The True Stories of O

By Staff
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High-end prostitutes are all the rage, both in politics and, now, in bookstores. Howard Jacobson does a roundup for Prospect of recent memoirs and novels written by former prostitutes, with the intent of examining both the insight and the fairytales they offer readers. This is not a compilation of book reviews, but an airing out of controversial opinions and an unflinching examination of societal views regarding prostitution.  

Jacobson examines three books–Belle de Jour: The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl, Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl, and The Scorpion’s Sweet Venom: The Diary of a Brazilian Call Girl–in an attempt to understand the dichotomous perception of prostitution and its effects on its practitioners. It is apparent, based on both the amount and manner of coverage Ashley Dupré received following the Eliot Spitzer scandal, that we are divided on what to make of the sex trade. While one would be hard pressed to find a person willing to recommend it as a career choice, prostitution is a guilty pleasure that tantalizes our imagination, men and women alike. And while most of us see the selling of one’s body as a sad and dangerous act, we also fantasize about being so desired as to merit Dupré‘s $1000-an-hour price tag and career-sacrificing allure. It isn’t just high-end call girls like Dupré that hold this forbidden appeal. In Story of O, the infamous 1950s French tale of erotic submission, the protagonist derives pleasure from her debasement at the hands of her lovers. “Isn’t that what O pursues,” Jacobson asks, “the sensation of nothing mattering, least of all herself? And isn’t that why some men visit prostitutes, for the intense experience of abnegation associated with payment, for which next to nothing is given and next to nothing is felt?” The three prostitutes-turned-writers seem to think so.    

It would be unwise to read too much into these books, or to form an opinion on the complexities of the sex trade–or sex trades, as Jacobson argues that there are multiple castes within the prostitution industry–based solely on their authors’ stories. There seems to be two basic motivations for writing about one’s tenure as a hooker, neither educational: The prostitute either wants to glorify or vilify the industry and its consumers. Either of these seems simplistic and disingenuous. After all, not only are we talking about the oldest profession, we’re also trying to understand arguably the most complicated physiological aspect of nature–sex–through books about themes that, if authored by anybody other than former prostitutes, would fall under the “teen” section in the local library, as Jacobson points out.

Jacobson’s article makes a thoughtful case for infusing the prostitution debate with more perspective. The exchange of sex for money among adults is a multifaceted issue, one that deserves more than the hysterical diatribes of opponents, sensational portrayal by media, and perfunctory “keep laws out of the bedroom” refrain from decriminalization supporters. While the books themselves don’t offer a solution, at least a critically astute discussion of them raises the level of discourse.   

 —Morgan Winters

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