Both A Mother And A Whore

by Juniper Fitzgerald on May 5, 2016 · 6 comments

in Prostitution, This Time, It's Personal

Happy Mothers' Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)

Happy Mothers’ Day. (image via Flickr user owly9)

The illusion of “common sense” and its alleged empirical certainties is one of the the most steadfast means by which we collectively propagate whore stigma. As a recent example, critics lampoon Imtiaz Ali’s short film, Indian Tomorrow, for portraying an economically savvy sex worker. “Prostitutes who rattle off sensex [India’s stock market] figures during sex,” proclaims one critic, “exist only in the world of fantasy art.”

Tacitly deferring to “common sense” as a barometer of a sex workers’ intellect is not only deeply paternalistic, but it also acts as a censor for the kinds of stories we tell as a society. Surprising no sex worker rights advocate, it seems like the only acceptable cultural depictions of sex workers are those that fall in-line with the “common sense” stereotype of harlots as intellectually inferior. Art allows us to envision a better world. If artists are deterred from producing nuanced depictions of sex workers as agents of their own lives, even if these depictions are utopic fantasies, our culture will likewise be deterred from envisioning better circumstances for sex workers.

But this cultural imperative to tell one dimensional stories is limited to the stories of marginalized people like sex workers. Stories that transcend the simplistic theme of victimization are critiqued as dangerous and sexist. This is in spite of Standpoint Feminists themselves claiming that the moral obligation of any society is to tell more stories, not fewer. 

As another example, Bonnie is a “loving mother and sex worker living in Denmark.” She agreed to take part in an ongoing photography project by filmmaker Marie Hald. The image I’m most drawn to in the series shows Bonnie at her most vulnerable, bathing with her youngest child. The caption below the image reads, “it [Bonnie’s sex work] isn’t easy on the children and they have been bullied and asked how much their mother costs.”

In my imagination, I am both Bonnie’s ridiculed child, standing sheepishly on the sandy playground while schoolmates inquire into the price of my mother, and Bonnie herself, vacillating between sympathy and outrage. I try to reconcile the innocence of childhood with the cruelty of humanity more generally; I try to reconcile the words: How Much Does Your Mother Cost with all the stuff in between the words. I try to reconcile the violence of apathy with the human capacity for empathy.

That Bonnie’s children must navigate an adult landscape of projection and fear—a landscape, no doubt, engendered by classmates’ bigoted parents—seems decidedly unethical. But this is how stigma works—Bonnie is held entirely responsible for her own dehumanization. “If she doesn’t want her kids to get picked on,” one commenter writes, “she shouldn’t be a prostitute. It’s just common sense.”    

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A Virgin Mary mural in Madrid. Photo taken by Perivolaris. (image via Flickr user drjohn2005)

A Virgin Mary mural in Madrid. Photo taken by Perivolaris. (image via Flickr user drjohn2005)

“Puta Madre!” or, “your mother is a whore” was the first bit of Spanish slang my father taught me. Working alongside other day-laborers in the crippling heat of the Mojave Desert, my father couldn’t have known then what he knows now—that his only daughter, now a mother, has also peddled erotic wares. Although the trajectory of my life is perhaps much different than Bonnie’s, we are nonetheless both bound by the pervasiveness of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. Partitioning women into categories of “good” and “bad” and punishing women who transgress these boundaries serves the larger project of patriarchy—carving out various populations in order to estimate their value. This is what philosopher Michel Foucault described as biopolitics—how violence against marginalized groups of people becomes normalized. Likewise, whore stigma is how sex workers are deemed disposable by nodding to “common sense.” It is, ostensibly, common sense that sex workers are intellectually inferior. It’s common sense that sex workers are unfit mothers. It’s common sense that we should simply choose a different line of work if our work serves to stigmatize us. Whatever you want to call it—biopolitics, the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, whore stigma—sex workers are stigmatized and then blamed for that stigma; this process of dehumanization is then referred to as “common sense.” Denying the existence of whorephobia, as some feminists do, is only ever in service to the violence of “common sense.”

But whore stigma does not just affect whores. It cripples all of us, especially mothers. As mothers, we must navigate the ever-present risk of being perceived as unfit and unwell, a perception intimately tied to the narrative of The Whore, that mysterious creature who stands shamelessly in stilettos as the antithesis to The Virgin. As mothers operating within a system of whore stigma, we are always at risk of complicating the public sphere with our sexuality. As Daniel Engber points out, it is no coincidence that many of the world religions speak of an extraordinary man born of a virgin mother—in order for men to be extraordinary, they must be unbridled from the complexity of female sexuality.

The status of “mother” is inherently contradictory, then—it is inarguably a status created through sex and yet impossibly asexual. So while feminists have long critiqued the cultural imperative of motherhood, I think the more fruitful critique is aimed at the precariousness of its privileged status. In fact, the archetype of “mother” is so relentlessly unattainable, dangling over the ephemeral line between The Virgin and The Whore, that by design, it destroys the very social capital it promises. We set women up to fail in motherhood with our insatiable hatred for whores.  

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Photo by Blondinrikard Froberg. (image via Flickr user blondinrikard)

Photo by Blondinrikard Froberg. (image via Flickr user blondinrikard)

My husband and I are struggling. Thankfully, ours is a struggle centered more on the impossibility of two humans getting along than it is about anything insidious. Nonetheless, we’ve had conversations about the custody of our daughter.   

Sitting in my marriage mediator’s office, flanked by varying gradations of gray, I express fear over the economics of divorce. “I’ll just do some phone sex,” I say, casually.

“Don’t do that,” she says. “You don’t want to face a situation where you’d never see your daughter again.”

I start to weep. I want so badly for this woman, this mediator, a mother herself,  to embrace me. I want her to share in my sorrow, a maternal sorrow born of the impossibility of motherhood, the impossibility of the construction of womanhood more generally, a violent oppression that we all share.

But instead, she sits calmly, muttering something about “choice,” like it’s simple common sense. I have a choice, she says. And that choice, simply stated, is to either invite the alleged violence of sex work or the actual, tangible violence of poverty, as if I should single-handedly carry the burden of a system predicated on economic and sexual subjugation. No one chooses to be poor. No one chooses to be criminalized or stigmatized for the work they indulge as a means of assuaging poverty.

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In Kafka’s “Before The Law”, “the man from the country” spends his entire life waiting at the gates of the law, his entrance blocked by a gatekeeper. The mere supposition that justice will be served renders the protagonist an obedient subject to the law, even making the man ask why “no one has come seeking admittance but me?” As the man dies of old age, the gatekeeper responds, “No one but you could gain admittance through this door, since this door was intended only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Our uncritical belief in common sense on sex work, including the idea that women—particularly mothers—should simply choose an asexual profession, maintains the lethal stigma of sex work while carving out populations of “good” and “bad” women. It also propagates the violent imperative that mothers perform The Virgin, a tedious and necessarily fictional role, which will only ever set all of us up to fail. As a means of simply surviving, mothers—even feminists—stand before the law of gender norms, carving out a population of “whores” in order to stand in contrast to them.

Whore stigma is real. Denying whorephobia or referring to “common sense” as an excuse for dehumanizing entire groups of people does little to eradicate the constraints of our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. And despite what common sense would have us believe, mothers—particularly mothers outside of the sex industry— are the ones who stand to lose the most.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

AndreaCanuck May 8, 2016 at 8:00 am

A brilliant and touching piece. As progressive as we think we are, we are still stuck in the 1850’s regarding the way women/mothers are presented and dealt with by society. And this cuts across all socio economic echelons. Try having a job/profession/interests that aren’t distinctly feminine ie. the trades. Whore. Try opting out of endlessly sitting around and drinking wine and going to the spa or being a constant mom taxi. Try skipping playgroups. Try hanging out with men who aren’t your relations (dad, brother, husband). Whore. Try going out in public with uncombed hair or driving a car that’s below your socio-economic status. Or wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Try going out looking great. Whore. Or having a messy house. Or swearing. Or having a conversation that doesn’t bash your husband, talk about weight loss or what you’ve bought lately. Or encouraging your daughter to stand up for herself (when you know damn well she’s going to be punished for that). The paradox is this: It’s not all men bashing women, other women do a helluva job of that, too. After all, if they have to play by the rules, shouldn’t you? The highly-divisive pitting of men against women (and vice versa) poisons everything. How can we expect to move forward if each is always ‘the other’?

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Natalia May 9, 2016 at 7:29 am

I wholeheartedly agree with your post – and laughed out loud at the uncombed hair part…it takes me back to my Mother chastising me for hurriedly brushing my hair while walking down the street as a young teenager…when I asked her what the problem was, she relied ‘It makes you look like a certain type of woman!’ Hahahaha…now I know what she was driving at… : ) I still wander about with a hedge on my head and yesterdays clothes on, but it didn’t make me any friends with other mothers in the playground…Boden Mums look aghast, unsure whether they should call the police or the social services first.. its not hard to be a freak in England. You just have to take your shoes off. So, lets keep pushing back with our own innate sense of wildness, after all, I would rather be rejected than subjugated if those are the only options available under the current system. Love to all wild whore-mother-delightful humans out there….

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Sarah May 9, 2016 at 3:24 pm

“Common Sense” is also incredibly infantilizing. Silly girl, just straighten up and quit your silliness. You can almost hear the paternalistic/maternalistic toe in their voices when you read such comments. “Don’t step out of line and everything will be fine.” So incensing.
I read this recently, very prescient: http://uproxx.com/life/finley-fawn-sex-work-custody/

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Sarah May 9, 2016 at 3:25 pm

– I meant “tone” not “toe”. Lol!

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Juniper Fitzgerald May 13, 2016 at 12:30 pm

“Paternalistic toe” is such vivid imagery, though!

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Sarah May 13, 2016 at 10:59 pm

Lol!! Indeed it is… I’m thinking jackboots or cameltoe…

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