Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong. - Thomas Jefferson
When Professor Higginbotham furrowed his brow and stared into the distance, it invariably meant he was wrestling with some abstruse problem. When he steepled his fingers as well, it meant the problem had resolutely resisted his attempts to conquer it for some time. And when he added quiet huffing noises to the mixture, it meant the problem was winning. On this particular occasion, it seemed likely that some new mannerism would join the others to signal a previously-unprecedented level of frustration.
The problem in question was exactly five feet, two and one-quarter inches tall in stocking feet, admitted to one hundred and ten pounds, was somewhere in the general vicinity of twenty-five years old, had brown hair (tinted red) and hazel eyes, and answered to the name “Bernadette” (though it was not the one her mother had given her at birth). She was quite intelligent, terribly witty and could speak English, French and German; she played the piano creditably well, was a good cook (by her own estimation), knew how to drive an automobile and attended every Chautauqua she could; and was also a Presbyterian, a bibliophile, a birdwatcher and a suffragette.
And a prostitute.
And that last was the nub of Professor Higginbotham’s quandary.
The learned man had spent some years in the study of the Great Social Evil, and was recognized as an expert in it; he wrote articles for both scholarly journals and popular magazines, and was often asked to speak to ladies’ societies and politicians alike on the subject of white slavery. But the professor was not content to rest upon his laurels; he was determined to prepare the definitive text on the subject so as to assist those arguing for its eradication through progressive legislation. But this had proven more difficult than he had at first imagined: the pimps and madams, no doubt fearful of the light he meant to shine upon their noxious trade, refused to allow him access to their charges without payment; and the fallen women he managed to interview on the street or in jails kept giving him outlandish responses which indicated to him that nothing they said could be trusted.
After several months of fruitless effort Professor Higginbotham was sorely tempted to throw up his hands in despair, when suddenly one fine summer evening Bernadette had approached him in the vestibule of a house of ill repute to which he was once again attempting to gain entrance; she introduced herself, asked what exactly he was trying to accomplish and responded to his exasperated explanation by offering to meet him for tea the following afternoon. Though he was reluctant to be seen in public in the company of a known prostitute, the professor was desperate; he accepted her offer, made sure he arrived at the rendezvous early, patiently explained his course of inquiry and asked if she could answer some questions and introduce him to others in her situation who were willing to do the same. He could barely contain his joy when she answered in the affirmative.
Looking back on it, a small voice in the professor’s consciousness expressed the opinion that perhaps it would have been better for all involved if he had given up; the voice was quickly suppressed by the other elements of the professor’s psyche, but not before his ego had heard it and responded with a disapproving frown. Despite his confusion, it was certainly better that he had more data than before, and he was certain that he could eventually reconcile all of the information he had collected with what was already known about prostitution. After all, a great deal of it was not at all problematic; little he had heard from Negro or Chinese prostitutes contradicted his assumptions, and though only a small number of the white girls would admit to having been forced into their tragic straits, that was easily attributable to the shame he knew they must feel, whether they admitted it or not. And while a few of the women of all groups said things he could not easily fit into the model, that was almost certainly a result of the short and superficial interaction he had with them; longer and more thorough interaction would probably have allowed him to discover the reasons for the seeming contradictions, had the women allowed it.
Unfortunately, that line of reasoning did not hold for Bernadette. His association with her was neither short-lived nor superficial; in fact, she had given him more of her time than he could ever have hoped for, and he had come to know her quite well and to feel a greater affection for her than he would have thought possible. He was quite certain that she was both honest and rational, and yet a great deal of what she told him – both about her own life and those of her fellow prostitutes – made no sense to him at all. She denied that coercion was common, averred that venereal diseases were not epidemic among them, and insisted that selling their bodies was for most of them a pragmatic response to the abominably-low wages modern industrial society offered women, rather than the result of coercion, congenital degeneracy or moral turpitude. And even if he could dismiss her claims as beliefs which her sweet nature had constructed in order to protect her mind from the dreadful reality inhabited by her sisters, the fact remained that they were certainly true for her personally.
When the anomaly first became apparent, the professor suspected that she was not actually a prostitute at all; he was, however, forced by the evidence of his own senses to abandon this theory in very short order. He then reasoned that her declaration of contentment with her lot was merely a defensive pose which would crumble the moment she saw a way out of her awful condition; however, when she turned down his sincere offer of honorable marriage, it became clearly obvious that she was telling the truth. The contradiction was maddening: Bernadette was an intelligent, sensible, well-bred, well-educated girl without a dishonest bone in her body who claimed not only to have chosen a filthy, degrading trade for rational, practical reasons, but also to be not unusual in that respect. This flew in the face of everything Professor Higginbotham knew; there must be some missing variable, some x factor as it were, which explained why Bernadette and a few others like her could submit to men’s bestial desires for money without having been forced to do so by man, nature or bad company. But what that x factor might be had eluded the professor for weeks, and had stubbornly refused to reveal itself to him today despite his devoting the deepest cogitation to it all afternoon.
His level of frustration can be judged by the fact that an impossible solution had presented itself to his searching mind several times already today: what if she was right, and he was wrong? What if her analysis was exactly correct, and the common wisdom about the flesh trade, developed through the work of three generations of dedicated scholars, had veered radically away from reality due to incomplete data and fallacious initial assumptions? What if a certain fraction of women were neither asexual nor as subject to lust as common men, and were thus able to exploit men’s desires to earn a living for themselves, just as any entrepreneur might prosper by taking advantage of human frailties? What if harlots were neither victims nor villains nor vixens, but simply businesswomen?
But no, it was preposterous; it would mean the whole citadel of social thought had been constructed on a faulty foundation without anyone having noticed. Such things simply couldn’t be true; they were as fanciful as Mr. Wells’ scientific romances. No, there must be something else, some credible factor which did not require the re-thinking of everything that was known about womankind.
Perhaps Bernadette was a witch…