I'm going to right up front announce that 90% of this post is going to be a repeat of Limyaael's much better Rant on Whores, so you should probably just go read that and maybe imagine me nodding my head a few times and then trolling Google looking for "sex fail" pictures that could accompany this post.
Anyway. Prostitution. You're doing it wrong.
Well, I mean, you aren't doing it wrong, but it keeps popping up unexpectedly in the books I'm reading even though I'd somewhat prefer it didn't because it seems like the authors never really want to commit to the topic enough to do it justice. So if you're an author and you want to write about prostitutes, take this rant for what you will.
(The rest of the post is hidden below the break, for those of you who are at work.)
Sex, or so I'm led to understand, occasionally leads to babies. I am also led to believe that whether or not the babies happen depends mostly on things like fertility cycles and sperm counts, and is not so much based on incidental details like it being the woman's "first time" (maximum angst!) or whether she loves the hero. And please do note that "regular" 28-day cycles aren't the case for every woman, especially once you add poor nutrition and an crappy sleep schedule into the mix.
If you don't want your characters to have babies -- particularly if you want to have a thriving prostitution-based economy in your Mad Max zombie-fest novel and yet have children be some kind of rare, unusual occurrence to highlight the coming of the Prophesied One -- you're going to need to think about what all this entails. Do your characters use birth control? It's hard to find a 100% effective birth control today with the weight of modern medicine behind it (which is why people are usually encouraged to double-up on BC methods); it's going to be damn tricky to have flawless birth control in your steam punk Civil War re-imagining. And if you want to hand-wave the issue with your special Colonel Sanders-certified blend of herbs and spices, where do they come from and why do your characters know about them?
Herbal birth control methods are a combination of superstition, trial-and-error, and knowledge passed down over time. Furthermore, many herbs are tricky to grow and need special cultivation and soil conditions. Rarely do the herbs grow year-round and herbs lose their effectiveness if they aren't dried and stored properly. Please don't expect me to believe that five minutes after the zombie apocalypse occurs, every woman in North America is suddenly imbued with the knowledge of the perfect contraceptive-and-abortifacient tea and starts a portable herb garden just in time to start bartering her charms to the dusty heroes as they flee the zombie-infested cities. Because I won't.
In the same vein, home abortions are not safe and easy and painless -- they're dangerous and frightening and potentially deadly and they hurt something fierce. There's going to have to be some serious good reasons for your prostitute to submit to one besides just "I don't want a baby" or "Giving birth hurts", and at the very least the subject should be a source of serious consideration for the character and not just "Oops, my magical tea failed, so I'm off to Barb's 24-Hour Abortion Tent. Cindy, can you handle my shift for tonight, and I'll be back tomorrow." Do not include a metal coat-hanger in your novel without seriously understanding what that entails, and for the love of Pete justify where it came from because those suckers are practically vintage now.
I hope that you, as an author, like sex. I hope this because I like sex and it seems like it would be a shame not to like it. (I feel the same way about kittens and cheesecake, for the record.) However, just because you like sex with your chosen sex partners does not mean that your prostitute character will like sex with her clients, because it's generally not the same thing.
Prostitutes have sex because it is their job. Do you like your job? I hope so. Do you like every aspect of your job? I doubt it. Sex clients can and will be just as annoying, demanding, intimidating, irritating, whiny, noisy, smelly, and assholish as the worst managers or clients at your day job. Sex work is a performance job, a service job. It's tiring work, it's hard on the back and hips, and it's a literal pain if you don't have a steady source of artificial lubricant to get you through the day. Yes, lubricant. Did that sentence make you squeamish? Then stop reading this post, by all means, but especially stop writing prostitute characters who love their job because they "love sex". The human body can only produce so much lubricant in a day, and before you start thinking that some oral will clear that up, please keep in mind that saliva dries very quickly.
If you have never, not even once, had sex where you were too tired and worn out to continue but your partner wasn't finished, then you probably should not be writing a prostitute character without a little more research. (I mean books, people! Stop snickering like that.) Please keep in mind that your prostitute character won't have love propelling her to get her client to the finish line -- she'll have to keep going even when she's tired because that's what he's paying her for. And depending on the position, she may not be able to readjust if the act becomes uncomfortable or painful for her. These are things you have to think about and if you don't want to think about them, great! But do not not not just ignore them and say that sex work is fun-rainbow-pony-sparkly orgasms all day long because it's not.
Is your prostitute character taking valuable hours out of her day to grow natural lubricants alongside her birth control garden? If so, you need to acknowledge that -- and you also need to understand that the time she's taking to protect her body is time that she's not spending earning money with that body. That she has "free time" to cultivate a (necessary) garden indicates a level of (minor) affluence. If she's affluent enough to have property and produce, then why is she having sex with strangers for money? Your reader is going to think of these things, which means that you need to think of these things and then explain them -- you can't just conjure up a prostitute who is dirt-poor and living on the streets, but has a Bag of Holding containing birth control pills and lubricant and she just loves her work because she's such a complete nymphomaniac and it never hurts because her body naturally produces aloe vera in large quantities. When you write that, your readers get the impression that you don't realize that sex work is work.
Hey, remember that section I wrote on magical birth control remedies and how you need to justify them in-world? Copy and paste that whole section but with regards to disease this time. And remember how I was gauche enough to make you think about saliva and lubricants? I'd like to take the opportunity to point out that saliva carries a ton of bacteria. You're welcome.
Prostitutes in your After The Apocalypse novel don't just have sexually transmitted diseases to worry about, although they should worry about those if all the condoms in the world have gotten old and brittle and there are no new rubber factories being built. Prostitutes also have to worry about regular diseases. It's hard to walk the streets when you have a cold, and most modern "inconvenient" diseases like influenza can actually kill people in a setting that doesn't have modern medicine and where hygiene, nutrition, and immune systems have all degraded significantly due to the ravening zombie horde outside the city walls.
Is your prostitute kissing her customers? Bad idea, because that's a serious germ exchange there. The client may not be showing signs of being sick at this moment, but if your character has even a rudimentary knowledge of germ theory, she's going to want to minimize contact with her client as much as possible. This isn't about not liking the client or not liking the sex: this is about minimizing risk. Your character is having sex with strangers in order to survive, so it's rather unlikely that she's going to engage in risky behaviors that could shorten her lifespan just because she likes to play tongue hockey. If impersonal, non-kissy, transactional sex wasn't what you wanted in your book, maybe you shouldn't write a prostitute character.
There are a lot of ways to have sex. How is your character having sex? A lot of authors like to write swinging-from-the-chandeliers Kama Sutra sex as a hand-wave for why their prostitute can charge excessively high prices and therefore only have a client every other night or so and therefore have plenty of free time to have adventures in their spare time, but this has to make sense in the context of the story.
Luxury sex is a luxury good, and if your world doesn't have room in its economy for luxury goods, this isn't going to work realistically. In your Deathlands novel, are your rough rider bandits going to plunk down eight vintage hotel shampoo bottles for a single exotic experience, or are they going to opt for eight 1-shampoo-bottle quickies? Exotic sex, more often than not, is for the rich and the bored -- not for the poor and the looking-for-a-quick-release-from-the-daily-horror-of-my-apocalyptic-life.
When the character in question isn't a Kama Sutra expert or an S&M specialist, she's more often than not engaging in PIV sex with all her clients, but why? Most prostitutes will prefer to rely on oral or manual stimulation because it's cleaner and less likely to result in disease and/or pregnancy. Many men will take the "discounted" release because, again, when you're on a tight budget, you have to consider the payoff between the bare minimum value versus the luxury goods. Some men will pay your character for the PIV experience, but quite a few of your prostitute's clients will go for the simpler, cheaper options.
Again, both the fact that Kama Sutra sex is hard work and the fact that most clients will opt for the cheaper methods is going to be a problem for any "She's a prostitute because she loves to orgasm" characters -- unless your character is going to have erogenous zones in her hands.
Your prostitute is having sex in order to survive -- it's her job. How is she being paid? Does your zombie-apocalypse work off of a barter system? If so, there's going to be a lot of haggling involved in every transaction -- is a hand-job worth two protein bars or just one? Is there some kind of rudimentary coinage or credit system? If so, it's almost certainly got to be backed by a government body -- gold and paper does not, in itself, have a lot of intrinsic value in the apocalyptic wild, so there will have to be a controlling body setting the relative value of the currency. You may not want to world build that deeply, but the reader needs to understand how the prostitute is surviving, and at what rate of exchange -- how many clients, essentially, does she need to run per hour in order to keep herself fed, clothed, sheltered, and healthy?
Where is your prostitute storing her goods during her sessions? Does she keep her money on her person or does she take her bartered goods to a safe place to hide them? How does she keep from getting mugged or shaken down by gangs or bandits? Please don't simply conjure up some hefty beefcake loyal bodyguards to protect her -- they need to make a living too, and it's highly unlikely that your prostitute is charging enough to support herself and her beefcake bodyguard squad with a living wage.
How does your prostitute operate? Where? How does she ensure that her client doesn't rob her afterward? How does she ensure that her client doesn't hurt or kill her? Pimps and whorehouses exist because they do offer a necessary service: a theoretically safe place to do business and keep one's wages after the transaction. When a client does hurt or kill a prostitute, what are the consequences in your world? You may not care about this, but I can guarantee that your prostitute protagonist should.
How do you handle inflation and supply-and-demand problems? If every woman in your apocalyptic wasteland novel has immediately turned to prostitution as her day job, how does that affect the relative prices? The most basic prostitution is essentially unskilled labor -- anyone can do it, to a certain extent. If her clients are "just passing through" riders and bandits, she's not going to be able to charge a premium based on 'skill' and her clients will go to the lowest bidder. If the majority of her clients are repeat customers, how does she retain them over the long-haul and how does their familiarity affect her job and her relationships with them?
It took two years of waitressing for me to realize that I hated humanity and five years of distancing myself from that job to regain my optimism. What is the outlook on life for the prostitutes in your fictional setting? If they're turning tricks to just barely survive in a world gone to hell after the zombie apocalypse, why are they doing it? How are they dealing with the pain? What are their goals in life? Do they have goals? Please tell me their goal isn't to just hang around until the hero sweeps in to partake of their charms.
What is the relationship between your prostitute and her clients? Does she know them or are they all strangers all the time? Do they provide each other comfort and pain-numbing substances or is she just there to service them and her clients don't provide anything more to the relationship than money and beef jerky sticks? Does she have the affluence and necessary support structure to refuse clients she doesn't want? Does she care about pleasing her clients in order to set herself apart from the competition, or does she do the bare minimum to survive? Is her business model based around cultivating repeat clientele, or is it about assembly-line precision and quantity over quality? Try to remember that a lot of this will be dictated first by her surroundings (i.e., how many of her clients are passing through the are versus how many are locals) and then by her personality.
How does her job affect her outlook regarding recreational sex? Is she tired of sex all the time and therefore unlikely to engage in recreational sex? Does she get so used to sex being the method of communication between herself and others that she has a hard time relating to non-client characters without sex or sexuality? Is she more likely to engage in casual sex because sex is commonplace to her, or is she less likely to engage in casual sex because she wants to reserve recreational sex for really special partners?
The point here is that your prostitute character is a person first. She's going to have thoughts and opinions and an outlook on life. These things will very likely be influenced by her job, but just because she has that job doesn't mean that she'll fit some cookie-cutter stereotype. Her job shapes her, but it doesn't define her.
Do It Right
As Limyaael says, you don't have to put prostitutes in your novel. They're not required. I'd even argue that they're less necessary than most authors think: I question the almost universal assumption that in the aftermath of the zombie-apocalypse, all the women in the world will sprint at full speed to the prostitution tents except, of course, for the Plucky Crack-Shot Protagonist Hawt Mom character. I rather suspect that there will be a lot of sex-for-protection and sex-for-survival going on in the breakdown of society but that the sex will be based around tentative relationships and a communal need for survival. But that's just my theory.
But if you are going to put prostitutes in your novel, think about what that means. Think about how their existence as a group shapes that society and how society shapes them. Don't make a setting where prostitutes are common but children are rare without explaining how that can be. Don't write prostitutes with gorgeous homes and beefy bodyguards and perfect birth control and the ability to turn away clients who break wind in bed without explaining how the economy of this situation works and why supply-and-demand issues aren't sinking the business. Do not, for the love of all that is holy, write a prostitute that loves her work and orgasms with every transaction and would do it for free except that why shouldn't she take the money and she's like a nymphomaniac Renaissance woman because if you do, I will burn your novel in my fireplace.
While you're thinking about prostitutes, think about your johns, too. Think about what they want out of life and why they are visiting prostitutes. Think about where they are getting their goods to barter with, and why the women in this society can only get those same goods through hard sex work -- do the men have a societal advantage giving them the edge in their hotel shampoo bottle raids? Think about how these men and women are different from us, and how their lives look in relation to our own. Think about how your setting affects the situation -- is a man who just came from a tense week-long raid out in the zombie-infested wilderness going to want to pay money to have a stranger put their teeth near a sensitive body part? It's something to think about.
And if you don't want to think about this stuff, by all means don't. But don't sprinkle prostitutes into your novel as a flavor text and expect your readers to not call you on it.