Formalised money-sex exchanges get the attention and conflict: debates about exploitation and violence. Lots of other exchanges are ignored, a line is drawn between commercial and non-commercial sex. But that line is imaginary. Many people who expect to be compensated for their company will never call themselves sex workers or escorts, on the basis that they never ask for money. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s (the book, not the romanticised film), Holly Golightly distinguishes between professionals and others:
He asked me how I’d like to cheer up a lonely old man, at the same time pick up a hundred a week. I told him look, darling, you’ve got the wrong Miss Golightly, I’m not a nurse that does tricks on the side. I wasn’t impressed by the honorarium either; you can do as well as that on trips to the powder room: any gent with the slightest chic will give you fifty for the girl’s john, and I always ask for cab fare too, that’s another fifty.
Good-time girl (or guy) is only one of the names less professional people have been called. A few years ago I quoted a character in a Lawrence Block book who described herself as a girlfriend taking money from friends. Another time I ran excerpts from a 1950s investigation that describes B-girls (B for bar) who are said to have drifted into prostitution after the easy promiscuity of bars. The police are perplexed because the girls look clean-cut.
Here’s another example, from The Sins of Our Fathers (1976), also by Lawrence Block. A young woman has been murdered, and there’s ambiguity about whether or not she was a prostitute. The investigator asks someone who had been her roommate a while back and then left the flat:
“What did she do, pass on one of her dates to you?”
Her eyes flared. She closed them briefly, drew on her cigarette. “It was almost like that,” she said. “Not quite, but that’s pretty close. She told me a friend of hers had a business associate in from out of town and asked if I’d like to date the guy, to double with her and her friend. I said I didn’t think so, and she talked about how we would see a good show and have a good dinner and everything. And then she said, ‘Be sensible, Marcia. You’ll have a good time, and you’ll make a few dollars out of it.’ . . . Well, I wasn’t shocked. So I must have suspected all along that she was getting money. I asked her what she meant, which was a pretty stupid question at that point, and she said that the men she dated all had plenty of money, and they realized it was tough for a young woman to earn a decent living, and at the end of the evening they would generally give you something. I said something about wasn’t that prostitution, and she said she never asked men for money, nothing like that, but they always gave her something. I wanted to ask how much but I didn’t and then she told me anyway. She said they always gave at least twenty dollars and sometimes a man would give her as much as a hundred. The man she was going to be seeing always gave her fifty dollars, she said, so if I went along it would mean that his friend would be almost certain to give me fifty dollars, and she asked if I didn’t think that was a good return on an evening that involved nothing but eating a great dinner and seeing a good show and then spending a half hour or so in bed with a nice, dignified gentleman. That was her phrase. A nice, dignified gentleman. . . I was earning eighty dollars a week. Nobody was taking me to great dinners or Broadway shows. And I hadn’t even met anyone I wanted to sleep with.”
“Did you enjoy the evening?”
“No. All I could think about was that I was going to have to sleep with this man. And he was old. . . Fifty-five, sixty. I’m never good at guessing how old people are. He was too old for me, that’s all I knew.”
“But you went along with it.”
“Yes. I had agreed to go, and I didn’t want to spoil the party. Dinner was good, and my date was charming enough. I didn’t pay much attention to the show. I couldn’t. I was too anxious about the rest of the evening.” She paused, focused her eyes over my shoulder. “Yes, I slept with him. And yes, he gave me fifty dollars. And yes, I took it. . . Aren’t you going to ask me why I took the money? . . . I wanted the damned money. And I wanted to know how it felt. Being a whore.”
“Did you feel that you were a whore?”
“Well, that’s what I was, isn’t it? I let a man fuck me, and I took money for it.”
I didn’t say anything. After a few moments she said, “Oh, the hell with it. I took a few more dates. Maybe one a week on the average. I don’t know why. It wasn’t the money. Not exactly. It was, I don’t know. Call it an experiment. I wanted to know how I felt about it. I wanted to… learn certain things about myself. . . That I’m a little squarer than I thought. That I didn’t care for the things I kept finding hiding in corners of my mind. That I wanted, oh, a cleaner life. That I wanted to fall in love with somebody. Get married, make babies, that whole trip. It turned out to be what I wanted. When I realized that, I knew I had to move out on my own. I couldn’t go on rooming with Wendy.”
This woman finds out about herself through an informal sex-money exchange some people call prostitution while others don’t. Another roommate might have been more enthusiastic about Wendy’s offer to share her lifestyle. Modest amounts of money are involved, but Wendy is spared taking a dull, ill-paid full-time job. Not much like more lucrative sugar-daddy arrangements? Or the same on a different scale? And does it matter?
–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist