How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child. - William Shakespeare, King Lear (I, iv)
The hubris which is an unfortunate but intrinsic characteristic of the modern mind leads the one so afflicted to believe that modern people are invariably more sophisticated, more moral and more “enlightened” than our ancestors were, and in many ways we are; we know more about the universe, have access to a greater range of ideas and experiences, tend to have greater respect for individual differences, have largely eradicated the worst forms of slavery and are far less violent. But in other ways we have remained static, oscillated or even declined, and unfortunately the latter condition applies to sex work. Since the beginnings of civilization the status of the whore has progressively (though not steadily) declined; as I said in my column of one year ago today:
Despite neofeminist dogma about prostitution being a manifestation of patriarchy, the truth is actually the opposite: Prostitutes had our highest status in the ancient Goddess-centered cultures because we were rightfully viewed as the gateway between mortal men and the great Feminine Principle. It wasn’t until the patriarchal cultures succeeded in subordinating the Earth Mother to the Sky Father that our status started to slip…by the 6th century BCE free temple prostitutes in Athens had largely been supplanted by slave-girls given to the temple as donations, and the Athenian leader Solon tried to eradicate secular prostitution by establishing cheap state-owned brothels and persecuting streetwalkers…In general, male-dominated governments are not really happy about being unable to control prostitutes, and maladjusted men are unhappy that women they don’t own can demand (and get) generous compensation for their sexual favors while men cannot make similar demands from women.
Though in the West courtesans held high status from ancient Greece until the turn of the 20th century, the number of women who could qualify for the title and the number of men who could afford them steadily decreased. In the East, government control over the lives of harlots slowly increased, and while we were tolerated in Europe until the 16th century the Reformation ushered in an age of anti-whore rhetoric (derived from the preaching of the ancient Hebrew prophets, as described in last year’s column) which slowly but inexorably grew until it combined with the social engineering agenda of the late 19th century “social purity movement” and resulted in our profession being not merely controlled but outlawed on a large scale for the first time in history. And though these laws have been repealed or softened in most civilized countries, they continue in others (such as the U.S. and various theocratic or repressive regimes), and even the countries where we aren’t classified as criminals generally view prostitution as a “social ill” to be tolerated or controlled. Worst of all, Victorian moralists pronounced us subhuman and modern prohibitionists continue their rhetoric, declaring us childlike “victims” suffering from “false consciousness” and unable to make adult decisions for ourselves.
This is all particularly galling because, as our ancestors knew, we serve a valuable social function. In the most ancient societies we were honored not merely for our connection to the Goddess, but also for our role in managing the power of male sexuality, and though in later patriarchal societies we were controlled, contained or tolerated, nobody was stupid enough to suggest that we should be eradicated. But thanks to the delusional idealism of the social purity crusaders, we are now viewed by many as not merely unnecessary, but an active harm to society…a society which would collapse into sexual chaos without us. The tide is starting to turn; some cultures have again admitted that ours is an acceptable trade, and many individuals recognize that we serve a vital social role. But it’s still a pleasant surprise to see an editorial like this one from the September 27th Vancouver Sun:
We, as a society, do not value the services of sex workers. Sex work is productive work with many direct and indirect benefits to the mental and physical well-being of society…Through our inaction and misguided policies based on this attitude we have created a more dangerous situation for the most vulnerable workers…It’s a huge challenge to change Canadian law given the ambivalence and hypocrisy surrounding this issue but…nothing will change for the better unless we start to appreciate what sex workers do.
And though they’re not seeking recognition for the goodness of her work as a madam but rather for a good deed a person of any profession could have performed, it’s still nice to see people seeking a pardon for their ancestor saying that they’re proud of her:
…when the massive concrete dam below Cora Brooks’ house suddenly broke apart in September 1911, sending 260 million gallons of water churning down the narrow valley toward Austin [Pennsylvania], her quick phone call into town gave many enough warning to run to high ground. The torrent of water obliterated the industrial town, but the woman saved all but 78 of its residents. Three months later, when Cora Brooks pleaded guilty to the charges of running a “house of ill repute” and selling liquor without a license, the town came to her defense. “Had it not been for her, undoubtedly hundreds more lives would have been lost,” residents said in a letter to the sentencing judge. “Large numbers of people were fed by her, and the suffering and distressed rendered aid and assistance.”
“Cora Brooks,” the judge declared, “proved she was not only human, but humane,” and he released her with a $200 fine. But the conviction still stands, and Cora’s distant relatives are now asking Gov. Tom Corbett to pardon her of her public sins. “She was the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold,” says Margo Baker Crosby. Yes, she was a thorn in the side of the town’s elite, “but that was part of her charm…She needs to be recognized for her good deeds that saved that town”…the director of Potter County’s tourist promotion agency, [Cora’s great-grandson] David Brooks…said…He’s over the embarrassment of her trade. “I’m proud,” he said. “If you’re going to be known for something, saving the town isn’t bad.”
Maybe one day in the distant future, men like David Brooks will be able to say they’re proud of whore ancestresses because of their work, rather than in spite of it. But I doubt that will be anytime soon.