That’s an attention-grabbing, click-bait headline if ever there was one. But lucky for you, I’m not going to try to sell you anything. Okay, that’s actually a lie. Eventually, I want to sell you my book once I get it out there, but you have some time before you are contractually obligated to me for clicking on my headline. Anyway, for better or worse, the headline IS an accurate description of what I want to talk about. Whores. I seem to be running into a lot of them lately.
In the books I’m reading, that is.
Three of the last four books I’ve read included female prostitution in the world-building: one YA dystopia, one YA fantasy, and one adult dystopian sci-fi. The fourth was a contemporary middle grade, so I’m relieved not to have come across the mention of whores in that book, even though it was set in New York City. But the other three? Those get varying degrees of side-eye from me for their use of female prostitutes.
Look, there have always been whores in literature. There will always be whores in literature…save for a future where “men are fairytales in books written by rabbits” (points if you know that quote!) And my two cents isn’t going to change that, not that I want it to. It’s part of human society (oldest profession and all…) and will thus naturally be a part of the literature written by and about said society.
And therein lays my problem with the pervasive presence of female prostitutes in books. It’s not that writers include it. It’s that they continue to rely on that underlying theme of patriarchal systems – and the accompanying “dominant and insatiable male sexual desire” trope – for the basis of world-building. Garden-variety brothels are indicative of that system.
It’s possible writers don’t view the worlds in their books as patriarchal. After all, they have female leaders, female warriors, female Doctors (geek outrage reference…) and a female main character. But, those stories aren’t bucking the standard patriarchal system if the author includes brothels as part of their dark dystopian or grungy fantasy world-building, and especially not if men are the primary – or only – clientele of these establishments.
However, a fictional world in which men, women and other non-binary genders lead society equally, and which do not frame sexual desire as a strictly male-oriented pursuit…now we’re getting somewhere. A book without brothels – or one in which the sex workers and their clientele are explicitly NOT single-gendered on either side – stands a greater chance of being one in which there is true sexual parity. In that book, women’s bodies won’t be objectified, and female characters would have agency over their sexuality and their lives. In that book, men won’t claim a sense of ownership over female family members (i.e., fathers who are overprotective of their daughters but not their sons.) In that book, female virginity won’t be sacred and the object religious fascination while male virginity is ridiculed. And on and on and etcetera. That book would be a great book!
But that still isn’t a guarantee of patriarchy-free reading. It can still creep into your high fantasy or future epic sci-fi, largely through unconscious bias of the writer. The adult dystopian sci-fi I mentioned earlier is a good example of this. The author is an equal-opportunity pimp of prostitutes in his work. It’s not just women selling themselves on the murky streets of this future city; there are male whores, as well. Their proposition of the main character – a woman – frames this future society as one in which the sexual desires of both men and women are given equal attention, i.e., it’s not just the male characters who are potential clientele. Sounds like a society free from the usual male-dominated systems, right?
For the most part, it is, until it came to the use of the word “whore” itself. In another scene in the book, the author discusses three thugs who accost the main character. The two male thugs are described in terms of their clothing, hair and general demeanor in sex-neutral terms. One had a tailored coat. The other didn’t wash his hair. That kind of stuff. The woman, however, was said to look like a “whore” with large breasts and heavy makeup. Side-eye engaged.
The other two books – the YA dystopian and the YA fantasy – were more overtly patriarchal in their world-building. As far as I could tell, the prostitutes were only female. But then, gritty, dark and depressing is popular in YA right now, and what better (easier) way to depict gritty than with a society that still relies on patriarchal customs and caters to the “insatiable male sexual need” to the detriment of feminine self-respect? In a way, it makes sense. The readership of YA books is overwhelmingly female, so if you want to paint a bleak and dangerous picture of a future or fantasy world, add in some female whores. Create a reality in which women are still objectified by men and exploited for their bodies. That will cast instant gloom over any novel in the hands of a young female reader.
All that being said, I think there are valid reasons and effective ways authors can use the concept of prostitution in books. I don’t want everything I read to be squeaky clean with absolute equality all around. What I am looking for is parity among books, and sometimes within them. Fantasy and sci-fi authors have the power to recreate that nature. That’s what speculative fiction is – it speculates different possibilities. So why do so many sci-fi or fantasy books (even those written by women) stick with patriarchal and potent male sexual drive narratives? Is it because it’s easy to write? Easy to relate to? Easy to imagine?
What I can tell you is that these three books aren’t outliers. They are not the only ones I’ve read that include (primarily female) prostitution. They’re just the most recent. Did I still like the books? Yes, and so I read them all the way through, rather than throwing them across the room at the first mention of “whore”. But to do so, I had to acknowledge and accept that yet again, these were books in which the standard patriarchal civilization narrative served as the basis of world-building. It’s not an evil thing. It’s not the worst thing to be put into books. It’s just tiring to see writers fall back on it time after time after time.