by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
And there came one of the seven angels which had the seven vials, and talked with me, saying unto me, Come hither; I will shew unto thee the judgment of the great whore that sitteth upon many waters:
With whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and the inhabitants of the earth have been made drunk with the wine of her fornication.
So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness: and I saw a woman sit upon a scarlet coloured beast, full of names of blasphemy, having seven heads and ten horns.
And the woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet colour, and decked with gold and precious stones and pearls, having a golden cup in her hand full of abominations and filthiness of her fornication:
And upon her forehead was a name written,
MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.
This piece of writing is from the Book of Revelation 17, written in 96CE near the Asia Minor coast (present-day Turkey). The Whore herself, if I may call her that, is said to represent ‘The great city which reigneth over the Kings on Earth’, and so, to start with, we might look at her metaphorically, dissect her perhaps, rather than envisage her as a woman. The word ‘whore’ can be translated as ‘idolatress’, a figure that is worshipped over God. With this in mind, we might look to the stipulations of Caroline Vander Stichele, who proposed that we can equate the story of the Whore of Babylon, and her downfall, to the downfall of capital cities which, in Hebrew prophetic texts, commit such sins as prostitution and adultery which render them deserving of a good smiting from Yahweh, the Israelite God.
This ‘capital cities as women’ idea isn’t necessarily the belief of all religions who have encountered the Whore of Babylon, or, simply, Babylon, in their scriptures. In fact, in Catholicism, Babylon and Jerusalem are two great forces that merge together to create our own inner world, with Babylon as love of the world and Jerusalem as love of God. And in Thelema, Aleister Crowley’s religious movement of the early 20th Century, ‘Babalon’ represents female liberation and sexual impulse as well as being a symbol of Mother Earth herself. Here, our whore is sacred, a goddess of sorts.
Regardless, I think our Babylonic Whore is an interesting springboard from which to dive into our discussion of women and sexual promiscuity. Whore, prostitutes, and generally promiscuous or adulterous women, are littered throughout our collective world history. In the Torah (written 450-350BCE in Persian Achaemenid Empire), we meet Rahab, who was the head of an inn/brothel beside the wall of Jericho. Rahab used her abode to protect spies, and hence her family and herself, from the Israelites by placing a red chord on her door (think of the connotations of the red light in modern times). Over in Greece a little later on, we meet Thais on the arm of Alexander the Great, who was at once certainly a sexual prize for Alexander and a powerful leader in her own right, instigating the burning of Persepolis. Staying in Greece, we discover courtesan Phryne, whose breasts, when exposed to a court, led to her acquittal from a guilty charge of impiety.
I’d like to dwell on Phryne for a moment. I grew up, as most other women did, quite starkly aware of my ability to use my body, and my youth, to further myself in life, as Phryne. Some of my earliest memories constitute seeing images of slender, made-up women on the fronts of magazine, on television, in movies, oftentimes being praised, or humiliated, for their looks. A little later, I learned that my body and my beauty could allow me concessions in life; a tear shed at a train station making a gentleman pity me enough to give me a new ticket; an eye given to a stranger at a bar leading to me receiving a free drink; my wiles leading to men fighting to win me over; my fictitious timidity and coyness, and my pretty face, leading me to land an acting role without any training whatsoever. I do not say these things to say that I am especially remarkably beautiful, I say them to illustrate to you that being a woman, an able, slender woman, is how I have been able to progress in some aspects of life when doors could otherwise have been closed to me. I have, in the past, been ashamed of this, and become embittered attempting to prove my worth through my intelligence and mind alone. But what interest is there in pretending that the world is not how it is? For the world does indeed deem my body a most prized object, one of the most important things about me. And I am not afraid to say that I enjoy it, albeit, I must add, that I enjoy it alongside the intellect that allows me to use my God-given wiles in a utile fashion, perhaps like Su Xiaoxiao, who I will speak on now.
Su Xiaoxiao was a Chinese courtesan and poet of AD 482-501, known for her devastating beauty and intelligence. Despite her promiscuity and her bountiful tales of sexual encounters with various men, Su Xiaoxiao is remembered as a great poet who died a most untimely death at the age of 19.
For too long, I have separated my art, and my work, from my sexuality. I was a fiend at 19, as Su Xiaoxiao, and most ashamed of it. Secrecy, in my experience, results only in one finding oneself in most unsavoury situations. I was subjected to many of these such situations, which I only found myself sharing details of once the harm had been done. And why? Why. Because as early as I learned the importance of my beauty, I also learned that sex, for me as a woman, was bad. Lest I bring up one of my school peers, whom I will name Betty, who was known, at the age of 11, for having sexual experiences with multiple men, most far older than herself. And, rather than asking her whether she was okay, whether she needed help, whether she was being abused, I found myself running with the rest of the wolves who howled ‘slut’, ‘slag’, ‘bitch’, ‘easy’, ‘ugly’, and ‘whore’ in her direction. I do not know where Betty is now.
Let me harken to Veronica Franco here in our discussion of Betty, bless her soul. Veronica, living in 16th Century Italy, was taught by her mother to use the tools at her disposal (her beauty and youth) to make a life for herself. As a teen, Veronica married a doctor, and after he died became a prostitute at the Venetian court where, while sleeping with much of the Venetian elite, made a great amount of wealth by publishing her own books of poetry, wealth which she shared with her fellow courtesans and their children. Veronica was eventually charged with witchcraft (a very common charge for courtesans at the time), and though she managed successfully to acquit herself of this wrongful charge, Veronica died of poverty after fleeing Venice during the plague years. But how many courtesans were subjected to the harmful words of others which led them to becoming estranged from society, as Betty, and, at worst, killed for being ‘witches’?
We equate sexuality with morality. But only in one direction. For a promiscuous man is a powerful one, but a promiscuous woman is a dark shadow, a stain on history, a sinner. Consider the train scene in Nymphomaniac I, by Lars von Trier. If you have not seen the film, picture two young girls, scantily clad, pacing down the carriages to find men to sleep with as a competition to win a bag of chocolate. The protagonist, Jo, walks into a carriage and sits down. Opposite her is an older woman, who looks at her with disdain and disgust, and speaks to her with so much condescension that it gives one shivers. Reverse the image, and see two men walking down the train carriages, looking for women to bed. Picture the protagonist, Jo, a man, walking into a carriage and sitting down. Opposite him is an older woman, who looks at him coyly, like a teenager, and holds back giggles when he winks at her, much to the chagrin of her husband, who is sat beside her.
Sex is a much talked about subject of late, and the conversation has evolved continuously since the ‘sexual liberation’ period during the 1960s. We have come far, and yet, I cannot help but think that things are the same as they always were. The liberation I feel in my sexuality in almost entirely internal; the result of a lifelong battle with shame from trauma and the sexual humiliation that every woman my age has been subjected to for her entire life. Part of this liberation has also come from my willingness to share and discuss sex and promiscuity with other women in my life, who have, for the most part, been nothing but wholeheartedly supportive of the thrill I have found in sex anew. But I hesitate before I tell someone what I have been up to. I hesitate, not because I am scared of the label ‘slut’, or, God forbid, ‘whore’ – rather, I use these terms readily when referring to myself – but because I am scared to shatter the image I have so painstakingly created of myself as a near-sexless entity, one dominated by mind and soul and books and culture. But, as we have seen, a woman, a person, can simultaneously be a ‘whore’, and a great artist. Perhaps, even, a better artist, and a better person.
A 2004 report revealed that body esteem in women was positively correlated with sociosexual unrestrictedness (AP Clard, ‘Self-Perceived Attractiveness and Masculinization Predict Women’s Sociosexuality’). Other research has also shown that sexual infidelity as a source of social power can be associated with women as well as with men, who were formerly believed to be more likely to be sexual infidels as a result of gender-based assumptions.
Now, I’m not about to go off on a polyamorous ranting spree here. In fact, I do think that I am equally able to engage in rampant sexual activity with multiple partners as I am able to settle down with one person and enjoy a monogamous existence. I have lived that existence for nearly 7 years of my life. But I will say that experiencing my sexuality as an adult, experiencing the feeling of being desired, of being aroused, of lust and flirtation and sexual freedom, has been an enlightening journey for me. It feels good to see this part of myself, to look at it from all angles, and to conclude that it is a thing that has too long been shut away and crushed by the weight of all the expectations I have of myself as a distinguished, learned woman. For I can be a scholar, and a slut, all in the same breath.
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Other articles by Hazel include Dark Suburbia and How Hollywood Ate The World.
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