XXX: A Cultural Exploration of Contemporary Feminism’s Relationship with Commercial Sexuality. (c) 2003 M. Dante

Abstract: Questioning the relationship of prostitution with feminism, XXX investigates the history of the sex industry, and how over the last thirty years it has contributed to fragmenting the American women’s movement.  Amidst the disagreements there are issues that greatly need unified attention, not just to better conditions for women who choose to work in the sex industry, but also to assist in defining the laws to protect women that are brought into the trade against their will;  e.g. during armed conflict.

 At what point will women be able to reconnect when it comes to commerce, sexuality and their combined  power?

 Combining critical and experiential writing, XXX explores erotic labor from the  classroom where academia creates the cultural concepts of the sex industry, to the working rooms of women performing the acts of sex for money.  Within each segment feminism is redefined as consensual and  nonconsensual acts are presented and contemplated, hopefully opening new doors for dialogue on the sex industry.

“ It is [the] statistical analysis of many facts that seems to guide [conclusions] rather than a deep understanding of or intimacy with the world of sex work.  The way prostitutes are analyzed – in some instances – objectifies, dehumanizes, and strips them of any personality, like so many flies pinned to a board for an entomologist to study.”  Radical Feminist Kathleen Barry The Prostitution of Sexuality 

XXX Chapter Two: Religion and Philosophy

In 1993 while in San Francisco, I was invited to many pro-sex events.  I have included an historic information sheet called “Hookers History”, which was part of a media kit  I received from Teri Goodson, a member of the activist group C.O.Y.O.T.E (Call Off Your Outdated Tired Ethics). The anonymous author laid out a brief, yet concise walk through of  “Her-History”.   It is the mythology of the Goddess prior to religion as we now define it.  It is the perfect introduction to this section:

“Before the advent of patriarchal religions with their harsh, judgmental Gods and the suppression of sensual pleasure, there was the Goddess.   Goddess worship accepted the natural cycles of sexuality, birth, death and concern for the welfare of future generations.   Sexuality was incorporated into the very process of worship.

Sacred prostitution, also called religious, ritual, or temple prostitution, was known to cultures on every continent of the Earth.   Prostitute-priestesses dispensed the grace of the Goddess in her shrines.   The most famous published factual accounts tell about the cultures bordering the Mediterranean Sea, be they European, African, or Near Eastern.   But also India, Oceania, and the Americas had sacred harlots.

Aphrodite’s priestesses usually remained in her service until their death.   The money gained was used to support their house of worship.   In ancient Middle-Eastern temples, the prostitutes were sometimes called Charities or Graces; they were known for their beauty and kindness.   The sensual magic of the sacred whores was said to have mellowed the behavior of men.   Ishtar the Great Whore of Babylon, announced, “A prostitute compassionate am I.”   Mary Magdalene said of her sisters in the profession, “Not only are we compassionate of ourselves, but we are compassionate of all the race of mankind.”

The whores of antiquity often commanded high social status and were revered for their knowledge and erotic skills.   As earthly embodiments of the Queen of Heaven, in Palestine called Qadeshet, or the Great Whore, the hookers were honored like queens at centers of learning in Greece and Asia Minor. Some even became queens, like the empress Theodora, wife of Justinian and St. Helena, mother of Constantine.

Temple prostitutes were known as healers of the sick.   At that time, their very secretions were supposed to have medical virtue.   A Sufi proverb states,  “There is healing in a woman’s vagina.”   An Indian temple hymn says, “To have intercourse with a prostitute is a virtue that takes away sin.”

Temple prostitution diminished with the invasion of patriarchal tribes, later ending altogether with the advance of Christianity.   Because whores occupied a significant position in paganism, Christianity vilified their profession.   However, outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, prostitution often became a fully legitimate lifestyle.   We can see that from the revered sacred harlot of antiquity to the often scorned and scapegoated prostitute of today was a long road backward.   Let’s not forget the proud, ancient heritage left us by our predecessors. Whores were famous for their knowledge, compassion, healing abilities and skills in the art of pleasure.”[27

Most historical reference on prostitution, however,  is removed from the sacred aspects of the Goddess.  Historically, the change from matriarchal to patriarchal seems to be with the Canaanites.  Mentioned in biblical reference, the ancient Canaanites were a cult of controversy.  Due to their worship of idols, and the rites they practiced which involved temple prostitutes, the Israelite authorities ordered their extermination.  Dating from 1500 BC, the Canaanites worshiped the Hebrew Goddess, Asherah.  It was to be the end of pagan ways.   “Both the Temple and the pagan cults shared an intoxication with the feminine Goddess, symbol or Eros.”[28]

In their society, a man would go the temple and have sex with a sacred female so that his family and his crops would be blessed.  In the Torah these women are called Kadeshim, from the word Kadosh, meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’.  Archeological evidence has proven that the ancient Israelites worshiped many small idols and the Goddess, but the religious leadership was strictly monotheistic, patriarchal and intolerant of alternatives to their way of thinking.

The Shechinah is known in Kabbalistic sources as the great feminine.  She is mother, daughter and lover.  She is the force that allows the human being to feel at home in the world.  The temple is the place of Eros; it is the experience of being on the inside.[29]

The biblical kingdom of Ugarit, now known as Syria,  is where the Canaanites lived according to tablets found at the tell of Ras Shama.  These tablets explain the Ugaritic pantheon of Gods: primarily with Baal (son of Ashera), and his struggle with Mot (death).  It is from the engraved stone that archeologists learned of the dramatic rites performed by this ancient culture, now defined as “cultic”.

 Canaanite prostitutes did not profit off of their sexual services.  They served the Temple, and any funds they received went to the Temple. “The notion of prostitution for personal profit is therefore not really a factor amongst religious cult prostitutes as they are not driven to their profession by poverty or crime, as are most prostitutes today, but seem to choose this profession out of a purely religious ideal.[30]             

Connected with the dramatic plays of Baal (god of thunderbolt and rain) and Mot, the Temple prostitutes enacted fertility rites for the community to show the cycles of the fields. When not involved in spiritual enactments, the Temple prostitutes would service the “general worshipers”.  Prior to patriarchal religious hierarchy’s condemnation of  idolatry and pagan worship, it is believed that many communities extending beyond the specific Canaanites visited the “sacred ones”.

“An Ugaritic cult prostitute living in the Middle-Late bronze age would have also been presented with an onslaught of foreigners.  Ugarit was under Egyptian and Hittite dominion for a long period before it was invaded by the Sea peoples in the late 1200s.  It is interesting to consider whether there was a “sharing” of religious beliefs.  It is known that in other Canaanite cities, Israelites were turning toward cultic worship and thus coming into conflict with their own god, Yahweh, and so it is possible to imagine that perhaps the Egyptians and Hittite also indulged in Canaanite forms of worship, such as prostitution.”[31]             

The belief in the prostitute as a sacred being changes as we place aside archaeological finds of ancient tablets and enter into the Bible itself.  In Leviticus 19:29, Israelites are warned not to let their daughters get into prostitution lest they be punished with death.  Even more severe warnings are given with respect to temple or cult prostitution and idolatry.

Mordechai Gafni, leader of Bayit Chadash, a spiritual center in Israel, considers the removal of sexuality by pure intellect within religion to be the battle of Ethos and Eros.  Speaking specifically about Judaism, he says:  “Modern Judaism has developed from the ethical teachings of the prophets.  In the process, however, we have overlooked the erotic, present in the pagan consciousness of the Temple service.  We have forgotten the Goddess, a vital presence in the life of ancient Israel.”[32]

It is relevant to note that in Kabbalistic (mystical Judaic) tradition, as in Plato, the erotic is an expression of inner passion of life and the quest for truth within, not just a sexual desire or method of gratification.  Mr. Gafni feels that the ancient Jews believed passion to be essential in daily worship and everyday life.  Eros was the component necessary to maintain a continuous state of intellectual, emotional and physical passion.      

He tells of the Asherah tree, and how it was the central symbol of the Canaanites and the worshipers in Judah, and in Israel.  The tree was a symbol of Asherah incarnate.  It is written that King Josiah attempted radical reform after reading a new book devoted to the destruction of the pagan ways.  The new book that King Josiah held in one hand, as he ordered the permanent  removal of all Ashera trees from public places, was the Book of Deuteronomy.[33]

When viewing prostitution through the Bible from the Christian perspective based on the removal of pagan rites and ways from the ancient world, it is held as pure sin.  One anonymous author whose work I found on-line attempts to reach out to contemporary Christian community, saying that understanding of prostitution through the Bible may lead to compassion and understanding in a situation that they may encounter in the present day.  Ignorance and blind faith (only that prostitution is a wicked sin) should not dictate an absolute reaction. 

“Nothing can happen with prostitution if we keep making it such a dirty subject that we dare not touch it – except in secret.  And in the churches, when we move away from a person of the street who comes and sits down with us, will we ever get beyond that flight?”[34]

The author goes on to explain how it is important to look at why people are involved with prostitution, such as in Genesis 38 when Tamar played the role of a prostitute to get her father-in-law Judah to marry her off to a new husband, after his son is dead.  Or, in Amos 7:17 when it is quoted:“Therefore thus says the Lord, ‘Your wife shall be a harlot in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword.’”

With this passage, it is taught that war leads to forced prostitution, and that those who have no protection may all wind up in despair.  Anyone may become a whore, or the kin of a whore.

The discussion concludes with a thought on the meaning of  “oppression”. 

“Today we are constantly barraged by media messages which do not associate oppression with pornography and prostitution.  It is all supposed to be fun and harmless.”

It is known, however, that the sex industry is not always fun and harmless.  Asking for Christians to feel compassion toward the plight of the whore, the author expresses how the light of Jesus Christ may free the oppressed, as opposed to judging from a distance and furthering the oppression. 

 “Yahweh said to Hosea: Go marry a whore, and get children with a whore, for the country itself has become nothing but a whore for abandoning Yahweh.”

The Book of Hosea, or Osee, is the first twelve of minor Prophets.  Another Christian writer exploring the Old Testament found this to the “the most beautiful Book on the love of God” in the Old Testament, but [he] could not understand why amongst it there was so much talk of whores, harlots and prostitution.[35]

“Finally, Gomer became a prostitute, after lovers (2:5), until she eventually became a slave.  And now, Hosea learned that his wife Gomer was for sale at an auction of slaves…  The attractive lady of earlier years had become a worn, faded, undesired woman who had aged prematurely…  And Hosea bought his own wife at the auction of slaves, the slave Gomer, for 15 shekels (3:3), and brought her home, not as a slave, but as his wife, as the lady of the house.”

The love of Hosea was great.  He changed the names of her children of prostitution to “Ruhmah” (loved) and “Amni” (my kin).  From that point on in the Bible the worst sin against God is what is considered, “prostitution against God”.  This is not the act of actually prostituting oneself, but the act of engaging one’s self as a whore: going after money greedily in any fashion.

In this essay it is told that the punishment for becoming a harlot is “to burn her alive” (Lev 21:9, Gen. 38:24).  Jesus regarded prostitution as evil, but he went against the tradition of the Old Testament by forgiving whores if they engaged in God’s kingdom through faith. (Matt. 21:32-33)[36]

What contradicts this change in attitude toward Temple prostitution imposed by the Israelites, is that the Israelite priests sponsored houses of prostitution themselves.  They provided services to wealthy sinners, and the money they extorted went to their institutions, and provided priests with what is quoted as having been  a rather lavish income.  This is found in the Book of Micah.

In researching the Judea perspective on prostitution, I was able to find a recent essay written by Rabbi Uri Regev in honor of Israel’s Human Rights Week, supporting Declaration of Independence protecting freedom of religion.  The Rabbi suggests that modern societal laws maintain ancient religious law to impede on women’s freedom.  The story of Tamar is asked to be remembered and contemplated as women of today are punished as widows or left without proper marriage prospects due to class. 

“Tamar sees that Judah has no intent of making Shelah her husband.  When Judah comes to town for a sheep shearing, Tamar dresses as a prostitute, and Judah sleeps with her, not knowing her identity [as his widowed daughters-in-law].  Judah gives Tamar his seal, cord and staff as a pledge for a kid [baby goat] he promises her in payment.  Tamar returns to her widow’s garments and Judah cannot find the “prostitute” to make payment.  When Judah hears that Tamar is pregnant by whoring, he orders her burnt to death.  Tamar brings Judah’s seal, cord and staff to the judges saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong”.  Judah recognizes them as his and says, “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give to my son Shelah.” Tamar lives, vindicated by the birth of Peretz, ancestor of King David.[37]

In modern day Israel, women are not burnt at the stake when forced into lives prostitution, but if left in that predicament, they most likely will not reap the pleasures of liberated and financially cared for wives and professional women; at least not if anyone finds out they are selling themselves.

It is shown that historically prostitution goes back to before Biblical times, and that historic discussions on the subject are entrapped within philosophical and spiritual debate, which can twist  reality into an emotional kaleidoscope of truths vs. beliefs. 

What is true is that human sexuality has been an essential point to ponder since the beginning of recorded time, and it has been a point that has fascinated and frightened mankind.  Edward Craig, editor-in-chief of the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, writes, “Plato, in Symposium, also issued a warning: what we think we are seeking is not really what we want; our Eros for bodies is really Eros for truth and beauty.  Augustine similarly thought that the search for God was hidden beneath the search for pleasure in another’s body.”[38]

Mankind has often searched for the meaning of life in the arms of another, be that a blessing or a blasphemy to the concept of God.  When the dynamics of the sexual and the spiritual are combined, it is a difficult enough debate, but when we add to that how a woman’s sex corresponds to commerce and community, the sacred  and the profane are at odds.  It is there that philosophy finds a perfect  pedestal for contemplation.

The annals of philosophy have much to offer when exploring the definition of mankind’s sexuality.  The question of “what makes an act sexual?” has been contemplated for many centuries.  There are two main categories of carnal philosophy according to the Routledge Encyclopedia.  Metaphysical philosophy discusses ontological and epistemological  matters, and Normative philosophy explores perennial questions on sexual ethics.  In what circumstance is it morally permissible to engage in sexual activity or experience sexual pleasure?  With whom?  For what purpose?  With which part of the body?  For how long?  The historically central answers come from Thomistic natural law, Kantian deontology, and utilitarianism.  Normative philosophy of sex also addresses legal, social and political issues.  Should society steer people in the direction of heterosexuality, marriage, family?  May the law regulate sexual conduct by prohibiting prostitution and homosexuality?  And then there are questions such as “What good is sex?” and “What is its contribution to the good of life?”[39]

“Metaphysical and normative philosophy of sex are well developed, stretching back to Plato and Augustine; sexual ethics has a famous history, and the contemplation of the place of sexuality  in human nature is central to Christianity.  The analysis of sexual concepts, by contrast, is in its infancy.  The subjects of analysis are these core concepts and are the logical relationships among them: sexual desire, sensation, pleasure, act, arousal and satisfaction.  Derivative sexual concepts, which presuppose an understanding of the core concepts, and are also the subject of analysis.  Among these are rape, sexual harassment, sexual orientation, sexual perversion, prostitution and pornography.”[40]

Greek and Roman scholars and philosophers found beauty within the truths of self discovery.  Many adults are still entranced by the writings of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.  As intellectual contemplation  evolved into a more enlightened state, the truth transformed into vile fascination and ecclesiastic authoritarian absolutes with the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas and intellectuals such as Immanuel Kant.  Yes, there are buried mentions of what role in humanity sex holds by authors Descartes and Hume, but the conversation did not evolve much between Kant and Foucault. St. Thomas Aquinas, a revered philosopher,  viewed sex for any other purpose than procreation as wrong.  In Summa Theologiae he states:

“When the act of nature is incompatible with the purpose of the sex act.  Insofar as generation is blocked, we have unnatural vice, which is any complete sex-act from which of its nature generation cannot follow.” [41]

These “sins of self abuse” are bestiality, homosexuality, oral sex and masturbation.  A category of lesser, but still obvious sin, is called “sins against charity” and consists of adultery, seduction, heterosexual incest and rape.  These sins go against “mankind’s plan of living in accordance to nature”.

Kant believed in a similar fashion to  Summa Theologiae.  Professor Alan Soble dissects and connects the dots between the writing of St. Thomas Aquinas and that of Immanuel Kant in his essay, “Immanuel Kant of Sexual Perversion”, which focuses primarily on homosexual and onanistic sin, as explored in Metaphysics of Morals (1797), and its predecessor Lectures on Ethics (1775-81).  It is interesting to note that if it were not for dissident thinkers such as Foucault, and even Pat Califia, the state adherence to such perspectives might still be governing our actions.  In some situations, these views are still preached.  Just read up on the controversy surrounding recent comments by  Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum, who offended many gay, lesbian and bisexual students and adults when he compared their sexuality to incest and bestiality.  Santorum is speaking from the same pedestal as Aquinas and Kant.

Despite Kant’s ability to bring beauty to philosophical language and subtle eroticism to nature, his view on prostitution was in severe and cold opposition.  He believed that passion and desire went against rational nature, and that when one felt desire for another outside of procreation it debased man’s  reason and judgement.

“[There is no way that in which a human being can be made an Object of indulgence for another except through sexual impulse …  Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite …  Sexual love …  By itself and for itself … is nothing more than an appetite.  As an Object of appetite for another person a person becomes a thing and can be treated and used as such by everyone.  This is the only case in which a human being is designed by nature as the object of another’s enjoyment.”[42]

Kant was a celibate, and was never the Object of another’s desires.  He believed that sexual relations could only be between a man and woman within the unity of marriage.  A perspective he added to that would leave Kant mentioned in many pro-sex articles, confusing his position in the annals of history; for Kant believed that within marriage each person mutually owned the other, and that both were obligated to submit to and please each other.  Many Libertines place this concept on a pedestal, but in a rather different manner than Kant may have meant.  Or was he occasionally riveted by his desires?  Seeing how severe his perspectives are on mankind’s nature and desire, it is almost poetic justice to have him, in some circles, hailed as a pioneer of sexual liberation. 

In Lecture on Ethics,  I, personally, find no eroticism.  “We can dispose of  things which have no freedom but not of a being which has free will.  A man who sells himself makes a thing out of himself and, as he has jettisoned his person, it is open to anyone to deal with him as he pleases.  Another instance of this kind is where a human being makes himself a thing by making himself an object of enjoyment for some one’s sexual desire.”[43]

Kant also believed, according to Professor Soble, that any illegitimate children created degraded the integrity and comfort of the state, and that the child and mother should but put to death.  The mother, a murderer for allowing a crime against the commonwealth, the child born a criminal, for they are born outside of law and reason.  If a woman, therefore, was anything but a wife and proper mother, she was a despicable criminal, or would soon be/create one.

In what is close to being a plagiarization of Aquinas, Kant theorized on the correct boundaries of sexual activity.  criminia carnis!   secundum naturam. contra naturam.  “Every form of sexual indulgence, except marriage, is a misuse of sexuality”, and therefore a criminia carnis.  secundum naturam are contrary sound reason; contra naturam are contrary to our animal nature.  These Vorlesung, or Lectures on Ethics, is where Kant presents parallel rationale to Aquinas.  Prostitution in this context is considered as vile as homosexuality, which falls immediately after bestiality.  Actually, bestiality and masturbation are considered equally as deranged.  These acts do not lead to the “preservation of the species”, and are therefore in opposition to the sustenance of the human race.  What is interesting is that heterosexual oral sex is also considered a sin and an act against reason,  because organs must only go where organs are designed by our creator to be, and that is the  penis penetrating the vagina for the blossoming of the next generation.  All else is vice.  And vice is not of men.             

Kant concluded that sexuality activity must be confined to a heterosexual, monogamous, lifelong marriage.  Within marriage he believed that “reciprocity and respect remain fruitful avenues to explore.”

As mentioned, Kant’s work is often quoted now in critical writing on eroticism vs. pornographic.  Kant’s views on freedom being possible once all economic pressure is removed from mankind, and also how the value of social interaction and beauty intertwine with actual commerce, open the door for discussion in places he would have rather avoided while alive.  In Dirty Looks, from the essay “Above the Pulp Line: The Cultural Significance of Erotic Art”,  Lynda Nead writes:

“The judgement of erotic art should be seen in Bourdieu’s terms, as an act of cultural distinction which carries a particular social significance.  Bourdieu’s survey of taste takes the form of a critique of Kantian notions of the aesthetic.  Kant sought to distinguish the condition of the disinterestedness, which is the only guarantee of aesthetic contemplation and which differentiates it from the interests of reason and the senses.  Bourdieu suggests the Kantian notion of the detached gaze and a pure gaze asserts a life free from economic necessity which functions at all levels of society.”[44]

In other words, as long as there are the “high brow” and the “low brown” interpretation of what is acceptable aesthetic, we are all whores to the perspective that could be polished in the context of that which we are when exhibited or contemplated.  There is a certain poetic justice to Kant’s rational being used in the context of a debate in the definitions of erotic art vs. pornography.  Or, as Nead says in her essay:   “When the model is applied to the judgement of erotic art, we can see that the  form of classification might yield a legitimizing force.”[45]

After all that I’ve read of Kant’s work, I rather prefer the sound bites of Foucault:   “We must not think that by saying ‘yes’ to sex, we are saying ‘no’ to power.”[46]  That does have some impact on me,  as opposed to, “Sexual love makes of the loved person an Object of appetite …  Taken by itself it is a degradation of human nature.”[47]

Not all people find Kant to be a radical against sex.  In fact, there is even a Contemporary Kantian Movement which supports libertarian sexual ethics.  In the opening of the entry on this group within the Routledge Encyclopedia, I find myself thinking of the philosophy of John Stuart Mill in On Liberty.

“If oral and anal sex, gay and lesbian sex, bisexual and group sex, contraceptive coitus, wearing lingerie and cosmetics, prostitution, making or viewing pornography, and the paraphernalia – the things condemned by sexual ethics – can be carried out without harm befalling the participants or others, by consenting adults who know what they want, how could they be morally wrong?”

In America these questions are being transferred more and more from the church or  the texts of philosophy, into courtrooms and media formats.  The question of who is to choose how consenting adults behave is being raised more and more as people fight for what they view are their constitutional rights to live equal and free.  We can see this in battles over gay and lesbian rights, transgender rights, and of course, the debates over pornography and prostitution.

End of 2003 XXX Chapter Installment