…and Rock and Roll
My posting yesterday inspired me to drink a cup of ayahuasca, which in turn inspired me to think more about what I wrote about sex work yesterday . I also listened to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” and it occurred to me that I would willingly pay a lot of money—at least a month’s rent—to a woman who could perform a sensual dance for me that embodied the sensations I felt while listening to this song. I also realized that not just any talented woman would do. It would have to be a woman who was black and buxom.
This fantasy can be unpacked in many ways–and I cycled through a lot of them: misogyny and the objectification of women; unexplored racism; power relations; infantile fantasies of my grandmother; my anima; or as a manifestation of the great earth mother. My conclusions were tentative, but one fact remained: This fantasy is still lodged in my soul.
The fantasy also seemed like the perfect bargain of late capitalism (i.e. the capitalism that has moved beyond production and fulfilling needs and now concentrates on services that create and fulfill desires). I would get my deepest fantasies satisfied in return for a substantial monetary remuneration for the skilled service. The promise of capitalism fulfilled! Deals like this are already quite common, except that the service providers are usually called therapists. And if we prorate for time and expense, I doubt that therapists are any more successful at generating satisfaction than sex workers.
Of course, this wonderful capitalist bargain it is not really so simple. The first problem is that if all desires were so easily fulfilled, capitalism would quickly lose steam. Consumers have to be left somewhat unsatisfied, willing to come back for more, always in the belief that next time will hit the spot with fulfillment achieved. But my fantasy is predicated on a one-time payment. I could not afford such payments regularly (like the therapists demand). There is a chance that, if conditions are just right, the one encounter would hit the spot perfectly and some kind of catharsis would be attained (I am not just speculating idly). But structurally speaking, the chances are small. It is likely that further desire would be generated.
The problem is not only that the mechanisms of capitalism are designed more for the further extraction of profit rather than the satisfaction of fantasies, for the creation of desire more than its fulfillment. There is also the danger that the consumer will forget that this is essentially a ritualized and professional encounter. For it to work, it has to operate on a symbolic level as much as a physical one. But all too often, the customer will mistake the fantasies he projects on the woman for the woman herself (since this is my fantasy I am generalizing the sex worker as a woman, although this need not be the case). Indeed, a successful sex worker has to be skilled at attracting and reflecting such projections. This is when the encounter becomes a problem, when the customer confuses his fantasy for reality, is in a constant state of increased desire, and in worst-case scenarios starts to pay far more than he can afford in a desperate attempt to realize his fantasy. The ideal capitalist bargain begins to look more and more like late capitalist exploitation (These ideas are also inspired by a posting in Tits and Sass).
But exploitation of who by whom? I don’t think it is clear. At one extreme we could say that, like any good entrepreneur, the sex worker is just trying to maximize her profit. She needs to recognize an opportunity when it comes and milk it for what it is worth. On the other end, we could also argue that the exploitation is the other way around, that any relation in which a man pays money for sex is characterized by masculine aggression and domination that degrades and objectifies the woman. I don’t think either of these arguments entirely hits the mark. Because, ultimately, when the fantasies are at play it is about so much more than exploitation and money. Even when the sex workers claim they are only in it for the money, and the customers are sexist, domineering jerks—these are attitudes that are easy to adopt because they are accepted and even expected as sufficient justification in the context of capitalist norms. They may well be true, but they only scratch the surface of an encounter that is much more complex, shot through with dreams and fantasies we rarely talk about openly.
At the same time, those dreams do not represent some irreducible non-capitalist core. Tantric goddesses and sex surrogates play up the mythic and therapeutic aspects of their work, but still make good money and market themselves wisely. My fantasy of a buxom black woman whose “honey drips” and will grind, rob me blind and then transform into a woman that will “hold my hand, tell me no lies and make me a happy man,” may be a reenactment of distant goddess mother archetypes and myths (or it may be sexist, racist tripe). But that reenactment can not be separated from the sights, sounds, social structures and churning desire machines of modern capitalism and Led Zeppelin.