is an online magazine of the literary arts.

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 co