A Good, Old-Fashioned, Sawdust-on-the-Floor Whorehouse

Possibly one of the best in a film peppered with memorable one-liners, this particular description of a brothel was spoken by Jane Greathouse (played by the lovely and talented Jenny Wright), in 1990’s Young Guns II. Besides the fact that it was delivered tongue-in-cheek and with a great deal of admirable sass, it rings especially poignant later in the movie, when Jane is issuing a well-deserved rant about the hypocritical nature of White Oaks, the town now casting her (and her “working girls”) out. “And the preacher at the back door by morning!” she cries, ripping pins from her topknot, just minutes before exiting her business establishment for the last time – naked except for her black hat, gloves, and boots.

The first time I saw the movie, the whole mention of sawdust left me perplexed. In case you wondered, the sawdust made the nightly cleaning of the floor that much easier, proved useful if any blood was spilled over the course of an evening’s revelry, smelled pleasant, and was therefore commonly used in saloons, brothels, butcher shops, and other stores of the era. Further, the sawdust was simple to come by and often free. And the thought of nineteenth-century prostitutes walking through it, the swishing sibilance of their layered skirts and muted clicking of their heeled boots, storms the storytelling center of my brain with about a dozen different potential plots. Despite the tendency of so many to hate and vilify women who peddled their bodies for room and board (i.e. their very survival), I think they were totally heroic.

I do my best to give them voice in my writing – and I spend plenty of time imagining what treasure-trove of stories they might tell me if I could leap back to, say, 1870 to interview them. If only. What soul-wrenching, fascinating, or even matter-of-fact anecdotes would they be willing to share? For example – how often did one of them become pregnant? Was the competition for high-paying customers fierce and/or violent? How old were they when first employed? What dire (or perhaps just necessary) circumstances led to this career choice in the first place? Did they completely disrobe for each customer, or just slide up their skirts? How many of them were addicted to opiates? Maybe most concerning – how often did they escape the lifestyle alive?

Can you truly imagine the necessity of spreading one’s legs for dozens of customers a night, sex as nothing but a business transaction (at least, on the woman’s part), without even a pretense of affection? What must have been the physical state of these girls, not to mention their mental/emotional? They weren’t robots, or heartless, or even probably particularly ignorant. They likely knew a hell of a lot more about the world than most of the people who would cross the street to avoid walking too close to them. (Keep in mind that very few people regarded the hordes of male customers as equally sinful, dirty, or worthy of disgrace). The women were always to blame – and to “deserve” retribution, mud-slinging, or abject marginalization. I would argue that the same double standard applies even to this day, one of the nastier in existence. Why are women the sluts?

A male counterpart of the word is hard to find; there doesn’t seem to be one that packs the same punch as “slut,” a compact word with an avalanche’s worth of destructive power behind it. In studying its etymology for Heart of a Dove (which was a truly fascinating and eye-opening process), I learned that the connotation of the word has nearly always been negative (unlike “wench,” for example, which was once a softer, more affectionate term); apparently men are allowed and even encouraged to have “healthy” sexual appetites, but if a woman likes, loves, enjoys, or otherwise seeks out sexual encounters, she is worthy of a negative term applied to her person, often irrevocably. The word “slut” possessing that sort of glue-like, adhesive quality.

Jane’s comment about the preacher at the back door is then reflective of what lies beneath, so to speak; the hypocrisy that flows like a river under a certain amount of those who claim to be so darn morally upright. Of course, this is a generalization of which the film was taking advantage, but there is truth to it – let’s imagine the “preacher” in the story as just any old Everyman seeking sex. Of course, this act in and of itself was common, if not to say completely natural – and this Everyman wouldn’t have been looked down upon, let alone run out of town by the tar-and-feathers committee for utilizing the services of a prostitute. But when the armed-with-torches crowd arrived, they were after the women, not the men. Women as Eternal Temptresses, and all of that. Why can’t we call it like it is – Men of Eternal Weak Willpower. Or how about – The Completely Understandable and Totally Natural Result of the Promise of Sex? Come on. Prostitutes (then and now) could not have existed/supplied the goods without the demand of male customers. And the fact that the women were/are the ones most often shamed is itself shameful. That’s part of why I admire Jane’s aplomb in Young Guns II. “Kiss my ass,” she says, in the figurative sense – but likely a large number of townsmen now burning her brothel (and refusing to raise their voices in defense of her) had done just that, literally, before running her out of their morally-upright little town.

Some of the best characters in both film and novel (and let’s face it, definitely the most interesting) are women who worked as prostitutes. Some of my personal favorites in novel format include Miss Lorena (from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry) and Jewel Mack (from Paint the Wind by Cathy Cash Spellman), and I’ll never forget Alabama Worley, the tough-cookie call girl from True Romance (played by Patricia Arquette), or Elisabeth Shue as Sera in Leaving Las Vegas. Amazing performances.

My bottom line point here is this – things are not always as they seem. So don’t be so quick to judge. And maybe think twice about using the word “slut.” And, like me, watch Young Guns II this weekend, for the first time in years. 😉

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