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Editorials

Wrong Reasons to do SM
by Midori

Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure
by Jeannette L. Angell


Book Review by Rob Hardy



The "whore with a heart of gold" is a literary staple; such beings may be rare in real life, but undoubtedly much more rare is the callgirl with a Ph.D. and college teaching assignments. A woman with that combination would be worth reading about, and in Callgirl (The Permanent Press) Jeannette Angell introduces us to one: herself. Her book is a chatty, extremely readable account of her three years in prostitution. She is careful to make sure that readers know that this is a memoir, and her story, and not generalizable to the story or the plight of anyone else. Angell made an informed choice to enter the profession, and an informed choice to leave it, and had the luxury of choice in both situations, as many women do not have. She has plenty of stories to tell, and is unsparingly critical of herself at times, so her book is funny, raunchy, and sad page by page, but engrossing throughout.

Angell finished her Ph.D. in social anthropology in 1995, and while waiting for a position of tenure, she took a series of positions as lecturer. She was just barely getting by, and then suffered an emotional and financial disaster: her boyfriend not only dumped her but emptied her checking account before doing so. She needed money just to get by from month to month, more than her limited lecturing could get her. She did consider such options as childcare or drawing coffee at Starbucks, but the first real job she checked out from the classifieds was doing sexual telephone calls for a 900 number. Here's the way that works: she was supposed, for eight bucks an hour, to sit in a cubicle and talk about imaginary sex to two clients at a time, on different phone lines. And then she thought that instead of chatting about imaginary sex, she could answer another classified ad and be doing the real thing, once a night, for quite a bit more than eight bucks an hour. She started to consider signing on with an escort agency, and happened to call a good one, run by a woman she calls Peach, who didn't have the clientele of rock stars and visiting CEOs, but the level just below them. Angell liked sex, she liked being around people, and she really needed the money. Any ethical dilemmas over the job lessened when she thought that in her sphere, having casual sex with a man from a singles bar was acceptable but sex as a business proposition wasn't. Which is really less ethical?

There are plenty of times that Angell forces the reader to examine such ethical problems. In addressing them, she might be accused of self-justification, but it seems that the ideas of right and wrong were on her mind and others she worked with: "Callgirls talk more with each other about morality than does any other professional group I can think of," more even than priests and rabbis, who put their religious spins on the subject. The girls talked about ethics more than they talked even about money. The themes tended to be worry about a client's wife, lying to one's boyfriend, what to say during confession before mass, or how proper it was to learn a client's vulnerable spots to use them for one's own purpose. They may not have resolved the issues, but they thought a lot about them. "And that's one of the reasons I still see red when I hear someone making fun of a prostitute for having no standards. If anything, we set the bar a trifle higher than most of you do."

Angell's book, of course, is not filled with angst over such questions. It is quite clear she answered them for herself satisfactorily, and it is clear that she enjoyed her work. It was, however, the enjoyment of providing a service that was appreciated and remunerative. It was not, she makes clear, sexual enjoyment. She might, as she was teaching class the next day (sometimes in her well-regarded course "The History and Sociology of Prostitution"), have memories of what she had done the night before, but the memories were not sexual ones. "I honestly was never sexually aroused by anything I did through the agency. It was just a job." It was a job that paid $140 an hour (with $60 going to Peach), and more for a night or a weekend engagement. She was good at it. She was not sure initially what to expect: whips and chains? Nun's habits? "What I got instead was the sort of unmemorable sex that invariably characterizes first encounters. A little clumsy, a little awkward, and the thought occurring midway through that perhaps you don't really like this person all that much after all." As she reflects, "It happens in real life all the time."

The schools she worked for in her daytime job didn't know about her moonlighting, and would have fired her if they had. This was a source of some worry. Few of her friends knew, and there was a disastrous encounter with one male friend who, once he learned, wanted sex from her just because that was what she was doing for others for pay. She writes that people seemed to believe that "Just because I do it professionally, I love to do it and want it all the time." A recurrent refrain: It's just a job. "Most of us can't wait until it's over, and don't think about the next time until we absolutely have to." The reason people think prostitutes are such sexual beings and love getting off on getting guys off is that they are simply good actresses. "I liked what I did, but I never mistook it for reality." It pays to be a good actress; Angell describes what she might say, for instance, to a client with whom she would not have minded spending a second hour: "But we were just getting started! There are so many more things I want to do to you... you excite me so much..." If she liked the client (again, on a professional level), she knew what to say to make him seek her as a regular. Over and over again, no matter how blatant the pitch, the men bought it.

It isn't all fun, of course. There is a scary encounter with a cop. Angell recounts the folklore that if you ask an undercover cop if he's a cop, he has to tell you, and surprisingly, this seemed to turn out true in the episode she describes. When he pressures her to answer the initial question of specifying what he was going to get for his money, she breaks out of character and says, "Sir, are you a police officer?" He doesn't answer directly, but his actions show that he is, enabling Angell to act a different role, protesting that she was a mere escort that the dating service said he needed to show her around Boston, and "I never go to bed with someone on the first date. Since that's the only thing you're interested in, I guess this won't work out." Most of the guys just wanted sex, but some had special wants. "Most of the fetishes and unusual activities that I encountered were fairly benign, essentially harmless." A couple of them described here are chilling, though; an argument could be made that prostitutes are providing a larger social function in keeping such activities within the pay-for-play realm. Then there was the weekend she signed on to accompany a guy to the casino; he wanted increasingly violent sex, but that wasn't the biggest problem: he was a boor who sent food back to the kitchen repeatedly, made racist remarks about people at the casino, and embarrassed her in front of the casino staff. It all sounds quite degrading.

She left the business for reasons she can't be sure of, but it had given her financial security, and a chance to have her desirability confirmed "just at the point in my life when Madison Avenue was telling me that I was over the hill." She admits that she was lucky; Peach cared about her workers. Even when Angell dipped into cocaine, she was lucky enough not to have whatever it is that makes people addicted. She writes full time now and has a husband and children. Her husband had some difficulty initially accepting her past, but she once asked him how he would feel if his friends ever found out about it. "You know those commercials where they say 'trained professional, do not attempt this at home'?... I'll just tell them, well, we attempt this at home!" Angell has written to dispel misconceptions regarding prostitution, but she knows that her satisfactory and relatively benign experiences are hers, and she is a case study of one, not a cross section. She admonishes the reader that most women in the business are not doctors who need to pay off loans, that there are women (and children) forced into the sort of work she was able to choose. She winds up with a small polemic to say that legalization and regulation are the only way to keep women from being used abusively in the trade. It is a convincing end to a unique memoir, written in a conversational and engaging tone, which will provide the curious reader with lots of answers about a hidden world.

________
© 2005 Rob Hardy. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

 

Callgirl: Confessions of an Ivy League Lady of Pleasure
(Perennial May 1, 2005; ISBN: 0060736054)
 Available at:  Amazon.com / Amazon UK / Amazon CA

 



About the Reviewer
Rob Hardy is a psychiatrist who lives in Columbus, Mississippi, with his wife, two terriers, five cats, and goldfish.

He reviews nonfiction for The Times of Acadiana, but has been reviewing books as a hobby for years before that.
Email: Rob Hardy



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