By Namit Arora
(An excerpt from a novel in progress.)
On their way to China Town, they pass an area with red curtained massage parlors and hookers pacing the streets. They stop at a red light behind a BMW. A hooker approaches its curbside window, talks to the driver, and hops in. Ved notices Liz shaking her head in what appears to be disapproval.
‘Consenting adults!’ he reminds her.
‘You don’t need to tell me that,’ she says sharply.
‘Why the disapproval then?’
‘Because it is so sad. I just wish these women had other options.’
‘Maybe they do. Are they doing this against their will here in San Francisco?’
‘Just because they do this, quote-unquote, voluntarily, doesn’t mean they do it because they are happy to. It’s because they don’t recognize, or lack, other options. Or they are addicted to abuse, or full of self-loathing and given to self-destruction.’ Her voice bristles as she continues, ‘It doesn’t mean they like it, or choose it with a healthy frame of mind.’
‘But if they do it voluntarily—so let’s exclude the drug addicts—can we say we know better? Who should be allowed to save people from themselves? So many others don’t like their jobs either, or choose them with a healthy frame of mind. I have met …’
She sighs. ‘I know that line of reasoning, but taking a job flipping burgers is not quite comparable to letting a horny customer finger your private parts.’
‘But many still choose the latter. They may not want to be saved, or pitied as victims of exploitation.’
‘Listen,’ she raises her voice, ‘I don’t know what the solution is. I just wish things were different, OK? All I’m saying is that prostitution springs from socioeconomic disadvantage and serious emotional problems. And it exploits all kinds of women weakened by their circumstances, not just the drug addicts.’
‘I agree with that, but wouldn’t prostitution be around whether or not we like it? All we can do is try to minimize the crime and abuse and diseases associated with it, and treat it like a regular services sector job, as they do in parts of Europe.’
‘Yes, I also believe in legalization. I think it’s better for the women.’ She resumes after a pause, her voice charged with emotion, ‘At the end of the day, I guess, for me it really comes down to how each of us projects our sexual power in the world, and the kind of world it creates. What bothers me most about prostitution, to put it bluntly, is the way men approach sex.’
She continues, ‘I might as well tell you right now that this is my hot-button issue—a personal hang-up—that sex ought to be shared respectfully. I think these women must die a little bit every day. Do you know what it’s like dealing with foul manipulation, degrading language, being reduced to a mere sex toy by strangers, and even by men whom one has known and trusted? Do you know what it feels like to be used? You don’t, you can’t, because you are a man.’
He wants to say: We all have different thresholds of desecration and violation; your own thresholds are not universal. Don’t rashly conflate paid sex with disrespect. Even in conventional unions—of lovers and spouses—payment for sexual favors, negotiated a lot less openly, occurs in other unsavory forms. At least this is more honest and clear-cut. But he remains silent. He cannot dispel the whiff of a loophole in his reasoning.
Without warning, she begins to sob. He is dismayed by this development. He wasn’t expecting tears on their second date. Who knows what history provokes this? He extends his right arm and gently squeezes her shoulder.
‘I am sorry,’ she pulls a napkin from her bag, wipes her eyes, and then blows her nose into it. ‘With some men, even I have felt like I am beheld by eyes that belong to another kind of creature, who cannot see me in here. They only see what they want to see, which is not nearly who I am. I am a means to their sexual ends. Women have sexual needs too, you know, why can’t men control themselves like we do? Why do they have to be so cavalier, so …?’
Unthinking, preying, sordid … he silently shuffles the words. So true, and how curious that we once placed ourselves a step below the angels. He recently dwelled on the fact that each day so many men rape women, that one in six American women have apparently been raped at least once. For the first time recently, he vividly tried to imagine himself inside the mind of a rapist, how it operated—creative empathy one might say—and it filled him with revulsion for his sex. Such cruelty lurking just beneath the skin of men.
He knows he has it in him to reduce women’s bodies to objects of pleasure, to imagine them as little more than three holes and two hands. Yes, yes, he knows that gaze. It’s rooted in a primeval, predatory force in him that he cannot wish away, only try to tame. Our religions too have long served to repress this gaze, but today’s culture of individualism and popular porn, the so-called gonzo porn, thrives on and even cultivates this gaze. So many women in the business of porn now derive their livelihood from ordinary men—fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, uncles, neighbors, coworkers—exercising that gaze. How different is he from these men?
‘I don’t know how to defend this rationally,’ she says, ‘but I would feel emotionally unsafe with a lover who has frequented prostitutes. In a very personal, visceral way, I would feel hurt by the knowledge, somehow, knowing full well that it had nothing to do with me.’ When he glances at her she is quietly staring out the window.
‘I’m glad you’re not like that,’ she adds.
Not like what? Like the man in the BMW? He does not ask.