2 June 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 2
"And He Took Her for a Whore": On Prostitution, Sudden Death, and Coitus Noninterruptus
The first time I saw prostitutes walking their track I was in my early twenties. I was living in Chicago, far from my New Jersey suburban youth, and taking a walk up Lake Shore Drive through The Gold Coast, a high-rise haven of the super-rich overlooking gray Lake Michigan. I took a left into the neighborhood and strolled past some brownstone houses under a tunnel of trees until I emerged in the stark light of the ghetto, absolute glass-strewn poverty a few blocks from the marble floors of some of the wealthiest people in America. And there, sure enough, strutting from blasted corner to corner was a Seventies-style pimp leaning on a carved walking cane followed by three working girls, blonde and underage. They possessed a kind of ironic joy in being possessions, clearly conscious of their value. I was more scared than turned on, and more astonished than scared, as this was the profane world I'd seen on television and film and here I was fifteen feet from the ancient fleshly drama. They had a shameless pride as they measured their domain with sassy gait—the only shame on the corner was my own, a voyeur much out of place. I would have been terrified of approaching them, much less hiring them, and my curiosity surrendered to fear as I hightailed it back into the shelter of the money-colored elms.
But I should not have been surprised to cross paths with sex workers in a twentieth century metro-labyrinth. Nor should anyone be surprised to find them in the textual labyrinth of the Bible. It may be unnerving, however, to learn whores are sometimes heroes in the twists and dead-ends of this greatest of narratives. Think of Joshua's Rahab, the working girl who sells out Jericho to the invading Hebrews, or of the prostitutes and tax collectors keeping company with Jesus. There is something sacred to this most profane of professions, and much of the ancient world acknowledged this by providing temple prostitutes to ensure the fertility of the land. Perhaps the Hebrew tradition comes closest to this in the story of Tamar and Judah, Genesis Chapter 38. Tamar, widow of Jacob's grandchild Er, disguises herself as a prostitute in order to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah, after her husband and then her brother-in-law have been struck dead by God. She conceives by this shocking coupling and is carrying twins when she is brought before Judah for playing the whore. Barely avoiding execution for promiscuity by her father-in-law, she manages to give birth to two boys, the elder becoming the ancestor of the poet-warrior David. All this sexual chicanery and transgression leads to the King and, in Christian thought, the King of Kings, a descendant of David, Jesus Christ. Surely Yahweh has a rollicking sense of humor and is not as averse to the oldest profession as we have been led to believe. Tamar's intelligence and tenacity for self-preservation might even make her a good candidate for the patron saint of whores.
All this mess started when Tamar's husband, Er—Judah's son and the grandson of Jacob—did "evil in the eyes of the Lord" and was suddenly killed by Yahweh. We are not told what Er did, but it must have been bad, considering the long lives of certain mass murderers of our own time. Of course, in the ancient world people tended to interpret sudden death or illness as a punishment for sin, much as Fundamentalist Christians in America interpret AIDS as a judgment on homosexuality, an exegesis frowned upon by scientists and physicians since the Enlightenment. But then, after Er's death, the plot thickens: according to the law of the time, if the eldest son died without offspring, it was the obligation of the next oldest son to impregnate the widow. The children resulting from this congress would be treated as those of the eldest son in the extended family, rival to those of the second son. Judah commanded his next oldest son, Onan, to fulfill this law. But Onan found this idea repugnant, not because he disdained to fuck his brother's widow, an act that must have been perversely arousing. He did not want to give his seed to his dead brother.
It was about money and class. He did not want to give Tamar children who would not be his. Therefore, he would "waste his seed on the ground," withdrawing his penis in a primitive version of birth control before his orgasm sent his semen into Tamar's possession. This is a strange political and economic kind of denial brought into the most intimate act, a denial within the canvas walls of the family tent that has incredible public and historical effects. Onan and Tamar fuck, but she may or may not have any desire for him outside of the seed that can give her status in Judah's family. But in fucking her Onan refuses to give her what we assume she really wants—seed. Pregnancy means status—with children, she must be counted a person and provided for by Judah, the wealthy father-in-law.
But perhaps she does desire Onan, a younger and more vital version of her husband destroyed by Yahweh. Perhaps Er was always a mistake, since he was "evil in the eyes of the Lord." I imagine something like a Mafioso, perhaps a madman who rapes children in front of the horrified Tamar. Er must have been a person so horrible even Yahweh, no stranger Himself to atrocity, is stunned into hurling a lightening bolt á la Zeus. Perhaps Onan seemed like a relief to Tamar after a brutal marriage, even a hopeful, glorious fuck after a sadistic beating. Then he too showed himself to be selfish and useless, more interested in status than compassion for the woman he was fucking, though he does make sure to take his own pleasure and control the economy of the situation by dumping his product outside the market for which it was intended.
Both Onan and Tamar are socially required to be prostitutes long before she actually puts on drag with Judah. Onan's bold refusal to obey the levirate law by which he should mate with his brother's widow, exchanging seed for his brother's absence, receiving relief of obligation while giving status and future, is a refusal of sex as exchange outside the moment. Of course all sex is a kind of exchange between persons, but when the exchange extends beyond the immediate sex one may say one is buying or selling something not directly connected to the act. With that in mind, our modern police-minded concern over whether or not a few hundred dollars has changed hands between private persons seems trivial when the entire future of a nation and a people and the direction of world history was being bought and paid for. Now that was prostitution, or at least procreation on a grand scale.
How would it feel to fuck for reward? I'm not sure I know. When my wife, Evie, was an undergraduate greedy for long vacations to Costa Rica and fancy meals at chic restaurants, she worked a few years as a topless dancer in Austin, Texas, and now she is a recognized erotica writer in that small but vibrant community. But that is not the same thing. Showing your breasts and ass cheeks for money in a city where it was legal to sunbathe au natural would have seemed more like a joke on the customers than a trespass of moral law. We've had many conversations about her dancer days, and she tells the story of the one night she almost had sex for money to the point of riding to the hotel with an NFL star she met in the club. She choked at the last minute and made him stop the car so she could get out. The cash wasn't worth what the transgression signified—guilt and a status shift from dancer to whore.
And I guess I do know what it means to concede to payment. Long, long ago, in a junior college far, far away, I had a freshman student who offered me a bottle of Jack Daniel's in exchange for an A. It seems he worked in a bar and had easy access—I imagine he stole it as well as used it as a bribe. He was an amusing guy and so, youthful as I was, I thought it would be amusing to be bribed. I accepted the bottle and drank it slowly over the semester. I also worked him hard, draft after draft of research papers, until he finally did get an A. And I felt terribly guilty and compromised, glad when I was able to turn in the grades and never see him again. But I didn't feel exactly like a prostitute—there was too much irony; I didn't really give him anything he wouldn't have gotten anyway. Basically I got a free bottle of whiskey, a symbol of the decadence I wished I could achieve, for pushing him toward his "potential." Based on what Evie has said about her former profession, I was more like a topless dancer giving a table dance to a curly-headed twenty-something—it's nothing he hasn't already seen on the stage, and not much more than he couldn't see at a public pool, but the fact that it's just for him makes it special. Definitely not up to the level of prostitute. And I generally feel shame about whatever I do, good or bad, so I may as well have whiskey to go with my guilt.
Onan, on the other hand, apparently felt no guilt about his transgression—the waste of his semen (think of all the semen wasted over the thousands of years of human history, all that genetic code soaked into the earth!). He had no compassion for his brother, refusing him progeny. That lack of family empathy is the essential dramatic situation of Genesis played out over and over again from Cain and Abel to Jacob and Esau, even with Judah himself when Joseph is attacked by his brothers. The family tends to turn on and devour itself unless some bizarre turn of events or heroic act of forgiveness prevents it, as with Esau and Joseph. In Onan's case, Yahweh himself is not as forgiving as he was with Cain who soaked the ground not with semen that belonged to his brother, but with his brother's blood. Clearly, fratricide is not as bad as semicide in the eyes of God. Cain was cursed and sent away as a fugitive with a magic mark for protection, while Onan literally dropped dead.
Of course, this is the passage that was used for many years to frighten children away from masturbation. If you spill your seed, God will hate you and kill you. Such an interpretation completely ignores the context, but then ignoring the context has ever been a popular method of scriptural exegesis. The entire Bible, as big as it is, has nothing to say specifically about masturbation, though in the New Testament St. Paul warns us against lustful thoughts and Jesus tells us that a man who has committed adultery in his heart has already committed it in actuality. It is certainly true that masturbation is almost always accompanied by lustful thoughts (though not vice versa), but what does it mean to commit adultery "in your heart"? Does that mean you really, really want to seduce your brother's wife, or could it just be an extended fantasy? Or a passing thought, a glance or a touch or an exchange of smiles that lasts a second too long or feels a little too warm? Or just a hidden willingness should the both of you end up on a deserted island somewhere? If so, who hasn't committed adultery or fornication in their heart? But perhaps that is the point: everyone's a whore, no one a saint.
Maybe what's so astonishing is not that some people die unexpectedly, but rather that Yahweh does not strike down every single one of us for one good reason or another. My stepfather's daughter-in-law recently died of a stroke at fifty-two. She was a good person, very lively, warm and straightforward in conversation and extremely loyal to her friends and family. She was hit with a major headache at work, went to the local hospital where they determined a blood vessel had ruptured in her brain, and she was Life-Flighted to Philadelphia where she died. In the ancient world we might have thought that Yahweh was punishing her for some secret sin, some evil she had committed her family knew nothing of, such as embezzling funds at work. Did she, entirely out of character, refuse to help an angel in disguise? Did she harbor hatred for God because of the early, painful death of her father, a crime of the heart? My mother believes God acts only out of kindness, a contemporary American version of Christianity in which God loves everyone; Yahweh took Vicki to fulfill His plans and to reunite her with her father. Maybe everyone isn't Onan, and maybe only a few of us really get under Yahweh's skin. Or maybe He's just warming up on a select group of friends and neighbors.
Now after warming up on Er and Onan, the Angel of Death might strike Judah's family again. Judah has lost two sons, and it is clear he blames Tamar. Both boys die hard on the heels of having sex with her, so Judah puts two and two together and wants to protect his last son, Shelah, who is still too young to service the daughter-in-law. Judah doesn't have the advantage we readers of the text have: the authoritative narrator, privy to God's intentions, who fills us in on the whys and wherefores. So he sends Tamar back to her parents, a rather humiliating slap, and tries to forget the whole thing in hopes of saving Shelah from the killer vagina. She is supposed to wait until Shelah is of proper age, but we are told "a long time passed" and Judah never summons her to claim her seed.
Judah seems to be the transgressor, dangerously close to "doing evil" himself and perhaps catching a thunderbolt, but what parent wouldn't try to protect his child from a devouring spouse? True, his sons have done evil in the sight of the Lord, but what father doesn't think his children are the victims, not the criminals? Don't we normally value loyalty in the family, even when that loyalty might be misplaced? My brother, for example, had many troubled years, but my mother stuck by him despite the drugs and violence in his life, as she did with me during a dark marriage that made me hard to deal with. No one would have blamed her if she had sacrificed us. The counter example to such loyalty would be Abraham himself, Judah's great-grandfather, the patriarch who walked with Yahweh and was willing to sacrifice his son—as far as we know, Isaac was not even annoying, much less deserving of death. Judah is not willing to make a similar sacrifice under more ambiguous circumstances, and so refuses to offer Shelah to Tamar. It is a passive-aggressive refusal, but of course Tamar has not forgotten her rights and catches on.
The next death is Judah's wife. This seems not to have been a sudden death, but a passing in the natural order. Except that it accomplishes something necessary in the divine order, which is that Judah, after the appointed period of mourning, when he is free to party, is horny. Yahweh wants him irrational and in the mood to transgress. Judah and his buddy Hirah the Adulamite go up to Timnah to celebrate with his men during the time of the sheep shearing, a time of feasting and drinking. Whatever grief he may have felt is not alluded to and therefore seems perfunctory, as his wife is never even named in the text. It is hard to feel sympathy for Judah here, except in a very fleshly, sensual way—having had some rather long dry spells in my romantic life, I know what it is to feel irrational and compulsive in the need to touch a woman. Even if grief cuts real and deep, even if it paralyzes you for months, that would have nothing to do with the demands of your body. And in such a situation, when it would seem an abomination to take another wife so soon, who better to touch than a professional, a woman who would demand no family obligations? The barter would be simple. And so the stage is set for Tamar to disguise herself and trap her father-in-law.
Like Judah, the first time I went to a strip club, I had recently been bereaved, or divorced. I suspect such a narrative connection is not unusual. My wife of eleven years had shaken the dust rather vigorously out of her cloak as she left, and then demanded that I not divorce her—for a while. She was only the second woman I had ever slept with in my thirty-five years of life, so I had no clue how to repair the damage or where to look for comfort. I remember hours of kung-fu videos and the occasional porn flick to substitute for intimate human contact, and a wall of books, postmodern theory, to explain these practices to myself in a way I could accept. At such a time, in such a grief, one may want a kindness merely professional and an erotic vocabulary easy to master embedded in a sentence simple and short. I did not know this. My brother had worked for years in strip clubs as bouncer or manager or bartender, and when I visited him in Atlanta for his wedding (he married a former dancer, of course, as did I five years later), he and his friends went out on a bachelor's night with me in tow. And to strip clubs we did go.
The cocaine and alcohol in the limo didn't disturb me, though my inability to help pay for it did. I had just finished my Ph.D. and was completely broke. There was another doctor in the party, an M.D. who did research on dog hearts and who had a taste for strippers and late night clubbing. The rest of the guys had worked with my brother in one capacity or another and did their best to make me feel part of the gang. They asked me why I'd never been to a strip club before, and so as not to sound self-righteous or puritan-feminist I told them I was afraid of running into one of my students.
"But they wouldn't care. You'd probably get a dance for free." Of course this isn't true; Evie has told me of the awkward moments when she ran into her professors at the Yellow Rose in Austin. "You're just afraid, buddy." It was completely true that I was afraid of the overt sexuality and a code of behavior I knew nothing of. How would I act in the dark, loud club? Once inside the heavy door and past the giant bouncer, who let us in for no cover, there were naked women everywhere, mostly dancing on the bar. In Atlanta at that time, the girls could get completely nude, but they had to keep a certain distance (very different from Austin, where Evie wore a t-back but got up close to the clients, outwitting illegal hands). Dropped into a conversation of body language and stylized gaze, feigned attraction and real loneliness, I yearned for a decoder ring to scan the room. I remember one man with dark circles under his eyes was staring up into the crotch of a dancer with a kind of mad intensity, as if he had lost his soul to that compulsive gape. There was nothing else in the universe for him but her labia, not even her. I don't know if he ever looked away; he may still be there now. I guess that's the frightening thing: losing your way in desire's artificial labyrinth.
Horny Judah had no such problem with disorientation. The grammar of his desire was very simple, clear, and brief: as soon as he runs into a prostitute on the way to Timnah, he tells her "Let me come into you." No code problem here. But what he doesn't know is that this is Tamar in disguise. Suspicious of his procrastination at sending Shelah, and informed by her girlfriends of his whereabouts, she has taken off her widow's clothes and put on a veil and wrapped herself up and sat by the road to spy on Judah, knowing he must be famished for sex at this point. If she cannot get what is owed her from the son, she will get it from the father, the fountainhead of the family seed. And he is more than willing to share the family seed with a prostitute, though he must now pay for the pleasure.
"What will you give me for coming into me?" she asks. Of course, she will gain much more than any petty payment he offers, and she'd be glad to fuck him for free, but she must play the part.
"I myself will send a kid from the flock." Prostitution by the barter system is a bit more complicated than paying by cash. Since he doesn't happen to be carrying a baby goat with him, he must give up a symbolic pledge to ensure he won't cheat her after his hormones are calmed. She asks for his seal-and-cord and his staff, emblems of his identity and social status, and he is only too quick to give these away—a bit like his uncle Esau—and get her into bed. Just as he does not see her face, so he does not see that by giving her his seed he is also giving her his identity and status via the children she will conceive.
I like to imagine this particular Biblical fuck as short but raucous, both parties almost tearing at the other with desire and the thrill of transgression. Surely Tamar was herself rather frustrated and in need of service, and I cannot but believe she enjoyed herself immensely as they pounded away, giving her the seed she wanted. Surely no woman has ever enjoyed watching a male orgasm as much as Tamar: it was her complete triumph over Judah, and I want to believe she matched his coming with her own, loud and ruthless in its overpowering relief. Surely few prostitutes have been able to throw themselves so enthusiastically into their work. I imagine her walking home, almost doubled over with laughter the whole way, people turning to watch the woman in the widow's clothes struggling to contain her joy so she does not dance and lose the seed she has obtained. Perhaps she loops the seal-and-cord around her long finger and twirls it above her head, or places it in a little sack under her cloak near her womb. And the staff is useful for poking through Judah's dream following her down the road, the clown of the children of Israel.
I think Tamar liked being a sex worker more than she liked being a widow. Who wouldn't? It certainly did more for her than widowhood. Now you could argue that Tamar was not really a whore, or that she was only pretending so she could get the seed of her husband's family. It is true, just because you dress like a whore doesn't make you a whore, but if you dress like a whore, hang out at the street corner, haggle over payment with a potential client, take the payment settled upon and then fuck him, you're a whore. We assume that, as they say, she'd "never done this before," but she also seems to know how to handle the code of exchange pretty well—not that it's complicated in the ancient world. And there's no indication that she was tortured by the role at all. It's as simple as a change of clothes for her, just another mask to substitute for that of widow or wife or mother. She slips from one to the other with ease, as if there were no moral or hierarchical distinction between them. They're just different attitudes, different uses of the body for different circumstances. Lust and grief are merely moments in the body's flow, not categories we can abstract and oppose outside experience.
After his lust has been relieved and he has gone on to Timnah, Judah does send the goat to the prostitute, but not personally as he had promised. As is often the case with men of power and influence, he feels he must protect himself from embarrassment so he can maintain a moral superiority over his entourage. He sends his confidante, Hirah the Adulamite, to take the payment and get the seal-and-cord and staff back from her. But when Hirah comes to her corner of course she isn't there, so he fruitlessly asks around for the whore who hangs out by the road. Interestingly, he uses the Hebrew word qedeshah to describe her, which means something higher class than the average streetwalker, something like a sacred prostitute, as if Judah had taken part in a fertility ritual, the sort of thing the later prophets railed against. Hirah is no doubt simply trying to cover for his pal, but he is accidentally quite right: this nasty little encounter between two intimate strangers is holy and spiritually important beyond anything either of the participants can possibly understand. Out of brutal lust, manipulation, family strife, hypocrisy, disguise, and just plain evil comes genius, poetry, worship, and the blood-soaked accomplishment of the will of God. The transgression is the sacrament, as Yahweh is most visible when least obviously present, His entire universe laughing along with Him at the goofy mortals. Perhaps things are never as out of control as they seem. Or perhaps Chaos is Divinity, working His scatterbrained will through the irrational actions of passionate and unreflective fools. Perhaps hypocrisy and paradox are the only sincerity we can know.
In order to complete his own little hypocrisy, three months later Judah sentences the obviously pregnant Tamar to immediate death by burning. He must be so happy; now he can dispose of the killer woman and all the embarrassment, and also save his son Shelah, closing a rather awkward chapter in his family history. How convenient she fucked someone; perhaps Judah had been hoping for this all along, since he knows all too well the power of desire. She lusted for someone to come into her, and now unlawfully pregnant, his problem is solved. He retains his status and upholds the family virtues, important for the future of the children of Israel, while at the same time satisfying his lust and hate toward the same woman's body. He has fucked her, now he'll burn her.
In this ancient version of a DNA test, she produces the seal-and-cord and staff and so reveals Judah's paternity. To his credit, he admits "she is more in the right" and lets her go and, we are told, has sex with her no more. But this is hardly a renunciation. A man of Judah's time and personality would never want to have sex with a woman who has so thoroughly defeated him at his own game. He thought he could push the law to the edge and hang on just long enough, but she managed to push it just a little bit further and hang on just a little bit tighter. As in the modern road game Chicken, these two stretched their nerves to the furthest ecstasy until Judah doubted and caved. But the struggle passes to the next generation: Tamar has not one baby but two twin boys who fight for primogeniture: Perez, who slipped out past his brother, and Zerah, who lost the womb-contained wrestling match. This is the archetypal narrative shape of Genesis, two brothers battling for dominance in a game where cheaters tend to win (and isn't that every game, since every game, even Yahweh's, is flawed?).
From Perez's seed will grow the kings of Judea and all the glories and transgressions of their frightening history. And from Tamar, after she names her boys, we hear nothing else. In the next chapter the narrative turns back to Joseph and his adventures in Egypt where all his brothers will eventually be drawn, and where Judah must again, this time in a long, stunning speech, humble himself and admit wrongdoing. He is the great apologizer of Genesis, the monster who consorts with whores and yet who learns the technology of repentance and so saves his soul. Perhaps his own lust is his teacher, as it confronts him with the limitations of power and will, the inevitability of seduction and the play of greater intelligence. That Tamar triumphs over him is the triumph of his own seed and the tribe that grows out of it, the triumph of prostitution and family values.
The only true whores I have ever consorted with were not streetwalkers but high-priced call girls in San Francisco. They were writer friends of Evie's (yes, some prostitutes are also accomplished writers), and we were having dinner in an upscale North Beach diner. They flirted with each other and the waitress in between laughing and wolfing down the food with a Chaucerian gusto. They were quite attractive, from the elfish little dyke who always wore a large dildo, to the well-published feminist sporting circa 1958 eyeglasses, to the Berkeley Ph.D. with her feline smile and languor. Sex was simply another language for them, as pleasant and funny as food or music. Very strong personalities, impossible to upstage in the dinner conversation, though I made a few tries to slip a lame remark between their bon mots. They only accepted me because they accepted Evie as one of their own, and they are exactly what I imagine Tamar to have been. I see her laughing with her girlfriends, spread out on a beautiful rug as a plate of food passes around and they dip their bread in dark sauce. They are laughing about how beautiful they are, how their children will be as strong and daring, and brilliant as their mothers, and how foolish men are, every single one. When it is very dark and the stars, numberless as grains of Canaanite sand, smear the sky like semen, perhaps they will stroll into the metro-labyrinth and find a corner where a veiled girl wrapped in red walks her track, the shape of her journey describing a new, unpredictable history.
About the author:
Martin Scott is on the English faculty at Eastern Illinois University, and has earned creative writing degrees from the University of Iowa (MFA) and the University of Houston (PhD). He has published poems in such journals as Elixir, Southern Poetry Review, Rockhurst Review, American Literary Review, Drunken Boat, Willow Spring, Rhino, Gulf Coast, and Tampa Review, as well as essays in Fourth Genre, Profession 2001 (MLA), Puerto del Sol, Cimarron Review, Spectacle, RiverSedge, Blue Mesa Review, Poets and Writers Online, King's English, Under the Sun, Many Mountains Moving, and 4X4: The Newport Review. He won the 2000 Larry Levis Editors' Award for Poetry at the Missouri Review, and a $3,000 fellowship in creative nonfiction from the Writers' League of Texas in 2001. His book of essays, On Stealing Books: Personal Essays, won the first book award and will be coming out this fall from Water Press and Media Books. He's also assistant editor at Karamu at EIU. He can be reached at .
For further reading:
Browse the contents of 42opus Vol. 4, No. 2, where ""And He Took Her for a Whore": On Prostitution, Sudden Death, and Coitus Noninterruptus" ran on June 2, 2004. List other work with these same labels: nonfiction, essay.