Friday, July 20, 2018

Good versus Bad Prostitutes in Fiction

His Savior, A Hellion Club book by Aiden Bates is problematic from the beginning.

I mention this because a number of his other books are not. I quite enjoyed the Cold Case Squad novels. They become a tad formulaic after awhile but I don't hold that (automatically) against an author.

The problem with His Savior is the attitude towards the sex trade workers.

The book makes the libertarian argument--with which I am not in complete disagreement--that the omegas, male servers who occasionally provide sex for money, have chosen their profession with eyes wide open: why should the law or society penalize them?

Here's the problem. The book makes this argument by ignoring reality.

It's a well-written movie. But face it, she's a "good" prostitute.
High-risk occupations, especially any occupation that involves multiple sex partners, run real risks. Sex workers, for instance, experience a higher degree of abuse, drug use, sexually transmitted infections, and unwanted pregnancies. And yet sex workers continue to operate. Some research on motivation points to economic factors, but some research points to choice as the primary reason, which raises uneasy questions about sexuality (and about choice, for the philosophers in the audience). 

All this ambiguity makes middle-class Americans very uncomfortable, especially those middle-class Americans who want to prove how tolerant and non-conservative they are without allowing for the realities that conservatism attempts to address. All the pleasure with none of the accompanying risks.

Pleasure with acknowledged risk makes middle-class Americans uneasy (see hysterical reactions to Katie Roiphe and Camille Paglia). So they divide prostitutes into "good" and "bad." "Good" prostitutes in movies and books never have STIs, aren't working exclusively for money, never indulge in risky behavior outside of multiple sex partners (i.e., they never do drugs) and certainly never resort to such low-class behaviors as blackmail and extortion.

Rent Boy from the
Cleveland Street Scandal
"Bad" prostitutes do all those things. Silence regarding Oscar Wilde's "rent boys" is largely due to this latter label. These young men worked for money, were not exclusive, did not wear condoms (nobody did really), and were largely indifferent to issues like "it isn't nice to ask a poet for more money because he is dumb enough to write romantic letters to men and leave them about for other people to steal."

The omegas in Bates' Hellion Club are "good" sex workers who magically, unbelievably never have any of the above issues.

The "bad" customers of the "good" sex workers are criticized in the novel, but the fact is, the entire Hellion Club system leaves the sex workers in the novel vulnerable to bad customers:
(1) The servers have no consistent professional uniform that indicates distance, see-don't-touch to the customers. That is, it isn't the scantily clad nature of the costumes that poses the problem; it is that the costumes/uniforms keep changing with no input from the workers. There is no outward signal to the alphas (as exists is in any other customer service establishment), "Hey, this person is working."

(2) The servers are not paid enough to NOT supplement their income with agreements to go "upstairs"; Greg's protest that he is paid well, can say, "No," and chooses to say, "Yes" is undermined by the character's behavior and internal dialog.

He doesn't say, "No" to Ryan's brother which means (a) he was actually afraid that he would lose his job or his preferred shift for refusing the father's "request" or (b) he has all the protective instincts of a guppy going after live bait, which does not bode well for his ability to avoid many of the above listed risks, probably because (c) like every other dumb 20-year-old, he thinks the "risks" will never happen to him.

(3) Why is the place employing dumb 20-year-olds who have no sense of personal safety? The author describes no consistent rules or rituals that protect Greg from being "traded" or from simply going along with whatever is happening in the moment. (The tradition of the contract is an anomaly, not a culturally embedded form of protection.)

On the one hand, the strict licensing and oversight of prostitutes in past cultures was highly restrictive and occasionally abusive. On the other hand, it kept them safe. That is, sex workers with a "madam" in the Wild West experienced fewer dangers and earned more than sex workers who worked the streets and rented cribs (it's all comparative, however; they still died younger with more diseases than their not-sex-workers counterparts).

(4) In fact, the sex workers in the Hellion Club, such as Greg, are left alone much of the time. The villains of the piece--the father, brother, and brother-in-law of the second protagonist--get into ongoing, abusive discussions with Greg despite the close proximity of Greg's boss and other alphas.

I suppose we, the readers, are supposed to be impressed by how Greg handles these situations and relieved when someone finally steps in, but in a truly professional workplace, the father, brother, and brother-in-law would be thrown out from the moment they opened their mouths. The behavior would never be tolerated in the first place and nobody would wait for some kind of official meeting to ban them on a permanent basis. 
But hey, it's an old-fashioned boys' club! (Despite token claims that it isn't.)
The father, brother, and brother-in-law are frankly over the top villains who behave totally unrealistically, but one can see why men of this type assume their behavior is acceptable. The system tells them that it is.

And yes, some of the above issues are addressed in the novel, just as the system is criticized in a benign, non-productive way by its "good" characters. However, the underlying premise is never addressed--Greg experiences all the drama of the "bad" patrons' behavior without undergoing any of his lifestyle's incurred risks (risks made greater by the system he chooses to work in).*

For a large part of the novel, he functions within the highly immature (and tiring) mindset of thinking that people aren't supposed to treat him as someone who accepts the outcomes of risky behavior. Rather, like a "good" prostitute, he expects to be treated as someone who accepts risky behavior that isn't really risky (even though it is). His behavior is "cute," not dangerous. This is the characterization, internal dialog, and defense that the author delivers for most of the book.

*Pregnancy is not treated as a risk (this is a MPreg novel). As with all "good" prostitute fiction, it is treated as a sign of love between the protagonists and ultimately brings them together. Token mutters are made about condoms not being 100% protection but something as basic as "sex with a condom does not eliminate skin to skin infections, such as herpes, and genital herpes can kill a newborn baby" is utterly ignored.

I am aware that romance fiction, to a degree, is fantasy. But as in all fiction, the ability to suspend belief still reigns supreme. His Savior didn't manage that for me.