Call It “Rest and Recreation”

I suspect only someone as stubborn as I am would insist on continuing to write about a novel read last year before commenting on more recent readings, but A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man struck some deep chords with me, though they’re probably not the same chords that Joyce intended to strike when he wrote the novel.

The novel got me thinking about Sin and prostitution in ways I haven’t thought about them in many years. Since I didn’t attend church regularly as a youth, I’ve never considered many things “sinful,” seeing them, instead, as moral issues. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you” always served as my life’s guideline, and I’ve done my best to follow that rule throughout my life — which is not to say that I have always managed to do so.

Although the Catholic Church would definitely think otherwise, I feel like I’ve only sinned once in my life, and apparently most Churches don’t even consider what I did a “sin.” On the other hand, I’ve slept with a prostitute once and didn’t consider it a sin then, even if, in retrospect, it seemed like a mistake, one I wouldn’t commit again and wouldn’t have done then if I’d known more about prostitution in Thailand.

These two events converged during a five-day leave in Thailand at the end of my tour of duty in Vietnam. When my tour of duty was about over, I was eligible to go on R&R to Thailand. I argued that it should go to those who had another 6 months of duty, but the officer in charge insisted that I’d “earned” the leave. So, in the end, I took it because I’d been relieved of my command and didn’t have much to do otherwise.

The trip didn’t start very auspiciously. When we got on the plane we were handed a very large bottle of Thai Beer. No one bothered to tell me it wasn’t the usual American 3% alcohol, but a strong 10% brew. I suspect by the time I got off the plane I was already drunk and managed to stay that way most of the time I was in Bangkok, especially since it was the custom to offer a beer in nearly every shop we stopped at.

There was only one other officer on the plane, a Captain whose name I don’t think I even remembered by the end of the trip, though I remembered his actions quite vividly. We had been given adjoining rooms at the hotel, and he took charge almost immediately. I was only a 1st Lieutenant, had never been on R&R before, and had never been in a foreign country, so I wasn’t opposed to letting him set things up. Before I knew it we had hired a taxi to be at our beck-and-call throughout our entire stay, the driver sleeping in his taxi in case we wanted something. Soon our entire five days were booked, and I toured some of Bangkok’s greatest treasures, including the Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. We had an “authentic” Thai feast at an up-scale officer’s club, bought Thai silk for presents and toured the rivers where people lived as they had throughout time.

One night in the middle of drinking, the Captain told our taxi driver we needed a couple of prostitutes. I was either too drunk or too intimidated to protest. Besides, I wasn’t married, and it certainly seemed like a Thai custom. After all, the lobby of the expensive hotel where we were staying had been lined with Thai girls dressed as Indian maidens and cheerleaders when we signed in — and it wasn’t even Halloween. Hell, it was nearly Christmas.

Unlike Stephen in the Portrait of the Artist, I ended up finding the whole experience particularly repugnant and needed a whole lot more beer to spend the night with someone who could barely speak English, so much beer that the evening was barely a memory by morning, though I vaguely remember looking up at the skylight early the next morning and seeing, or perhaps imagining, a giant lizard crawling across it.

As if that night wasn’t bad enough, the next night as we were getting ready to return to Vietnam the Captain, who was Catholic, panicked in the middle of dinner and started asking where he could find a Catholic Priest so he could go to confession before returning to his unit in Vietnam, suddenly afraid he would die in mortal sin and end up in Hell.

I wanted no part of that. I sobered up instantly, wondering why anyone would commit what they thought was a mortal sin knowing death was a daily companion where we were going. I never did find out if he found his priest. As I’ve thought it over, both immediately afterward, months later, and even years later, I thought what we were doing in Vietnam was a greater sin than sleeping with a prostitute for one night, no matter how others might view it.

Even though I didn’t come close to committing any atrocities and don’t think I even managed to kill a single Viet Cong, despite constantly shooting back at snipers who haunted our nights, fighting that war against a people who simply wanted self-rule seemed to me, particularly in retrospect, to be a Sin, one I’ve spent much of my life trying to redeem. There are undeniably “Just Wars” and I am certainly no pacifist, but Vietnam simply wasn’t one of them. I still suffer from a collective guilt that most Americans won’t admit, a guilt that many of my fellow Vietnam vets seemed unable to recover from.

When I read years later how Thai prostitutes were procured, often sold at a young age by poor rural families to earn much-needed money, I regretted that I managed to contribute to that injustice, but it seems to me that the greatest sin belongs to the Thai people who allow that practice to continue. Knowing what I know now, I would certainly never consider having sex with one of them, but I knew nothing of that when I was first there.

My short experience with prostitution makes it impossible for me to identify with Stephen when he chooses “life experiences” over Church doctrines. Hell, it even makes it impossible for me to identify with Ulysses’ Bloom, who’s twice as appealing as Stephen, even if he seems to visit the whorehouse because he’s being cuckolded by his wife and because he’s unable to have sex with her after the death of his son. It’s hard for me to believe that sex without love isn’t just plain wrong. It’s ironic, to me at least, that my views of prostitution are much closer to the Catholic views than to Joyce’s views, despite my refusal to see it as a mortal sin. I don’t think I believe in Heaven or Hell, but it seems to me that using people to satisfy your own personal needs without considering its effects on them leads to personal, if not eternal, damnation.

5 thoughts on “Call It “Rest and Recreation”

  1. I mostly agree with you Loren. I would modify your penultimate supposition to read sex without love or friendship is just plain wrong. Friends with benefits seems to be a big thing these days and I don’t see anything wrong with it so long as both are willing.

    • i guess I wouldn’t have any objection to two people having casual sex if they are both consenting adults, Doug, but it still holds no appeal to me. I suspect in many of these kinds of relationships at least one of the partners really wants more from the relationship than casual sex.

  2. A brave and interesting blog entry, Loren.

    I live in a rural area of southern Africa that is very poor and many local women are sex workers. There’s little shame because everyone knows hungry children have to be fed and the only way to get an income in some places is from the long-distance truck drivers along the Trans-Karoo highways. Because of non-discrimination employment clauses, women and young men who are sex workers often also hold positions in community and church organisations, so they don’t suffer ostracism and many do get out of the life and help others to do so. We have a very active community organisation here known as SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce), active since the 1980s to empower sex workers, especially around sex tourism and manging HIV and AIDS. Sex tourism is very much part of our neoglobalist battles and linked to international drug trafficking here. And I might argue that sex tourism was intrinsic to the larger understanding of US exploitation and invasion of Asia in the 1960s.

    Joyce would have known all about economic desperation in the Monto district of Dublin and he would have understood why these women were doing what they did, He would still have seen prostitution and his going to prostitutes as a sin. What has always bothered me was that his first encounters with older prostitutes took place when he was just 14 and this was seen as unusual at the time. Frequenting prostitutes would be a lifelong need or habit or compulsion. I’m not sure what to make of that.

    • Since prostitution was a well-established institution in both England and Ireland, I’m sure that men of that generation would have looked at it quite differently than men of my generation who would wonder why you would have to seek out sex with a prostitute.

      Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of what you’ve said here about sex workers in southern Africa, either. Even with the internet and literature from every part of the world available, it’s difficult to comprehend how different other societies view things like this.

What do you think?