How to Pick a Lover

The women who take husbands not out of love but out of greed, to get their bills paid, to get a fine house and clothes and jewels; the women who marry to get out of a tiresome job, or to get away from disagreeable relatives, or to avoid being called an old maid—these are whores in everything but name.
—Polly Adler, A House Is Not a Home

George Bernard Shaw, who was a master of one-liners, had a widely quoted conversation with a woman of note in which he asked if she would sleep with him for one million pounds. She said, “Of course.” “Well,” he said, “would you sleep with me for two pounds?” “Certainly not,” she said. “What kind of woman do you think I am?” “Madam,” said Shaw, “we have already established what kind of woman you are. We are merely haggling about the price.”

Cover of "Working Girls (Widescreen)"

If we define prostitution in terms of its minimum components, involving merely the performance of sexual acts motivated not by sexual desire but in exchange for some form of gain, then we cast a wide net. The impulse to go to bed, or to be taken to bed, is then based not on anticipation of joyous passion but on some other motive. The incentive may be as blatant as cold cash or as subtle as an improved chance for promotion, but it’s for something other than the sexual experience for its own sake.

One of the reasons it’s difficult to discuss prostitution objectively is that so many of the terms used to describe it are pejorative. Old-fashioned  terms like “tart” or “fallen women” or “harlot” sound strange in modern usage. The term “whore” is straightforward but very negative in tone. The terms “hooker” and “call girl” are less negative, but they refer to very specific kinds of activities.

The most neutral term is one now often used by prostitutes themselves, who refer to each other as “working girls” or “commercial sex workers.” By describing themselves as working girls, they convey the neutral attitude that prostitution is an industry like any other industry and that they are merely workers doing a different kind of work.

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