That which we call a rose/By any other name would smell as sweet. – William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii)
As I said in my introduction, very few whores use their own names when working; this is, first and foremost, to maintain privacy in a business which still carries considerable stigma in our society. If one’s real name got out (which in the internet age is not at all unlikely) it could cause embarrassment to her family, attract unwelcome attention from cops or anti-prostitute activists or even result in social consequences if she is a student or has another, “regular” job. Unless the girl’s first name is rather unusual, though, there would be no harm in giving out her real first name alone, would there? She could keep her surname private and everyone would be happy, right?
Well, yes and no. Some girls do indeed use real-first-name-only or a nickname version of it (Sue for Suzanne, Nicki for Nicole, etc). But most still don’t do that, for various reasons. For one, the use of a “stage name” gives us a little fence between our daily lives and our professional lives, which might otherwise sometimes overlap; the stage name helps the girl to get into the proper frame of mind, just as donning a suit or a uniform or a lab coat puts various kinds of professional men into the proper frame of mind for performance of their jobs. This use of stage names is by no means restricted to hookers; when Vincent Furnier is at home he may just be a regular guy, but when he dresses up and calls himself “Alice Cooper”, he becomes another thing entirely. The change in modes may eventually become unconscious and automatic; when I answered the phone and someone asked for me by my stage name, I instantly adopted a different mental posture than if he had used my real given name. Once someone actually hailed me by my stage name on a city street when I absolutely did not expect to hear it, and I actually experienced a moment of confusion before realizing that he was speaking to me!
For some girls, though, there is a much more important reason for the new name. Unless you’ve been living in a cave your whole life, I’m sure you recognize that Judeo-Christian societies in general and American society in particular have got massive hang-ups about sex, and women in particular are loaded down from puberty onward with more guilt, shame and conflict about that one subject than about all others combined. Even if a girl’s parents have more enlightened attitudes on the subject, you can bet the rest of society will still be very hard at work attempting to brainwash her into the usual powerless, ambivalent, conflicted female state of sexual shame. For a fortunate few of us (including myself), this poison tree for some reason just doesn’t take root in our heads; our mental soil is somehow inhospitable to its growth, and we simply don’t feel ashamed of being what we are. Alas, we are in the minority; many girls do indeed feel ashamed of their profession on some level, even if they accept or even enjoy it on a more conscious one. For a girl like this the stage name is a symbolic covering, an insubstantial garment she wears to clothe her soul while she bares her body to strangers.
It never ceases to amaze me how clients fail to understand the need for this symbolic gesture; time and again I have been assailed with “Oh, that’s not your real name! What’s your real name?” When guys of this sort wouldn’t shut up, “Maggie” is the name I fell back to; it’s not my legal name either, but it’s a good, basic, believable, comfortable sort of name (I’ve even been told “You look like a Maggie,” whatever that means). But then, I suppose it’s not surprising; most men also cannot understand why a stripper covers up when she has finished dancing, or why most hookers won’t kiss. It’s probably the old Madonna-whore duality again; the man stuck in this mode of thought imagines any working girl to be a “slut”, a carnal animal with male-like sex drives who screws strangers because it’s her idea of a great time; indeed, a number of porn starlets and sex writers actually encourage this fallacy in order to capitalize on the male fantasy of the “wanton woman”. But a man who thinks that way cannot be expected to understand that just because a whore has agreed to give him that which for most women is the most intimate form of sharing, it doesn’t mean she wants to share EVERYTHING with him. And what could be more personal than a name? The ancients believed there was magical power in names; in some ancient societies people kept their true names secret (except from the parents who had named them) and offered another, public name to the world. Is this so different from what we do? By keeping our true names to ourselves we symbolically prevent clients from having power over us. Kings and queens in many societies took throne names to symbolize that their actions as rulers were not to be confused with their actions as private citizens; the man whom history records as Augustus Caesar was called Octavian by his family. And the actions of “Rose” on a call are not necessarily related to those of “Gertrude Smith” at home.
And that, of course, brings us to the third and most human reason for stage names. The fact is simply that many if not most parents have the annoying habit of giving girls the most unromantic, unsexy names imaginable. Who wants to be Hillary or Jane or Anne or Mary when she can be Tabitha or Roxanne or Simone or Jade, at least for a little while? Most little girls choose different names for themselves when playing house (I know I did!) and growing up does not eradicate the desire for a name we like better than the one we’re stuck with. For those with unusual names like mine, this can instead be motivated by pragmatism; I actually did use my true name when I first started stripping, but I got so tired of “That’s not your real name!” that I started to use a stage name (a childhood nickname, actually) which was actually less unusual than my real one, and I can think of two other girls who did precisely the same thing.
Choosing a name for oneself is an act of will, an act of power; in a sense it’s a reflection of the way that we choose to make our own living by our own means rather than following either the traditional “good girl” path or the neutered, politically correct “career” path. For this we are called whores, which in the minds of many people is the worst label that can be applied to a woman. And that is precisely why many of us have decided to claim the word for ourselves, just as early Americans adopted the mocking term “Yankee” as a badge of identity, and in recent years lesbians and gay men have claimed “dyke” and “queer”, respectively. If we use the term to describe ourselves, it loses any power as an insult.
Norma Jean Almodovar, author of the book Cop To Call Girl (see the bibliography page) and director of the Los Angeles chapter of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a prostitute’s rights organization), helped to organize the 1997 International Congress on Prostitution, which included an exhibit of art by whores. A neofeminist academic for the university hosting the Congress insisted that prostitutes could not use the term ‘whore’ to describe ourselves, and demanded the exhibit use the neutered, politically correct term “sex worker”. She of course got her way, but Almodovar wrote the following poem as a rebuttal to this sort of bluenosed attitude. Shakespeare it’s definitely not, but it does sum up most of our feelings on the issue quite well.
The “Whore” Word
I am a woman…and if I get out of line, you call me a whore!
And if I have a good time, you call me a whore!
And if I speak my mind – you call me a whore!
You throw the word at me when I stand on my own
You use the word often to hold me down.
You ever remind me that whores are the worst -
The outcasts, pariahs, without any worth.
“You’re just a whore!” you repeat like a mantra -
Like a shot of cold water to dampen my joy.
“You’re just a whore – so what do you know?
And what do I care of whatever you think!”
“You’re a whore,” is a dagger you drive through my heart
As you pound into my psyche that name.
You equate everything that I ever thought good – with that word
Which you spit out like venom – to show me how awful I am.
But I ask you, please tell me, just what is a whore?
A whore says what she thinks and she thinks for herself…
She’s independent and feisty – so what? Is there more?
Why does it frighten you so to know I’ve a mind of my own
And don’t need your permission to live or to love or to be?
And what if I tell you I don’t care anymore if you call me a whore…
What will you call me now?