In my latest book, The Relevance of Kabir, I use a strong metaphor concerning prostitution to make a point about honesty and taboo subjects. Woody “Bee,” the subject of this essay, is a part of that metaphor. Although I have known several prostitutes in my life, for various reasons, Woody made a huge impact on me for the better. She was in her mid-70s when I met her in my teens. At that time in my life, I was an “at-risk youth” with a destructive drug habit. (See Picture below) Woody was part of a community of about 200 people, of all walks of life, in the Tualatin Valley who came together to encourage sober lifestyles. A bold woman without shame, the hugs I received from her felt warm and kind, and her relentless honesty touched me deeply.
I’ll briefly digress to say that when anyone who is not a sex worker says something about prostitution, especially when it is a general statement, it is so often wrong that any such discussion should be held with great skepticism. Although I have made general statements about prostitution, I am being quite particular here to salute my deceased friend and, if I’m lucky, I’ll also combat some general prejudice. Unfortunately, many people don’t relate to prostitutes as other people, but, rather, as the embodiment of distorted or false social ideas about the world’s “oldest profession.”
Back to Woody. When I met her, she was small and heavy with short grey hair and glasses. She always wore a lot of jewelry, notably a heavy laden charm bracelet. I once joked about the charms and she said, in a thick southern accent, “Honey, if you ever see me without my jewelry, I’m having a bad day. And, if you see me without jewelry and makeup, that means I’m really hurting.” I only saw her without makeup and her jewelry once. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that someone dear to her was in the hospital. Woody was constantly surrounded by women. A few were wild woman, like Big Patty, who always smiled and referred to herself as “man’s best friend.” Still, most of the women who looked up to Woody as a mentor were housewives. Anyone could say anything to Woody; she did not have any limits and was one of the most accepting people who you could ever meet. The exception to Woody’s tolerance involved prudery, but more on that later.
My beloved Sharon rolled into town around 1985 wearing red from head to toe because she was a Rajneeshee: a disciple of the scandalous sex guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho). Very few people extended a welcome to Sharon except for Woody. Sharon never became a part of the clique around Woody, but she remembers her kindness to this day.
As a younger woman, Woody worked as a prostitute in a bordello in the deep South. This fact astonished me, not because she did it, but because she said it, publicly. Although her looks had faded, it is easy to see how her charisma would have attracted men. She didn’t have a problem with prostitution, but had picked up a nasty drinking habit along the way; hence, her involvement in the sober community. Once, a woman found the nerve to make an offhand sex shaming comment and Woody took offense. A roomful of about 30 people turned as Woody raised her voice and, before her rant was done, she called every housewife in the room a whore and gave the reasons why she thought so. Whatever the present wives thought of these comments, they uttered not one single word. Let’s just say that Woody was quite formidable.
What remains with me about this woman is the impression of love and relentless honesty, particularly about sex. If you are inclined to read The Relevance of Kabir, when you come across the bordello metaphor in the introduction, which prepares the way for the many taboo subjects that follow, you will know that there is a little bit of Woody and the love she gave to me in that example. I truly hope that the women who work under the red lantern will receive it in the spirit of not only respect, but the highest esteem.
By Todd Vickers
To read what sex workers are saying and their arguments to legalize prostitution, go to twitter and browse rights not rescue #RightsNotRescue.