The Whore-Madonna Complex Follows Us into 2012

As 2011 waved goodbye and we turned our collective attention towards 2012, the year which has attracted more predictions verging on hysteria than any year in recent memory including the year 2000, CNN saw fit to air a 2005 program narrated by Sigourney Weaver, The Two Marys. I settled in to view the television special  hoping against hope that someone out there might have actually produced a program meant to adequately address the Whore-Madonna Complex.  After all, the title, The Two Marys, certainly suggests some awareness of the ancient dichotomy which has driven a stake through the heart of womanhood by compelling anyone with a vagina to pick a “side” and declare themselves aligned with “good” or “evil.”

While men are afforded a more holistic approach to being human, women are held to an impossible standard literally demanding that which is entirely impossible to achieve. The Virgin Mary mocks every mother on the planet who hasn’t found a way to retain her virginity while giving birth to an angelic baby. And Mary Magdalene would seem to announce the need for forgiveness for any woman who has fallen short of the virgin mother ideal.

Lesley Hazelton, author of Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of The Virgin Mother protests “I think there was a very strong-felt need on the part of the church fathers to put women in their place. So, by dividing women into madonnas and whores, they could either be all good or all evil.”

While you might think historical figures from over 2000 years ago are old news, the battle between “good” and “evil” girls continues. Just today, news of Colorado high school student Sydney Spies’ possible lawsuit claiming censorship, hit the headlines in all the major news outlets. Sporting a tiny black top and a short, yellow skirt, Ms. Spies bared her midriff and shapely legs for the camera with every intention that this sexy photo would serve as her senior portrait.  But the yearbook editors claimed her photo was unprofessional and inappropriate.

I have heard these adjectives before. Unprofessional and inappropriate are actually code for “slutty.”  And what exactly do we mean when we call a woman “slutty?”  It can mean vastly different things to different people.  But once that label is affixed to a woman, she falls into dangerous territory where almost any mistreatment can seem justified.

The same applies to the label “whore.” While we can refer to men as “man-whores” and “pricks,” the words don’t carry the same sting or stigma. Men can laugh off such labels and watch their credibility and popularity rise with every “bad boy” scandal.  Meanwhile, women may lose their homes, their jobs, their children, their credibility, their membership in society and sometimes their very lives. Women who are perceived as “sluts” and “whores” can be potential targets for rape and murder by predators.

And meanwhile, popular programs still tell “dead hooker jokes” with impunity.  It is enough to make this sex worker activist want to scream.

As someone who routinely educates the public on the topics of sex worker rights and a sexual bill of rights, I encounter plenty of negative commentary from readers, listeners and attendees.  For instance, I often hear variations on the following:

“I think there’s a world of difference between a woman who takes on as many lovers as she pleases vs. a woman who has sex for money. Sex is sacred, not to be monetized and manipulated.”

At first blush statements such as these sound credible. They conform to the current cultural stance and sound “right.”  But are such assertions right? Does prostitution necessarily “manipulate” and does monetizing the sex act remove the aspects which can be considered “sacred?”

Frankly, as someone who has worked with domestic violence survivors, I have been witness to plenty of manipulation and lack of sacredness in the context of marital sex.  Why does marriage get a pass from us while prostitution remains suspect?  I have been married and I have worked as an escort. Both experiences were positive and negative at turns. It all depended upon our intentions.  Certainly no piece of paper has the power to distort sacred intentions nor imbue loving intentions where there are none.  And that applies equally to the paper used to make marriage certificates as well as hundred dollar bills.

So let’s get real here. Society doesn’t give a rat’s ass about women being “treated with respect” or “being protected.” The current culture is designed to keep women suspicious of each other and divided instead of united. It is designed to deny us access to the same power afforded men and when you get down to it, that power is often defined by sexual and monetary proficiency. I can only imagine the stark raving terror that the good ole boy network must experience when they entertain the idea of the other half of the world’s population gaining control over the holy trinity: birth, sex and money.

Powerful Women

I have found it to be quite true, that men of a certain type of power and success, can be easily intimidated by female power. For instance, they often marry vapid women who are more interested in their money than them. So many of my clients expressed a sense of entitlement regarding their wives – they were providing for them so they didn’t feel incongruent about “cheating” on them. I often asked individual men if they thought their wife was also stepping outside the marriage. The very idea would often elicit a scoff as almost every man had convinced himself that only he would engage in such behavior.

What I found particularly intriguing was how many of these same men hungered for a sexual companion who was anything but malleable. It led me to begin referring to this phenomena in this way:

Our culture prefers that Wives are Dumb and Docile but that does nothing for the Libido. Men may want wives and girlfriends who are easily controlled but in bed they prefer a companion who is powerful and challenging. It is the electricity of some level of intellectual and emotional challenge which drives desire. This is why the Patriarchy requires the Whore/Madonna Complex: a splitting of femininity into two camps so that women feel compelled to pick a side and thereby deny half of their reality as a whole human.

There is a beautiful movie entitled Dangerous Beauty. It is about the life of a Renaissance courtesan from Venice, named Veronica Franco. The movie illustrates perfectly the choice women faced of that time between being accepted as a person worthy of marriage (wives were not allowed to read, write or pursue an education) and being a free woman fully empowered to delve into domains normally reserved for men. Veronica Franco was simply too independent and intelligent to be a wife and her mother despaired for her future, so she instructed her in the ways of a courtesan. As a courtesan, Veronica Franco, learned to read and debate men in conversation. She took up fencing and she wrote her memoirs. This was a life of power reserved for courtesans. The price for admission was living outside the protection and approval of society.

Today, we speak of prostitutes as if they all live and work in the squalor of the streets. The fact is that the majority of modern prostitutes operate from their homes discreetly supplementing their incomes and/or financing their dreams, whether that is an education, a sole proprietorship or perhaps their art. They too, are women who are not satisfied with the “good girl” role. They probably feel stifled and silenced and confined by popular feminine behavior. And breaking free of that provides a sense of power they have rarely experienced in other contexts.

It isn’t all sunshine and roses. There are possible arrests and evictions and serial rapists who love to prey upon sex workers because the law affords almost no protection for a “fallen woman.” But for some, the risks are worth it. Anyone who thinks it is just about sex doesn’t understand this fatal split in the feminine. Anyone who thinks is it just about money, doesn’t understand how deeply many humans crave freedom of expression. Sex work is about sex and it is about work, but more importantly it is about breaking free of the rules which dictate women are either “good” or “bad” – either worthy of protection or worthy of persecution.

Few sex workers relate to this on a conscious level, unless they are sex worker rights activists or sacred prostitutes. But I have seen the light in the eyes of women just contemplating sex for money and they look positively excited and energized with the anticipation of what that might feel like and look like for them. I always caution them about the down side – the risk and the illegality and the very real prices I have paid for my choice. I don’t choose to encourage anyone to do something with such a high price tag. But once a woman has crossed that line and experienced her power to reject the shame bestowed upon the “whore” she will likely never be able to return to ways of being in this world which require her to repress her true feelings.

That doesn’t mean she won’t move on to another profession at some point. It does mean that she will be very unlikely to work for an employer once she has tasted her independence. It can also translate to putting up with less domination or abuse from men in general. The woman who has been paid for her companionship is much less likely to put up with anything she doesn’t enjoy or appreciate in a personal relationship. Of course this generalization does not apply to street prostitutes who enter the business under the tutelage of an abusive pimp. Nor does it necessarily apply to prostitutes who work in legal brothels because by definition they have abusive employers. But for your average middle-class, college educated escort, independence of thought and action becomes a privilege few are willing to sacrifice for the approving nods of the masses.

Why Sex Workers are SO Scary

Some people – women especially – just hate what you do for a living.  Their distaste for  your profession is completely out of sync with any personal impact it could possibly have on their lives. If you have ruled out jealousy, competition and/or fear of the unknown – what is left to explain the almost rabid and allergic reaction to the way you pay your rent or mortgage?

Recently it dawned on me that very much like the gay rights movement, our movement – the sex worker rights movement – suffers its worst insults from closeted whores and johns (If you find those words offensive I invite you ask yourself why. Personally I am all about reclaiming the words used to oppress us). Let’s face it the men who are most adamantly opposed to decriminalization often turn out to be regular clients of sex workers. The most publicized example of this is of course former New York governor Eliot Spitzer who had built his career with a promise of “ethics” and the prosecution of prostitution rings but was later found to be a regular client of prostitutes.

And what about the women?  I have often envisioned them as insecure wives – worried that I and my sex worker colleagues were out to fuck their men – for free if necessary – just to show them up as the incompetent and unalluring losers they worry they are. But I don’t think jealousy is the big motivator we have allowed ourselves to believe it is. Instead I wonder if our most vehement opposition comes from women who have more in common with us than they would like to admit.

When I recall the cruelest and most dismissive reactions to my choice to become a sex worker, it has often been from female “friends” who were former sex workers or extremely promiscuous or at least prone to dating for money. The truly asexual or bashful female friends have usually been more curious than offended by my choice in careers.

Recently I began attending a church well-known for its tolerance of all lifestyles and beliefs including atheism and paganism. I didn’t imagine that my former identity as a working girl would hold much interest for the congregation. After all, I have been semi-retired for over five years and live modestly as an author and couples consultant.  My motivation for attending church was twofold: I hoped to find a venue for my workshops on peace and I wanted to add a little ritual to my life. For instance when my dog got cancer I found the “Blessing of the Animals” to be of great comfort.

So imagine my surprise when the witch in charge of the pagan meetings (no, I am not trying to insult this woman, she really is a witch) launched an effort to expel me from the church. Initially, I thought she was simply offended by my approach to world peace: polyamory as modeled by the bonobos.  Yeah, this is another topic and not really relevant to this blog entry but suffice to say that I believe a lot of violence results from a sex negative culture and I have a lot of research and evidence to back up that claim.

But even after I abandoned any aspirations I had to teach workshops at this church and simply attended the pagan meetings as a student in search of more knowledge of the various forms of paganism, the witch persisted in her campaign to drive me from the congregation. She called one day to suggest I attend pagan workshops at a local bookstore where their approach would be more “adult.” For the umpteenth time she told me how her workshops would be “family friendly.”  I told her this might come as a shock to her but I have a family and I am a mother to four step-children. The silence on the other end of the phone was deafening. What was she thinking? Was she shocked to think former prostitutes might have families?  Or was she offended to think I had ever been allowed to parent children?  Who knows but she certainly choked on the news.

Since I have only been to about five church services and my interactions with this woman have been brief and polite, I am quite certain that her reaction has very little to do with me personally. But I do represent something that appears to terrify her. For one of the pagan rituals she held at the church, she wore a costume which reminded me of the ancient sacred prostitutes. The skirt was constructed of sheer chiffon adorned with beads and coins. I couldn’t help but wonder if she understood what her costume signified in days of old. How could she sport coins on her person without comprehending the significance of money sewn into a garment? True, some will argue that this was “dowry” money but the fact remains that the coins were sewn into the garment as a reminder that the dancer expected to get paid for her performance while she was performing – very much like strippers are paid today.

We could now have the argument of whether belly dancers are sex workers or we could ask ourselves why it is so important to draw this arbitrary and nonsensical line in the sand between the “good girls” and the “bad girls.” And that really is the point to this blog entry. Women are insanely invested in distinguishing themselves from the “bad girl” and the more closely they skirt the “bad girl” lifestyle, the more obsessive this drive to say “I am NOT a whore” becomes.

A similar phenomena is well documented in the gay rights movement. It is now common knowledge that some of the worst hate crimes against gays are often perpetrated by closeted homosexuals who are full of self-hatred and denial. Similarly I believe our sex worker rights movement would do well to understand the self-hatred and denial which fuels hate crimes against sex workers. I think we will find that our most vocal opponents are quite literally in bed with us as clients or metaphorically as self-hating closeted sex workers.

What might we do to win these closeted clients and sex workers over to our struggle for civil rights and the dignity of choice?  I’m not entirely sure. If I find a way to assuage the terror my existence has created for the witch at church I will let you know. I DO know this though. Every effort to decriminalize or legalize prostitution has been blocked by the “good women” of the community in question. Historically both prohibition of alcohol and prostitution have been feminist endeavors as championed by many of the suffragists of the early 1900’s. So although present day feminists might think their stance against prostitution reflective of political evolution, it is instead a fairly old-fashioned and conservative take on the oldest profession.

Many political movements will dissociate from other more controversial causes for fear that their primary objective will be lost. Early feminists were afraid of accepting lesbians and the gay rights movement didn’t want to champion transgender rights. This fear of being associated with others perceived as “less deserving” of civil rights is a noxious but all too human failing. I wonder if it has its roots in basic human survival and perhaps that is the impediment we battle when we seek to assert our civil rights as sex workers. Or perhaps the broader issue here is that neither men nor women possess a sexual bill of rights and rather than fight to assert their rights alongside sex workers (who are working for the rights of all adults to have sex as they see fit) they recoil with the fear of losing what few freedoms they do have.

What do you think? What is is that fuels the disrespect and even hatred we often encounter from second wave feminists, from wives and girlfriends, from concerned parents, from law enforcement, from landlords, from child protection services, from neighbors, from family, from former friends and even from our own clients?