Paging Through History's Streetwalkers and Pimps
Tyler Stoddard Smith's new book on the world's oldest profession
Tyler Stoddard Smith's familiarity and comfort around the skin trade goes way back to the days when, as a small child, his parents used to drive him up and down Houston's Main Street to look at the prostitutes while listening to an eight-track cassette of Anne Murray's Greatest Hits. "According to them, driving around looking at hookers was the only way to cure my insomnia," he says.
Cut to now and the new release of Smith's Whore Stories: A Revealing History of the World's Oldest Profession (Adams Media), which aims to crack up its audience while educating them on historical harlots such as Mary Magdalene and Depression-era pimp scenes like those of the Fayette county Chicken Ranch, which inspired a hit song by ZZ Top as well as a Broadway musical.
During his research (which provided such fun facts as the Kitty Kelley-uncovered info that Nancy Reagan gave the best head in Hollywood) the author came across many things he didn't know, like the term "autopederasty," which is a technical term for defiling oneself, and the news that what was thought for decades to be Rasputin's severed penis was actually just a cucumber.
Sex oddities aside, the revelation that really stunned Smith was that James Lipton, the octogenarian host of Inside the Actors Studio, used to arrange voyeur sessions for tourists in France. "When I learned he was once a pimp in Paris, I was truly surprised. What a tedious exchange of money, sex and, presumably, haughty discourse on 'technique.'"
Whore Stories certainly encompasses every facet of humanity, from political figures like Eva Perón to prizewinning poets like Maya Angelou. And, in the course of his writing, Smith says he came to identify with just about all of them. "If you insinuate yourself into anybody's life for long enough, you find that they're just as noble, just as depraved, and just as human as anyone else – except they're in the nude, which automatically raises the humor quotient, for me."
While brushing up on his brothels in coffee shops where he was often asked what he was working on, Smith, who has written satire for McSweeney's, learned that the people he met had a discernible reaction to the word "whore." "Some people laugh nervously. Others laugh lasciviously."
But both shades of laughter aside, prostitution is a serious topic, and Smith was at times petrified that his jokey tone might be too light for the heaviness of his subject. "I hope people can find the humor in things, but I certainly recognize that I'm skating on thin ice," says Smith, who notes that even though some of the world's most vaunted performers, politicians, artists, and aristocracy have been prostitutes, the business of prostitution continues to carry such a stigma. "My hope is that Whore Stories will be light-hearted, but never condescending."
Considering his early and innocent exposure to the sale of sex, it is perhaps no surprise that the author of Whore Stories feels everyone needs to catch up to where he's at and have a more sympathetic and understanding attitude towards sex workers. "Many countries are far more enlightened in their policies toward prostitution than the U.S," says Smith, who believes in insurance, free testing, and decriminalization for prostitutes. "Legalization and effective regulation can eliminate many of the problems associated with prostitution, including violence, degradation, STDs, and drug use," attests the man who has spent a lifetime thinking about the sex trade. "My book is not about the legal side of things, but that's how I feel about it on a personal level."
Tyler Stoddard Smith will read and sign copies of Whore Stories on Wednesday, July 18, 7pm, at BookPeople, 603 N. Lamar.