"Assuming the Position" by Rick Whitaker

A onetime hustler takes a long, hard look at the Life.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If you visit the Web site of a gay Washington hustler whose nom de shtup is Fratboy, you can, after checking out near-naked but tasteful pictures of the product, click on a self-interview in which the young entrepreneur explains why he puts out for pay: "College is extremely expensive, not to mention living off campus in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Given the choice of working a service job for $8-$10 an hour versus $150 an hour, it's a very clear choice for me."

Fortunately, that blandly pragmatic approach is not the one Rick Whitaker takes in "Assuming the Position," a touching, brainy and disarmingly frank account of his years as an "escort" in New York City. As he tells it, the precipitating event for his stint on the wild side was being left by a boyfriend, Tom, who had once done some hustling himself. Whitaker's notion was to shock and hurt his ex while at the same time distracting himself from his pain by taking a role in what he calls "a cultural tragedy." What's more (witness Fratboy), there was good money to be made for relatively little work. "Hustling was appealing because it was lucrative," Whitaker writes, "it was against the law, and it was congruent with what was by then my fairly serious drug habit" -- which ran to pot, cocaine and occasional snorts of heroin.

Whitaker hooked up with an agency, carried a beeper, took virtually any business that fell his way and, after his work was done, often went to a bar seeking a freely chosen sexual chaser. During his downtime, he read Nietzsche and Wittgenstein and performed classical music -- one entry in the diary he periodically excerpts from begins, "Great dinner with D. last night. I played a Haydn sonata for her ..." The detachment with which Whitaker presents this disconnect between his cultural high-mindedness and his carnal crassness -- one that most of us feel from time to time but few act out so dramatically -- coats his story with a veneer of cool.

Beneath that veneer, however, lies a welter of dissatisfaction. Whitaker argues that the question of whether prostitution is immoral never struck him as "authentic": "I was not hurting anyone apart from, perhaps, enabling some men to perpetuate an expensive bad habit. And I have never been concerned with the world's verdict on prostitutes. The world is forever making unfair judgments; people become prostitutes (and do all sorts of things) because life is hard, and life really is hard." But he admits that in his case hustling took its place among a matrix of addictions, including a craving for affection that stemmed from a love-starved childhood. And the close of one diary entry hints at the toll hustling takes on someone capable of doing justice to a Haydn sonata: "My life is pretty much as inelegant as it could possibly be."

Whitaker says he liked meeting a variety of men; he hopes that the mental snapshots he took of their apartments and lives will stand him in good stead as a writer. But he hated the game many clients insisted on playing: that the transaction was not sex for hire but philanthropy -- an older, richer guy helping out a younger, poorer one. In the end the job was emotionally draining: "It was hard to be relied upon by so many different people, if only for an hour, in an emotional, intimate way, especially by regular clients ..." This ennui contrasts with the perennial freshness of an intriguing minor character in the memoir, Francisco, a veteran hustler who knew how to ply his trade without becoming jaded. "Francisco was somehow able to think of his clients as people," Whitaker writes, "whereas I inevitably thought of them as examples of something like waywardness."

Whitaker has quit the life, he tells us, and mastered most of his other addictions as well. What ultimately bothered him about prostitution was its numbing effect on him. The only way he could endure it was to close himself off to feeling and, worse, to reflecting upon what he was doing: "Thoughtlessness is the crime, or the sin, that comes before all others, and hustling requires it."

What we have in this little book, then, are not just the confessions of an unhappy hooker but the musings of a philosopher of carnality. "Assuming the Position" will tell you everything you ever wanted to know about selling the body and will satisfy your nostalgie de la boue in a very muddy way. But it will also stimulate your soul.

By Dennis Drabelle

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor at the Washington Post Book World.

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