"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, September 21, 2018

Hookers Then And Now–‘Lonesome Dove’ vs Today’s Censorious Puritanism

A prostitute is one of Larry McMurtry’s main characters in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove; and prostitutes feature largely in his epic about the post-Civil War West.  Saloons were the only social venue for the emerging West, a meeting place for cowboys and a chance to gamble and, after months of abstinence on the plains, to have sex with a woman.  Granted the women who entertained men in second floor rooms above the drunken brawls and card games below were no beauties; but no man expected more.  They were necessary, desirable commodities who, like today’s immigrants, saw prostitution as way to make a living – no union dues, no pimps, no conditions, much risk, and reasonable rewards.  These first American ‘sex workers’ were part of the Western frontier, perhaps not thought of as marriageable, but respected nonetheless for their profession.

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McMurtry’s Lorie, however, is a prostitute, but a beautiful woman loved by many young men for whom her prostitution is irrelevant to her allure and eligibility.  Part of this, of course, is because of the unforgiving life of the plains, but because she is more than just a sexual object.  The cowboys appreciate her beauty, her delicacy, and her quiet, unassuming character.  Gus, one of the two leaders of the cattle march to Montana, loves Lorie for this and more – her emotional vulnerability, her surprising strength and resiliency, and her qualities of love and mutual dependence.

Gus and Lorie cut cards for ‘a poke’ between other clients, share humor, concerns, and a certain practical but profound understanding of life and its limitations.  McMurtry never speaks of their time together nor of that between her and Jake Spoon, an irresponsible but attractive seducer other than to describe relationships.  She depends on Gus for security, friendship, and an almost paternal love; but is attracted to Jake for his easy ways, his sexuality, and even for his indifference.  She loves Gus but wants Jake.

The point is neither in her preferences nor her performance, but in her qualities and character as a woman.  She is neither disgusted nor damaged by the roughriders whom she services.  She feels neither abused nor used.  She has accepted the profession as necessary, one of the few open to women, and one which may eventually pay for resettlement in San Francisco.

Image result for images 19th century western saloon

McMurtry’s prostitutes are real women who happen to be prostitutes.  Frontier women who endure hardship as a way of life, who expect no luxury or benefit, and who do not complain.  They are proud, defiantly individual, and fully accepted members of the frontier community.

Of course social class and opprobrium come into play.  July Johnson is a young, naïve sheriff of a Texas town who unknowingly marries a prostitute who soon after their marriage goes off with another man.  July, out of moral responsibility and right pursues her in the hopes of returning her to the traditional, Christian life she has abandoned.  July loves her, perhaps more because of his sexual naïveté than real affection; but in McMurtry’s hand, Peach is a real woman – desirous, ambitious, savvy, and willful.  Prostitution may have defined her early years, but her pursuit of her former husband and desire to flee far from the traditional, moralistic confines of July is heroic.  She signs on to  a whisky boat, chances her survival, and makes her way.

Prostitution today has become a feminist cause celebre – both a symbol of male patriarchy, sexual exploitation and abuse; and one of female destiny.  A ‘commercial sex worker’ is the female answer to male sexual insistence.  Making money off of testosterone-driven, insensate men, is due justice for all the male oppression of the past. 

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Yet for most, prostitution is still a moral albatross.  A former governor of New York was chased out of office because of his dalliances with a Washington hooker in the bridal suite of the Mayflower Hotel.  A former Congressman was dunned out of Washington because of his hijinks with an Argentine stripper.  Cruising Pigalle, the Bois de Boulogne, or the Marais might be all well and good for French intellectuals who have long ago shed their bourgeois sexual morality; but sex in downtown Washington hotels or group commercial sex in Georgetown is off limits.  

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Americans, as the French well know, are very complexed about sex.  Not only do we keep our distance from streetwalkers and call girls, but must recite a litany of approval at every step of sexual intimacy.  We are more governed by the threat of civil and criminal litigation than we are responsive to individual circumstances.   Sex is to be adjudicated not negotiated.  There is a right way and a wrong way, and any deviance especially if not uniquely male, should and will be punished.  “No means No’ has changed from a women’s natural reticence and concern about reputation and pregnancy to some questionable parsing of desire an emotion of 18-year olds.  The State is watching.

Women, as Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Strindberg understood well, were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, negotiating to their advantage, and influencing rule.  The queens and consorts of kings were no minor players.  ‘Selling’ oneself to the highest bidder at the Elizabethan court was a matter of pedigree, lineage, beauty, and sexual allure in that order – no different from prostitution except that the former was rewarded with titles and crowns; the latter with money.

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Women have never been the dupes of men – innocent, weak, and dependent as modern feminists have described them – but equal to them.  The calculus has not changed – men desire women, sexual satisfaction distorts intelligence and savvy, and such satisfaction can, if handled properly, can be rewarding.

McMurtry’s prostitutes are the best examples of female reality in modern fiction.  They are competent, aware, determined women.  Sexual favors are no more than currency; and depending on the exchange rate can be very valuable indeed.  His women – if they weren’t prostitutes – would be feminist heroes.

Feminism, for all its successes in securing equal rights for women, has distorted millennia-old sexual realities. Women may have been subservient to men in civil and legal matters; but no student of either literature or history would assume that women have had no power.  On the contrary, as Strindberg knew, control over paternity is the most powerful trump card in women’s arsenal.  The symbolic castration of The Father in the playwright’s play of the same name has resonance even more now than when it was written. ‘Biology is destiny’ a metaphorical alliteration from Freud’s ‘anatomy is destiny’ has never more been true.  While women have not yet shed their love of Daddy patriarchy and traditional socially prescribed roles, they understand how they can manipulate men’s far more simple hormone-driven destiny.

Men pursue and women are desired – a fact unchanged throughout history.  The most savvy women have understood this and used the calculus to their advantage.  The weaker and more vulnerable have used it as a defense. 

There is nothing wrong nor immoral about prostitution per se.  While infidelity may well be scrutinized as morally suspect, the object of straying men’s desire should not be.  Prostitution is an economic transaction purely and simply, and those who wish to make more of it than it is are myopic – self-serving at best and sanctimonious at worst.

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