Blogs & Columns
4 min

Jonathan Kemp on London, rent-boy culture and Oscar Wilde

Blitz & Shitz (B&S): You wrote that for all three characters — Jack, Colin and David — London represents liberation and anonymity that can’t be found in small towns. Is that true for gay men of today? With iPhone apps like Grindr, have cities like London or Paris or New York, which have played such an important role in queer history, lose their relevance and meaning to the gay community?

Jonathan Kemp (JK): I don’t think these cities have lost their relevance and meaning to the gay community, but this new technology has definitely altered things radically in terms of sexual and/or social contact, with many gay venues closing down due to people spending more time online rather than cruising bars. I’m not a user of any of these apps, so I can’t really speak on behalf of their users, but the city will, I think, always be a crucial space for queer lives, in contrast to small towns. The city and the queer networks it provides, anonymous or otherwise, still attracts queers from less populated and more politically conservative places.

B&S: How much has society changed since Oscar Wilde’s persecution for soliciting prostitutes? Would a modern public figure still be condemned if they were exposed for paying for sex?

JK: The biggest change since Wilde’s time is in the law. In the UK, the 1967 Sexual Offences Act made sex between consenting male adults over the age of 21 legal. This is why in the 1998 narrative in London Triptych I had the character imprisoned for something else. I don’t think a modern public figure would be condemned, necessarily, for soliciting prostitutes today, unless, perhaps, there was a very clear hypocrisy at work. I’m all for exposing sexual hypocrisy. But it would depend on who it was and the nature of the prostitution — ie, gay or straight. I think society is still rabidly homophobic, perhaps even more than in Wilde’s day. The visibility that we have gained culturally is double-edged. It’s great to have it, but it exposes us and makes us more vulnerable to attack. Homosexuals, and any sexual “non-normatives” in general, are easy targets for hate and violence.

B&S: Prostitutes face a lot of judgment, but in your writing you eliminated that shame and made prostitution, the giving of pleasure, something beautiful and precious. Do you see prostitution as an artistic craft?

JK: I do see prostitution as an artistic craft, as long as it is voluntary and not coerced or enforced. Sexual pleasure is an art form. I think shame is always social, or psychosocial; always, therefore, in a sense, political. I’m glad you saw that aspect of the novel, as I did want it to be a celebration of prostitution (which some people have had a problem with). I didn’t want a grim, shame-ridden approach to the subject. I wanted the characters – Jack especially – to be guilt-free and full of a brash joy about what they are doing. Almost proud. Sex, like anything else, is something that some people are good at while others are not so good. At the same time, it can be learned; studied. The shame surrounding prostitution is the shame surrounding sex in general. In our culture, we tend to treat it with disgust and horror, or with humour. Both tend to work with the attitude that sex is innately wrong. Out of the two, I prefer humour, but laughing at sex – whilst an important aspect of it – can tend to overshadow or ignore the importance of sex as an appetite or drive, and diminish its seriousness. Look how Kinsey was treated. I think if we were more honest and serious about sex we would be less hung up and shameful about it. I’ve always admired people who are candid about what they want and what they do sexually.

B&S:  The gay community seems to be more open-minded about sex work than mainstream society. Why is that?

JK: I would take issue with this assumption. Whilst certain aspects of queer culture are more open-minded about sex, there are still plenty of lesbians and gay men of a more conservative mindset who are virulently anti-sex. Just look at the wars between Sex Panic and the gay neo-cons in the US throughout the ‘90s. Conservative, rightwing gays are NOT open-minded about sex, and plenty of straight people ARE openminded about sex work. But putting aside your generalization, I think perhaps LGBT people have tended to be more open-minded because of their outsider status, and their need, within heteronormative structures, to navigate and negotiate their own desires and therefore come to learn more about sexuality in general, which might make us more tolerant of sexual differences. There is also, of course, particularly within male homosexuals, a long tradition of older men paying younger (often straight) men for sex.

B&S: Do you think prostitution should be legalized? For the prostitutes in London Triptych, their work gave them freedom from the binds of their respective times. If sex work was legalized, instead of emancipating prostitutes, would it do the opposite?

JK: I do think prostitution should be legalized. In an adult, civilized society sexual needs would be acknowledged and catered for, as long as everything were consensual. I don’t think legalizing prostitution would do the opposite of emancipating prostitutes. I think it would provide protection and safety, remove some of the stigma, and allow sex workers a legitimacy and freedom that would still, in a sense, be pitched against the norms of 9-to-5 existence. Some people just aren’t made to work in an office, and if sex is your preferred way of earning a living, I don’t think you should be legislated against or penalized for it.

B&S: If your character of Oscar Wilde had lived into the 20th century, what would his life be like?

JK: If Wilde hadn’t essentially been executed by the British government — that is, had his time in prison not killed him — he would nevertheless more than likely have lived out the remainder of his years in poverty and obscurity. He would no doubt still have written, and we can only guess at what marvels he would have produced, given that, paradoxically, his experiences in prison gave his writing a depth, humility and emotional texture they had been lacking. And I like to think he would have retained his sense of humour, which was evident even on his deathbed.