Prostitutes working in the Red Light District of Brussels, photographed from Track 1 at the north railway station. Picture by Eric Francis / Book of Blue
Harlots, Whores, Heroines
By Eric Francis

RECENTLY I discovered the back section of a local used bookshop, the kind with world literature piled on the floors and walls and on shelves up to the ceilings. This was the section that contained the books about feminism, erotica and psychology, among others – safely (and luckily) stashed in the very back.

Diving into the trove, I found hardback editions of two of my favorite books, The Hite Report by Shere Hite, and Eros Denied by Wayland Young. I took home a volume called Women's Images of Men, based on a supposedly controversial 1980 exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. Apparently, men are supposed to depict women as nudes but not the other way around.

I found an odd thing I could not pass up called The Ethics of Sexual Acts. Chapter one, titled "Sexuality," begins: "By sexual phenomena we understand [this term to mean], in current language, the manifestations of that imperious propensity which leads an animal to seek sexual pleasure – generally by approaching a member of the opposite sex – and which may result in reproduction." I could not keep reading.

I found an illustrated black volume called Harlots, Whores and Hookers by Hilary Evans with photos provided by the Mary Evans Picture Library; a family effort, I gather. The book is a history of prostitution. It begins with a discussion of the overwhelming taboo on prostitution despite its existence in every culture: on practicing it, on discussing it, on admitting to it. Whores are omitted from most histories; they are often treated as nonpeople.

I have felt that taboo writing some of my entries about prostitution in this series, but I am determined. I have a lot to say and I have had many relationships with prostitutes: as friend, client, lover, photographer, editor, astrologer, colleague or business consultant. Whores are very much people in my life, but that may be because (for many reasons) I consider myself one of their peers.

In this book, the author asks, "Why, given the taboo, has prostitution been permitted to exist? Alternately, given the persistence of prostitution, how has the taboo retained its force?"

Great question. The author continues: "Prostitution came into being because marriage, which in some form or other is the fundamental unit of almost every social structure, is inadequate to meet all of society's sexual needs. To take just one example, there is the inconvenient biological fact that humans reach puberty before they attain social responsibility. Do you marry them off while they are still psychologically too immature to cope with the demands of married life – or do you hold down the lid on their sexual urges until they are old enough to be married?

"Another awkward biological fact: most men and women would like to enjoy more frequent and more rewarding sexual experiences than most social structures can allow. Consciously or subconsciously, almost every woman would like to play the whore, at least occasionally, just as almost every man, at least occasionally, would like to consort with a variety of women. But sexual promiscuity is socially disruptive, so it must be prevented; and, because ordinary rules are not strong enough restrain man's most powerful urge, it must be controlled by extraordinary means. So a frontier of respectability is set up. Different cultures have set it closer of farther, permitting less or more freedom; but strict or slack, the taboo-line is there, and those who cross it must expect to be treated as a class apart – tolerated, perhaps, but ostracized none the less.

"The situation that results is, of course, a paradox, and to live with both prostitution and the taboo requires one to be either a hypocrite or a cynic. Throughout history, except in the rare instances where the taboo itself has not existed or has been disregarded, public attitudes toward prostitution have swung uneasily between cynicism and hypocrisy. Today, in Western Europe, a few societies have come closer to a true acceptance of the prostitute than ever before in history. But the paradox will never be entirely resolved until we have dispensed with the taboo, and that will not happen till we have learnt to see the prostitute as a social component and as an individual, recognizing what we want from her and why she is willing to supply what we want." (End of quote.)

We have the issue of willingness, however. The author of the above book is discussing a particular class of prostitute that has existed throughout history, among its members not counted those imprisoned as slaves. This is a growing problem in the world today, part of the global sex trade.

Given the demand for sex, and the abundance of impoverished girls and women to exploit in the world, this is not going to be an easy problem to solve. But I think it's the worst kind of moralism to project this issue onto the right of a free woman to be a sexworker voluntarily. It is absurd to say, "Others are exploited, therefore, you must sacrifice your rights."

Like most solutions to allegedly ‘moral' issues, it perpetuates itself. In other words, if a free woman cannot ‘morally' be someone who says yes to sex, that creates a shortage, which is filled by prostitution.

Anyway – of the many prostitutes I know and have known, to the best I could figure it out, only one was actually enslaved, that is, had her passport kept by a pimp. She had to work off her plane fare from between London and Thailand, provide a profit for the house and send most of her own money home to support her child.

The rest, again to the best of my knowledge, have done it of their own volition, driven usually by economics and less often by a true desire to serve the world this particular way. Most do not actually like the sex and some are aware of the toll it takes on them. Many lie about what they do to their partner.

The ones that like the sexual aspects are for the most part those who consider themselves ‘sacred whores', that is, erotic servants of the Goddess by inner calling. For them, the motive is the work itself and not necessarily the money; but the money, as with any job, helps a lot.

I have met a few women brave enough to state that the dating game is a form of prostitution – expensive date and/or gifts, followed by sex. Here, we have the veil of respectability drawn over the matter, usually under the pretense of courting marriage, often another veiled form of prostitution.

Yet if you look past all the social and intellectual window dressing, the job of a whore, whoever she might be, is to help you get off. She might provide companionship, entertainment or a psychological vent, but at the heart of the matter she is someone specifically available to fuck; or in some other form, a space to let go and do something so biologically simple as release semen and some of the emotions that come with it.

Is this the big deal? Or is the big deal those things that the taboo itself conceals – the social paradox created by sexual repression; the marketplace that is created by marriage itself. In other words, prostitution, allegedly immoral because it turns sex into a commodity, is the byproduct of another much more prevalent marketplace – that of marriage.

Taboos often work to conceal the existence of things that should be obvious. For example, the taboo on brother-sister sexual play conceals the fact that it exists – but also points directly to it. Taboos can function like social denial trips, which often provide a psychological shelter for those too skittish to confront the truth. The shelter often comes in the form of ‘wrongness', which in turn allows society to project its shadow onto a certain class of individuals.

Life might be simpler if we could all simply say yes to sex when we want to. And the funny thing is, we can! But there's a denial trip going on. We therefore delegate the prerogative of saying yes onto the class of women we call prostitutes, denying it to ‘ordinary' women who seemingly must maintain the image of propriety only at the expense of others called whores – and also those called sluts.

Sluts occupy a special place; they give sex away, or opt for the experience of enjoying it without a pretense of any kind. They are reviled not so much by actual working prostitutes but by others who more covertly go about charging for sex: those actively partaking in the marriage market. The reason is because sluts drive the price of marriage (or dates) down. Someone who participates in sex because she enjoys it ‘cheapens' sex – for those who would charge for it!

I would add in closing that these are obviously not academic or esoteric matters: everyone, every woman, has an interest in her right to choose sex and her right to enjoy it. That choice exposes shadow material, it is true, most of which was laid on us by religion (which itself turns sex into a commodity).

What is the way out? Well, anyone who claims her right to choose sex, who claims sex as her own, who admits to needing sex or allows herself to give her gifts freely, risks taking on some of society's shadow, the one conveniently projected onto prostitutes. That in the end may be a lot better option than living as a hypocrite. For some who come to the awareness that their sexuality really is their own, not a moral issue or some sort of cultural property to be bought and sold on a commodities exchange, that is the obvious choice.

But I complicate matters. You were born. Therefore you have a right to have fun.

The shadow cast over prostitution and other forms of erotic freedom simply reveals the shadow we cast over all of sex. As my teacher Arthur Joseph Kushner once said, "The shape of the shadows reveals the shape of what's hidden." If the most important current issue involving prostitution is sexual slavery and exploitation of the unwilling, then maybe we need to consider that in the context of all of society's values about sex.

The whole matter of sexuality does boil down to the freedom to choose – to make any of our own conscious decisions at all about sex, including to openly set the price; or to give it away free. If one day we discover ourselves lacking in that freedom, it seems an excellent idea to figure out who took it, or when we gave it away, and how we're going to get it back.

Assuming, of course, anyone wants it.