The prostitute is the scapegoat for everyone’s sins, and few people care whether she is justly treated or not. Good people have spent thousands of pounds in efforts to reform her, poets have written about her, essayists and orators have made her the subject of some of their most striking rhetoric; perhaps no class of people has been so much abused, and alternatively sentimentalized over as prostitutes have been but one thing they have never yet had, and that is simple legal justice. – Alison Neilans
Yesterday I talked about the “hooker with a heart of gold” stock character, and I mentioned that she has appeared in literature, especially Western literature, for millennia. But there is no doubt in my mind that she appears more often in American films and television programs than in those of all other countries combined (even if we allow for the larger volume of media from the US), and more often than not she is even allowed a happy ending. Given that (as we discussed yesterday) such portrayals tend to indicate a positive or at least tolerant attitude toward prostitutes, one might feel safe in stating that most Americans have a soft spot for whores. Yet at the same time, the US has the most oppressive, punitive, evil-minded laws against prostitutes of any country outside the Muslim world, which would certainly lead one to conclude that most Americans hate whores with a passion. What’s going on here? Is there some explanation for America’s weird love/hate relationship with working girls? Yes, I think so; I believe it derives from the two separate and opposing, yet interlocked and seemingly inextricable, traditions upon which the United States was founded.
The vast spaces and distant location of the North American continent made it the ideal place for the displaced, disaffected and dissatisfied of Europe to go in search of their dreams. For some it was a place where they could build their own fortunes and own land they could otherwise never have; for others it was a place where they could practice their own brand of religion free from the state-imposed religions of Europe, and for some it was simply a place they could start over again. The key concept in all these dreams was of course Freedom (with a capital “F”), specifically freedom from monarchial tyranny. If there was ever a sacred concept in American thought, it would have to be Freedom. Of course, as with most sacred concepts, later generations tended to forget what the words actually meant, but we’ll come back to that later.
The practical capitalists sought the freedom to create wealth; most of them were highly educated gentlemen of the Enlightenment who were well-versed in history and philosophy and many of them saw the potential to create a Utopian state, free from religious or secular oppression, autocracy and the accumulated impedimenta of roughly 1300 years of European governmental tradition. So when they decided to throw off English rule and strike out on their own, their new government incorporated Roman-style checks and balances long since abandoned by European governments, but was otherwise based on the radically new theory of the social contract, the idea that governments were of and for the people rather than vice-versa. Though later abrogated and warped by power-hungry politicians in order to subvert its original philosophy, the American constitution was originally designed to keep the government from getting too large and consuming wealth as the Roman and later European governments had; it was intended to allow individual achievement while preventing the strong from preying on the weak. So from the very beginning there was a strong current of respect for individuality in the American character, coupled with an admiration for those who break the rules and do things their own way as the Founding Fathers had.
But at the same time, a vast number of the early settlers in the North American colonies were members of various religious sects which were unpopular in Europe. Some of these (such as the Quakers) were unpopular because they tended to disagree with kings a little too often, but most of the others were shunned because they were humorless party-poopers who were always preaching to everyone about what awful things fun and pleasure (especially sex) were. Modern Americans tend to whitewash and idealize the so-called “Pilgrim Fathers” who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, but the fact of the matter is that they were a bunch of dour, prudish Bible-thumpers who would not be welcome at many modern Thanksgiving feasts. And though one might think at first glance that these sour-minded wet blankets would reject the pursuit of happiness so important to the Founding Fathers, one would be wrong; after all, it takes hard work, perseverance and sacrifice to make a fortune, and the Puritan Protestants were all about hard work and sacrifice. As these traditions met and interacted, the Protestant work ethic became inextricably bound up in the American Dream and the idea of wealth as a God-given reward for a pure and godly life became inextricably bound up in American Protestantism. And as the United States expanded westward, they became more and more intertwined until it was difficult to see where one started and the other left off. 19th-century notions of scientific and social progress soon joined the mixture, creating rich and fertile soil for the growth of the Social Purity movement imported from England in the second half of the century.
As I discussed yesterday, the whore is by her very nature a rebel who refuses to accept the conventional restrictions on female behavior laid down by traditional patriarchal cultures; as such, she has an undeniable appeal to a people whose entire nation was founded in rebellion against the established order. Americans love rebels; though the North won the War Between the States, the brave struggle of the South against unbeatable odds was romanticized in American culture for about a century after the war’s end, and outlaws such as Jesse James and D.B. Cooper still inspire folk following despite their crimes. Witness, for example, the popular American support for the JetBlue Air Steward who told off a nasty passenger and made a colorful exit from the plane back in August. Given that predilection and the fact that whores are the ultimate capitalists, it should come as no surprise that many Americans tend to look kindly on us. I think this also explains the American fascination with streetwalkers in particular; the mythic streetwalker is a solitary figure who walks through the dirty, dangerous urban landscape in much the same way as the mythic cowboy rides alone through the dirty, dangerous landscape of the legendary Wild West. With her outrageous clothes and no-nonsense attitude, she makes as powerful a filmic image as the cowboy does, and indeed her Western equivalent, the “soiled dove” or saloon girl, is often paired with the cowboy. This is, I think, the reason for the persistent tendency to imagine all prostitutes as being streetwalkers; when the average person hears the word “prostitute” or any of its synonyms, the condensed image of a century of Hollywood streetwalkers strolls unbidden through his mind.
The other major root of the American character, however, lies buried deep in the cold and stony soil of New England, nourished by four hundred years of Puritan prudery and nursed by the likes of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards. That aspect is not amused by the harlot, nor does it find her even slightly endearing. It finds our refusal to submit to male domination appalling, our refusal to obey every Biblical injunction shocking, our avoidance of “honest work” outrageous and our making a living from ess-ee-ecks completely unacceptable. “Fornication!” screams Mather; “Sin and Damnation!” screams Edwards, and this dark, dismal part of the American psyche is ready to drag the whore to the pillory, whip her soundly and brand her forevermore with a scarlet letter.
For the first century of the new nation, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam argued and wrestled and struggled over their harlot daughters; this conflict generally resulted in our profession existing in a sort of twilight status, neither completely legal nor strictly illegal. This was especially true in areas which were not quite mainstream America yet; prostitution thrived in places like New Orleans, San Francisco and the “wild” western territories which had not yet become permeated with the stink of Puritan repression. Unfortunately, that all changed around the turn of the 20th century; the Civil War had established the pre-eminence of the federal government over those of the states, the now-huge country required an equally huge bureaucracy to run, mass communications and rapid steam transit made it possible to enforce Northeastern ideas of rigid, centralized government on the more freewheeling and independent populations of the Southern and Western states, and the Social Purity crusaders descended on the country like a plague of locusts, banning everything which carried a hint of decadence and “sin” about it. By 1918 prostitution was illegal everywhere in the United States, and with a few rare exceptions has remained so ever since. The average American has in recent decades dropped into a fearful sleep haunted by nightmares of terrorists, illegal aliens, “liberals” or “conservatives”, human traffickers, Satanists and “pedophiles” and he covers his head with a pillow and cries for Big Brother to protect him from the products of his own imagination. The cowboy has been “deconstructed” and the proud whore has been turned into a helpless victim, and the only places in which they retain their old status in the American mind are those shared fantasies we call movies and television shows.