New Internationalist

The Whore, Her Stigma, The Punter And His Wife.

Issue 252

new internationalist
issue 252 - February 1994

The Two Conditions of the World (anonymous, 15th Century)
The whore, her stigma, the
punter
and his wife
How did the stigma against prostitutes come about?
Nickie Roberts delves into some hidden history –
and comes up with challenging proposals for the future.

A prostitute is raped by a client. She does not bother to report the crime to the police, because in their eyes the rape of a hooker isn’t a crime: ‘You’re a whore, what do you expect?’ is their attitude.

A teenage prostitute is murdered by a serial killer, who then goes on to kill a young student. Only after a ‘respectable’ woman is killed is there a public outcry. And at the killer’s trial, the prosecution lawyer comments that the saddest aspect of the case is the fact that some victims were not prostitutes.

A New York police chief makes the following comments when being interviewed about the murder of a Puerto Rican streetwalker: ‘I think there’s something juicy about a prostitute getting killed. Some of them are young and attractive, and I’ve seen how some cops act around them. It’s maybe a little more exciting.’

In the three instances above we see the whore-stigma operating at its most blatant, enshrined and even eroticized by serial killers, lawmakers and a gullible, apathetic public. Prostitutes experience the whore stigma on a daily basis, in the denial of their human rights by the police and the legal establishment. This includes harassment, illegal arrests, state pimping in the form of fines (the only way in which a woman can pay court fines is by going straight back on the beat), and imprisonment.

To grasp both how the whore-stigma came about, and how it continues to serve patriarchal interests, it is necessary to go back to the transition of society from matriarchy to patriarchy – a transition ignored by most male-oriented history. Before then, women had been free to make their own sexual choices. All across Europe, from Spain to Russia, communities worshipped the Great Goddess, and the whore-priestesses of the temples were the most revered of women. Evidence from Stone Age art confirms the central position of women. From as far back as the Gravettian-Aurignacian cultures of the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age (around 25,000 BC onwards), nearly all the surviving sculptures and statues are of women. In some cultures – the Aurignacians of the Eastern steppes, for example – men are not represented at all. These female representations went far beyond the simplistic ‘fertility figures’ beloved of male pre-historians, although it is clear that an aspect of the sacred came from the fact that no-one knew how procreation came about. The Goddess was affirmed in her three aspects as creator, preserver and destroyer of life. Inscribed on an ancient Sumerian clay tablet are the words of the goddess Ishtar: ‘A Prostitute compassionate am I’. The whore-priestess channelled her creative energy into the material world.

Then, around 2000 BC, all this was shattered. Tribes of warlike, male-dominated nomads began to invade matriarchal territories. The whore-priestesses were ousted from the temples and replaced by male priests. The first civilizations of the historical era were born out of this upheaval in Mesopotamia (mostly in what is now Iraq) and Egypt. As the power of male religious and political institutions grew, so too did the patriarchal form of marriage, in which the women and children were chattels. The division of women into the domesticated wife – Good Woman – and the rebellious whore – Bad Girl – came about.

‘She is loud and stubborn,’ wrote the Old Testament prophets. ‘Her feet abide not in her house; now she is without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.’ Proverbs 7:11-12.

Thus wrote the Levite warrior-priests who invaded and settled the fertile and goddess-worshipping land of Canaan sometime around 1300 BC. Hebrew teaching developed the notion that women’s sexual autonomy was the root of all evil; that because of what happened in the Garden of Eden, womankind’s lot was to be suffering, shame and repentance, for all time. The other major patriarchal religions that followed – Christianity and Islam – recognized the devastating impact of the whore stigma in dividing and ruling women, and took it up enthusiastically, slotting it into their own preferred versions of the anti-woman mythology.

The Two Conditions of the World (anonymous, 15th Century) During the latter part of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth century, the Church had financial interests in brothels, while at the same time condemning prostitution. Businessmen too, were making fat profits from ownership of brothels – and control of the workers in them. In Avignon, in France, for example, whores cloistered in the state brothel were forbidden to walk the streets at any time in case they decided to do a little moonlighting. The brothel regulations stated that:
‘If a girl has thus offended, and persists in her offence... then the Claviger, or Chief of the Beadles, shall lead her through the city by Beat of Drum, a red knot hanging from her Shoulder, back to the Brothel, and shall prohibit her from walking any more, under the Penalty of being lash’d privately for the first offence, and of being whipp’d publicly and being turned out of the House for the Second.’

Prostitutes did protest – for instance, in 1387 the whores of Chateauneuf-Calcernier occupied the church pew of the town’s royal officer. Respectable citizens were so outraged that they broke up the pew.

Historically, the stigmatizing of female sexual autonomy has fettered women’s sexuality to patriarchy’s (and latterly, capitalism’s) specific requirements. Through marriage and woman’s monogamy, wealthy men can safely claim ownership of their male offspring and hand down their wealth and power directly through the line. At the same time, women remain divided from each other, and therefore weakened as a group. This in turn ensures that middle-class men enjoy the wifely support that provides them with the time and the space in which to pursue their better-paid careers, while at the same time having access to the sexual services of a vast array of working-class whores, a casual harem of both sexes.

The whore-stigma ensures that the Good Woman and the Bad Girl stick to their separate spheres. For what might happen if it were suddenly OK for housewives and hookers to get together?

A friend of mine, a working prostitute, comments: ‘I think a lot of men are afraid that if their wives cottoned on to how much we make in this business, they wouldn’t put up with the old man anymore. I’ve had clients say as much. It’s the money – women don’t have the money to get out of a boring marriage, or whatever, and these men know it. It’s how they keep ‘em down.’

The whore-stigma allows middle-class commentators to focus on the ‘immorality’ of sex workers rather than on the real issue, which is the poverty of working-class women the world over. It also gets the self-appointed experts off the hook; they don’t have face up to either their class responsibility or their hypocrisy. Once again a nineteenth-century quote is fitting. Writing to The Times in 1858, an anonymous prostitute ends her letter with an angry challenge to middle-class pontificators:
‘We come from the dregs of society, as our so-called betters call it. What business has society to have dregs – such dregs as we? You... the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug, and keep between yourselves and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over or fill it up... Why stand you there mouthing with sleek face about morality? What is morality?’

Those of us working in the field have identified and named the whore-stigma, documented its social, cultural and political history, and shown how it operates in all its guises to punish women for being poor or stepping out of patriarchal line. We have witnessed its use against juvenile prostitutes when runaways – often desperately abused children – are treated as criminals by the law. Their plight is sensationalized and the focus shifted on to their means of survival (prostitution) rather than the circumstances which drove them onto the streets in the first place. We see it in rape cases, where it is used to transform the victim of violent crime into the criminal. Its most recent incarnation is in the British Government’s attacks on single parents. This is a new variation on an old theme. The single parent is not a real proper mum functioning in the nuclear family set-up. She doesn’t belong to a man; she’s on her own, having kids, which means she’s having sex, which means she’s a whore. And she pays for this by being scapegoated.

So... where do we go from here? We have to deal with the whore-stigma at its roots by repealing the laws on prostitution. Legislation against the sex trade historically goes hand-in-hand with intolerance of sexual freedom in general, and women’s sexual freedom in particular. Whores (like lesbians) have always been the prime targets of this repression as they are seen as dangerously free; challenging the notion of female monogamy and refusing to bind themselves to one man.

We have to bridge the gulf between Good Women and Bad Girls, and ultimately reject this sexual apartheid. Campaigns to rid society of the ‘scourge of whoredom’ have sprung from an unholy alliance of moral and political forces which aim at the repression and control of people’s sexuality. Tirades against ‘vile whores’ from Andrea Dworkin – a prominent and influential anti-sex-industry feminist – cannot possibly help demolish the whore-stigma. Uncomfortable as it may be, it is implicit in the demand that women have control over their own bodies, that they also have a right to sell their sexual services, if they want to.

Finally, we women have suffered a deep and inhumane psychological maiming over the centuries. Our sexuality has been pathologized and made shameful, and we are still trying to crawl out from under the ensuing morass of guilt and anxiety. In order to do so, women have first to acknowledge and accept the untamed, bold, proud and compassionate spirit of the whore as an aspect of ourselves. Only then can we finally nail the sexual lies and myths that have been used against us for so long.

Nickie Roberts is the author of a number of books on the sex industry, including Whores in History (Harper Collins, 1992). A former stripper in London, she now lives in France.

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