COMES NATURALLY #36
Spectator Magazine - July 28, 1995
(c) David Steinberg
Crime and Punishment: Hugh Grant and the Politics of Prostitution
Another Fallen Angel
As I write this, the not-so-spectacular story of Hugh Grant and Divine Marie Brown is all over the newspapers and the talk shows, adding spicy excitement to conversations at beauty parlors and barber shops everywhere.
Once-adoring women are in tears, as betrayed as teenagers who discover that their damp-making idols are mere mortals after all. A friend reports that when Grant's name appeared the other day in the opening credits of his current film, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Dame Down a Mountain, the audience broke out in loud hissing. A devotee who showed up at Grant's taping for his appearance with Jay Leno carried a sign saying "I would have paid you, Hugh," implying that now that Grant was a fallen angel she would keep her money and her fantasies to herself.
Status-conscious types everywhere were fleeing from Grant as if from Ebola, verbally dousing themselves in bleach. The fallout threatened to stain even the satin shoes of Grant's girlfriend, Estee' Lauder model Elizabeth Hurley. "If he were my boyfriend," warned an acid Eileen Ford, "I would go out and get another man." (The rumor as of this morning is that Hurley has decided to do just that.)
Now, everybody loves a good irony, and since Hugh Grant has been launched into stardom as the very embodiment of Mr. Clean sexual innocence (most clearly in Sirens where he is both shocked and offended by his Victorian wife's unexpected sexual emergence), there's something particularly poignant about him being the guy who got busted for getting a professional blowjob in the back seat of his car. (For the record, Divine Marie Brown, "known prostitute" to LAPD vice, did use a condom. She also furthered her career by selling her story to a British tabloid for a cool $150,000.)
But this is a story worthy of a friendly chuckle, not an outraged scream -- if only the nation (England is no better!) were able to get past being 12-years-old about the whole thing. Unsurprisingly, it's not. Brings back memories of the Pee Wee Herman debacle, another designated innocent whose career was shredded by an undistinguished sex crime -- in Herman's case, masturbating while watching a movie in a porn theater. (Anyone reading this column who has not done that raise your hand. Not that hand, the other one....)
The question that seems to have everyone in a lather about Grant is "Why did he do it?" (more precisely, "Why did he do it?") -- "he" meaning Hugh Grant, pretty boy, magically successful Hollywood actor, "magnet for babes," beau of the lovely Elizabeth Hurley. The assumption, of course, is that only sexually frustrated losers and psychopaths hire prostitutes, a mainstay of sociocultural mythology so far removed from reality that it inevitably keeps bumping into its own ignorance. (The second assumption, also highly questionable, is that having a glamorous lover and being an adored film star means that a person isn't sexually frustrated.)
Running for Cover
Hugh Grant may deserve sympathy as an unintentional casualty of antisexual hysteria, but then again he's not exactly a heroic advocate of undifferentiated sex-positively. Each apology he makes is more selfloathing than the last. I must have been insane to do such a thing. I have hurt everyone I love. There are right things and wrong things in the world and this is a wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, bad, bad, bad, bad thing. I'm amazed that anyone can love me after what I've done. And so on, and so on, and so on.
This is how the myth and the morality tale of the "type-of-guy-whohangs -out-with-prostitutes" get restored in all their glory, no matter what evidence shows up to the contrary. Who sees prostitutes? Frustrated losers, psychopaths... and occasional nice guys who suffer unexplainable bouts of temporary insanity.
Makes me want to scream. Come on, Hugh, it's no big deal. Guys go with whores every day -- successes and failures, rich and poor, famous and infamous, young and old, pretty and ugly. You're not some terrible wretch because you had this desire and acted on it. If anybody thinks you are, tell them to take their silly judgments elsewhere. Or, if you must, make some mild, for-show apology, and get on with your life. Leave the self-flagellating to those who enjoy it.
One more time, class, repeat after me: Real sexual desire does not limit itself to what is socially constructed as "nice." Not because sexual desire is necessarily "not nice," but because the way we think of "nice" is terribly flawed, twisted, bizarre, and (yes) perverted. As far as I'm concerned, "not nice" refers to the things that result in someone getting hurt -- physically or emotionally -- in ways that they don't want to be hurt. Neutral is neutral. "Nice" is what gives people genuine pleasure.
Rape is not nice. Sexual and emotional manipulation are not nice. Excoriating Hugh Grant for being with a prostitute is not nice. But sex, whatever particular form it may take, is generally very nice indeed, once you decant the guilt, the shame, the moral judgment, the risk of unwanted pregnancy, and the risk of disease. Contracting with someone for sexual services -- one particular, not uncommon way of having sex -- can also be very nice indeed, even if it flies in the face of the moral nay-sayers who want to limit everyone to the minor forms of pleasure they manage to maintain in the leftover crannies of their selfhating psyches. Of course, when we move beyond sexual activity into the realm of simple sexual desire or sexual fantasy, no one gets hurt at all, so boys and girls, brothers and sisters, give yourselves a break!
Getting Beyond the Whore Stigma
Why do people in happy, loving, fulfilling relationships go to prostitutes, anyway? My good friend Marty Klein, who is both an experienced sex therapist and a thoughtful commentator on sexual matters, tells me he has had a number of clients who have had sex with prostitutes for a variety of reasons. Tops on his list of motivations are a desire for variety in sexual partners; being able to engage in sexual practices or play out sexual fantasies that they feel uncomfortable asking from their regular partners, or that their regular partners just are not interested in; the sexual charge that comes from doing things that are thought of as naughty or sleazy; and feeling more entitled to focus on their own pleasure when they know their partner is being sexual with them for money rather than for sexual gratification. All of which make absolute sense when applied to the case of one Hugh Grant, no matter how rich and famous he is, or how attractive his partner.
To the moralists, the existence of prostitution is a social flaw, something that would not exist in a more perfect world. But prostitution has existed throughout history and across the boundaries of particular cultures, sometimes even being revered as work that is nothing less than sacred. The problem is that in our culture prostitution is stigmatized and criminally punished, and so takes on all the nasty twists of being driven into the underworld.
As Gail Pheterson points out in her enlightening book, A Vindication of the Rights of Whores, the existence of this pervasive whore stigma has importance not just for prostitutes, but for all other women and men as well. "The whore as prostitute or sex worker," she says, "is the prototype of the stigmatized woman or feminized man.... Any woman may be designated 'whore.'" Women she interviewed spoke of having been called whores for
"getting raped, being smart, having an abortion, being a lesbian, being black, sleeping with lots of men, talking too much, running away from home, getting divorced, leaving [their] children, being an unwanted child, having a child without marrying, hanging out with the wild girls at school, being Jewish, having an affair when I was married, leaving the Catholic church, going to a college that didn't have a curfew, [and] getting beaten by my husband."
Most commonly, the "whore" is the woman who is too sexual or just generally too independent, and the "whoremonger" is the man who refuses to restrict his sexuality to socially approved channels.
A Matter of Coming Out
As Lily Burana pointed out in the Spectator interview I did with her about sex work a while back, what's needed is for sex work customers (as well as sex workers themselves) to move beyond their shame and their fear of misunderstanding and criticism, stand behind who they really are and what they really do, and let people see that sex work customers are regular folks, just like everyone else. Gay people are working, with great courage and mutual support, to destigmatize themselves in the eyes of the general public. People into s/m are doing the same. Customers of sex workers -- people who hire prostitutes, people who frequent strip clubs and lap dancing clubs, people who enjoy watching porn videos -- need to join the ranks of the sexually disenfranchised who are refusing to let themselves be designated weird and invisible by the forces of antisexual shame and so-called propriety. As Burana correctly notes,
"historically, sex workers always exist and sexually explicit media have always existed, yet they've never been legitimized. Historically, sex workers have been prized and reviled. People want to partake of your services, but don't want to lend you any support because if they stand up for sex they're going to be stigmatized themselves. Nobody's willing to step up and say, 'I am a consumer of that. I support that. I think it's important -- important enough to support the people who do it and to support the industry itself.' The clients need to come forward and say, 'I want this. I participate in this. Don't try to take it away from me.'"
According to one report, 11% of women in the U.S. have directly sold sex for money at some time in their lives. (That doesn't include sex for dinner and the opera, or sex for a lifetime of financial security.) The flawed Janus Report on Sexual Behavior reports that 20% of its male respondents have had sex for money. That's one out of every nine women you pass on the street, and one out of every five men. Think of that the next time you're out for a stroll and people-watching.
From the Inside Out
My own fascination with prostitution and the whole sex for money underworld goes all the way back to my childhood. When I was totally pubescent, the book that all the boys coveted was 79 Park Avenue by Harold Robbins, a potboiler of a sex novel about a high-priced call girl and the detective who sets out to bust her only to fall in love with her in the process. It was, as we would excitedly explain to each other, the sexiest book that you could check out of the public library. It was, in fact, very hot indeed (even when I recently re-read it to get a little "adult" perspective on the book), and since I was at that cuspof -sexuality age, everything in it became powerfully eroticized for me: bad girls; painted women; the whole idea of flaunted, available sex; sex on its own terms, separate from romance. Other things would lead me to devote myself to the kind of sexual fulfillment that comes from deep intimacy, long-term relationship, and deep emotional caring. But the idea of the sex professional -- of being able to ask straight out for what you want, pay for it, and get it (at one level, anyway) -- was both incredibly hot and remarkably sensible to me. It still is.
When I was in my 20s, I was both fascinated by and afraid of any kind of sex for money exchange. I wandered around the Tenderloin in San Francisco, discovered the early O'Farrell and Palace Theaters, and wandered the streets, curious about the outrageously dressed women flaunting their sexual come-ons, asking me if I wanted a date, promising me a good time. Some of the women were obviously cold and angry, but others seemed more genuinely friendly and human. I would pretend to be more interested than I was, enjoying the tease which was as close as I would let myself get to actually crossing that particular line. I told myself it was because I was afraid of getting herpes.
My first paid sex experience was at a massage parlor where I decided that I could safely get a massage and a hand job and see what that was like. It was a small, homey place and the woman who led me into the massage room was quiet, friendly, unintimidating, and appealing to look at. I undressed nervously, showered even more nervously, and tried to relax enough to enjoy being touched by her. Luckily, as sexual masseuses go, she was pretty attentive. She touched me nicely, gave me time to unwind, and when she got around to playing with my cock, she focused careful attention on what she was doing. I felt much more connected to her than I ever expected as I got more and more excited and eventually came. I remember realizing that she was breathing in time with my breathing, there in the dim red light, and as I watched her stroke my cock carefully, her eyes closed in concentration, I was warmed by her apparently genuine desire to do this bit of tenderness well. I was in fact so moved by the experience that I later wrote quite a gushy poem to her. Wendy. I also remember that after I showered again and came through the living room of the place on my way out, she was completely absorbed watching tv and didn't so much as answer me when I said goodbye. Whatever momentary connection we had was definitely over. That was a lesson it itself.
Since that time I have had a number of experiences with prostitutes in different situations, some of them quite warm and lovely, others quite cold and empty. All in all I've paid for sex maybe a dozen or so times. One time I picked up a pretty hitchhiker in North Beach who got around to telling me that she turned tricks if I was interested. I decided to go for it. She told me she wanted to go first to get an aphrodisiac. I said ok. We drove out to the Sunset District, she took my money, and disappeared around the corner. I sat in the car for a very long time, wondering what had happened to her. After about 15 minutes I decided that I had been taken, plain and simple, and laughed at myself for being so stupid. Just then she came back. She had scored some heroin with my money. We went back to her room in North Beach and I watched her cook the heroin and shoot the dirty brown liquid into her arm. It was both fascinating and disgusting. She kept apologizing for taking so long and thanking me for my patience. After the fluid was in her vein she said, "Now you wait for the click." There was a minute or so of silence while we both waited. "Click," she said with a smile.
She came over to where I was standing and we began to kiss. She reached down and took my cock in her hand. Just then the clock at the church outside chimed six o'clock and I remembered that I was supposed to be meeting my wife, her brother, and our six-month old son, for dinner. I explained that I had to go. For a moment she seemed sorry to be interrupted in her routine, and then of course she was fine. She told me I could come back to see her the next day, no additional charge. That night I told my wife the story, which she heard with no apparent judgment. The next day, I went back and knocked on her door, but when she answered she was obviously with another client. She didn't recognize me in the least. I explained who I was and that I had come back to see her as she had said. She told me I'd have to come back another time. I never went back, but I did write a song about how easily experiences come and go.
I had another wonderful time with a lovely transsexual woman named Diana, who I met at the old Black Rose on Jones Street. I would go there regularly, fascinated by the outrageous drag queens, the scene, the sense of community, letting people come on to me, buying a few drinks, but not "going" with anyone. Diana came up one evening and struck up an easy, low-key conversation. She was very beautiful, with smooth black skin, a sensual way of moving, and voluptuous breasts. We talked about tropical fish, which she raised as a hobby. Eventually she asked very gently if I wanted to go to her place, which she promised was very nice, clean, and just a block away. I was nervous, but I decided to go with her. At her place she talked me through my nervousness. I played with her silky body while she sucked my cock quite nicely, and then I sucked her cock as she got very excited and then came. It was the first time I had ever sucked a cock in more than a tentative way and it was very hot, even through the latex. Afterwards she laughed and said, "There, that wasn't so bad, was it?" As we got dressed she warned me about the other hookers at the bar, about fights and screaming drug scenes. "Watch yourself," she said, "they won't all be as nice to you as I am."
I left on a cloud, very pleased with the world. About a year later I saw her again. She had no idea that she had ever seen me before. I went with her to a different apartment, this one very rundown. She had become addicted to crack -- accidentally, she said, just from fooling around -- and then broke down in tears telling me how her mother "hadn't raised her for this." There was a guy there who wanted her to go do some drugs in the hallway before we got started, and I got scared that I was going to get rolled. I told her that I was feeling too nervous, that she could keep the money, but I was going to go. She got very upset and kept saying that I was leaving because she was such a terrible person. I assured her that I didn't think she was a terrible person, but she wouldn't believe me. I held her face in both my hands and made her look into my eyes while I told her that she was a beautiful person but that I was scared so I had to leave. For about two seconds she got it, then lost it again in a wave of bad feeling. She was sobbing in her bed, pleading with me to stay and have sex with her, when I closed the door and found my way out to the street.
The nastiest and scariest prostitute experience I've had was with a woman who talked me into a peep show video booth so she could give me what turned out to be a very perfunctory blow job. Before I could even pull my pants back up, she was out the door of the booth, telling me to wait a few minutes before coming after her, so as not to raise any suspicion. As soon as she left, I realized that she had taken a lot of money out of my wallet which was on the floor. I ran after her, and caught up to her on the street, just as a vice sweep came by. The cops asked what was going on. I told them, told them exactly how much money it was, which they found in her purse. Then they busted both of us, putting us in the back of a paddy wagon with a couple of other detainees while they swerved through the streets of the Tenderloin, whooping like cowboys, harassing transsexuals on the street, all the while pounding the metal van with their nightsticks to drive all of us inside crazy with the noise.
At the police station, they their best to humiliate me verbally and to scare me into testifying against the woman for prostitution, even though I insisted that all I wanted was my money back. At one point they threatened to take me into a back room and beat me if I didn't cooperate with them. I believed them but I still refused, more because they were pissing me off than because I was feeling heroic. At that point they relented and let me go. Eventually I was subpoenaed and had to testify in court, trying not perjure myself while keeping the woman from getting into more hot water than she was in already. The prosecutors were very gentle and solicitous with me, while the public defender kept trying to embarrass me with unnecessarily questions of detail like, "Were your pants around your knees or around your ankles while this was happening?" I got over my nervousness early, and even had some fun before it was over (asking the very stern judge whether I should say "oral sex" or "blow job" in answer to one question), but the whole experience shook me up for a very long time.
There have been other times, other scenes, that make less interesting stories. That all this time I was in happy, fulfilling relationships seems entirely beside the point. My reasons for enjoying these adventures -- and I have to say I've enjoyed even the empty and frightening times in their own ways -- are probably not far from Hugh Grant's. I'm just glad that I've chosen a lifestyle that allows me to be more honest about what I do and what I like, both in public and in private, than Hugh can.
Which Brings Us Back to Hugh...
On the America Online movie actors bulletin board, there are 112 postings about Hugh Grant as of this morning. The debate is in full flower:
"AAAAAAHHHH!!!!! Why? Why, I ask you? Is there not a God? We thought we had found the ideal man in Hugh Grant. What is this world coming to?"
"Why couldn't it be someone else, anyone else?"
"How could any heterosexual guy give up someone like Elizabeth Hurley? Hugh -- you're just out of your gourd."
"What a stupid prick. Always using the little head instead of the big."
"This just goes to show that males are never satisfied. How pathetic. Dump him Elizabeth!!!!!"
"What if he had gotten AIDS from the prostie and given it to Liz? Saying sorry doesn't make it all right."
"Why does everyone act as though Grant was caught molesting children or something? He was with an adult woman who did more than consent. Let these guys act and take them off their pedestals."
"So he went out for a little fun. Stupid, but not the end of the world."
"Hugh Grant hasn't done anything different from many other guys. That's why the oldest profession exists."
"So what if he fucks a woman and pays her? She's doing a great service. I support him 100% for doing what he wants to sexually with a consenting adult. I'm sick of this country judging and shaming people for doing what is part of us. Sex, glorious sex, I recommend it for all."
"Life isn't a candy store. It owes you nothing and you can't always have what you want. This whole 'if it feels good, do it' mentality is out of the sixties and about as immature and unrealistic as you can get."
"I can't help but hope that he and Liz have broken up. He's a better fantasy when he's single!"
"Doesn't he look absolutely fabulous in his mug shot? I have it hanging up in my room."
The beat, as they say, goes on -- about Hugh Grant, about this thing we call sex, about what to do with the perplexing and unexpected things that feel good even when we think they shouldn't.
As e.e. cummings, the greatest poet of the 20th century, once said, "humanity i love you because you are perpetually putting the secret of life in your pants and forgetting it's there and sitting down on it... humanity i hate you."
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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