My Secret Life of Prostitution: 9 Minute Read
“When I look into the eyes of a prostitute I only see myself,” I told Phillip. “I’m selling myself for a price,” I continued. “Whether I sell my body in a brothel or in a job I work purely to fit societal norms, it’s still prostitution at some level.”
“Not long ago I kept noticing that when I walked by junkies and prostitutes I got this gross feeling,” Phillip said. “I didn’t like it. So, during my lunch breaks at work instead of eating with my colleagues I decided to have lunch with a junkie or a prostitute. It was nice. And it was different for them and for me. When I listened to their stories, where they came from and how they got here, about life plans gone wrong or abuse in their families, I realized they were just the same as me, and I quit having that gross feeling.”
For the last few days I co-lived in an apartment with six other people, two of whom are in a relationship, plus their child. They live in the “up and coming” part of Frankfurt, Germany, two blocks from the red light district in one direction, two blocks from a conservative, 50 year old Turkish community in another, five blocks from the train station in the other, and five blocks from the old headquarters of the European bank in the final direction.
Suzie was my host. I met Suzie for the first time on Tuesday. A friend from New York connected us after a drink at a piano bar and donut. I told her about my curiosity for co-living and she said I had to meet Suzie.
When I arrived in Frankfurt, Suzie had left me a key at a doctor’s office. I met all of her roommates before meeting her.
Observations of the co-living apartment in no typical order:
—They are happy. I have no idea what factors go into this, cultural or otherwise, but they are happy. They talk a lot and throw parties for their friends despite busy schedules with work and travel.
—The apartment is huge. The kitchen is small, but each of the rooms has high ceilings and could easily swallow most apartments in NYC.
—Joscha, the two year old, has it made. He’s the center of attention and receives love from everyone.
—Parenting made easier: While his mother was traveling, his father received extra help. Peter was still stressed as a single dad, he pointed out, but he also noted how co-living helped give him 20 minutes if he needed to shower and get ready.
—Higher barrier to relationships. Despite men and women living together, the idea of being romantically involved with one another had a much higher barrier to entry than living alone because of the risk involved if things didn’t go well.
—Everybody had their own room, and they focused on the importance of access to privacy within co-living.
—They had a refugee from Afghanistan living with them for a while. When I asked Peter what he learned from the experience he said it was too much to explain in a short amount of time, but that “you get a very different impression than those just reading in the media.” That same day I saw where one of Airbnb’s founders had posted an article by Tara Loader Wilkinson with the headline, “Airbnb is proving that people inherently want to trust—and help—strangers.
—We take a lot of community clues from Europe. If you’ve ever met a friend at Starbucks, then you’ve enjoyed the fruit of Howard Schultz’s observation from his time in Italy that Italians had coffee shop third places to meet at while Americans did not.
—When I asked Jannis, Phillip, and Peter about the benefits of co-living, they focused on three areas mostly:
1) Economies of scale. They talked about this a lot. They saw co-living as a solution for affordable housing in growing major cities. “Who else would live here, a family of 10?” Peter asked. Economies of scale extended to having a few people cook for everyone, sharing utility/internet bills, only needing one bathroom and kitchen and set of tools to fix things as opposed to one for each.
2) Health. They saw this heath as emotional, and that emotional health related to physical. They are rarely lonely. I pointed out to them that isolation/loneliness is more dangerous to American’s health than obesity or heavy drinking. They pointed out that they have a lot of fun.
3) Social: They each felt that learning to live with others had forced them to look at society from a perspective that they have responsibility not only for themselves but for the well being of others. They see their actions as having a cumulative affect on others.
—When I asked about challenges and drawbacks they said having to get along with others. Ultimately though they reframed this into “developing social and people skills,” and recanted that it was in fact a drawback. They did not cite not owning as a financial loss. I didn’t ask about this. If I had to guess, I’d say that either they don’t see it as a financial loss when they factor in the health and economies of scale and other benefits, or because home ownership is more of an American than European focus.
Since living in NYC I’ve developed this feeling that unless I work in finance, tech, or consulting, I’m inferior and don’t belong. It’s bothered my to the point that I called the college advisor who helped me with my applications to ask why I didn’t apply to feeder schools for these industries with better academics where I could have also played basketball. “Derek, you’re the only 31 year old that’s ever called me to talk about this,” Steve said.
I’ve talked it through with many close friends. And I’ve read a few books. Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, by Frank Bruni, is a must for any parent or student concerned that where they go to school or what they major in will have a significant impact on the rest of their life. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, written by former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, digs deeper into this idea of moral imagination.
“I’ve been using the word soul,” he says, “and though I’m not religious, I find that only a religious language has sufficient gravity to do these questions justice. For we are speaking of the most important thing: no less a thing than how to live…Moral imagination means the capacity to envision new alternatives for how to live…it is hard in a complete different way than the hard things that elite students are used to doing. You can’t study for it. You can’t compete for it. The qualities it calls upon are those of character, not intellect…Moral courage can be lonely indeed. People don’t mind being trapped, as long as no one else is free. But stage a break, and everybody else begins to panic.” (pg. 85, 91-92)
People have often pointed out that it’s a good thing I decided to live homeless when I did, because one day when I have kids I’ll want to raise them in a safe neighborhood with good schools, but I wonder if that’s really true. Do I really think I can raise my children cut off from those who are different from them and expect them not to grow up afraid of those different from them? Do I really want my children to have an education that makes them well adjusted for a certain kind of profession society values instead of an education that teaches them to love those different from them and help those who are last in society? Do I really think I can teach them to love their neighbor as themselves—meaning every beating heart—while surrounded by children who come from families almost exactly like their own?
While the author, William Deresiewicz, says he’s not religious, I came to believe that the reason I fearfully line up on society’s conveyor belt is ultimately the underlying belief that somehow it will save my life, either from failure, loss of approval, or my physical death, and that the only way I could step off was by overcoming these fears. Despite Christianity in America’s relative disinterest in this practically speaking, I saw Jesus contesting society at almost every turn. “You can not serve both God and mammon,” meaning the systematic usage of money, he says. “Nobody can take my life from me because I lay it down voluntarily,” he continues. And my personal favorite, “I’ve come to set this world on fire, and how I wish it was already burning. I have a terrible baptism of suffering before me, and I carry this burden until it is complete.”
“We like to think of ourselves as a wealthy country,” continues Deresiewicz, “but it is one of the great testaments to the intellectual—and moral, and spiritual—poverty of American society that it makes its most intelligent young people feel that they are being self-indulgent if they pursue their curiosity (pg. 95).” Dream, go make the world a better place, we say on the one hand while “but you better have this kind of job and live in this kind of neighborhood if you want to be a self respecting person” on the other.
Yesterday, before my uplifting conversation with Phillip, I spent the day in depression and self-loathing. “What am I doing with my life?” I wondered. I can be dramatic. It had been snowing and the sky was gray, and I’d begun feeling the tension described by Deresiewicz.
As I prayed I went back to one of the reasons I’d come on the trip to begin with, to put my own eyes on co-living to see if it’s possible. “It’s possible,” I repeated to myself. I’d had long conversations with Suzie, Jannis, and Peter while he played with Joscha. “It’s possible.”
I thought about my first principles for the project, that 1) if people see one another’s pain they will want to help and 2) there is enough housing for everyone, just like there’s enough food for everyone, but just as some people are full while some people starve, some people have homes while others don’t.
That’s when Phillip came in and we began talking about everything from prostitution to co-living. A few hours later we were playing foosball and throwing darts. “Another great thing about co-living,” Phillip explained, “is sharing talents. One of our other roommates brews craft beer and cider,” he said as he poured me one. “I was thinking about co-living the entire time I was getting ready,” he continued, “I always just thought this was how I enjoyed life, but I never realized how much better it can be for me and society.” After I beat Phillip in foosball—perhaps the first time an American has ever beat a German in anything remotely close to soccer—we headed to a concert. We stopped by the bar Phillip works at to supplement his income while he starts his own business. The bar had gone vegan that day and we tried substitutes for milk in the new White Russian.
At 2 AM Phillip was ready to go dancing, but I needed to go to sleep. As I walked through the cold I thought about what Jannis had said in his interview about co-living. “The world would be such a great place if people would co-live. It teaches you to think about other people and not just your own private needs. It teaches you to share and not protect everything and focus on what’s mine, mine, mine.”
Ultimately the reason I had spent that afternoon swallowed in fear and self-loathing was out out of my own desire to self protect by staying on the broad and well worn path. I want to protect my approval in society, my finances and resources and ability to build them, and I do not want to self-abandon to what others may say or think of me and my lack of being “practical” and “responsible.” Back to Deresiewicz, the non religious former Yale professor, on the purpose of education: “We are born once, not only into nature but also into a culture that quickly becomes a second nature. But then, if we are granted such grace, we are born again. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his mortal soul?” (pg 86).
The only way I can expect anybody else to co-live, what I believe can be a better, cheaper, happier, healthier, and more fulfilling way to live is to engage in it myself. I too have to lay my life down voluntarily. I, too, have to stop selling myself—an act of prostitution—to Mammon. Recently a key distinction dawned on me: I believe my society is one worth living for, but not worth living in. I, too, have come to set this world on fire, to see it made better, new, and more pure, and how I wish that it was already burning.
P.S. This was written after a late night and without my fantastic editor. If you enjoy it in the slightest bit, you’ll love The Definition of Success. If you're interested in co-living, consider signing up to be a guest or host here or learning more/supporting the trip here.