Sex Cauldron (Wasn’t That Place Shut Down?) or Thoughts About Medieval Prostitution

Conservotrad Catholics have a deep love of the Middle Ages, not only because it was an era when the Catholic church wielded religious and temporal power, but because it . Thinkers like G.K. Chesterton and Hilarie Belloc tried to find ways to infuse the modern world with a medieval sensibility, particularly in the form of distributism. While distributism never caught on as a legitimate challenger to “the servile state,” it still has passionate devotees among conservotrad Catholics who dislike what they perceive to be the corrosive effects of modern capitalism and socialism. There is also an implicit assumption in distributist literature that a distributist society will be a well-ordered society because everyone has a “place,” as was the case during the medieval period. The question I have is whether a society run on distributist lines would have a prostitutes’ guild.

While medieval Europe is often characterized as an era of sexual repression and guilt, attitudes towards prostitution were contradictory, viewing it as a sin against chastity but also as a necessary evil. Like the Greeks and the Romans before them, medieval leaders in the secular and ecclesiastical realms believed that a perpetual class of “fallen women” was needed to redirect male lust away from the possible rape or seduction of “respectable women.” This is why no less of an authority than Augustine of Hippo said, “Take away the prostitutes from society, and you will throw everything into disorder by lust.” As much as medieval people loved a good “reformed whore” story, they believed that a society without prostitutes would lead to social disintegration. Better to sacrifice the virtue and dignity of a few women of low status that run the risk of endangering the life and virtue of the venerable matrons and matriarchs of the middling and aristocratic classes.

My problem with the medieval views on prostitution does not revolve around the legality of the practice, but the idea that men are so lacking in self-control that  poor women have to be pressed into service to protect the once and future virtue of their social betters. In other words, for there is to “respectable women” there must be a corresponding class of “bad/dis-respectable women” whom it is acceptable to use and abuse, whether sexually or otherwise. Many, if not most, medieval women fell into prostitution because they had no other way to survive, not because they were unusually “sinful” or sexually voracious. Oftentimes these women were orphans, widows, beggars, or the daughters of prostitutes, living on the margins of society without the protection of a man to protect them or provide them with a veneer of respectability. Some were sold into prostitution by impoverished parents, as is the case for many girls in developing world today. This divide between “good” and “bad” women is not just limited to classical antiquity or to medieval Europe, but can be found in a variety of other historical and cultural contexts, including the Louisiana plaçage system and the systematic sexual abuse of black slaves throughout the antebellum South:

While Catholicism theoretically imposes chastity on both sexes, in practice it is seen as a uniquely female virtue, which men are free to adapt or ignore, depending on their personal preferences. Siring illegitimate children was a sign of men’s virility whereas the act of bearing or raising said child was indicative of a woman’s degeneracy (a quick perusal of Wikipedia will show that many so-called “great men” left behind a trail of progeny in their wake by various mothers, and were generally unconcerned by the fate of said children). Medieval attitudes towards prostitution suggest that, despite the Augustinian pessimism about sex in general, there were no real attempts to get the majority of men to adhere to the same level of chastity demanded of women.

I think that Chesterbelloc and their modern intellectual progeny probably assume(d) that if everyone was safely ensconced in a well-order religious patriarchal household and/or workshop that there would be no supply or demand for prostitution. However, merely being a member of a superficially functional nuclear family is no guarantee that some form of dysfunction isn’t going on behind closed doors; recall that many LGBT youth who are expelled from their religious homes end up engaging in prostitution to survive:

The only thing that I think would end prostitution would be to end the dangerous view that women exist to serve the needs of men (whether in terms of sex, housekeeping, or childcare). Thankfully, the view that poor women should be sacrificed in the sex industry to protect the virtue of “respectable women” seems to have fallen by the wayside, but human sex trafficking/slavery is probably worse right now than it has been at any point in history. While many religious bodies are taking a public stand against human trafficking, I think it will take a deeper analysis of the interplay of capitalism, structural poverty, and misogyny to really address this issue, as opposed to simply casting sex trafficking as a matter of personal sin.

The constant appeals one sees in conservotrad discourse about bringing back the glories of the medieval social order routinely ignore the impossibility of grafting feudalism onto a  religiously and ethnically diverse post-modern society (are the Jews supposed to be herded into ghettos or do they just get deported en masse to Israel? Would Protestants be burned at the stake? What about Hindus and Buddhists?). The level of puritanism found in traditionalist circles is such that I don’t think even the most reactionary conservotrad would approve of allowing poor women to throw away their chastity for the supposed common good. Whatever form society takes in the future, I have a feeling that it probably won’t be distributist, thank FSM.

(Bonus points for anyone who can guess from which the first part of the post title originates)