Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous


The oldest avocation in history is universal across all cultures.  But is it really describing just ONE THING?  Or is this not so straight-forward?

Upon hearing “prostitute”, we might picture a buxom floozy—wetting her lips with a probing tongue as she coyly cinches up her skirt to offer passers-by a fleeting glance at her supple loins.  Are we right in forming such a picture?

Or are we to picture, instead, a feisty, pig-tailed tart—winking at her beguiled target-customer as she licks her lollipop?  Or is it a fellow at some prestigious “think-tank” willing to sell his policy positions to whatever corporation pays his salary?

This poses a quandary.  Perhaps we should picture a sassy strumpet in pink thigh-highs carousing the city’s trendiest night-clubs–a desperate pleading in her eyes as she tentatively bites her bottom lip (and showcases her cleavage at opportune moments).  But then again, perhaps we should picture a Senator willing to support legislation that favors the interests of his biggest donors.

So what is it to be a “prostitute”?  Are there any defining features?  There is, after all, a difference between, say, a giggling trollop at a Thai massage parlor commiserating with male tourists who are anxiously seeking quick gratification as they fumble for their wallets…and, say, a cunning harlot canoodling with corporate executives in a luxurious penthouse suite, with a wry smile and a penchant for limitless credit cards.

Things that are superficially different turn out to be different manifestations of the same phenomenon. It’s the social context–and the stigmas–that changes from case to case. Gold-diggers seek a single, long-term client; whereas hookers seek numerous short-term clients.  A prostitute is someone who is interested in a partnership—sexual or otherwise—only in proportion to the money he/she will get out of it, be it a 20-minute trick or a 20-year betrothal.  It might be paid in cash on the spot; or it might be an on-going arrangement with an array of economic emoluments.

The notion of “prostitute” seems rather simple at first blush (and well beyond the second blush); yet we soon find that the term can refer to many KINDS of things. Is it like a belching medieval tavern wench, bursting from her strained bustier as she beckons provocatively from a corner table, legs splayed wide as she chugs a pint of lager…before slathering her heaving bosoms with frothy drool?

  • Or is it more like a preening debutant, gingerly fidgeting with her garter-belt as she bats her eyelashes…willing to please any suitor with deep pockets?
  • Or is it more like a rambunctious, disheveled hooker, prowling the dark streets in the sketchy part of town during the witching hour?
  • Or is it more like a high-end call-girl, sashaying through a ritzy casino in a fetching evening dress, seeking a high roller with libidinal cravings?
  • Or is it more like a husky vamp in a seedy brothel signaling her desire to guzzle any patron’s sperm…if, that is, the price is right?
  • Or is it more like the ambitious starlet on the casting couch, eager to ingest copious amounts of semen to advance her acting career?
  • Or is it more like a nubile gamine who furtively twirls her hair while popping her bubble-gum, eager to straddle the next eligible bachelor…but only if he is willing to take her shopping?
  • Or is it more like a flirtatious bimbo parading her overly-oiled curves, as she struts down the boardwalk in a florescent orange bikini, awaiting a sugar-daddy to whisk her away on his yacht?
  • Or is it more like a voluptuous femme fatale serving as the honey-pot for an unsuspecting “mark”, who is apt to divulge proprietary information at the enticing prospect of impending copulation?  (That would make them BOTH prostitutes.)

What is the one thing that all these characters have in common?

In other words: What is a prostitute?  It is not necessarily a solicitous tramp yearning for the next deluge of igneous ejaculate to be strewn across her visage…in exchange for cash.  On the other hand, it might be a well-coifed, ladder-climbing careerist willing to devour a superior’s throbbing phallus in return for a lucrative promotion.  (After all, a quid pro quo is a quid pro quo.)  Both are fishing for potential gulls.  Both are engaging in the lascivious craft of Machiavellian seduction: one bawdy, one polished.

Regardless of the context, we find a woman selling access to her body…and a man selling access to other things of value.  Thus the amount of glamour involved is entirely beside the point.

So what, then, is the difference between a disheveled, termagant skank beaconing to passers-by in the parking lot behind a suburban food-mart…and, say, a dapper gigolo soliciting high-end clientele at a swank country club?  At what point does someone qualify as a prostitute?

Once we discount the level of glitz, it becomes difficult to articulate exactly what we might be referring to.  Indeed, prostitution can be tawdry or refined, devious or wistful.  It can come in the form of a libertine beldam prepared for unbridled sex with any bystander at the drop of a hat.  Or it might be a coquettish sorority girl seeking a higher grade from a libidinous professor after office hours (one exchange, two prostitutes).

As it turns out, even a term as simple as “prostitution” is not a simple thing at all.  It could refer to one who is willing to sell one’s mind OR one’s body.  Either way, it is one who can be “bought”.  To wit: It refers to somebody who is prepared to sacrifice one’s principles on the alter of avarice.

Indeed, prostituting oneself can involve things other than sex.  One does not have to be a conniving vixen offering a quick shag for lucre; it can be a politician selling legislation to the highest bidder…or an academic willing to mold his “findings” according to the ideology of his paymasters.  There is something just as reprobate about the graft of a conniving oligarch perched in his luxury penthouse as there is about a hooker dolling out hand-jobs in a dingy public restroom. The fact that the former comes off as prim whilst the other comes off as lewd is a byproduct of social norms. But if we dig down, we discover that prostitution is not a function of decorum.

With respect to sex, this simple label MIGHT refer to a sultry dominatrix donning a leather corset and chain-link thong, snapping a cat-o-nine tails in her dimly-lit, underground layer.  However, it might INSTEAD refer to the gadabout gold-digger hobnobbing with plutocrats on a posh rooftop terrace…parading her god-given endowments in haut-couture, while demurely sipping a martini.  One is licentious, the other just tacky.

In EITHER case, it is:

Someone who exchanges sexual favors for financial gain.

The key difference, then, is that the gold-digger seeks one customer at a time while the “professional” prostitute is apt to move from one customer to the next. {10}  

The fact that someone settles on a single customer (indefinitely) does not disqualify it from being prostitution; it simply changes the terms of exchange.  Monogamy and prostitution are not mutually exclusive.  Choosing a unique partner for financial benefit is–effectively–signing up for (voluntary) concubinage.  One no more has to operate in a brothel to be a prostitute than one has to operate in a cathedral to be a preacher.

Rarely, though, does the galavanting socialite–seeking to fill her coffers–admit to being a prostitute; even as she hobnobs with the movers and shakers of high society, purchasing status using the world’s oldest currency.  In fact, her pretense makes her station all the more mendacious.  She believes that being less forthcoming about her scheme somehow makes her modus operandi less tawdry.  It doesn’t.  (At least the OVERT prostitute is more honest about what she is doing.)

Even as “prostitution” ranges from the prurient to the pragmatic, a person who is for sale (in some shape, manner, or form) is a prostitute; irrespective of the context.  A promiscuous Playboy bunny earning her keep by satiating the carnal hankerings of her high-rolling audience isn’t fooling anyone. {10}  In the final analysis, a hussy is a hussy.

Few people fuss over the wide variety of people this simple word accurately describes.  After all is said and done, there is indubitably a profound difference between the slutty jezebel cavorting with townies at the local saloon and the fabled whore of Babylon.  Indeed, we can be quite certain that the derisive idiom found in the Book of Revelation is not referring to the inebriated vixen at the end of the bar offering to perform fellatio for a free drink. {11}

The disproportionate reference to females prostituting themselves in the sexual sense (gigolos were only mentioned once) is not due to the fact that females are somehow more depraved than men. Rather, the massive disparity can be attributed to two things:

  • Men are far more manipulatable by (the prospect of) sex.  Barring scenarios involving gay men, women are better positioned to take advantage of this weakness.  (There’s a reason lesbian prostitution has never existed.)
  • Due to the prevalence of patriarchal societies, men tend to have much more sense of entitlement (including sex with women of their choice).  This undergirds the objectification of women (as well as the commodification of sex); which invariably leads to the exploitation of women (spec. for the sexual gratification of men).

There is a simple litmus test for prostitution: Is the person for sale?  Prostitution is not a simple quid pro quo (a basic condition of human interaction); it involves “selling out” (that is: abandoning one’s principles in order to materially benefit). {12}  Many politicians, bankers, and corporate executives sell their souls.  Academics who succumb to intellectual capture sell their integrity.  Dogmatists sell their minds.  Yet we are not inclined to characterize such things as “prostitution”; nor are we inclined to call a lobbyist a Senator’s “sugar daddy”.

As we’ve seen, when sex is involved, it’s a bit more complicated.  Hookers sell their bodies for the duration of a trick; gold-diggers sell their bodies—and contrived affection—for the duration of the liaison / betrothal.  All of this is a kind of prostitution.  In the least opprobrious cases, those in dire straights are seeking a means to survive.  In the most opprobrious cases, opportunists are valuing money over humanity.  The former is tragic; the latter is odious.  The former kind of prostitutes have regrettably lost their dignity, the latter kind of prostitutes have wantonly relinquished it.

What often elides this distinction is the fact that the former are typically forthcoming about what they’re doing, whereas the latter put on airs.  Hookers engage in prostitution overtly, without any pretense that they are doing otherwise.  For doing what they do is a matter of desperation.  By stark contrast, gold-diggers create a facade of super-charged dignity—even as they have none.  (They misconstrue their vanity as dignity.)  Doing what they do is a matter of avarice, so it invariably involves some sort of duplicity.

So when we pontificate about prostitution, are we thinking of corrupt politicians, bathing in graft; or are we thinking of solicitous scullery maids with a penchant for fellatio?  The point is worth reiterating: Prostitution needn’t be such a sordid spectacle.  Another locution for the same phenomenon is “selling out”—something that politicians, entrepreneurs, and artists can do with their pants on.

When assigning this loaded descriptor, we mustn’t be distracted by pretenses.  A grift is a grift.  This taxonomic discrepancy is because we associate “prostitute” with debauchery rather than with sophistication; as if “selling out” (especially sexually) was strictly a function of low socio-economic status.  Thus we accord towering stature to the dregs of humanity (standing in the halls of power) while impugning those who are often impoverished (standing on a street corner).

Such inconsistent classification is a reminder that demotic language can be misleading.  It is no surprise that politicians, bankers, corporate executives, and gold-diggers are typically not given this derogatory characterization.  We tend to oblige prostitutes who don’t admit that they are prostitutes—even as they add a level of dishonesty to their gambit.  While we are inclined to exalt the jaunty hedge-fund manager (who wreaks havoc on society), we are apt to scoff at the lowly street-walker (who’s biggest crime is being party to some customers’ infidelity).  In keeping with this errant dichotomy, we assign the epithet “prostitute” exclusively to the menial sex worker; and reserve terms of approbation for august scoundrels.

These demimondes are seen as pariahs more than as victims. Stigmas prevail over formal conceptualization.

So what IS prostitution?  In any given exchange, it comes down to whether or not one is compromising one’s rectitude in order to advance one’s socio-economic standing.  This is also called “selling out”.  A simple litmus test is: Whenever one is deigning to “sell” something (be it political influence or sexual intercourse), one need only ask oneself: “In selling this, am I also selling my integrity?”

It just so happens that sex-for-financial-gain is the oldest–and most common–form of prostitution.  A close second is graft.  The former is tragedy; the latter is perfidy.  But ALL of it is labeled the same thing: prostitution.  Sometimes even the simplest words aren’t so simple after all.

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