Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Shame and fortune

The art of being a whore

"Sexual pleasure is an art form," says Jonathan Kemp, author of London Triptych, now getting its first North American release. "I think shame is always social." Credit: Arsenal Pulp Press

Most whores say, “I never dreamed of being a prostitute when I grew up.” I am not most whores.

I did dream of being a whore when I grew up. Did no one else see how fabulous Julia Roberts looked in the poster for Pretty Woman?>

I was desperate to be the hot bitch wearing those shiny knee-high boots. And fucking Richard Gere. Don’t forget about fucking Richard Gere… So, Mom, if you’re looking for something to blame for my “depravity,” look no further than my 1990s childhood.

My journey to whoredom started in New York City. I paid $25,000 dollars to go to acting school. I learned how to act, all right. Everyone believes my moans.

Here I was living in squalor, renting a room in a Dominican family’s apartment in Harlem, making friends with the mice and cockroaches, while a guy in my acting class was living in a beautiful apartment in Chelsea and packing his Louis Vuitton duffel bag to spend weekends in East Hampton.

He confided in me that he was a hooker and revealed how much money he was making. (For the record, Vancouver real estate may be crazy, but his one bedroom in Chelsea cost him $6,000 a month.) I definitely coveted his lifestyle but, with naiveté and a false sense of superiority, looked down on him and thought, “I could never do that.”

Needless to say, I started “summering in the Hamptons” a couple months later.

Okay, not quite. I never made the big time as a rent boy, unlike my acting-class friend. He was a Brazilian Adonis and hung like a horse. He’d been prostituting for a decade and had an A-list clientele. My experience was humbler. And I liked it that way. I wasn’t an ambitious whore. Sure, I wanted to get away from the mice and roaches, but beyond that, I just wanted enough money to pay my rent, buy my groceries and be free to write to my heart’s content.

For a long time, I felt shame about my sex work. I thought it was something I should hide because the judgment I faced when people learned about my on-my-back work ethic left me feeling like I was committing a sin. (Damn you, Catholic upbringing!)

It wasn’t until I read Jonathan Kemp’s London Triptych, first published in 2010 and now getting its first North American release, that I felt liberated from the shame, which, I’ve come to realize, I felt only because society expected me to.

I began to see prostitution as an art form, a view that is eloquently expressed in Kemp’s story of three gay men of different eras.

The first, Jack, is one of Oscar Wilde’s boys in 1894. The second, Colin, is a painter living through the oppression of 1954 London while lusting after his male muse. The third, David, is a contemporary rent-boy, whose drug-fuelled grit-and-glam story is set in 1998.

“Sexual pleasure is an art form,” Kemp says. “I think shame is always social, or psychosocial; always, therefore, in a sense, political. I did want [the novel] 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,” he says.

“The shame surrounding prostitution is the shame surrounding sex in general,” he says. “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. I think if we were more honest and serious about sex we would be less hung up and shameful about it.”

Kemp masterfully resurrects Oscar Wilde, as well as Alfred Taylor, an inordinate and utterly fabulous procurer of prostitutes, of which Wilde indulged. They both faced the ignominy of a very public downfall and were imprisoned and sentenced to hard labour for their sexual exploits. But before their dark ends, the two real-life characters of late-19th-century London best illustrate the freedom and beauty of sex.

“Pleasure is the greatest gift god gave you, so it is,” Taylor tells Jack when he first arrives at his whorehouse. “Pleasure is divine. To give pleasure is to spread joy, and to spread joy is godly, isn’t that the truth?”