ASSUMING THE POSITION

A Memoir of Hustling

By Rick Whitaker

Four Walls/Eight Windows. 179 pp. $18

Are you a young, good-looking, adventurous male who likes meeting new people? Do you want to earn $150 or more an hour doing what most people are all too happy to do for free whenever they get a chance? No special qualifications required, no skills other than those Mother Nature endowed you with. Sounds good? If so, you may want to consider hustling.

But before rushing to buy a pager, take a look at "Assuming the Position," Rick Whitaker's slender but instructive memoir of his life as a homosexual prostitute in New York City. It will give you an idea of what you're getting into. It won't necessarily change your mind, though. For Whitaker's book isn't the self-righteous screed of a repentant sinner who believes he has now seen the light of true love and virtue. It doesn't glorify or glamorize prostitution either. Still, the more attractive side of the sex trade is there for all to see and ponder.

What's so great about 9-to-5 jobs anyway? As Whitaker realized one summer when he tried to reenter the mainstream, "it seemed crazy to be earning less in a whole day than I had earned a week before in one hour, and to allow myself to be humiliated in other and possibly more damaging ways. I hated my boss and his small, superior virtue. I hated the association with ordinary ambition, with office chatter and breakfast meetings."

Being paid for one's company, Whitaker notes, has its psychological rewards as well: "I felt arrogant, as if my services were too valuable to give away, which was a wonderfully empowering state of mind." The sex can be quite good--not all clients are unsexy--and in the end, what harm has been done? At the most, no more than "enabling some men to perpetuate an expensive bad habit." During his stint as a hustler, Whitaker was, he tells us, "wildly alive." Yet he was also, he adds, "nearly dead at the same time." Everything wasn't peachy after all. What happened?

The book is in part an attempt by its author to understand what prompted him one day to put his favors up for sale: at first, it seems, the lure of quick money combined with the desire to spite a former lover; more deeply, perhaps, the urge to get back at an unloving father, and the hope of finding in the embrace of older men some of the attention this "violent, alcoholic, confused, and unhappy man" never gave his son. Finally, not to be discounted, was the necessity to finance an increasingly expensive drug habit. Should we wonder that a career built on such foundations proved in the end unsatisfying? Whitaker is an educated man (a fact the reader is seldom allowed to forget). Writing was his original calling. The prodigal son's now back selling his words rather than his body. Let's kill the fatted calf.

"Assuming the Position" would be little more than yet another psychobabbly exercise in navel-gazing were it not for what Whitaker has to say about his clients. He isn't bashful when it comes to describing the sexual calisthenics he performed in their company, but the psychological dynamics of these encounters are what's truly interesting. Beyond Whitaker's particular case, they go to the heart of what makes hustling an essentially unrewarding activity, whatever one's reason to engage in it. Take Bill, for instance, a rich lawyer who shared Whitaker's interests in literature and music, and regularly paid him $350 for two hours of conversation and innocuous sex. Good deal so far. But Bill often asked why Rick was so willing to spend time with him. Both knew the truth, of course, but the answer was always a lie: "I would say, Because I like you. Or, Because it's fun coming over here." "This mendacity," Whitaker goes on, "was the most exhausting aspect of the job." The sense of alienation born of always having to pretend is bad enough. Add to it the humiliation of submitting to the desires of men for whom Whitaker, probably a typical hustler in this respect, appears to have felt a deep and abiding contempt (though sometimes tempered by the instinctive, truly whorish respect that great wealth seems to elicit in him). In the end, the costs will always exceed the benefits.

Too exclusively preoccupied with himself, Whitaker unfortunately stops short of articulating the deeper truth about prostitution hidden behind the johns' pathetic need for pretense, and the vicious circle of mutual contempt and self-loathing that mars most such encounters: that it is much harder, and a much greater source of shame, to buy sex than to sell it. After all, how many johns have published their memoirs lately?

Laurent Cartayrade, a Washington historian and writer.