On feminists and prostitutes

Font Size:

From this interesting political year of 2012, a topic that’s unlikely to get revisited is the pair of scandals involving U.S. officials who hired prostitutes while on visits to Latin America. Ordinarily a good sex scandal is subject to extensive reprising. But these ones aren’t, because they contain an element that’s genuinely distasteful throughout our media and society: women who are deemed “of ill repute.”

In response to the first and far weightier of the episodes — involving Secret Service agents in Cartagena, Colombia — a writer for CNN.com had this typical view: “Paying prostitutes for sex is, of course, sordid, immoral and pretty embarrassing in and of itself.”

The writer is Dr. Elaine Kamarck, an ex-official of the Clinton White House who now teaches at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In her analysis, the prostitutes might also be “foreign agents or terrorist operatives.” If so, the problem of agents and call-girls “goes way beyond embarrassment.” In Kamarck’s view, “the solution is pretty straightforward: Hire more women.”

The problem with the Secret Service came out of a comic opera rather than any intelligence playbook. And so did the one that caught Senator Bob Menendez six months later, when he hired two prostitutes in the Dominican Republic (as recounted by The Daily Caller, which broke the story). In each case, the man or men got into hot water by stiffing the woman out of her full payment. The woman loudly complained, and the event went public. As to any sordidness or immorality, that was on the men for cheating with money.

A thing that forcibly stuck one’s attention was how readily those men made trouble in the interest of saving a few hundred dollars. It gave rise to the disconcerting idea that, under other circumstances, they could be easily bought. Now that would be a national-security matter of some magnitude; and it would make the prostitutes look like wide-eyed innocents in the world of selling.

In any case, it took one’s breath away to see the bum rap that was inflicted on the prostitutes. In our talk-on-eggshells culture, where adjectives are measured out in coffee-spoons, the call-girls had abuse heaped on them from Caterpillars. Prostitutes have long lived in the margins. But in our day the story has been cruelly compounded by the mainstream feminist movement.

In the 1990s, feminist writer Sarah Bromberg was moved to reflect: “It is difficult to understand why some feminists feel the presence of prostitutes in society is so threatening. What they want, and what most of us want, is a better world and a society that is morally, socially, and intellectually viable.”

It’s a refreshing admission. By every reckoning, the ones who should come first to the defense of prostitutes are those who are most vocal for women’s rights. But when prostitutes are attacked, feminists are likely to be standing on the sidelines or even leading the charge.

For some decades, a minority among feminists has taken up the cause of prostitutes in a thoughtful and generous way. One commentator, Patrick (Pat) Califia, has written that in an ideal world prostitutes “would be teachers, healers, adventurous souls — tolerant and compassionate. Prostitutes are all of these things today, but they perform their acts of kindness and virtue in a milieu of ingratitude.” (Public Sex, 1994; emphasis in original) That view, unfortunately, still lives in the margins alongside the women it protects.

Why do feminists hate prostitutes? The answer is pretty straightforward. In the eyes of those feminists, prostitutes are an embodiment of “male domination.”

In a passage of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo offered a description of the animal kingdom that speaks directly to this matter. “Animals,” he wrote, “are nothing but the portrayal of our virtues and vices made manifest to our eyes — the visible reflections of our souls. God displays them to us, to give us food for thought. But since they are no more than shadows, He has not made them educable in the full sense of the word. Why should He do so?”

What Hugo saw in animals, the feminist sees in the prostitute. When the feminist beholds the prostitute, she finds a reflection of the male at his most privileged and domineering. The image is hateful to the feminist, who can only see what she loathes; and in that eruption of feeling the other woman disappears. The prostitute has become to the feminist like Hugo’s animal — a shadow devoid of human possibilities.

How do we untie this one? The only way possible: a strand at a time. And we’ll know we’re there when the feminist lion consents to lie down with the prostitute lamb.

David Landau is a novelist and playwright in San Francisco.