Tropes: Prostitution. You're Doin' It Rong.

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.)

Birth Control
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.


Ana Mardoll said...

(Hey, it wouldn't be the most bizarre birth control urban legend to go around, would it?)

I hear Mountain Dew kills sperm. :P

Ana Mardoll said...

I continue to find it weird that they quite explicitly have a 'tea' that acts as freely available birth control for all. Because: that is a highly convenient and specific plant you have there!

I have read, although I can't remember where and can't vouch for the accuracy, that the Romans did apparently actually have a pretty solid birth-control-plant-tea thing. ('Course this would be based on historical records which are ALWAYS written from the female pov, right?) However, the plant was -- or so I read -- used so much that it was essentially over-harvested into extinction. It smells a little urban legend-y but it's ironic if true.

I agree that in a world of magic, people are going to put as much thought and effort into sex activities as they do now -- I mean, someone, somewhere, wanted to prevent conception enough to be the first guy to stick animal intestines on his wang: that's pretty committed, I think. So you're probably gonna see a lot of motivation in fantasy stories to make that happen.

But, as you say, there's a ripple effect. If the magic in the world has long-lasting effects available, would people just get a permanent or long-term BC spell? Would the responsibility fall equally on men and women to get BC'd up (assuming we're not falling back on the magic-herb-tea explanation)? How would this affect relationships, knowing that one person could be magically sterile (it's not like you can search their medicine cabinet for evidence)? Can the spells be reversed as needed or do they have to wear off over time? Is there creative BC cursing going on? Would barren marriages include a lot of suspicion that someone was seeing a sorcerer on the side? And so forth.

I think a lot of authors get around the magical food issue by making magical food tasty but not filling. (Great for world building, bad for adventurers in need of sustenance.) I almost wonder if sex would be like that in a "real" fantasy world -- would it be easier to make perfect birth control or to just magically simulate non-procreative acts into feeling similar to actually procreative ones?

Redwood Rhiadra said...

I have read, although I can't remember where and can't vouch for the accuracy, that the Romans did apparently actually have a pretty solid birth-control-plant-tea thing.

Silphium -

Chris said...

Thing is, silphium was a very popular food herb. While its modern relatives seem to have a birth control effect in animal testing, the fact that silphium was such a common food source is enough to explain why it became extinct.

Good post. I'm unlikely to write about prostitution any time soon, but if I do, I won't make it all shiny and happy.

Ana Mardoll said...

Rhiadra, thank you! 10 points to the house of your choice. :D

I remember Sayuri in "Memoirs of a Geisha" having a morning tea BC method. She was told that the tea leaves were expensive, but less so than an abortion. Her mentor has an abortion in the book (glossed over), and has a shrine to all her aborted children that her client didn't let her carry to term.

The veracity of the book is not 100% confirmed, though, so I do not know how much stock to put in it. I do know that if BC tea exists, most North American women aren't going to know how to brew it in the wake of the zombie horde. ;)

Dav said...

I know a few herbs I could start with, but I'm not sure of identification, brewing strength, frequency of drinking it, etc, etc. And a lot of those abortifacent/birth control plants can be dangerous in other ways. A lot of them can take your liver, heart, kidneys, etc. down. Good luck getting your apocalyptic liver transplant!

Maybe I'm excessively fond of my internal organs, but that sounds like a terrible, terrible idea.

I read a book recently where a character brewed foxglove to cure her father-in-law's heart condition. By all rights she should have killed him off, but no. I was pretty unhappy, especially since a manslaughter would have perked the action up tremendously.

BTW, Ana: I bought Liar on your recommendation, and read it last night. So good! Thanks for the review.

Dav said...

Also, herbs have different concentrations of essential oils at different times. The proper dose of pennyroyal one month could kill you dead the next. I do NOT want to be pregnant/give birth at all, but I'd probably choose that over being the first wave of test subjects for herbal birth control/abortion.

Cupcakedoll said...

*laughing out loud* Great post. What HAVE you been reading?

Wait... I think I just read something like...
*racks brains*

My bored-at-work brain once dedicated a whole shift to pondering how it is that Krysty and Mildred don't have a boatload of babies by now, since rubber doesn't last a hundred years no matter how you package it. I came to the conclusion that Krysty's mystical feminine powers give her control over her own fertility and Mildred keeps a very, very careful calendar in her notebook. The question of why the guys don't have STDs from their pre-monogamy Mad Max days was one I could not explain. =P

I would add to the list: Where do the high-priced courtesans learn their skills? A question that could provide plot-enhancing flashbacks of training at the hands of the retiring madam, or of the character discovering a dusty copy of a sex manual in a bombed-out building and thus being the only one in the settlement who knows how to do That Trick.

Ana Mardoll said...

Dav, you post made me laugh and I've very glad you liked Liar. I'm thinking about getting the audiobook of that just because I think it would mess with my head entirely.

Cupcakedoll, you got me. *hangs head* There's lots of prostitutes in Deathlands, too. ;)

Redwood Rhiadra said...

I will say, though, the "she's a prostitute because she loves it!" comes more from bad fan fiction than anything else.

Also, sadly, from Heinlein and Spider Robinson (and I'm pretty sure Spider got it from Heinlein).

Loquat said...

Various random thoughts:

1) Maybe a gum resin that prevents cavities and freshens breath?
- not a gum resin, but twigs you can chew on and scrub your teeth with! One species in particular is supposed to be so good at preventing tooth decay, fighting gum disease, and freshening the breath that it's apparently heavily promoted in Islamic countries as a superior alternative to western-style toothbrushing. (Wikipedia link to follow in a separate post, on account of Disqus spam-filtering)

2) IIRC, the Canturbury Tales mention in passing that the Wife of Bath, who'd gone through 5 husbands because she didn't care to live without sex, knew how to use herbal teas and such to control her fertility, though the wikipedia page doesn't mention it. Of course, in the late Middle Ages, you'd expect knowledge of medicinal herbs to be widespread - most modern Americans wouldn't know what plants to use for headache or fever, either.

3) Kit's suggestions remind me of the beginning of Unforgiven - a prostitute fails at acting and allows a customer to see that she thinks his penis is absurdly small, he gets violent and slashes her face so she'll be scarred/ugly the rest of her life, and the brothel owner fails to deal with him in a way that satisfies the other whores. So the other whores kick off the plot by putting a bounty on the face-slasher's head. The scarred woman is later shown doing other jobs around the bar/brothel, but one can assume she's now earning less.

Loquat said...

Twigs of the Salvador Persica tree were specifically recommended as toothbrushes by the Prophet Muhammed himself, and apparently they do in fact have anti-microbial properties.

Not that this particular species grows in North America, unless some pre-zombie-apocalypse Muslim brought it over, but there are bound to be native species with similar effects.

Ana Mardoll said...

AHA! Disqus has a Whitelist. You are all getting added. That should fix the pesky spam filters!

Amaranth said...

Thank you for this, and for pointing to Limyaael's article as well.

I have a story in my queue that has a prostitute in it, and as she's an occasional viewpoint character and is rather important to the overall plot, I knew I was always going to have to tread carefully with her. Much of her arc has to do with allowing herself to actually fall in love with one of the other characters, as you know, her job doesn't make that easy.

You've given me a lot of material to work with, and I think she'll be a much better character for it.

chris the cynic said...

I'm having trouble grasping this. Not the post, which is excellent, but the thing the post is responding to.

Maybe part of this is because today I finally wrote out my argument for how giving absolute power to an AI who wants to merge with your brain really is the best option in a ten year old game that I'm still talking about. When, during the course of that, the sentence, "You've seen their victims," transformed into, "You've seen their disproportionately female victims," I realized that the lives of the prostitutes in the setting were a big part of why I considered one of the other options morally wrong. That might be coloring my thinking at the moment.

So anyway, here's where I'm having my difficulty in grasping. I am told that sex work can be a perfectly valid and rewarding line of work that is not ... I'm not sure of exactly the word I want here, bad/wrong/pernicious/thingy. I believe it both because I trust the person who said it and because she knows sex workers where I do not. But that's not when we're talking about a zombie apocalypse.

Maybe I'm being too negative about human nature, but it seems to me that prostitution in the post-zombification hereafter is probably going to be about as bad as prostitution has ever been. I'm utterly failing to see how the shiny happy prostitute even fits into the zombie hellscape even if everything else wrong with the concept were fixed.

One of my arguments in the thing where I defended making the brain mergey AI into world dictator was that if you collapsed civilization instead (which was an option) things would get so much worse. If this is how bad things are for the people (both in general and specifically some of the prostitutes you meet) now, imagine when there's no authority figure to even theoretically protect them. Yes, things are already bad, but there are the decaying structures of law and order to restrain things somewhat, when that goes away what then?

Anything set after the dawn of the zombie age starts from the place where I was saying, "Imagine how bad it would be if we went there." Before we even get to the various things brought up in the post, I'm very much in a state of "WTF?" First the zombies came, and then civilization ended, and then in the lawless times that followed when everything that might afford a modicum of protection had been stripped away, when everyone who remains alive has to have experience in killing human beings (which is what zombies are, after all) to the point that it may well be commonplace for them, people are joyfully choosing a career path that in much safer times would have made them potential targets which puts them vulnerably close to complete strangers?

This loses me well before we get to the question of birth control.


On the other hand, I am somewhat unclear on how long after zombiegate we're talking about. At some points it seems like we're talking about something that just happened, at others it feels like it was generations ago.

Loquat said...

Also, speaking of magical contraceptives, I read a hilarious Harry Potter fanfiction involving Snape teaching boys' sex ed - but I've long since forgotten where, and googling "Harry Potter sex ed" isn't terribly useful if you're not looking for masturbation material. The key relevant bits were a Hogwarts school pamphlet detailing contraceptive charms, and a warning that one not tell a Muggle partner about the existence of wizards and contraceptive charms in an attempt to weasel out of condom use.

Kit Whitfield said...

The veracity of the book is not 100% confirmed, though,

I wouldn't put too much stock in it. It's entertainingly written, but my friend with a Japanese mother found it incredibly offensive and Orientalist. She says that the whole idea of a geisha selling her virginity is just wrong; a geisha is a performer, not a prostitute. It's apparently more or less like writing about a ballet dancer selling her virginity as a matter of course.


Based on what I've read, there is such a thing as a woman who goes into prostitution because she enjoys it: if you like casual sex, the benefits of organising your own working hours and earning a lot of money are pretty attractive. But if a woman has that attitude, the odds are that she's going to be extremely independent-minded and very thick-skinned. She may have a heart of gold, but she's also likely to see other people's feelings as their own concern: her heart may be gold, but it ain't bleeding. You'd need to write her as assertive, strong on her own boundaries and capable of considerable detachment. To her, the best encounter is likely to be one of mutually enjoyable objectification - which means the hero would have to do little beyond being civil and friendly to please her, but do something pretty notable to move beyond the status of 'good client'.

Loquat said...

Some women who go into prostitution because they like it also wind up writing memoirs or tell-alls - a good place to look for research on what sort of person a "happy hooker" might be.

Fluffy said...

Did it feature Malfoy playing goody-two-shoes by offering up the old hairy palms threat on the topic of masturbation? Because if so I remember it. Draco/Harry slash fic, I believe, also featuring a scene where one of them climbed up a ladder and the other looked up his robe.

Magically contraception charms feature in a lot of magical-world fanfiction, and occasionally outside of it. I think I remember Mercedes Lackey doing something similar in by having a character test out fertility charms on rabbits in The Black Swan. It makes more sense in most of those than it does in post-apocalyptic worlds, even if the magic is an imperfect excuse.

Amaranth said...

In Robin Hood's Liveship books, prostitutes commonly wore little "witchwood" charms as bellybutton rings. They were carved to look like skulls and would protect her from both pregnancy and disease. As witchwood was actually discarded dragon cocoon, it had all kinds of magic the charms actually worked. The only drawback was that witchwood was terribly rare and thus very expensive (although it seemed like those charms weren't all that difficult to get one's hands on).

When I read the books it seemed like an interesting idea, but a little too easy.

Ana Mardoll said...

On the other hand, I am somewhat unclear on how long after zombiegate we're talking about.

Alas, that's probably a problem with the post -- we started in Zombiegate land and ended up in Fantasyworld somehow with the "sexeh beefcake bodyguards".

She says that the whole idea of a geisha selling her virginity is just wrong; a geisha is a performer, not a prostitute. It's apparently more or less like writing about a ballet dancer selling her virginity as a matter of course.

It's such a fascinating book, because it has strong arguments on either side saying that it is/isn't accurate.

For myself, I'm incredibly cynical, so I tend to fall on the side that it is fairly accurate, just because I think that the privileged-with-money usually find a way to get what they want off the less privileged. I suppose I see it less as saying "ballerinas sell sex" and more a commentary on kept women and casting couches. Indeed, in the book Sayuri says that she thinks of herself as a kept woman, and most of their clients keep a woman for anywhere between 6 months to a lifetime, and the women don't have any other clients in that time period.

If a man starts an affair with a ballerina with, say, the approval of her ballet troupe coach person and the man becomes a sponsor for the ballet troupe and sends gifts to both ballerina and coach, is that much different from what the book describes? If the young, upcoming virginal ballerina can land a richer sponsor for the troupe than the older, on-her-way-out-of-the-business ballerina, is that selling virginity per se, or reflecting a cultural emphasis on youth and ownership? I really don't know.

Will Wildman said...

What I understood from my studies of Japan was that essentially there were a whole lot of types of performers who all used the respected term 'geisha', and that some but certainly not all did consider sex to be an allowable type of performance art. (The book that I somehow found through googling dog-only-knows-what terms, about helping North American women aspire to a 'sexy geisha' archetype, was definitely full of wrong and sexism and Orientalism and other assorted types of fail.)


Given that zombies are collectively a metaphor for the inescapability of death, it might make sense that a story about a zombie-infested world would centrally feature sex, which is one of those fallback life-affirming things. But that still doesn't explain why an author would want to feature prostitution instead of just saying 'there are more people in society now who are into casual sex; let's narrate them for a while'.

Is it an inverted logic chain? Maybe the person hasn't said 'what will happen to sex culture in the zombie apocalypse' and settled on 'prostitution', they've perhaps said 'I would like to feature lots of prostitution' and settled on 'I bet I could justify that with zombies'?

chris the cynic said...

Is it an inverted logic chain? Maybe the person hasn't said 'what will happen to sex culture in the zombie apocalypse' and settled on 'prostitution', they've perhaps said 'I would like to feature lots of prostitution' and settled on 'I bet I could justify that with zombies'?

I suppose that kind of reasoning could explain a lot. E.g.: "I want to write a story set in Libertopia, but institutionalized power would almost certainly lead to unfair initial conditions that prevented people's success from being based on their merit. How do I get around it?" *pause* "Zombies!"

Which doesn't work because the breakdown of civilization and collapse of currency doesn't put everyone on equal footing, it just radically changes who is powerful and who is not (money and political clout probably don't matter so much, be the head of a well armed gang in the vicinity of storehouse full of food and you are like unto a god.) But even though the zompocalypse would never result in the world where libertarian idealism would realistically work but instead entrench a new set of people who were powerful for reasons other than their merits, it seems that zombie-world is often libertopia.

Maybe zombies are the sociological equivalent of radiation's biological handwaviness in superhero stories. Want this body to have certain properties without thinking about it too much? Radiation! Want this soceity to have certain properties without thinking about it too much? Zombies!

Ana Mardoll said...

It may be more a breakdown of imagination. When society collapses, naturally the men will stop being software engineers and tour guides and will instead become scavengers and gunmen and hotel shampoo raiders and professional escorts for traders and intrepid explorers.

And women... will become prostitutes. Because that's what women do in third world countries, right? Unskilled labor? And if there are an no sweatshops in the zombie apocalypse, that just leaves sex work, right? *facepalm*

Of course, there are societies where job options for women are severely limited. You could even use this framing to look at sexism - they said they were enlightened, but look how things turned out when the world ended.

But I find it difficult to believe that at least some of the women (and men) in these sci fi settings wouldn't band together and create a nice non-oppressive community somewhere. (It's not like there won't be some space after 90% of humanity is wiped out.)

I can't remember where this comment was going, so I'll stop now. O.o

Will Wildman said...

chris, I do believe what we've got here is the underlying cause of the recent flood of zombie stories. (When they aren't just about having lots of bodies for people to destroy while remaining morally upright.) Your rationale is compellingly plausible.

I finally saw (though my attention wandered a lot) the Mad Max movies a week or two ago. It occurs to me that at this point a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction seems to have sorted itself into two categories: places where the apocalypse happened for realistic reasons, which supply us with the frakking depressing stories (The Road) and places where it happened for fantastical reasons, which supply us with the 'really cool' stories (zombies and their equivalents being the favourite right now). In the former case, the end of the world is humanity's fault; in the latter case, we were taken by surprise and at worst it's the fault of the one person who invented the plague or something. I wonder how much this has to do with the writer's views on the virtuous or tainted nature of humanity as a whole.

And, to remain on topic, I wonder how much the prominence of prostitution is a result of them going: end of the world -> humanity is filthy and desperate -> same goes for prostitution -> ipso facto, whores.

Loquat said...

I don't recall any slash or mention of hairy palms, just the stand-alone scene of Snape giving a classroom of boys The Talk and hating every minute. If we're trying to nail it down, the other details I recall are (a) Snape comparing the clitoris to a doorbell for a house with a nearly-deaf occupant, and (b) Snape's remarks on oral sex - "It's loads of fun, and I'm not going to demonstrate it."

Cupcakedoll said...

To hear from real (or at least claimed) prostitutes you can look here: But watch for NSFW and squicky content, as there is some in the many, many sex-related threads. I have this site bookmarked for quick research if I ever want to write about someone who... *scans current front page* keeps venomous snakes.

Nah, you're not predictable, we just have similar taste and I can't help showing off my memory. I thought Aftertime was not brilliant but not terrible, certainly better than some books. The cult was done well. The sex scene was weird-- actually I've read a couple books published by Luna, and the sex scenes in ALL of them felt weird, like the publisher insists all their books must have sex scenes, whether or not the book actually requires one storywise. Anyway, Aftertime has a sequel now if you want to go get it!

Re: Deathlands: My other theory was that the gateway jumps somehow "saved and reloaded" a copy of each character at their first jump, thus slowing aging since they'd be "reloaded" with younger cells, confusing the ladies' biological clocks into never ovulating, and helping wounds heal more completely-- since the gang can only be shot in nonfatal areas they keep getting shot in the SAME nonfatal areas OVER AND OVER.

Herbal contraceptives are a staple in so much fantasy I fully expect if we ever open a wormhole to a REAL world of elves and dragons they will really have such an herb. Narrativium demands it.

About the lure of the apocalypse: I think it's the lure of the fictional problem and the sweeping away of mundane crap. In real life my problems are boredom at work, fear of my bosses, fear of my inadequacy as a writer and human being, fear of the future as the economy goes down the toilet, etc. Mundane crap things which are real. A zombie invasion would replace most of them with fear of ZOMBIES. Zombies are not mundane crap. Zombies are not real, which makes them less scary than things that are real. Also zombies can be fought with an axe, which is useless against the boss and the economy. (well I could axe my boss but that would spawn new, worse bosses in prison.) So add: fictional fear, mundane crap, and straightforward solutions. Those are some reasons a zombie apocalypse sounds nice.

chris the cynic said...

In my only briefly touched on zombie story the most prominent female character was a helicopter pilot which was basically the most prestigious position in the entire society since, as far as anyone knew, there was only one working helicopter*. (Helicopter mechanic was a very highly regarded job as well. People who went far and wide looking for helicopter parts not so much, but they were well compensated.) She was the daughter of two of the most powerful people in the society**, both of whom believed in giving their child a lot of freedom, so she could do basically whatever she wanted. She wanted to fly.

The story isn't about her, though she is certainly an important part of it. Anyway, the reason that I bring this up is that when a female character popped into my head when writing post zombie apocalypse fiction my first thought was apparently helicopter pilot. Which then was followed by a lot of questioning where the damned helicopter came from and how it fit into the grand scheme of things.

Other women would obviously be scavengers and gunmen and professional escorts for traders (and traders themselves) and intrepid explorers because in the event of the zompocalpse that's what women would do, right? I don't think I ever wrote about those characters, but I think that's mostly because I wrote so little on the topic.

Prostitution honestly never occurred to me.


*It's not that people assumed it was the only working helicopter on earth, it was that there was no reason to assume there was another working one nearby. Everyone who has any job remotely related to the helicopter has multiple apprentice for fear that if something were to happen to them the helicopter would stop working. In purely logical terms the helicopter probably isn't worth the effort, but it's a helicopter and thus is looked after with all the care one would afford to the only tame dragon in the known world.

** Her mother set up a refinery, her father located and claimed the tiny oil wells that dotted the area (which most people never even noticed because oil comes from the south, don't you know?) Her mother's accomplishment was by far the more impressive, but when they started their business arrangement the agreement was to share the results equally, that stayed the same when their non-business relationship started. The settlement in which the story takes place was what they built with their profits. It isn't company owned, it's vaguely democratic with something that almost passes for a social safety net. Even so they're absurdly powerful. It's not just that the have a monopoly on gasoline, it's more that they were smart in how they bartered and also ... "ohmygod! it's a helicopter!" long after everyone else has mostly given up on motorized transportation.

Ana Mardoll said...

Re: Deathlands: My other theory was that the gateway jumps somehow "saved and reloaded" a copy of each character at their first jump, thus slowing aging since they'd be "reloaded" with younger cells, confusing the ladies' biological clocks into never ovulating, and helping wounds heal more completely-- since the gang can only be shot in nonfatal areas they keep getting shot in the SAME nonfatal areas OVER AND OVER.

My god, that makes sense. It's like how the Star Trek transporters should have worked but they would have messed with the plots. Although, I always thought it was odd that the Deathlands books would always start with a DESPERATE STRUGGLE to leave the flooding/burning/inhabited-by-flesh-eating-insects redoubt, but then at the end when they're jogging back to the redoubt with the bad guys hot on their heels, it's as easy as pie to slip into the teleporter. Maybe they've died and this is their purgatory or something?

I actually really like Zombie fiction. As you say, it's a great way to sweep away the mundane and bring a whole new paradigm into a story. There's a lot of fun to be had in imagining what I, blogger-writer-software-engineer would do in a kill-or-be-eaten apocalypse. (I'd be eaten. Immediately. YARGH!) It's kind of a fish-out-of-water story combined with tense horror and scavenger hunts. What's not to love? (When it's done well, of course.)

DavidCheatham said...

The easiest thing it seems to me, if a writer is going to set up prostitution in a lawless (Such as a post-apocalyptic) world, set it up the way that prostitution traditionally gets organized in areas outside the law in history.

What normally happens is brothels, with a single enforcer at the door to keep customers in line for the entire brothel, who then gets a cut of the profits. This enforcer is traditionally a big beefy man, but if the writer want it to be some sort of Amazonian woman and the setting supports it, whatever. Either that man can be in charge, or a madam can.

You can make this anything from abusive slavery to a big happy 'family' that looks out for each other to some sort of 'corporate' structure where each prostitute has a vote, but the fact is, prostitutes will have to be under the protection of someone who can keep them safe. (And, no the prostitutes themselves can't do it, or they _wouldn't be working as prostitutes_. They'd be working as security guards.)

Writers can't have streetwalkers or call girls in a setting without basic law and order, without a society that is going to fight back if the girls are raped or mugged. The prostitutes need guards, and guards are expensive, which means one guard for a bunch of them at a specific location. In fact, in a lawless setting, almost all commerce is going to need guards.

And prostitution, to this day, continues to have guards past everyone else because it still operates in a sort of 'lawless haven' inside of civilized society, because the law ignored it. Sex workers tend to be the last group to get any sort of respect, and the first group for society to look the other way when people run around robbing and raping them. While that has slightly changed over couple of decades, I wouldn't count on it lasting the breakdown of society.

I'm suddenly reminded of the game I'm currently playing, Fallout New Vegas, where there are, indeed, streetwalkers in a post-apocalyptic world...and they confine themselves solely to the Vegas Strip, where there is actual law and order.

Ana Mardoll said...

David, I like the idea of a Society Protection angle for a story where a community makes it VERY clear in incoming travelers that roughing up the working girls will end badly for them. Too many authors assume that all men will treat women horribly after the fall of civilization, and that fails to take into account social groupings.

Indeed, one would imagine that in a low population situation, the community as a whole would have a vested interest in protecting prostitutes. The local sex WORK may be unskilled labor but the WORKERS may be worth their weight in gold if they can't be easily replaced...

Cupcakedoll said...

Or a video game. 100 years after the US and Russia extended the hand of friendship instead of nukes, the world is at peace, cancer has been cured and Mars is being terraformed. For those bored by the real world you can log into virtual reality games, one of the most popular being Deathlands: Survive the Apocalypse! Ryan Cawdor is a fat, balding accountant-- with some underlying issues, since he created NPCs Krysty and Dean as part of his character sheet. Fellow balding accountant JB just wanted to try out some of the weapons that now only exist in museums. Mildred is a psychologist with a theory that virtual immersion could alleviate symptoms of psychosis, but her patient, Doc, doesn't seem to be getting better. Jak is some kid who hacked into the game without paying; the server made his character an albino so the admins could tell he wasn't paying for his hours logged in.

And now I really will stop derailing the discussion with my random thoughts. Really.

DavidCheatham said...

I 'like' the idea too...I just don't think it's that plausible. ;)

I guess it could work if a large portion of the communities' income was from the prostitutes, or trade with people visiting the prostitutes, or producing things for the prostitutes. Perhaps it's a very very high class establishment, and some of the people visiting are just visiting because there are actual sheets on the bed, because there's a cotton mill in town to make the sheets!

That last sentence started as a joke, but a high class hotel with prostitutes that were part of the hotel would actually be believable. Although if we're at that point, we're getting back into real 'law and order', even if it's only in the bounds of the hotel, and no one is allowed to rough up anyone, prostitute or otherwise.(Interestingly enough, these are the only _other_ prostitutes you see in Fallout. Either in the safety of the Strip, or the safety of a well-guarded hotel. They appear to have done their work with regard to that, except when you start questioning how the heck everyone affords all these guards.)

To be more clear about what I mean, I have trouble seeing a society (at least on that started out as this society) that doesn't place the safety and security of prostitutes _last_, or almost last. Obviously, at some point, safety and security in general will rise enough that they also will be fairly safe.

Of course, that's assuming that society doesn't pass laws making their behavior illegal, thus making them outside the law and _back_ unsafe. But surely society would never be so stupid as to outlaw prostitution, resulting in everyone being able to victimize women who usually don't have very good options in the first place. In this hypothetical world where prostitution was illegal, why, I'd wager that a good portion of prostitutes would be underaged runaway women, or drug addicts.

Ana Mardoll said...

@Cupcakedoll, that makes SO much sense. I can't un-see it now. And I'll never complain about a de-rail, or I'll try not to. I mean, that's basically what I DO. :P

(As a side note: I can't stand Dean. I was so glad when the authors put him on a bus to post-apocalyptic private school or whatever. They could never decide if he was sullen! or precocious! or adorable! or hostage bait! and it was tiresome.)

To be more clear about what I mean, I have trouble seeing a society (at least on that started out as this society) that doesn't place the safety and security of prostitutes _last_, or almost last.

Difficult to say. It's easy to de-value prostitutes now because there will always be more where they came from. (This is always true for unskilled labor. We also do not value, say, Burger King workers, as much as we should.) But in a society where new humans are hard to come by, I can imagine that enough people would point out that, "Hey, if those asshole outlanders keep riding through killing our girls, who are we going to have sex with when they're all gone?" People can sometimes put aside sexism and classism if it's in their best interests. (And sometimes not, of course.)

Loquat said...

There's a bigger problem with letting outlanders kill your prostitutes than just not having anyone left to have sex with - if you're trying to rebuild some semblance of civilization with only a small enclave of survivors, fertile women are going to be worth their weight in gold. (figuratively speaking, that is - gold itself is likely to be worthless. worth their weight in food? bullets? anyway...)

And not only do you need women who can bear and raise children so your tiny civilization can have a future, you also have to worry about the genetic health of your future generations, so you'll want to have as many initial survivors as possible reproduce to minimize future inbreeding. From that point of view, having women in a secure enclave "prostitute" themselves to random dudes who pass through actually makes a lot of sense. It's not for the money/resources, it's to maximize genetic diversity! The otherwise-crappy movie Waterworld had this - Our Hero was passing through a tiny enclave to buy stuff, and they asked him to sleep with one of their young women, promising to reward him if he got her pregnant because they wanted to avoid inbreeding. He refused on account of secretly being a water-breathing mutant, and then they found out and tried to lynch him, which seems pretty dumb for people living in a flooded world, but meh, plot.

Ana Mardoll said...

I remember that. I wanted to like Waterworld, I really did. Great concept, totally wasted. Tattooing maps on children? I'm thinking the first growth spurt will ruin that plan. :p

hapax said...

Interesting post. I only wrote one story that included prostitutes, which I never finished* -- indeed, it contained three different types of prostitutes -- a brothel that was run like a small business by a committee of ex-prostitutes (ex because of age, not inclination), a brothel of coerced sex slaves, and a pair of transgendered prostitutes who were trying to earn money for the operation to full transition. (This wasn't at all the main point of the story, which was mostly about some barely-plausible efforts to create "super soldiers" by cross-species transplants, but only came about because I didn't want to kill off all the experimental "failures" and had to do *something* with them.)

Which is kind of weird, because I almost never write about sex, even in romance stories. But these weren't *about* sex; they were about earning a living, and health care, and the unintended consequences of unethical science, and what to do with "disposable" people, etc. I don't believe that orgasms ever entered the story at all.

But anyway, I'm breathing a big sigh of relief because I think I did manage to miss all your pitfalls. I based most of that part of the story on reading memoirs of sex workers, and conversations with a couple of acquaintances who had done sex work, and what kinds of business models worked and didn't work for them. I had one character do a rather info-dumpy "Sex Work 101" which included tidbits like "never kiss your clients" and the importance of the right kind of underwear and how prostitution could be a good job for a single mother without a degree if the workers could cooperate in forming a sort of day care rotation system etc. The "happy ending" included the enslaved sex workers ending up in the more commercial brothel -- everyone agreed that this was hardly a Hollywood fairy-tale solution, but at least they were better off than their previous situation.

I'll probably never go back to that particular story but now that I think of it, some of those characters might be worth pulling out of the backbrain.

*Not because of the prostitution, but because it turned out that the Awful Secret that the Evil Government was desperately trying to conceal was much less Awful than the *actual* deeds our then-current government was proudly boasting about, and I sorta lost heart

Ana Mardoll said...

Hapax, that sounds like a story I'd like. I'm always much more interested in the socio-economic side than the actual sex in a prostitution story/setting/side-plot.

Timothy (TRiG) said...

And no one has yet mentioned seamstresses? As mentioned in Night Watch, the novel in which they feature most prominently, Vetinari has allowed them to set up a guild. And in other novels, such as Jingo, Mrs Palm has a place at the council table with the other guild leaders.


Asimaiyat said...

Hi, I'm a new reader, here via Slacktivist.

I thought this was a really thoughtful and strong post, but there are two things in it that bother me a bit.

1) This is totally personal and wanky, but it bothers me that you seem to see a woman needing artificial lube for PIV sex as a really depressing and sordid thing to have to think about. It really isn't. Some women never produce enough natural lubrication to have sex comfortably, just because that's the way their bodies are, and that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them. For women who've never had that issue, I guess it would be pretty unpleasant to think about, but for those who have, it's really not a big deal. (unless it's in a setting where lubricant would be hard to come by, although there's got to be some kind of oil or lotion available.)

2) "Exotic sex" isn't just a distraction for rich people. In years of belonging to fetish communities, I've probably known more poor kinky folks than rich ones. No one knows where kinks come from, but they seem to set in at an early age, and often they're pretty directly related to traumatic or difficult childhood experiences, which are certainly distributed across economic brackets.

Other than those points, yeah, I agree with you, and I think it's a little alarming how badly some folks clearly want to overlook the privilege issues that go into the idea of the "happy hooker." Sure, if a woman works as an escort on the side as a lark, she might well enjoy it and even find it empowering, but that's very different from the reality of most sex workers. A great example of this willfully ignorant attitude to me is the chapter in one of the Freakonomics books where the authors interview a more well-off, high-priced Caucasian sex worker, and a poorer, somewhat older, African-American one, and conclude that the former is more financially successful at her job *because she displays a positive attitude.* They never mention the possibility that it might be the other way around.

Ana Mardoll said...

Hi, Asimaiyat, I'm so glad you came by from Slacktivist! Hi there!

I'm so sorry that the lubricant part came off sounding that way -- that wasn't my intention at all, and now I feel bad that I conveyed something I don't feel. I myself don't find lubricant sordid at all, but it would seem that it makes some authors squeamish, given that they tend to avoid it like the plague. I was trying to convey the feeling that it's okay to not write about it, if that's the author's preference, but that they can't/shouldn't warp reality so that nobody ever needs it. And I think the "hard to come by" part of that post was writen while I was still in Deathlands/Zombie Apocalypse mode. :)

2. That's a really good point about some preferences being ingrained in us from a very early age -- I hadn't thought about those. (Of course, this would also probably be a small percentage of the clientele for an apocalyptic prostitute, if the community isn't very mobile.) But thank you very much for pointing that out -- that's a very good point indeed and I shouldn't have forgotten that. :)

I cannot believe that passage you mention from Freakonomics -- I have that book on hold at the library and now I will have to remember to not explode when I get to that point. Positive attitude? Really?? Wow.

And thank you so much again for posting! :D

Will Wildman said...

I love Limyaael's worldbuilding and characterization rants, so if this is going to become A Thing, you have my full support.

Having never felt any need to romanticise (or otherwise feature) prostitution, I can't apply most of the above immediately, but I have occasionally contemplated the theory of magical birth control. On the one hand, there are all the good points above (I'm not sure whether I cracked up more at "Colonel-Sanders-approved" or at "her body naturally produces aloe vera"), but on the obverse, in a world where magic is a thing, some people are going to have certain priorities. So, taking GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire, magic is a mysterious and uncommon thing, and I continue to find it weird that they quite explicitly have a 'tea' that acts as freely available birth control for all. Because: that is a highly convenient and specific plant you have there! Have you considered checking the next hedge over for a spore that eliminates body odour and skin blemishes? Maybe a gum resin that prevents cavities and freshens breath?

Conversely, if it's a world where magic is just all over the place and it's normal for people to carry bags that are bigger on the inside, weapons that sing and teleport, and shoes that defy gravity, I would fully expect that some alchemists somewhere along the way would have put a whole lot of effort into making sex more convenient. That is a heck of a path to riches right there.

But now I'm just trending towards the rant which all of my fantasy rants eventually become, which is "The full consequences of fantastical elements should be contemplated". (Such as: if it's possible to magically generate food, even if it comes with considerable restrictions, that should enormously impact the agricultural economy and the rest of society.)

And now I'm worldbuilding in my head when I should be working. So in summary: yay!

BrokenBell said...

These are some great posts, even if you were inspired by someone else. Excellently constructed advice for worldbuilding in any medium, correcting real-world misconceptions all the while. Making things easy for the sake of fantasy might be appealing, but it really becomes disrespectful to real people if there isn't even the slightest acknowledgment that It's More Complicated Than That. Would love to see more of these in future.

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?Wait.

KFC works as birth control?

BRB, going to find a food court to have an orgy in.

(Hey, it wouldn't be the most bizarre birth control urban legend to go around, would it?)

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