostitutes would be like mill workers in late nineteenth-century England.

But a state that believes it has the right to send young men off to die in a war or conduct above-ground testing of atomic weapons in populated areas eventually will try to take over the hands, mouths, dicks, cunts, and buttholes that are sex workers' means of production. So the halcyon, golden days of prostitution may be happening right now. This may be as good, liberal, and free as it gets. So you might want to visit your ATM, take out a couple hundred bucks, and hurry to the red-light district now, before it becomes as antiquated as a Wild West ghost town.


Pat Califia is the author of many books, notably Macho Sluts, Melting Point, and The Advocate Advisor. She lives in San Fransisco. This article is taken from her 1994 book Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex, available from Cleis Press.