Range of Experience

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Freedom and whores are the most cosmopolitan items under the sun. – Georg Büchner

In order to get around the “consenting adults” argument and negate the obvious symmetry between arguments for abortion rights and those for the right to have sex on one’s own terms, modern prohibitionists often argue that whores are incapable of rational adult decision-making and must therefore be “protected” as adolescents are supposed to be “protected” by age of consent laws (a subject for another day).  Prohibitionists refer to us as “prostituted women”, passive and childlike creatures suffering from “false consciousness” due to childhood trauma or drug abuse; when we insist that we endured no such trauma we are said to be lying, delusional or afflicted by “repressed memories”; and if we insist that the men with whom we are personally or professionally involved have not coerced or abused us in any way we are said to be suffering from “Stockholm Syndrome”.  To support these blanket statements, bogus “studies” of incarcerated streetwalkers are used to make pronouncements about the entire range of whoredom; as I’ve said before, this is rather like doing a methodologically-unsound story of failed hot-dog pushcart operators and then extrapolating the results to all restaurants from food trucks to mom-and-pop diners to fast-food chains to five-star palaces.

That’s why one of the primary missions of my blog is to prove that hookers are no more alike than the members of any other profession.  Just as there is no single doctor, plumber, salesman or teacher personality type, so there is no single psychological profile that can describe all (or even most) hookers.  One of the ways I demonstrate this range is by featuring (about once per month) a “harlotography”, a short biography of a whore from history who became famous for one reason or another, and even a quick look at the wide range of reasons for their fame is enough to illustrate some of the many differences.

Some of them attracted attention (sometimes of the unwelcome sort) for their success; Josie Arlington and Lulu White owned the two largest brothels in New Orleans’ famous “Storyville”  district (center & far right in photo), while Deborah Jeanne Palfrey’s Washington, D.C. escort service eventually became too profitable to escape federal attention.  Similarly, the wealth and popularity of the hetaera called Phryne drew legal persecution from the jealous politicians of Athens.  And while Ching Shih was also attacked by the forces of government, it was on the seas rather than in court:  her career as a brothel-whore eventually led to one in piracy, and she became the most successful pirate commander of all time.

Ching Shih’s success came from being noticed by a powerful man, the pirate commander she married and later succeeded after his death.  This is almost certainly the most common means through which harlots are remembered by posterity:  the hetaera Aspasia was the consort of the Athenian leader Pericles, and Rhodopis may have become a concubine of the Pharaoh Amasis II.  The Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of King Louis XV of France, Nell Gwyn that of King Charles II of England, and Theodora the wife of the Emperor Justinian, who made her an Empress (the Eastern Orthodox Church later declared her a saint).

Theodora and Nell Gwyn (the model for this painting) attracted their patrons’ attentions through another facet of their shared profession:  acting, which was up until the early 19th century indistinguishable from harlotry.  Dancing was another way for courtesans to advertise their charms, and among those famous for doing so were Lola Montez and La Belle Otero.  Another was Mata Hari, though of course she is best remembered now for being executed (probably unjustly) as a spy in 1917.  Nor was she the only courtesan to meet that fate at the hands of a French government; Olympe de Gouges  was guillotined by the Jacobins in 1793.  De Gouges had become quite well-known as a writer of feminist and abolitionist essays, and she and I aren’t the only literary whores;  Veronica Franco and Su Xiaoxiao were highly regarded for their poetry.  In more recent times, a French streetwalker was discovered while singing in the street and became famous under her stage name, Édith Piaf.

Of course, a few women reverse the usual process and become hookers after they’re already famous; though Madame Pompadour and Theodora won their titles via whoring, the Princess de Caraman-Chimay and the Empress Valeria Messalina had their titles first. And some, alas, never get to enjoy their fame; the five victims of Jack the Ripper are only remembered because they crossed paths with one of the earliest serial killers, and were it not for the diabolical fascination he still exerts on so many today their names and stories would have remained as obscure as those of the many other prostitutes murdered by serial killers since then.

-Maggie McNeill

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13 Responses to “Range of Experience”

  1. #1 |  Xenocles | 

    A similar effect I’ve seen is to refer to women in obvious conditions of slavery – kidnapped/trafficked and/or underage – as prostitutes. It seems to me that there is a clear break between prostitutes and sex slaves, and trying to merge the groups is likely an attempt to do what you described above.

  2. #2 |  Weird Willy | 

    Wow! Fantastic essay, Maggie. You seem to have hit every nail on the head in exposing the soft, vulnerable underbelly of those who would make moralistic reductions of all prostitutes to helpless, unwitting, and unwilling captives, incapable of exerting any sense of self-determination. Well done, indeed!

  3. #3 |  The Other Dan | 

    In the late 1970’s (1978 I think) I was working at a high-end stereo store in Rapid City, SD. A very pleasant woman walked in one Saturday morning. After a few demos and negotiating a price, she purchased a modest system and notably, paid for it in cash, using mostly $10 and $20 denominations.

    When I was filling out the warranty forms (we did that for customers in those days), she gave her name as Pam Holiday. After she left, the owner of the stereo shop informed me that was the Deadwood, SD resident and (locally famous) owner of Pam’s Purple Door.
    I asked why (if her business was illegal) did the local authorities look the other way? The answer was; that for the people in the mining towns of Lead and Deadwood, she is considered to providing a valued community service.
    A few years later, I read that her business was raided and shut-down by federal agents, and a that a majority of residents there wanted to keep her business open.

  4. #4 |  Mattocracy | 

    Xenocles is exactly right. It’s a common tactic in the culture wars. In a similar fashion, those that rant about the evils of pornography often compare it to rape in order to make former sound more sinister.

  5. #5 |  Yizmo Gizmo | 

    Not a single word about the whores who call themselves “Politicians.”
    After Polly Titian, a famous hooker in 1850’s Amsterdam.

  6. #6 |  PermaLurker | 

    Hey Maggie, this should be familiar :

  7. #7 |  Brandon | 

    “False consciousness” is one of the most frustrating fallacies to argue against, because not only is it an attempt to invalidate your entire argument without ever having to consider it, it is an attempt to invalidate you as a human being, and an attempt to wrest complete control of your life and decisions from you by the accuser. And while it is used by both sides of the statist coin, it seems more prevalent on the left the past 3 years for some reason (I know). It also seems to be used much more often on the internet and in print than it ever is in person, probably because anyone using it in person is liable to get punched in the face.

  8. #8 |  GeneralGarbage | 

    “…must therefore be “protected” as adolescents are supposed to be “protected” by age of consent laws (a subject for another day).”

    Can we just skip that discussion? The obsession that a certain segment of libertarians have with this issue is just creepy.

    The scare quotes are creepy enough.

  9. #9 |  En Passant | 

    #7 Brandon wrote on July 16th, 2012 at 11:41 am:

    “False consciousness” is one of the most frustrating fallacies to argue against, because not only is it an attempt to invalidate your entire argument without ever having to consider it, it is an attempt to invalidate you as a human being, and an attempt to wrest complete control of your life and decisions from you by the accuser.

    Best way to get past it that I’ve found is to own it.

    “Damn right! I’ve been brainwashed and I have false consciousness. Now, what do you have to say about the facts and logic I’ve just presented?”

  10. #10 |  Personanongrata | 

    In order to get around the “consenting adults” argument and negate the obvious symmetry between arguments for abortion rights and those for the right to have sex on one’s own terms, modern prohibitionists often argue that whores are incapable of rational adult decision-making….

    I’d argue that modern prohibitionists are the folks incapable of rational adult decision-making as more often than not they speak from a set of pre-approved talking-points and when asked to elaborate on their “opinion” they’re unable to do so as they truly have no opinion other than what has been shown to them in their closed-minded horse-blinkered existence.

  11. #11 |  John Spragge | 

    What Xenocles said. Just to take it a bit further, the whole conflation of sex work and human trafficking into sex trafficking not only erases sex workers who do not suffer from coercion, who work of their own free will, it also erases people trafficked, or enslaved, for purposes other than sexual exploitation. Boys enslaved as rug weavers don’t count as “sex trafficking”. Neither do people trafficked and exploited in ordinary occupations; not too long ago, an article detailed the plight of trafficked individuals forced into servitude as restaurant dishwashers. That kind of human trafficking ought to concern us, but as long as we keep the focus exclusively on sex work, we stand little chance of addressing it.

    I’d also like to endorse what “GeneralGarbage” said, although I find the word “creepy” lacking in precision. Reservations about the age of consent seem inconsistent with a libertarian perspective. Only people able to make relatively informed and responsible choices can act as genuinely free agents, and I simply don’t believe that expecting children to make that kind of decision about sex work makes anyone free. I also believe that a system of freedom under law only works when the law draws a clear bright line between legal and illegal conduct. Granted the occasional absurdity in age of consent laws, I still consider an entry on a birth register a better guide to conduct, and a better guide to determining guilt or innocence, than a vague and ultimately subjective standard that attempts to account for the deficits of a disorganized twenty-five year old and the advanced capacity of a precocious sixteen year old.

  12. #12 |  Elliot | 

    I agree that “vice” laws infringe on the rights of consenting adults and I don’t care what arguments the proponents of prohibition offer, the “consenting adults” argument trumps them.
    While I can understand that a person who is part of “whoredom” or sympathetic may want to tell the story of those who aren’t the “rock bottom” stereotypes, Most of these stories and arguments of advocates strike me as an example of romanticism, not representative of the typical.
    As a case in point: the HBO series “Cathouse” portends to be a voyeuristic “reality show” documentary. On the positive side, it shows how a legal enterprise offers a much safer environment, and it does give these women and their managers a means to tell their stories without being a dehumanized bit part in a movie or TV show. As with most “reality shows”, I am skeptical of selective editing and positive “spin”. For example, I suspect many of the women act as though they have a fun time because to show any negative attitude would probably hurt their sales. Most notably, I find their attitudes to be disingenuous when I consider the other side of the transactions: the Johns. I don’t believe that they aren’t bothered by being intimate with at least some of the men who are so pathetic they have given up on the challenge to pursue and seduce, to find someone else who desires them for themselves. Some of these guys have to be unattractive and even downright creepy, which probably makes the experience for the women rather unpleasant.
    I’m a complete outsider to that world, and I’m sure that other people have rather different attitudes and values. I don’t even care for strip clubs. The pack behavior and of groups of guys who frequent such places offends me (rudeness, misogyny). But more than that, I’m annoyed by women who pretend to be interested only for money. For me, there’s nothing better than sincere attraction and desire.
    On a slightly related topic, I watched an episode of the Howard Stern show, several years back when it was televised on E!, and among a group of adult film actresses, every single one admitted to having been molested as a child. While the experiences of those involved in the industry vary (e.g., the small fraction of producers who make female/couples-oriented movies), and plenty of actresses and models do not regret their choices, how much of the business itself (not the content, per se) involves depravity of which consumers are unaware? While it’s great that the laws against porn and erotica have been repealed/lessened so that most Americans are permitted the freedom to buy and view such products, how many would continue to buy them if they were aware of what went on behind the camera, or even cognisant of the probabilities that their cash might end up in the pocket of reprehensible people?

  13. #13 |  Bride of the Agitator « The Honest Courtesan | 

    […] contributions for the week started with “Range of Experience”, an argument that there is no such thing as a “typical whore” (supported by links to all of […]