I caught a slight cold last week. I remember lying in bed debating as to whether to muster enough strength to make it out to a grocery store for cough drops and OJ or to call up a friend and ask them to make the run for me. My go-to NYC man-friend was away promoting his brand in LA, so I had to run through a mental list of people to whom this might not sound totally weird and imposing. Naturally the primary person to qualify was my close girlfriend. She responded promptly to my text and within the hour, my apartment buzzer was chiming and she came bearing all the requisite components to play Florence Nightingale. She was warm and affectionate when I needed it, but her care-taking of me was brisk, almost businesslike. Eat this. Drink this while it's hot. Take these. As though she'd done this many times before, which in all likelihood, she probably had.
It reminded me of the movie Kissing Jessica Stein, a comedy about two romantically frustrated women who decide to try lesbianism in order to get their needs met. Helen (a sexualized femme fatale gallery owner) tells her new girlfriend Jessica (a bookish news reporter) about the men she calls on for companionship: "I mean basically, I call Roland when I'm hungry, Steven when I'm bored, and Greg when I'm horny." "Who do you call when you're sick?" Jessica asks. "I don't get sick," Helen replies. Jessica retorts, "Oh. Good system." Like clockwork, later on in the movie Helen gets a cold, and it's Jessica who's showing up bringing her homemade chicken soup.
There are a lot of pieces going around the internet lately about women's unpaid emotional labor. It's so sensitive a subject that one seemingly innocuous joke from a male grocery cashier about how I should make him the apple pie I was obviously buying ingredients for had me ranting on my personal social media about how it's not my job to heal all the men of the world through making them baked goods. I went to a class that one of my colleagues was teaching once, and he had us partner up to do an exercise practicing asking for what we want. The exercise was supposed to go like this: one person would make a request, and the other person, no matter what the request was, would reply "Yes," just so the first person could experience what it felt like to hear an affirmative response. It was made clear (though possibly not quite clear enough) that the second person was not to perform the original request, just saying "Yes" was what was allowed. I was at the class being on brand as usual - with 4 inch heels and a red Herve Leger dress, all purposefully feminine (I probably should've worn my usual outfit of leather jacket and motorcycle boots and I might have slipped by much less noticed). The man paired up with me was probably in his 60s. As he made his request, he said to me, "You look so beautiful, I saw you as soon as you came in the room, and it's been so long since I've had a woman in my life, and I just... could I just have a hug?" I hugged him. It was easier than re-explaining the exercise to him and hurting his feelings by rejecting what on his part was clearly a very real request. I still feel awful about that interaction to this day, and I can still feel the scratchy wool of his navy sweater against me as he grasped me. I was a paying student in that class; I was not there being paid to heal other people. I was there to learn for myself. Similar was my experience at a speed-dating event that my single girlfriend asked me to tag along to (as an obvious buffer to the awkwardness she felt of going alone). For an hour I spent three minutes apiece on twenty men who filed eagerly before me at the sound of a bell, and in those three minutes I asked them about themselves - their hopes and dreams and hobbies. I remember my voice getting tired by the end, and when the last man approached me, I said, "How about we spend the whole three minutes just looking into each other's eyes?" Afterwards he exclaimed, "That was amazing!" At the end of the hour I was exhausted. Had I been a stripper, the sound of the bell after each three-minute interval would have instead shown up as the DJ changing songs, and I would have left with hundreds of dollars.
Sex work is in fact a place where women's emotional labor has a price, which is one theory about why it's so deeply vilified -- men don't want to pay for the things they feel entitled to for free, and women don't want other women selling those things to men for cash and thereby diluting their capacity to use them as barter for patriarchal tokens such as the security of marriage. The industry of sex work (including work such as stripping and pro-BDSM where intercourse itself typically doesn't happen) is confirmation of the fact that women's companionship, conversational skills, and willingness to be sexualized are things that have monetary value. Of course, once upon a time, before the takeover of Christianity and the fall of goddess culture, women were revered and protected for their roles. They were the original priestesses, women skilled in the arts of love who would counsel and fuck their devotees in order to help them attain spiritual communion, because sex was (and rightfully so) seen as the gateway to spirit. They were valued and protected as important resources, unlike in our society's denigration of hookers and strippers. Today's Delphic oracles are more likely to show up as women who hold down everyday jobs to pay their rent while also moonlighting as sex workers. About a month ago, Twitter saw the fascinating development of the hashtag #GiveYourMoneyToWomen. It was an exquisite point that was unfortunately wrapped in the trappings of popular misandry unlikely to appeal to anyone except similar women, and so I sincerely doubt any men were convinced to compensate the women in their lives any more than before. Most misinterpreted it as trying to say that men should fork over their money to random women for no reason other than perhaps their good looks (the maintenance of which, by the way guys, usually costs women a lot of money!), and so many #GetAJob tweets were hashtagged in response. Other men made jokes about strippers and hookers, and the fact that these were jokes rather than serious estimations of women engaging in consensual financial transactions for their skill sets was rather poignant.
My argument is this: the companion and "client" relationship is the most balanced one of all; it is a mutually rewarding dynamic. In this relationship, there is an understanding and appreciation of what it means to both give and receive. Healthy relationships are balanced relationships. Not every partner has to bring the same value to the table, but there must be reciprocity and co-regulation, the very obvious concept that a relationship should entail two people giving a damn about each other's well-being and happiness. Here we can get into the dubious concepts of masculinity and femininity, and what strengths each brings to the table. Women are (biologically speaking) better at listening, empathizing, and reading subtle social cues. Men are not obligated to reciprocate with the same set of feminine skill sets, but there has to be something that is given in return. Femininity is to offer healing and communion; masculinity is to offer aid and protection. I've learned that there is tremendous value in the companionship I provide, whether it's the flirt I dish out or the counsel I dispense, and that that value needs to be met by someone who appreciates it with more than just lip service. I truly love being a companion to those that deserve it. I want to be there for my lovers as a source of happiness by doing the things that I do best. But I need that investment returned - all women do. Because in today's world, modern Oracles at Delphi wear Agent Provocateur.