When I was in graduate school a girlfriend of mine convinced me to audition with her for a topless dancing job. Just come and watch, she urged. It was somewhere on 42nd Street; some nights I imagine it was the very stage where I have played bass guitar so many times. I was maybe 22 and she was even younger-- still had baby fat, she did… but she was sophisticated and read Proust and Kafka, like I did, and she was very sure of herself. Besides-- I was taking home $92 a week working 40 hours… and she assured me I could make that in one night. No one would ever recognize me; it was not the kind of place our Dads-- Madison Ave. businessmen-- would prowl. We went down on a sunny Tuesday afternoon-- but there was like a night curtain in the bar, the way Atlantic City casinos keep you time-blind. We both liked to dance-- the music was decent… we were bold and bohemian and our boyfriends were bandmates; it seemed safe, in a way… like a sister-thing. She was less shy than I was; afterward, while the manager was laying out the rules, I covered myself and she didn't. But it wasn't about the dancing-- it was about getting guys to buy you an overpriced drink, which would actually be ginger ale or seven-up or water… and there was just something so sleazy about the cheap little scam of it… I turned it down. She, on the other hand, took the gig. Years later-- maybe 25 years later-- my guitar player went to a strip club in San Francisco, and there she was-- a little matronly but still working it. No judgment-- I admire her, in a way, and if she writes the novel we both talked about when we were young-- well, hers will undoubtedly sell better than mine. She friended me recently on Facebook.
On my first trip to Amsterdam, I went with the boys to the Red Light district. I was fascinated: the working girls were in these little shadow box environments-- they reminded me of those doll-suitcases they made in the 1950's… where you'd open a mini-trunk and there would be this unclothed doll with her wardrobe and little accessories in a compact cardboard closet. I selected an angelic looking blonde in aqua lace for them-- but the guys went for the slutty ones in red and orange. I waited in a coffeehouse-- envying the girls, in a way. No one looked worried or sad or lonely. It was like a tiny stage-- and they were both the play and the actor.
Backtrack to my junior year in college. I lived off-campus and our little flat was famous for welcoming transient rock musicians, writers, travelers… one of our regular guests was a prostitute from Manhattan who was hands-down the most fascinating woman I'd met up to that point-- built like a model, the face of a madonna--with style and taste, a razor sharp tongue and an exotic vocabulary of 4-letter euphemisms. She smoked like a chimney, borrowed money from everyone-- perched herself on our living room sofa for days at a time, generally on an amphetamine-fueled binge-- preferred the company of my gay roommates. One night a drunk psychotic ex-boyfriend threatened me with a gun, and she stood up and decked him. It was incredible. Then she called campus police. Fearless. Dignified. Plus she had carte blanche at Max's and treated me to a few nights at the Chelsea when it was memorable.
I noticed last week's New York Magazine chose the subject of prostitution for their cover article. Not sex trafficking, but the voluntary kind. Seems kind of tired and overdone-- especially with lines of sexuality culturally blurring and the constant parade in New York City of old men with fat wallets and their much-younger well-heeled dates. It's a bit of a yawn, the whole issue. I was surprised recently to hear a friend of mine acting horrified that someone at our table was on his way to a late-night massage in what is effectively a brothel… I mean-- how many dates, dinners, boring conversations has he paid for-- anticipating… okay, so romanticism is not dead.
But really, what is unromantic about paying for sex? It doesn't seem bad to me. In a culture where every other storefront is a spa or hair salon or a specialty food merchant --a photography studio or gym or cosmetic boutique--- acupuncture, facials, massage-- colonics and manicures-- it seems a tiny leap to seek some essential physical pleasure or relief.. or variety.
When my son was a baby-- I struggled and occasionally took a few odd jobs-- painting or learning how to prep and tile bathrooms… the money was decent and I kept nursery school hours. One day my 'boss' asked me to paint his dick. I laughed-- but then I realized he was serious. So I did it. He gave me a $50 and I felt some kind of power. Okay… it progressed.. no details… but I felt no shame and no guilt. I bought things for my son. Clothes. Nikes. The guy was obsessed with me and brought me breakfast and overpaid me for my work. It was a little fun-- we listened to music. He had a wife. I felt 'professional'. Then after a while it began to feel a little desperate and needy and I was turned off. Years later he tried to 'hire' me-- I thought about it-- but it turned me off.
Now I'm old. The idea that someone would pay me for sex is absurd. But the idea that anyone is paid for sex seems not only reasonable but obvious. Plenty of women get the on-the-job harassment anyway-- why not put it on the table and get your end-of-year bonus in advance?
It's Easter. There's a well-believed myth that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. I think the Bible nowhere states this; she was a sort of fallen woman, or maybe suffered from nerves or mental illness. The image of a woman washing Christ's feet is compelling and pious and loving. Maybe erotic in a chaste way. Whatever-- in Saramago's version of the Gospel, they slept together. Sometimes we love someone and the only gift we can really give is ourselves. Sometimes they want this. Sometimes they want to pay for it-- guilt, or gratuity. The act of love is sometimes just sex… maybe the next best thing-- why not make it available… is it not a need? Are these Craigslist posts and desperate online dating shoppers not looking for some kind of pleasure if they can't find true love and many of us never have this? We have arrangements-- marriages, affairs, relationships.. a consensual contract and exchange of money seems to distribute the power equally. And as any divorced man will testify, at least you get what you pay for… in some version… as opposed to giving away what you bought and didn't have.
Anyway, less judgment, more acceptance-- we're human; the lesson of Jesus is forgiveness and mercy. We do what we do to survive and we are all accustomed to paying for food and shelter… if we could just as easily order take-out physical intimacy, there might be a lot less aggression and anger. I'm sure Jesus wouldn't mind that. And I'm not looking forward to debate or discussion-- just airing a bit of slightly dirty intimate laundry...