In a world where happy stories become sad stories and sad ones are transformed into happy ones, where “once upon a time” begins a tale of a police decoy on a drug bust, inversions of what is considered normal come to be expected. This world is San Francisco’s Tenderloin District in the 1980s as depicted by William T. Vollmann in his novel Whores for Gloria. The novel was partly based on a series of interviews Vollmann conducted with the local prostitutes, and it deals with the gritty and dangerous world of sex workers of this time and place. Their world is in stark contrast to the world outside of it, and because of this contrast there is a reversal of what is “normal” – that is, what the rest of society considers normal to desire or partake in – and what is taboo.
Taboos are generally considered to be things that are wrong or immoral to desire, with examples being sadomasochism, bestiality and incest. They are forbidden in polite society. However, Vollmann has a different explanation of “taboo” in his novel; he writes, “it was taboo to change a wig in public… for the same reason that women don’t show their cunts to everybody (95).” According to him, taboo is not something that is wrong so much as something that is obscured by mystery, something unattainable. By this definition, taboos must be different in the realm of sex workers, because they are unlike those aforementioned women in that they are available to everybody, at least anyone willing to pay. Prostitution is itself a kind of taboo, even criminalized in the United States where the novel takes place. For the sex workers who live it every day of their lives, however, the taboo does not exist. The reality and the frequency of something diminishes the taboo; it becomes normalized. People can desire taboo sexual acts precisely because of their unavailability in normal society. Prostitutes like Peggy often make money off of married men whose wives will not do the things they secretly desire; she feels that in satisfying their urges she has brought marriages together (85). The character of Candy discovers the relationship between desire and inaccessibility during a session with a customer who requests to be whipped until he bleeds. Candy does so, but afterwards when she tells him she has to leave, he pays her more money to continue. It occurs to her that to be desired and earn money, she only needs to “become unavailable and therefore perfect (135).” People can only feel desire for what is unavailable to them; it is impossible to long for something one already holds in one’s hand. This is how the sex workers in Whores for Gloria earn their livelihood; they make a living off of desire and taboos.
Instead of finding their taboos being condemned in the Tenderloin, as on the outside, the prostitutes there take great pride in these habits. They know that something is “all the more exciting” when it is considered “kind of wrong (29).” In Chapter 8, Vollmann writes of one prostitute, who could almost instantly arouse men, that when men had intercourse with her “she lay perfectly still and her thoughts were somewhere else… (45).” This prostitute is more than anything else proud of her sexual prowess and her ability to please a variety of men, which likely means that she is willing to engage in a variety of acts to do so, including those that may be considered unusual, bizarre, or immoral, acts that men go specifically to prostitutes for. It is easier to find someone willing to do something if they do not feel shame in it; sex workers feel not shame but rather pride, because it is what they are good at, and also because of the second of the things the above prostitute is proud of. Sex workers are able to distance themselves from what is occurring and become numb to any moral implications of it, simply because they are so used to it in their job. The pride of the prostitute Dinah is palpable in Chapter 10, where she giggles as she brags about “the plenty of slaves” she’s had. The lighthearted way she describes the man who liked to be beaten and tortured, or the man who “liked for [her] to kick him in his balls as hard as [she could] with [her] boots on” demonstrates that she does not feel ashamed about these taboo acts (54-57). In the rest of society, it is rare to be able to take pride in taboo and/or criminal sexual acts; only sex workers can brag about that kind of thing, because it is their line of work. Vollmann describes the hands of sex workers as having “worked hard at giving love to strangers… it is love because work is love no matter what or how (66).” In society, it might be said that love is a virtue, while sex is a taboo. In the world of sex workers, however, the two are combined. S&M becomes a kind of therapy.
In Whores for Gloria, the shame of taboo is traded not only for pride, but for purity. The Tenderloin seems an unlikely place for worship, and a prostitute an unlikely deity, but the main character Jimmy proves it is possible. He has formed in his head a kind of goddess, appropriately named Gloria, who is an amalgam of all the prostitutes he has encountered. He frequently speaks to this imaginary woman as if in prayer and worries about “taking her name in vain (18).” Gloria, though a prostitute, is seen as holy and good. Jimmy believes that “only the pretty shapes of women have integrity (9).” He attempts to construct a new vision of a sex worker, and discover the purity within them. Whores for Jimmy are a kind of purity rather than a kind of sin – when he sees a pair of dirty panties lying on the streets, he rejects them, thinking he has to “buy them from a whore to make them pure (81).” Through Jimmy’s character, Vollmann is able to illustrate clearly the inversion of right and wrong, of virtue and taboo in his portrayal of sex workers in the Tenderloin.
Through Jimmy’s character, Vollmann is able to further develop this theme of inversion with the things Jimmy sexualizes. Throughout the novel, Jimmy pays prostitutes to tell him stories. He desires these stories like others desire blow jobs or whips. When he first asks for this, from a prostitute named Melissa, he feels a sexual excitement for it, a “thrill,” because “she was going to do just what he wanted (24).” Where he describes sex acts with women in a less-than-erotic way, such as “their *ssholes which bulged like the ends of sausage casings (18),” he eroticizes Melissa’s memories: Jimmy was smiling; he was leaning back against a column of washing machines, fingering Melissa’s memories as though they were breasts, the softness and succulence of them; he could twist them into different shapes as he sucked on them; he kissed their round pink areolae of sadness andtried not to mind them; he squeezed them and their nipples budded. (27-28). This fetishization of innocent childhood memories makes them seem so much naughtier than some of the truly taboo acts mentioned in the novel.
Jimmy’s lust for memories and happy stories makes the women of the Tenderloin view him as a pervert; this despite all of the bizarre (and often cruel) men they encounter in their line of work. Though they act eager to do these kinds of sessions with him, they are in reality skeptical of his motives. As she tells him stories, Dinah thinks to herself, “God look at that disgusting old pervert (56)” and Phyllis goes home afterwards to describe him as “a pervert . . . Later on he made us tell him sh*t. You know. Whatever it takes (67).” These are some of the few glimpses into the prostitutes’ perspectives that Vollmann includes in his novel, which makes it seem as though to them this is the most taboo thing that they have encountered. Phyllis herself engaged in incest as a child with her cousin, which would be considered taboo by most other people, but she does not condemn this and instead calls it “wonderful (52).” It seems unreasonable to find incest acceptable while condemning a veteran for desiring happy stories. However, if one considers the prostitute’s point of view, where she is used to satisfying the profligate urges of customers, of course she would expect disturbing things from a man who says he wants to hear stories about when she was a little girl.
Prostitutes who work in a society where their job is conducted in a criminal environment are not used to the way desire works in “normal” relationships. Vollmann illustrates this in his novel, but also shows that it is found outside of fiction in a section at the end of it containing parts of interviews he conducted with prostitutes in the Tenderloin during his research for the book. One prostitute told him how a man wanted to have a romantic session with her in a hot tub. “That’s not what we’re about here,” she said. “We don’t make love to our dates.” She was so disturbed by the proposal that she told the customer she could not accommodate him (145). It is interesting to imagine the abundance of other things, “naughtier” things, she might have consented to, while she rejected a simple request to make love. This shows the reversed role of taboos in sex work not only in Whores for Gloria, but in reality as well. For sex workers, especially those who work where it is illegal, their world is an upside-down one in which love and romance are to be avoided in favor of the normally inaccessible yet highly desirable acts that society considers to be taboo; they have built up expectations in direct contrast to the expectations society teaches women to have.
Vollmann, William T. Whores for Gloria. New York: Penguin, 1991. Print.