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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

How infinitely one of Your own Sex ador’d You, and that, among all the numerous Conquest, Your Grace has made over the Hearts of Men, Your Grace had not subdu’d a more intire Slave.  –  Aphra Behn

Some women are whores out of necessity, some by circumstance and some by nature, but Hortense Mancini carried whoredom in her blood.  She was an especially wild, bold and lusty whore from a family of whores, and a number of her descendants followed in her footsteps.  The fact that she, her family, her clients and her lovers were all noble as well does not change her essential whorishness, as we shall see; it did, however, ensure that her assignations, adventures and escapades would be recorded for posterity.

Hortense (or as her father called her, Ortensia) was born in Rome on June 6th, 1646; she was the fourth of five daughters borne by Girolama Mazzarini to her husband, Baron Lorenzo Mancini, who dabbled in astrology and black magic and died rather suddenly in 1650.  Fortunately, Giraloma’s older brother Giulio had joined the clergy, become active in politics, and risen to the rank of both cardinal and chief minister to Louis XIV of France (where he was known as Cardinal Mazarin); she therefore packed up her brood and moved them to Paris, where she hoped their powerful uncle would find them rich and influential husbands.  And that he did; Laure married Louis de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme; Olympe married Eugène-Maurice of Savoy-Carignano; Marie was the first love of the young Louis XIV, but was married off to Prince Lorenzo Colonna of Italy; and Marie Anne married Maurice Godefroy de la Tour d’Auvergne, duc de Bouillon.  But Hortense was the most beautiful and most favored by her uncle, so it’s unsurprising he turned down the suit of the penniless Stuart who was only a few months later restored to the throne of England as Charles II.  The cardinal then offered Charles a dowry of 5 million livres to make Hortense Queen of England, but Charles refused; this, however, does not mean he never got to bed the girl he was so enamored with; he just had to wait a few years.

Three months before her 15th birthday, Hortense was married off to Armand Charles de La Porte, Duc de La Meilleraye, one of the richest men in Europe; unfortunately, his miserliness and prudishness matched his wealth and he was also mentally ill.  Among his more bizarre behaviors were searching Hortense’s room for hidden lovers before locking her in at night, having his maidservants’ front teeth knocked out to make them unattractive, and vandalizing art to eradicate the genitals of human figures.  But this doesn’t mean he was uninterested in sex with his wife; within five years she had borne him four children.  Still, one can only imagine the dreariness of sex with such a man; sometime in 1666 she began a lesbian affair with Sidonie de Courcelles, and when he discovered them he sent them both to a convent (from which they escaped after tormenting the nuns for a while).  Finally, her brother helped her to escape her awful husband just a week after her 22nd birthday; he hired an escort to take her to Rome, where she moved in with her sister Marie (now the Princess Colonna).  King Louis was still very fond of Marie, and as a favor to her he granted Hortense an income of 24,000 livres.  She also became the mistress of the Duke of Savoy, whom her uncle had turned down as a suitor ten years before; he gave her a house, where she lived until his death in 1675.  At that point, two things happened:  the Duke’s jealous widow evicted her, and her husband managed to get a judgment freezing all of her income, including the royal pension.

Hortense was desperate; she only knew one way to get money, and nobody wanted to cross her powerful and vindictive husband.  In stepped Ralph Montagu, the English ambassador to France; he secured her passage to England (she made the voyage in male drag) and an introduction to her former suitor, Charles II…and Hortense did the rest.  By the summer of 1676 she had displaced Louise de Kerouaille as chief mistress, securing thereby an income of £4,000 (English money, inaccessible to her husband).  His Majesty did not much mind her lesbian affair with Anne, his 16-year-old daughter by Lady Castlemaine (except for the time they had a fencing match in their nightgowns in St. James’s Park); her affair with Louis I of Monaco, however, was another thing entirely.  He even cut off her income, and though he relented on the money less than three days later, he did not restore her to her position (which was again taken up by Louise de Kerouaille).

History does not have much to say about Hortense’s lovers after the King, except for a lesbian affair with the writer Aphra Behn.  After Charles’ death her income was continued by his brother James II, whose wife Mary was her cousin; even after James was deposed in 1689, Queen Mary II continued to support her (though at a lower level).  She spent her time running a salon in her home, and died of drink (or suicide, depending on whom one believes) on November 9th, 1699; she was 53 years old.  Her long-estranged husband then added a creepy epilogue to her story by claiming her body and taking it around France for months before finally allowing it to be buried in the tomb of her uncle, Cardinal Mazarin.

Back in the first paragraph I mentioned that several of Hortense’s descendants followed in her footsteps.  Her son, Paul Jules de La Porte, duc Mazarin et de La Meilleraye, had two children, a son and a daughter.   The son, Guy de la Porte, had a great-granddaughter who married Prince Honoré IV of Monaco in 1777 and thus became the ancestress of the current Prince.  But the daughter, Armande, married Louis de Mailly, Prince d’Orange and became the mother of five beautiful daughters, of which four would later become mistresses to King Louis XV of France; she herself became the mistress of the King’s chief minister, the Duc de Bourbon.  For some women, whoredom is only skin deep; some have it in their blood, and others are whores to the bone.  But Hortense Mancini was a whore down to her genes, and I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that many of her descendants are still plying the trade in one way or another to this day.

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Eventually, the item believed to be Napoleon’s penis was bought in an auction…  –  Ishaan Tharoor

As so often happens these days, I got occupied last night and was unable to finish setting everything up by deadline.  Sorry about that!  The video below is from Mike Siegel, who also contributed “accidentally”; Radley Balko gave us “headline”, Skye  “transit”, Lenore Skenazy “camping” and Popehat “call out”.

From the Archives

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That is how we ended up in the church, without knowing how it would all end, without knowing if we would get out dead or alive.  But it was really the last thing that we could do to try and save our skin.  –  Maria de Lourdes

Protest at St. Nizier's 1975Forty years ago today, the sex workers of Lyon, France protested the unrelenting torment the cops inflicted upon them by occupying the Church of St. Nizier.  Despite its bawdy reputation in the English-speaking world, France has never been friendly to whores; beginning in the 16th century the French pioneered many of the laws and tactics used to harass us throughout the world to this day, and the Code Napoleon officially gave the police power to “control” prostitution (with results any regular reader could predict).  The severity of the maltreatment ebbed and flowed throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries until the government decided to revenge its humiliation at the hands of the Nazis on the bodies of sex workers, and France became officially “abolitionist” in 1960.

By August of 1973 the cops’ depredations had become so severe a street protest was organized, but it did not end well and the police were only emboldened to make things worse.  Early in 1975 they closed down the hotels de passe, cheap establishments where street workers took their clients, then proceeded to harry them with fines; the department decreed that each girl was to receive two or three fines per day, but because multiple cops were involved it could sometimes be five or more.  If a woman went to pay her fines, she was intentionally delayed in the police station for several hours so she would lose most of her night; if she didn’t pay she would be arrested and jailed, and her children abducted by the state if there were no relatives to take them.  Meanwhile, the tax department would present them with huge bills assuming numbers of clients that would fit comfortably in the masturbatory fantasies of “sex trafficking” fetishists.

Something had to give, and on June 2nd two sex workers named Ulla and Barbara led a group of 100 prostitutes to occupy a church in hopes of calling attention to their plight.  They had an ally in Father Louis Blanc, who secured the cooperation of several other priests; they planned to occupy the Church of St.Bonaventure, but the police found out and began to prepare for mass arrests of the protesters as they arrived.  Fortunately, Ulla was tipped off in time and diverted the protesters to St. Nizier instead; volunteers waited inside to direct each arrival out through the side doors while the cops waited outside in their cars, thinking they would wait until they could get a good crop of victims before springing their trap.  Father Blanc remembers, “The police officers looked as if they were having fun in their cars.  But after a while, they were having less fun because…’what is happening?’ We have disappeared!  In the meantime the prostitutes have entered the Church of St. Nizier, where there are no police.”  The priest at St. Nizier was Father Béal, and with his help over 100 whores were able to congregate there before the cops realized where they had gone.

By the evening of June 3rd, the news of the protest had spread across France, and over the next few days to other countries as well.  Sex workers all over France began to occupy other churches; in Paris 200 whores occupied the Chapel of Saint Bernard.  The media interviewed Ulla and other sex workers, allowing them to air their grievances for all to hear and they issued a “Letter to the People of Lyon” which read, in part,

…we haven’t taken up prostitution because we are depraved.  Prostitution is the only means we have found to deal with the problems of life…People regard us as “dirty” or “abnormal” women, but at the same time they say we are needed…Prostitution is not forbidden under French law and theoretically we are citizens like everyone else.  But because society is ashamed of the fact that it needs us, it treats us as criminals, people who can be subjected to the full repressive might of the police…

Most feminists of 1975 still actually supported women’s choices, and figures like Simone de Beauvoir spoke up for the sex workers; other activists protested outside the church in a show of solidarity. Their demands were simple; as stated in a pamphlet they circulated outside, “We will only leave the church once you have given us the guarantee that you will stop throwing us in jail each time you think there is a repeat offense.  Our children do not want their mothers to go to jail.”  The protesters told the media they wished to speak to Madame Giroud, then State Secretary for Women, but before the request could even be officially made Giroud refused, claiming this was not a women’s issue at all but rather the responsibility of the Minister of Interior; the latter politician, Michel Poniatowski, decided to reply with violence, and at 5 AM on June 10th ordered the police to remove the protesters from all of the churches.

In Paris and some other places, the removal was accomplished with the usual police tactics of smashing down doors and beating women with truncheons, but at St. Nizier they decided to use a trick.  A cop called Father Béal pretending to be a reporter who wanted to speak to Ulla, and when the church door was unlocked to admit the priest with his fake message, armed cops sprang from hiding; they pushed him aside and swarmed into the building 120 strong, accompanied by 20 dogs and equipped with tear gas.  Most of the women were simply ordered out, but Ulla and Barbara were beaten so severely they had to be hospitalized.  Father Béal lodged a formal protest against the violation of the ancient principle of asylum, but Poniatowski replied that police could enter anywhere when “public order” was disturbed, citing a law from 1905 in support of his actions.

Hooking vans in LyonBut despite the government’s refusal to peacefully grant the demands, officials must have been anxious to avoid similar embarrassment in the future; the harassment stopped, the cops with the highest numbers of sex worker arrests were reassigned to other duties, and the ludicrous tax bills no longer appeared.  By 1994 the culture had shifted sufficiently for “pimping” to be defined more narrowly, thus ending for a time the harassment of partners, roommates, adult children, etc with “avails” charges.  Of course, that didn’t last long, and regular readers have seen the tide once again turn toward repression in the form of the “Swedish model“, laws against “looking like a whore” and even repeated parking fines for the vans from which most street workers now operate.  But the protesters and their successors have not passively watched all this happen:

…the whores began holding regular meetings and soon formed the French Collective of Prostitutes, on which the English Collective of Prostitutes was later modeled.  Women in a number of other countries were also inspired to form groups, and a number of these came together with Margo St. James’ COYOTE to form the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights (ICPR), the organization whose work and example helped to win prostitution law reform in a number of European countries and provided an example which inspired similar campaigns in many other parts of the world.  In a way, the modern sex worker rights movement was born on that June 2nd in Lyon, so we celebrate it now as International Whores’ Day.

I’ve written about this occasion before, but the greater detail in today’s column was made possible by a French-language documentary being broadcast today on both Radio France and Radio Belgium; it was produced by Australian sex worker rights activist Eurydice Aroney, who called it to my attention about six weeks ago and reminded me of it again recently.  You can listen to the show at the link above, and Eurydice kindly provided me with this English translation of the transcript.  She and I both think it’s very important that sex workers know about the history of our movement; please help us accomplish that goal by publicizing the documentary and this column on social media!

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Police don’t take well to limits on their power.  –  Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Hawaii was the last American state to criminalize prostitution; our trade was tolerated there until 1944, when the police chief of Honolulu, William Gabrielson, closed the brothels in a fit of pique after the whores went on strike against the draconian rules he had imposed on them, and the military officials at Pearl Harbor sided with the whores.  A few years later prostitution was officially criminalized as part of the process of obeisance required for the territory to become a state, and since then Hawaii in general, and Honolulu in particular, have tried to make up for the late start by coming up with some of the most grotesque anti-whore shenanigans imaginable.

Hawaii flagOne example came to light in March of last year.  As longtime readers know, cops raping sex workers as part of a “sting” operation is standard operating procedure; it’s frowned upon in some places and tolerated in others, and in PennsylvaniaIndiana and  Florida it’s shamelessly defended in court every time a victim of this government-authorized rape complains about it (the usual excuse is that sex workers are “sophisticated” while simultaneously being pathetic, infantile victims).  But Hawaii had taken the unusual step of officially granting cops the right to rape sex workers by spelling the permission out in the text of the prostitution law.  When a legislator discovered this provision and rewrote the law to scrap it, the cops demanded that their decades-old droit du seigneur remain in place, and the politicians probably would’ve fallen over each other in their haste to lick the cops’ boots had not the media gotten hold of the story and a public outcry not ensued.  Of course, reporters misstated the new law as A) granting the cops a new right they hadn’t already enjoyed for a long time, and B) being unique to Hawaii (when in fact the only thing unusual about it was the clear delineation of the raping privilege).

Apparently, being unofficially allowed to rape isn’t enough for Hawaiian cops, though, so they had to come up with a new kind of sadism to inflict upon women.  On Monday we were treated to this scintillating example of local-TV journalism:

Honolulu police have arrested more than a dozen women at various massage parlors…It’s…a huge victory for a neighborhood fed up with illegal activity…Sixteen women were arrested ranging in age from 24 to 60…“I feel safer…It’s always good to get crime off the street,” said [a local badgelicker]…They were booked for sex assault, because, as former Honolulu prosecutor Peter Carlisle explained, “the person knowingly exposes themselves to another person under circumstances that is [sic] likely to cause alarm.”  This type of of sex assault is a misdemeanor, which could mean a year in jail for the women…

Though Hawaii is as invested in “sex trafficking” hysteria as most states, there’s virtually none of that here (except for an obligatory mention at the very end to justify Homeland Security funds being illegally diverted to enforce local vice laws); this is plain old “lock up the dirty criminals” talk, right down to the asinine characterization of a private room inside a business as a “street” and the warping of normal, peaceful behavior into something “criminal” in the sick minds of cops and prosecutors.  Fortunately, most others don’t subscribe to the twisted fantasies of these sociopathic deviants, and the uproar over the ridiculous charges has been considerable; SWOP has a petition asking that the charges be dropped, and attorneys representing the women had this to say:

…The assault charge is because the women allegedly groped the officers.  But attorney Myles Breiner, who represents several of the women, said his clients were forced to touch the men after they refused the officers’ solicitations for sex.  “To charge (the women) with sex assault in the fourth degree is so ludicrous it’s such an abuse of authority”…a prostitution arrest only requires an agreement on price…Legal experts said this new approach raises legal questions because a solicitation for sex implies consent.  “It’s not a sexual assault.  It perverts what the whole statute is about”…The charge…is…usually applied when someone is accused of groping another person.  [If convicted, the sex workers would]…have their green cards revoked [and would be forced to] register as sex offenders…

Python copSpeaking of “ludicrous”, take a look again at the prosecutor’s words in the first blockquote: “the person knowingly exposes themselves to another person under circumstances that is [sic] likely to cause alarm“.  The idea that a cop out to entrap a massage parlor worker would be “alarmed” at the sight of her genitals is too absurd even for a Monty Python sketch, but the charge takes on a darker (and larger) significance when one reads the rest of the sentence the prosecutor (mis)quotes, quoted (correctly) here by Elizabeth N. Brown: “likely to alarm the other person or put the other person in fear of bodily injury.”  What’s that cops always claim when they murder a dog or human, or tase a 5-year-old, a pregnant woman or an old man in a wheelchair?  Oh yeah, “I was in fear for my life.”  Is this the next step in American cops’ unending escalation of force?  It’s only one step from a cop claiming a woman half his size put him “in fear of bodily injury” from the sight of her pussy, to tasing her or gunning her down using the same excuse.  “Aloha” can mean either “hello” or “goodbye”; though Hawaiian cops intend it to be the former for this new and horrifying anti-whore tactic, sex worker activists and our allies need to make absolutely sure it’s the latter.

 

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The enforcement of anti-trafficking laws…[has always grown] the power of the state while criminalising the behaviour of migrating women.  –  Jessica Pliley

Whore Madonnas

Social wisdom would have us believe that sex industry workers are terrible parents who routinely jeopardize their children’s safety by bringing “perverts” around, leaving them to raise themselves, and setting an example of depravity.  Social wisdom is INCORRECT.  Children of sex workers…are more likely to be level-headed, socially aware, critical thinkers.  Rather than putting their parents through a lot of grief, they are strong allies of their parents.  Gutsy, confident, young people who speak their minds and care about others…

The Red Umbrella 

Gail Brown…worked as a private escort and [Warren] Mann, a long haul truck driver, was a regular client.  But Mann fell in love and wanted a relationship.  When she wouldn’t give him that, he flew into a cold rage and tried to kill her July 26, 2012.  Brown’s teenaged daughter, Kayla…ran into her mother’s room…as Mann straddled her and repeatedly smashed her head on the floor…she ran for help while Mann made an eerie 911 call…to report [himself]…Brown’s liver was busted into multiple pieces, she suffered severe head trauma, her throat and larynx were crushed…For two months, Brown lay in coma…her memory is poor, her health is bad, and she suffers permanent physical and emotional pain, she can still walk, although with a limp…

My Readers Write Kirsten Gillibrand

Absolute genius from Mark Draughn:

Last summer, on June 28th, I saw Arizona Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand place an 8-week old calico kitten in a DeWalt 5-quart blender and press the start button, killing it instantly. She then feasted hungrily on the bloody remains, consuming the poor creature, scales and all. It is the single most vile act of animal cruelty I have ever witnessed, and by coming forward now, I hope to put a spotlight on the problem of animal cruelty…

And it gets much, much better from there.

Full of Themselves (#4)

One of the latest examples of shaming strippers comes from a community that appropriates stripper traditions, but vehemently denies any association with the sex industry. Many pole dance hobbyists, or women who practice the pole dancing fitness trend, are on a mission to distance themselves from exotic dancers.  That’s what happened last weekend in Beijing, when competitive pole athletes at the World Pole Dance Championships set the record straight to the AFP that their sport is inspired by ancient Indian and Chinese dance traditions and has absolutely no relationship to strippers who might claim otherwise…

Above the Law 

This article is no surprise to regular readers, who know that cops commit rape at a rate several times that of men in the general population.  But it’s nice to see SOMEBODY in the media acknowledging that rapist cops aren’t “a few bad apples” engaging in “isolated incidents”:

…sexual misconduct is the nation’s second most reported allegation of officer misconduct, according to a 2013 report by the Cato Institute.  Nevertheless, broad narratives of police brutality tend to ignore both female victims and the often specific nature of the violence leveled against them in favor of focusing on the highly visible use of weapons to kill men…Women are subject not only to differential forms of violence by police, but also to entrenched stereotypes surrounding sexual assault, which may further inhibit their seeking justice for this abuse…

The Widening Gyre 

This rather ordinary anti-streetwalker nonsense bears clear signs of infection by “sex trafficking” tropes:

…[Luton] residents who say the area has become a “designated hub” for prostitution…The police, who are two years into a five-year anti-prostitution strategy, said they have seen “significant improvements” in ending the trade…Mr Khadam said:  “The new girls are teenagers and one of them I saw was quite short only about 5’2″ and I am quite concerned about that”…Matt Ryan said:  “High Town has become a processing hub/centre for street prostitution”…Wendy Walker…said…”You get kerb crawlers stopping and asking if you want business, even if you are a disabled, old pensioner or a pregnant woman.”  A Bedfordshire Police spokeswoman said…”The operation has also resulted in the detection of other criminality…including alcohol and drug-related crime and anti-social behaviour…Our multi-agency approach aims to support women to leave sex work and to lead crime free, healthy and happy lives.”

busybodiesIt’s hard to pick the funniest part of this; is it the cop pretense that the world’s oldest profession can be “ended” by cop violence, and in 5 years no less? Is it the old lady’s sexual fantasy that punters still find her desirable? Or is it the notion that a woman who’s 5’2″ tall must be a teenager?

So Close and Yet So Far

Dear would-be allies, please talk to the actual experts on sex work – sex workers ourselves – before belching up a bunch of asinine myths, bogus statistics and wrongheaded opinions in an attempt to speak up for us:

It often feels like the only barrier is a society of puritanical simpletons, but there are legitimate concerns…If legalized, the unsafe, archetypal pattern of pimp and hooker and trick could be readily dissolved.  In a study of 854 street prostitutes, 95 percent had been physically assaulted and 75 percent raped.  This exploitative model could be easily transformed to the healthier brothel system.  Nevada is already ahead of its time with 19 legal brothels, all requiring condoms and weekly tests for sexual transmitted diseases…pragmatic legalization could end the unhealthy reality of street hooking…

Bread and Circuses 

The “sex trafficking” circus needs victims to die for the crowd’s satisfaction:

…the FBI…trumpeted the federal jury conviction of “sex trafficking ring leader” Hortencia Medeles-Arguello, a 71-year-old Houston woman…was…found…guilty of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking, conspiracy to harbor aliens, aiding and abetting to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.  She…faces life in prison.  The feds also seized $2.5 million in assets…So who is this apparent criminal mastermind, and how did she oversee an enterprise involving at least 13 sex-traffickers and countless trafficking victims?  Well, she owned a bar. And she didn’t ask too many questions about what people were doing in rented rooms upstairs…The FBI contends that Arguello “should have known” that some of those selling sex in her establishment “were either underage or victims of the beatings by their pimps”…

There will be many more such travesties before this is over, and they’ll rot in prison for about two decades until their convictions are reversed as those of Satanic panic victims have been.

Here We Go Again (#504)

The more of Jessica Pliley’s work I read, the more I like her:

In its 140-year history of fighting sex trafficking, the United States has always prioritised law enforcement, border control, and national security over aid to victims or concerns about privacy…the Immigration Bureau sought to build a stronger moral wall at the border in order to better identify sex workers who were evading the law.  It asked Congress to fortify the 1875 law with the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1917.  Combined, these outlawed the importation of sex workers, women coming for other “immoral” purposes, and men demonstrating “moral turpitude”.  They also made the acts of procuring, pimping, and sex work deportable offences.  With each additional law, the Immigration Bureau found itself in need of more manpower to carry out its mandate, surveilling the borders and the interior of the country in order to ensure both remained secure…

Marching Up Their Own Arses (#525)

The truth about the anti-whore “reality” show, 8 Minutes:

…one woman, who goes by Kamylla…received a call on her work number from the producers of the show, who immediately identified themselves as such (this is in contrast to the premise of the show, which implies that the women believe they are coming to a normal appointment)…She agreed to tape a segment for the show, in which she said she wanted help getting out of the business…She never heard back from them, and instead reached out herself, but no meaningful help was to come.  Kamylla found herself broke and needing to work again.  She posted an ad…and was arrested in a sting.  Now she was broke, frightened, and facing criminal charges, and when she reached out for help from 8 Minutes, Brown offered to pray for her…Kamylla wrote to Dan Savage after seeing a mention of the program on The Stranger’s blog, and Savage put her in touch with prominent Seattle sex worker activist Mistress Matisse.  Matisse leapt into action and began soliciting donations from trusted friends to help Kamylla with her immediate crisis.  Other members of the community soon followed: Domina Elle and Tara Burns helped create a website to tell her story…Kamylla’s own description of her experience in this Storify…[makes] it clear how little help she received in exchange for being fodder for reality TV…

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Unlike Takao who is very much missed, Komurasaki is missed by no one.  –  a Yoshiwara courtesan, quoted in 1683

By now the regular reader should have noticed three recurring themes in my harlotographies: one of them pertains only to whores of pre-modern times; the second up to at least a century ago (though it is more pronounced in ancient stories); and the third up until the present day.  Taking these in reverse order, they are as follows: the inability of amateurs to simply report biographical facts without embellishing, dramatizing and romanticizing them; the difficulty of ascertaining even numeric biographical details with any certainty; and the confusion of more than one harlot with the same name.  All three principles are highly noticeable in the tale of Takao, a Japanese oiran (courtesan) who lived from 1640 to 1659; the lady in question was one of at least six courtesans (some sources say as high as eleven) with that name, and so is generally designated with the unimaginative moniker “Takao II”.  Very little is known about her with any certainty other than the day of her death, December 5th, 1659; however, that didn’t stop talespinners from turning her story into one of the most popular of kabuki plays.

I’ve written at length about the world of the oiran, but this passage bears repeating:

Until 1617 prostitution was completely legal in Japan, but in that year the Tokugawa Shogunate issued an order restricting prostitution to certain areas on the outskirts of cities.  Yujo (“women of pleasure”) were licensed and ranked according to an elaborate hierarchy, with oiran (courtesans) at the top and brothel girls (who were essentially slaves) at the bottom.  These “red-light districts” were not implemented for the moralistic reasons which spurred their creation in the West, but rather to enforce taxation and keep out undesirables such as ronin (masterless samurai); prostitutes were also not allowed to leave the district except under certain rigidly-controlled circumstances.  Soon the districts grew into self-contained towns which offered every kind of entertainment a man might want, all entirely run by women.  Once a girl became a prostitute her birth-rank ceased to matter, and her status was determined by such factors as beauty, personality, intelligence, education and artistic skills.  Even among the oiran there were ranks, of which the highest were the tayu, courtesans fit to entertain nobles…

Takao was a tayu under contract to the Great Miura, the largest brothel of the Yoshiwara district.  Though we know absolutely nothing about her personality or skills, they must have been as striking as her beauty for her to achieve the position of “top girl” at the Miura house soon after her debut, and to become the most sought-after courtesan in Yoshiwara within a short time thereafter.  Every contemporary source (of which there are three) say she died of tuberculosis; Takabyōbu kuda monogatari (Tales of Grumbling Otokodate) also states that several of Takao’s clients paid for her funeral even though they had failed to visit her on her deathbed.  But despite “consumption” being the traditional cause of courtesan demise in Western romance, Takao’s tragic death at the peak of her success wasn’t nearly dramatic enough for kabuki; for that love, treachery and violent death needed to be added. 

Enter Date Tsunamune, who had become Lord of Mutsu at the age of eighteen after the death of his father.  Some of his kin, however, plotted against him and managed to trick him into visiting Yoshiwara as a means of getting him out of the way.  While there he hired Takao and immediately fell in love with her, proposing to buy out her contract and marry her.  This much is largely historical; Tsunamune was a real person whose did indeed face opposition from his family (and was deposed in 1660).  He may indeed have visited Yoshiwara, though a letter claimed to be from Takao to him has been proven a nineteenth-century forgery.  But the rest of the story as told for generations is the stuff of fiction.  Naturally, Takao is supposed to have rejected his offer; some sources feel mere dislike for the man or a desire for independence after the termination of her contract are insufficient motivations for the rejection, and invent a lover who had pledged to marry her when her term of indenture was up.  I’m sure y’all can guess where the story goes next:  Tsunamune refused to take “no” for an answer and made the brothel owner an offer she couldn’t refuse, Takao’s weight in gold for the contract.  The owner accepted, but took advantage of Tsunamune’s lust by putting iron weights into the sleeves of Takao’s robe, boosting her weight to 75 kilograms.  Some storytellers say that on the boat trip from the brothel, Takao hurled herself into the river to drown, counting on the weights to take her to the bottom; others say Tsunamune caught her in the attempt and killed her with his sword instead, then dumped her body.  Still another version says that Tsunamune had one of her fingers broken for every day she refused his bed, and after he had gone through both hands he had her hanged.  But all of these say that her death (whether by murder or suicide) was the excuse used by Tsunamune’s uncle to remove him from power.

Co-opting the lives of sex workers to tell lurid stories of woe and tragedy is nothing new; it’s been done for centuries, perhaps millennia, and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.  But at least in the Japanese variety, the tragedy derives from the freely-chosen actions of a proud, accomplished woman in defiance of fate, rather than from the pathetic subjugation of a cookie-cutter victim stereotype.  And I don’t think there’s any need to explain which I prefer.

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This essay first appeared in Cliterati on January 25th; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.

group sex statueEvery generation thinks it invented sex, or at least non-vanilla sex.  And I don’t just mean teenagers who are squicked out by the idea of their parents shagging, either; among vanilla folk and/or those outside the demimonde, the delusion seems to persist through life that nearly everybody who lived before a moving line (hovering like a will-o-the-wisp exactly at the year the believer reached puberty) only had missionary-position sex for the purpose of procreation. Even if the individual is familiar with the Kama Sutra, knows about classical Greek pederasty or has seen the menu of a Victorian brothel, these are likely to be dismissed as islands of kink in a vast sea of unsweetened vanilla custard stretching back into prehistory.  Even doctors quoted in newspaper articles are wont to make incredibly stupid, totally wrong statements like “the concept of having oral sex is something that seems less obscure to you than it did to your parents or grandparents.”  Well, my dears, I’m old enough to have given birth to many of you reading this, and I can assure you that oral sex was not remotely “obscure” to us in those long-ago and far-off days of the early ‘80s; nor was it “obscure” to any of the older men I trysted with in my late teens, many of whom are now old enough to be your grandfathers; nor was it “obscure” to my own grandparents’ generation, who came of age in the Roaring Twenties; nor to the 5.5% or more of the female population who worked as whores in every large city of the world in the 19th century, nor the 70% or more of the male population who had enjoyed their company at least once; nor to any of the long procession of harlots and clients stretching back to before busybodies invented the idea of policing other peoples’ sexuality.  Know what else wasn’t “obscure” to them?  Anal sex.  BDSM.  Role-playing.  Exhibitionism & voyeurism.  Homosexuality.  Cuckolding.  I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.  Here’s a hint:  most lawmakers have always been pompous ignoramuses too obsessed with telling other people what to do to actually have normal lives, so by the time they get around to banning something it’s a pretty safe bet the majority of everybody else in that culture over the age of 16 already knows about it, and many of them are doing it.

Chief among the popular sex acts that modern mythology pretends were “obscure” is masturbation, at least for women.  The common delusion is that because a culture didn’t like to talk about something, it must not have existed; accordingly, the idea has arisen that Victorian girls were somehow so carefully controlled that they never discovered that touching oneself between the legs (or riding rocking horses) feels good.  And because many women have difficulty reaching orgasm without some form of masturbation, that must mean that pre-20th century women all went around in a perpetual state of sexual frustration.  In the past few years, the ridiculous myth has arisen that Victorian doctors actually gave women orgasms without knowing what they were, and that the vibrator was invented to speed up what they viewed as an odious task.

Where do I begin?  In the first place, this tale is so incredibly recent I never heard of it during any of my extensive sexological reading in my teens and twenties; it seems to date to the nineties at the earliest.  Next, it’s a lovely example of Anglocentrism; just because Britons and Americans were so publicly hung-up about sex in the 19th century, doesn’t mean everyone else in Europe, Asia, Africa and the entire Southern Hemisphere was; are we to believe the bulk of female humanity was bereft of the blessing of orgasm until wise white sagesVictorian dildo ad bestowed the gift of the vibrator on their benighted nether regions?  Furthermore, the idea that public posturing actually indicates private feelings, to the point that those who spread this legend actually imagine that dudes were strenuously trying to avoid touching strange women’s twats, is just so colossally dumb it could only be believed in the middle of the neo-Victorian Era.  And a brain has to be pretty deeply mired in 21st-century chauvinism to actually believe that those silly old Victorians didn’t know what a freaking orgasm looked like.  But you don’t have to take my word for all that:

…some historians have claimed women were brought to a “hysterical paroxysm” (supposedly an orgasm that nobody wanted to admit to), by their doctors through “pelvic massage” (masturbation).  To aid them, a vibrating device was invented because there were just so many women who needed this form of treatment that the poor doctors’ hands were getting tired, and they had to use a machine…this…idea…seems to have taken root in our popular culture, helped by “shock exposés”, a few books, and the 2011 film Hysteria, where…Victorian doctor…Mortimer Granville, turns his 1880s invention of a muscular massage device into a sexual awakening for his female patients.  So did the real Dr Granville invent an electronic device for massage?  Yes.  Was it anything to do with the female orgasm?  No.  He actually invented it to help stimulate male pain relief, just as massage is used today.

Victorian doctors knew exactly what the female orgasm was; in fact, it’s one of the reasons they thought masturbation was a bad idea…Marriage guides…often claimed that a woman in a sexually satisfying relationship was more likely to become pregnant, as the wife’s orgasm was just as necessary to conception as her husband’s…The Art to Begetting Handsome Children, published in 1860, contains a detailed passage on foreplay…A Guide To Marriage, published in 1865 by the aptly named Albert Sidebottom…[advises] young couples…that “All love between the sexes is based upon sexual passion”…In 1877, Annie Besant, a one-time vicar’s wife, helped to publish Fruits of Philosophy, a guide that set out every possible contraceptive method available…its British circulation reached over 125,000 in the first few months alone.  So can we please stop saying Victorian women were having unknown orgasms stimulated by their doctors?…

Unfortunately, most people value the truth far less than they value the ability to feel smug.  And people several generations dead are so easy to feel smug about; after all, they aren’t around to tell you that you’re more ignorant about their lives than you pretend they were about sex.

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