Imagining Women: Prostitution, the Aestheticization of the Whore and the Social Organization of Desire

Part three ‘Feminist Postmodernisms and Ethnographies of Difference: Between Modernity and Postmodernity’ of Maggie O’Neill’s book ‘Prostitution and Feminism: Towards a Politics of Feeling’ Looks at the ‘social organisation of desire and the aestheticization of the whore in contemporary society’.

Drawing from a variety of sources including historical texts, Psychoanalytical theory, critiques of art and ethnographic research O’Neill threads together a range of ideas on the historical, social and cultural perceptions of prostituion and women perceived to be ‘fallen’ or of dubious morality. She suggests that although representations of prostitution or the whore in art and literature can reinforce pre-existing social stereotypes they also have the potential to change them.

‘Our social worlds are made up of structures of gender domination embedded in psychic and social practices, structures and processes. Postmodern interpretive ethnographies, working in participatory ways across disciplines and genres – for example across community arts, photography or performance art – can illluminate and challenge ideological structures and effects through ‘feeling forms’. ‘Feeling forms’ can incite us to feel and engage with the affects, sentiments and experiences of marginalised peoples and motivate us to act, thus giving rise to a politics of feeling.’

Historical texts look at the epic poem of Gilgamesh 1700BC which contains the earliest reference to a prostitute.

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The Museum of Sex Website

The Museum of Sex, New York

On October 5th 2002 the Museum of Sex first opened its Fifth Avenue doors to an eager and curious public. The inaugural exhibition NYCSEX: How New York Transformed Sex in America presented work intended to show how the diversity and tolerance of sexuality in the Big Apple had given the nation more than a bite of sexual liberation over the years. The exhibition presented a selection of materials including the work of artists and photographers together with collections of ephemera relating to sex and sexual practices. In the The Museum of Sex’s publicity they describe why they think that New York favours sexual experimentation and liberty.

‘The city’s reputation for tolerance vied with its occasional crackdowns on “vice” (the meaning of which changes with each generation) to create a climate that continuously tested the boundaries of what was considered permissible, and what was considered prosecutable.’

‘The Museum’s permanent collection of over 15,000 artifacts is comprised of works of art, photography, clothing and costumes, technological inventions and historical ephemera. Additionally, the museum houses both a research library as well as an extensive multimedia library, which includes 8mm, Super 8mm, 16mm, BETA, VHS and DVDs. From fine art to historical ephemera to film, the Museum of Sex preserves an ever-growing collection of sexually related objects that would otherwise be destroyed and discarded due to their sexual content.’

‘In the past seven years the Museum of Sex has generated 16 exhibitions and 5 virtual installations, each in keeping with the Museum’s mission of advocating open discourse surrounding sex and sexuality as well as striving to present to the public the best in current scholarship unhindered by self-censorship. With each new exhibition, lecture series, event and publication, the Museum of Sex is committed to addressing a wide range of topics, while simultaneously highlighting material and artifacts from different continents, cultures, time periods and media.’

MOSEX Mission statement

‘The Mission of the Museum of Sex is to preserve and present the history, evolution and cultural significance of human sexuality. The Museum produces exhibitions, publications and programs that bring the best of current scholarship on sex and sexuality to the widest possible audiences and is committed to encouraging public enlightenment, discourse and engagement.’

All quotes from the MOSEX website:


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Tis Pity She’s A Whore – John Ford (1629)

'tis pity she's a whore, Women's Shakespeare Company, New York 2002

Tis Pity She’s A Whore was and is a pretty shocking and controversial Jacobean tragedy written by John Ford about the incestuous passion and ultimate demise of the young noble Giovanni and his sister Annabella.

The tragedy is wrought with supressed desire and lustful excess, mental anguish, moral dillemma and religious fervour, right to the final frenzied massacre. The title comes from the last line of the play where the cardinal says of Annabella “who could not say. ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?'”

 ‘It was likely first performed between 1629 and 1633,  by Queen Henrietta’s Men at the Cockpit Theatre. The play was first published in 1633, in a quarto printed by Nicholas Okes for the bookseller Richard Collins. Ford dedicated the play to John Mordaunt, 1st Earl of Peterborough and Baron of Turvey.'[1]

The play has enjoyed several revivals of interest and has been referenced in many other works including Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Love. Greenaway said that the play provided the main template for the work.[2] and was adapted by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s for his 1971 film Addio fratello crudele starring Charlotte Rampling and Oliver Tobias. More recently the play was adapted by R.J. Tolan and presented in a ‘scruffy nightclub’ in New York by the Women’s Shakespeare Company with an all-female cast. The play will also be performed by by the ‘Cheek by Jowl’ theatre company at the barbican from Feb 16th 0 March 10th 2012.

INCEST TABOO = WHORE STIGMA? One aspect I find interesting is in connection with Claude Levi-Strauss’ theory of incest taboo. Levi Strauss in his work on the structures of kinship[3], used the global and cross-cultural taboos around incest to describe inherent human predispositions that are simultaneously part of the structures or “culture” of wider societies. Here we see incest and prostitution as occupying the same cultural ground of sexual deviation. Does the condemnation of prostitution equally suggest a global and “natural” human predisposition?


1. Wikipedia entry’Tis_Pity_She’s_a_Whore, viewed on January 20th 2012

2. Vernon Gras and Marguerite Gras (eds.), Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Jackson, MS, University Press of Mississippi, 2000; p. 69

3. Levi-Strauss, Claude (1947) The elementary structures of kinship: (Les structures élémentaires de la parenté) Volume 340 of Beacon paperback, published by Textstream (1969)

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Role Exchange (1975) – Marina Abramovich

Role Exchange, 1975, Performance, Marina Abramovic

Yugoslavian born “Body Art” performance artist Marina Abramovic (known as the “grandmother of performance art”) performed’Role Exchange’ in 1975 where she exchanged places with a prostitute in Amsterdam’s red light district for a night. Marina had befriended and developed a relationship with the prostitute who agreed to participate in the art work on the proviso that she remain anonymous. Not only did Marina occupy the prostitute’s window space but the prostitute attended an exhibition opening (De Appel gallery) at the same time and both women role-played at being each other.

Anna Novakov wrote of the work in her 2003 article for the Womans Art Journal, Point of Access: Marina Abramovic’s 1975 Performance “Role Exchange“. She says

“According to Abramovic,. Role Exchange was advertised with a standard gallery invitation sent to hundreds of people. The exhibition attracted a large art audience and was documented with black-and-white still photographs taken inside the gallery and outside the brothel window. There was no direct audience participation in the gallery, although the brothel had three male visitors who came in off the street.”One was drunk and left immediately, one didn’t want to pay the going rate, and the third man only wanted the woman who usually worked that window.”( E-mail exchange, November 2002.) The exhibition received good press coverage. Documentation of Role Exchange and many other early performance pieces was exhibited in the mid-1990s as framed photographs and texts. The Role Exchange photographs were taken by Ulay (in front of the brothel) and the De Appel Gallery staff (in front of the gallery).”

“I was living in Yugoslavia and was invited to do a performance for a project called Body Art. That was the first time that I had been to Amsterdam and the first time that I had seen the red-light district. I found it to be quite shocking. Especially, coming from a communist/socialist country and having the background that I had. My mother was a major in the army. My father left when I was seventeen. My mother had to raise the children [Marina and her brother] completely alone. She was very strict, always talking about morals, what was right and what was wrong.”

Marina Abramovic, quoted in Anna Novakov, ed., “Role Exchange: Desire, Beauty and the Public,”Veiled Histories: The Body, Place and Public Art( New York: Critical Press, 1997), 27.

Play audio clip from MOMA

Marina Abramovic is known as the ‘grandmother of performance art’ originally from belgrade she now lives and works in New York. Abramovic started working with performance art in the early 70s when she was a part of the avant-guarde Body Art Move-ment along with artists Nesa Paripovic (whom she married in 1971) and Zoran Popovic. The group was associated with american “body” performance artists of the time: Vito Acconci (Seed Bed, 1971), Chris Burden (Shoot, 1971), Bruce Nauman (Corridor, 1972) and Dennis Op-penheim (Parallel Stress, 1970).

Abramovic has won the 2012 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Berlin film Festival.

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Empowering, Degrading or a ‘Mutually Exploitative’ Exchange For Women?: Characterising the Power Relations of the Strip Club. Katy Pilcher

Essay by Katy Pilcher from the Journal of International Women’s Studies Vol. 10 #3 March 2009.


This paper seeks to characterise the gendered and sexualised power relations of both female and male strip clubs, and to signal what this means for establishing positive definitions of female desire. It is argued that while it is not useful to present female strippers, or female patrons of male strip clubs as purely passive victims of male heterosexism within these venues, it is equally damaging to assume that these venues represent a whole-scale challenge to conventional oppressive gender and sexual relations for women. Some research has even suggested that both strippers and their patrons are engaged in a ‘mutually exploitative’ power relationship. Moreover, further empirical research documents key points where female dancers have perhaps wielded ‘more’ power over patrons at certain moments, and female dancers have highlighted feelings of empowerment and highlighted potential for gender and sexual relations which position women as passive to be subverted within stripping. However, such feelings are often temporally specific and are not applicable to all women in the strip industry. It may be particularly hard for these to manifest in women concentrated in the least economically-rewarding areas of the industry who have less ‘power’ to resist compromising their bodily boundaries. Furthermore, it is argued that women watching male strippers does little to reverse the ‘male gaze’, and nor does this male occupation carry as much negative social stigma with it as female stripping suffers. It is thus argued that the overwhelming picture, stemming largely from accounts of former dancers and from empirical studies of individual clubs, suggests these

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Have You Got Erotic Capital?

extract from an Article by Catherine Hakim for Prospect Magazine, 24th March 2010.

‘Have You Got Erotic Capital?   It can be just as valuable as a university degree—especially for women’

‘Erotic capital goes beyond beauty to include sex appeal, charm and social skills, physical fitness and liveliness, sexual competence and skills in self-presentation, such as face-painting, hairstyles, clothing and all the other arts of self-adornment. Most studies capture only one facet of it: photographs measure beauty or sex appeal, psychologists measure confidence and social skills, sex researchers ask about seduction skills and numbers of partners. Yet women have long excelled at such arts: that’s why they tend to be more dressed up than men at parties. They make more effort to develop the “soft skills” of charm, empathy, persuasion, deploying emotional intelligence and “emotional labour.” Indeed, the final element of erotic capital is unique to women: bearing children. In some cultures, fertility is an essential element of women’s erotic power. And even though female fertility is less important in northern Europe (where families are smaller) women’s dominant position in this market has been reinforced in recent decades by a much-lamented phenomenon: the sexualisation of culture.’

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‘To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her’ (Simone De Beauvoir Quote)

‘It is nonsense to assert that revelry, vice, ecstasy, passion, would become impossible if man and woman were equal in concrete matters; the contradictions that put the flesh in opposition to the spirit, the instant to time, the swoon of immanence to the challenge of transcendence, the absolute of pleasure to the nothingness of forgetting, will never be resolved; in sexuality will always be materialised the tension, the anguish, the joy, the frustration, and the triumph of existence. To emancipate woman is to refuse to confine her to the relations she bears to man, not to deny them to her; let her have her independent existence and she will continue none the less to exist for him also: mutually recognising each other as subject, each will yet remain for the other an other. The reciprocity of their relations will not do away with the miracles — desire, possession, love, dream, adventure — worked by the division of human beings into two separate categories; and the words that move us — giving, conquering, uniting — will not lose their meaning. On the contrary, when we abolish the slavery of half of humanity, together with the whole system of hypocrisy that it implies, then the ‘division’ of humanity will reveal its genuine significance and the human couple will find its true form.’

Simone De Beauvoir, extract from the conclusion to ‘The Second Sex’ (1949)

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