Sunday, October 4, 2009

Wanker Alert!

British writer Sebastian Horsley has over the course of his adult life slept with more than 1,300 prostitutes, at a cost of more than 115,000 pounds, a personal history he reflects upon in this rather annoying blog post. There are very few forms of writing I find quite so grating as an overwritten personal essay, and this one (like so many essays on the topic of sex) is overwritten in every sense of the word, with dubious ideas expressed in bloated, inapt metaphors conveyed in prose so purple you could dye a violet with it. Case in point:
In English brothels you shuffle into a seedy room so dim you can only meet
the girl by Braille. But in New York last year I sat on a four-poster bed while
10 girls paraded in front of me one by one, like bowls of sushi on a carousel.
“Hi,” they would say, “I’m Tiffany”, “I’m Harmony”, “I’m Michelle”, and I would
rise and kiss them. It was so touching, so sweet, so kind. There should always,
no matter what, be politeness. It is the way the outside world should work,
selfishly but honestly.
Everything about this paragraph irritates me, to the point where I don't know where to begin in criticizing it. While I suspect that Horsley chose to compare the women he was scrutinizing with sliced-and-diced raw fish precisely because of the de-humanizing ick factor, self-lacerating irony doesn't make him sound any less like a serial killer. And while I agree with his conclusion that prostitution is a selfish-but-honest act, to assert that this is how every interpersonal relationship ought to work is absurd. It says more about Horsley's personal limitations and hangups than it does about society, intimacy, or any other topic that might be worth the reader's time.

This latter problem plagues the entire essay. A good personal essay explores through the window of firsthand experience a situation into which any reader can project sympathies. A bad personal essay is an exercise in smug navel-gazing, and despite Horsley's self-denunciation as a "sleazy bastard", that is precisely what his tract is. It is rather irritating when self-satisfied "family values" types lecture society on the topic of sexual mores, but no less so when a man who's never quite managed to discover the connection between sex and love that exists for most well-adjusted adults asserts that the rest of society is full of shit because it goes on acting as if such a connection is real and doesn't engage in the same disreputable activities he does in order to reject it. Unlike Horsley, I haven't found women with whom I've been involved interchangeable, nor does the prospect of actually communicating with a sexual partner fill me with horror, and observation tells me that this is the case for most people - very few people, after all, eschew pursuing real relationships, with all their talking and companionship and flowers and other aspects which Horsley finds so distasteful, so that they can instead cultivate a taste for hookers. While quite a few people seem to have trouble remaining faithful to their partners, it's never been an issue for me, and though sex for its own sake has its appeal, I find it ultimately a rather empty and transitory pleasure and not one I've ever been motivated to pursue at the expense of all others. The experiences of people like Horsley are obviously different, but the fact that he personally finds monogamy difficult, emotional bonding impossible, and casual sex something worth spending thousands of dollars in pursuit of does not mean that everybody does. And yet from one narcissist's quite obviously anomalous experiences, grandiose conclusions about the state of society and the nature of humankind emerge.

Even more troubling is Horsley's dismissal of the idea that prostitution might just be exploitative with a glib "I don't believe this", and his accompanying wish that it remain illegal so that he can continue to enjoy the thrill of being a bad boy. Obviously he's never taken a break from screwing to talk to the women he's paid to be with, or he might have been given cause to wonder to himself why so disproportionately many come from backgrounds of abuse and dire poverty. And for a self-proclaimed connoisseur, he seems awfully ignorant of the means by which his favorite product is produced and brought to market, with not a single word acknowledging the fact that prostitution is one of the main drivers in the persistence of human slavery, nor even a nod to the abuse, violence, and psychological ruin that social science suggests inevitably come with it. It is every bit the "squalid power game" he claims it isn't - he's just paid to avoid having to see the squalor or struggle to exercise the power.

It's fine and well to question social norms, and I happen to think there's a credible argument to be made that paying a prostitute to get no-strings-attached sex is less immoral than deceiving a woman in a dating situation to get it. "Less immoral" is not equivalent to "more moral", however - in my view the dishonest seducer and the john are both cads worthy of contempt, with the question at issue being who deserves more. There is a good reason that prostitution elicits disgust from a good portion of the population in even the most tolerant of places. Horsley might have enough self-awareness to understand why his behavior marks him as a dirtbag, but he obviously hasn't given much thought as to why it that the vast majority of society frowns upon it. Writing about prostitution as if it were nothing more than a payment scheme to get him out of the responsibilities that come with intimate relationships or a parlor game that allows him to play the role of an authority-flouting social rebel betrays both deep ignorance of the subject, and an inexcusable indifference to its moral implications. Horsley imagines himself a no-B.S. truth-teller, but what he actually is is a sad and deluded manchild with a pathetic addiction of which he is nonetheless proud. Why did he sleep with 1,300 prostitutes? I don't care nearly as much as he seems to expect that I should.

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