OTI Online
Summer 1997

Casting Stones:
the Theology of Prostitution
by Rita Nakashima Brock


Are women "sewers" or saints? The church can't decide.


During the 1996 national U.S. elections, the news media had some ironic fun at Dick Morris' expense, commenting that the Presidential advisor and architect of family values got caught with them around his ankles. If we think his relationship with a prostitute violates patriarchal family values, however, we would be wrong for much of Christian history. In fact, many of the church's major formative theologians and the social policies they espoused assumed that prostitutes were necessary to preserve the patriarchal family.

Christianity has had a profoundly ambivalent attitude toward sexuality, an ambivalence often projected through race onto darker-skinned peoples. On the one hand, the doctrine of the incarnation, that God became an actual human being, led official Christianity to repudiate theologies such as Gnosticism that equate the physical world, including the body, with the fall and human sin. On the other hand, Christianity, under the influence of Paul, early Christian ascetics and Augustine, a bishop and theologian of the early Christian church, split the spiritual and the body. In this theological dualism, the spirit (and the male as the spiritual principle) is always at risk from the drag of the sexual impulse (the female).

Aristotle, as is well known, equated women with the material principle in the existence and equated men with the rational principle. For the correct ordering of existence, the rational had to rule over the physical and give it, the passive element, shape and direction. Most theologians wrote about the body and sex from the experience of celibacy and they problematized sexuality altogether and most forms of human intimacy.

In God's good providence, the fathers believed even the drag of the flesh had its purposes, and God had provided that all things work toward the good. Prostitutes were a necessary evil, according to the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, as they were permitted by God in order to prevent male lust from becoming totally out of control. "Sewers," he noted, "are necessary to guarantee the wholesomeness of palaces." Otherwise, Aquinas worried, "sodomy" and worse crimes might result. While the money paid to prostitutes is paid for an unlawful purpose, according to Aquinas, the giving itself is not unlawful and the woman could retain what she received. In other words, prostitutes protect the "good" women of the family from the demands of male sin.

Illustration: Trees of Desire
Women were perceived as temptation -- or the embodiment of evil.

This dichotomy of female sewers and saints is one of the origins of the madonna/whore phenomenon in the West, where women are regarded as either pure and "good" or sexually active and "bad." The feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir noted that "it has often been remarked that the necessity exists of sacrificing one part of the female sex in order to save the other and prevent worse troubles... a caste of 'shameless women' allows the 'honest woman' to be treated with the most chivalrous respect."

Legislation about prostitution follows this division of women into good, virginal women (the "virgin") and bad, sexual women (the prostitute Mary Magdalene -- who was a resurrection witness and is never said to be a prostitute in the Christian scriptures). Medieval canon lawyers developed the legislation surrounding prostitution that came to dominate in Europe. Modesty in behavior was women's protection. Any woman who did not act modestly -- who, for example, was sexually ardent -- was deemed at heart a prostitute, though she need not be classified as one as long as she remained faithful to her husband. During periods in history when wives were severely restricted as to movement, clothing, residence etc., prostitutes were tolerated and allowed to move with few restrictions. In the early Middle Ages, prostitutes in Europe had guilds, women who worked as prostitutes even marched as a guild in religious processions.

The attitude of medieval canon lawyers toward prostitution was complicated by several factors. In the first instance, they regarded women as having a different sexuality from men. Since it was Eve who led Adam astray in the garden, women were regarded as having no self control, particularly in regard to sexual matters. Hence, the rigidity of dress, conduct and movement of women testified to their status as "good" or "bad." This meant, however, that medieval church lawyers did not especially condemn the prostitute for her activities, as she was merely acting out sexuality that good women repressed. They felt that the more severe punishment should fall on those who made a profit from her, i.e., pimps, procurers, brothel keepers, even customers. While they recognized that many women turned to prostitution out of economic necessity, this was not a mitigating circumstance (despite the fact that poverty was taken to be a mitigating circumstance in stealing or murder). The canon lawyers did, however, count a woman or girl sold into prostitution not culpable for her actions.

The church had great influence on the development of secular law regarding prostitution, an influence that was quite ambiguous. In the later Middle Ages prostitution was regulated by forcing prostitutes to live in certain parts of the city, to wear certain types of dress and to refrain from public soliciting. The only King of France to be named a saint, Louis, was disturbed about tolerating prostitution and sought to eliminate it. He gave instructions to his son Philip to carry out this edict when he became king. Prostitution was held to be a misdemeanor and prostitutes prosecuted. This prohibition was found impossible to maintain and France quickly went back to regulating prostitutes.

Other rulers tried harsher penalties to eliminate prostitution before turning to regulation. Frederick Barbarossa, the German king, began the practice of cutting off the noses of women found to be prostitutes. In central Europe during the 12th century, mutilation was used for a variety of offenses. Mutilating a prostitute's face was held to impair her effectiveness by making her less attractive.

The sex industry flourished in medieval Europe, as it has throughout human history when women are economically dependent on males and when traditional patriarchal patterns of economic support are disrupted by wars, poverty, rapid urbanization or natural disasters. Prostitutes followed German, French or other armies and were regarded as essential not only for sexual services, but also for taking care of the wounded, cooking meals, washing laundry and cleaning the camp. An example of the use of prostitutes by religious leaders was the Council of Constance, held in Switzerland between 1414 and 1418 in order to end the great Schism and to reform the medieval church. Nearly 700 prostitutes also came to town to provide sexual services for the ecclesiastics.

Blaming the Victim

The Protestant reformation abolished celibacy and monasticism, but it did not affirm the sexuality of women as part of this "reform." In fact, there is some evidence to suggest that one of the things the Protestant Reformation sought to reduce was the increasing feminization of the church, exemplified in such areas as Mariology, courtly love and aesthetic richness. Architects of the Reformation such as Martin Luther took the harshest possible reading of the Pauline literature to mean that the original equivalence of Adam and Eve had been shattered in the fall and, because Eve caused the fall through her disobedience she, in the form of her daughters, had to be evermore subservient to her husband or father. The closing of convents removed one of the only escapes for women from the demands of domestic life, including forced pregnancy, childhood molestation and physical violence. The Protestant church in Europe and America killed more women as witches than did the Catholic Inquisition, and virtually all accusations of witchcraft involved tampering with material reality and/or engaging in illicit forms of sexuality.

While the Protestant reformers of the 16th century are widely regarded as having a more positive view of sexuality (i.e., they repudiated celibacy), it is more accurate to state that they held a more negative view of celibacy as a possible means of grace. Luther contended that those who practiced celibacy out of a belief that they could win divine favor were mistaken; Calvin disapproved of celibacy only when those who had chosen this path found they could not stay on it. While Luther and Calvin regarded marriage much more positively than did the Church Fathers, their view of sexuality is little different. Sexual intercourse carried the taint of carnality and was intrinsically opposed to the spirit. The best that could be said for marital intimacy was that it prevented worse evil. Indulgence in marital intercourse, however, could cause the marriage to become a pigsty of sensuality, according to Luther. Calvin was a little more positive, arguing that sexuality was a good, having been created by God for the purpose of procreation, but that the pleasure accompanying coitus did contain an element of evil. Hence, marital sexuality was good; enjoying marital sexuality was evil.

The regulation and toleration of prostitution that had developed both in church and civil law during the Middle Ages was deeply suspect to both Luther and Calvin. Luther, in a short tract called "Thoughts Concerning Brothels," disagrees with church fathers such as Augustine or Aquinas, who had held that prostitution was a necessary evil. In a posted warning to students at Wittenburg University about consorting with prostitutes, Luther prefigured the several changes that would come about in both ecclesiastical and civil attitudes towards prostitution as a result of "religious reform."

"Through special enemies of our faith the devil has sent some whores here to ruin our poor young men. As an old and faithful preacher I ask you in fatherly fashion, dear children, that you believe assuredly that the evil spirit sent these whores here and that they are dreadful, shabby, stinking, loathsome, and syphilitic, as daily experience unfortunately demonstrates."

Luther shifted the locus of evil from male lust to the prostitute who has been sent by the devil to corrupt "poor young men." The reformers blamed the prostitute far more than they blamed the pimp, the procurer or the brothel owner, and they were certainly not blaming the customer.

When Fortress Press, a Lutheran publishing house, issued Casting Stones, Marshall Johnson, who is director of the company, received complaints from a number of indignant pastors who were appalled that they had published a book on prostitution. Johnson's response: "One of the few things about Jesus of which we can be certain is that he had a positive attitude toward prostitutes." Unfortunately, the attitude of Jesus in the Gospels has been far superseded by the history of the influence of theology of figures from Paul to Luther. Their focus on sexuality as sin and its assignment to women has long influenced social and legal policy in Christian states.

The dominant American WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture is shaped by this legacy of religious dualism, which projects blame for embodiment on females, and especially on women of color. The body and its ambiguities have been used, through American political and economic processes, to legitimate slavery, racial genocide, sexual and domestic violence and prostitution.

The Protestant Legacy

By the second decade of the 21st century, it has been estimated that Christianity may become numerically only one of many religions represented in the United States. In the popular culture and in social policy, however, Christian values about sex and sensuality predominate, either in prudishness about the body or in reactions that overemphasize sex and use it to shock or sell products.

Christian theologians made the prostitute into the archetypal sinner. This theological perspective begins with the assumption that sexuality embodies sin. Far from illuminating the reality of the sex industry as a system of exploitation of the vulnerable, young and poor, the Christian pathologizing of sex has obscured its dynamics. The ideology of sin has often entrapped women, because once having been labeled as "fallen" they had little hope of ever getting free from prostitution, except under the paternalistic benevolence of the church, many of whose clerics were themselves customers.

The combining of the sinner with the victim implies that only victims who do not deserve their suffering are innocent, because the opposite of sin is innocence. By innocence, I mean the sense that our actions are not willfully chosen between good and evil because we do not know evil -- that we are doing what we do by faith and do not sin. To be innocent is to be a worthy victim, deserving of compassion. But if a victim can be proven to lack innocence, the implication is that she no longer is entitled to justice or compassion -- that is, she deserves her suffering. Any hint of moral ambiguity, or the possession of power and agency by a victim, implies that she had a choice to do otherwise and did not. But such dualistic notions about innocent victims and sinful victims are disempowering to those most victimized by oppression; the notions admit no understanding of the ambiguities within which people live their lives and survive adverse circumstances.

This tendency to identify with innocent victims and to avoid discussions of the moral complexities of life continues to place responsibility for sexual exploitation on the victims of the system, who are regarded as helpless by their sinful nature. Their helplessness is not seen as caused by the misuse of power by exploitive systems. Women who escape are supposed to feel grateful that they are forgiven and regarded as redeemed despite their "fallen" natures, which reinforces the idea of their powerlessness, even as they are held responsible for what happened to them.

Exploitation is wrong not because of the moral status of the victims, but because the misuse of power, even by good people for a good cause, dehumanizes all involved. Hence, we need to focus not on innocence and forgiveness of the fallen girl, but on what is wrong with exploitive systems and behavior -- on misuses of power.

What Public Policy Has Wrought

The Supreme Court of the United States in 1908 succinctly gave the moral and paternalistic arguments for the prohibition of prostitution.

"[Prostitution] refers to women (sic) who for hire or without hire offer their bodies to indiscriminate intercourse with men. The lives and example of such persons are in hostility to the idea of the family, as consisting in and springing from union for life of one man and one woman in the holy estate of matrimony; the sure foundation of all that is stable and noble in our civilization, the best guaranty of that reverent morality which is the source of all beneficent progress in social and political improvement."

Defining prostitution as female promiscuity, the court echoed the Church Fathers of 10 centuries earlier. Prostitution was deemed criminal by theologians because it was a moral evil due to women's disobedient nature as shown in the behavior of Eve. For the Supreme Court, it violated "holy" matrimony, the bedrock of civilization and guarantor of morals. This mentality about marriage echoes still in the conservative rhetoric surrounding gay marriage, out of wedlock pregnancy and feminism.

Arguments both prohibiting prostitution in the latter half of the 20th century in the West and in the United Nations rhetoric that has influenced Asia have shifted from immorality and paternalism to the language of human rights. The practice of prostitution itself is deemed harmful to the person soliciting prostitution and the customer. Whether this harm is deemed disease, vulnerability to exploitation or sexual dysfunction, the argument is that people must be protected against this "self-inflicted" harm. Because people are deemed to possess certain inalienable human rights and prostitution is now defined as harm, people must be prohibited from engaging in sex work in order to protect their human rights.

That is the foundation of the United Nations "Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others." The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prepared by the commission on Human Rights set up by the U.N. Economic and Social Council, was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. It concentrates heavily on "Western civil and political rights" and tends to ignore or downplay economic or social rights. The two main premises of the document are the autonomy or capacity for self-governance of each individual and the equality of each person under the law -- which we know for most of U.S. history and much of the world means the male, propertied individual.

The theological pronouncements, social attitudes, and legal policies that surround prostitution are based on the male gaze. They have little to do with the reality of those who work as prostitutes. For the workers and those exploited, their acts have nothing to do with lust, sexual desire, personal choice or self-inflicted harm. Here is the report of a girl who depicts the reality of sex work:

"A fifty dollar bill...When I stepped into your car you violated my body, asking me to call you 'daddy.'...You not only fucked with my body, you fucked with my mind. Afterwards, I held the fifty dollar bill to my stomach as I threw up, sickened by what had just happened. And that feeling is still the same, even after four years have passed me by. I've been violated by every type of man -- rich, poor, ugly, good looking, every race. I have no respect for you."

The primary goal of those prostituted is survival. During the transaction, the objective is to satisfy the customer with the least disgusting, most efficient means possible -- to do the least amount in the fastest time possible, or to fill the time with the least objectionable activities. That objective must be fulfilled while avoiding arrest, or being cheated, humiliated, beaten, mutilated or murdered.

The history of prostitution involves the use of slave brothels by armies, the selling of children, the kidnapping and entrapment of girls and women into prostitution, the disruption of economic support systems for women and children and the gender ideology that women and others who are young and vulnerable are supposed to serve the personal needs of men. The current average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 14; from 85 to 99 percent are victims of sexual abuse. Most adult women began prostitution as children. Pimps wait in bus stations, roam city streets and wander shopping malls recruiting girls and boys. The pimps provide the commodity purchased by the politicians, blue-collar workers, foreign diplomats, doctors, media stars, judges, law-enforcement officers, priests and pastors who cruise the poor neighborhoods of cities and towns looking for children and young women to perform for them. To survive being repeatedly raped, having strangers violate one's body, enduring repeated physical violence, working 365 days a year and living under the constant shadow of arrest requires the psychological resources used by those under torture and war. Under such circumstances the innocent do not survive.

Demystifying Theology, Policy, and Law

It is time we gave up the male gaze, which has done little but mystify prostitution and project sin and blame in the wrong direction. Instead of seeing sin in sexual behavior, which has created veils of shame and guilt even around healthy sexual feelings, I propose we see it in the abuse of power. A major tragedy of male dominance has been to confuse sex with power and with violence. As the theologian Mary Potter Engel suggests, we should measure sin by what destroys right relationship. Engel proposes that we identify sin as the distortion of feeling, as the betrayal of trust, as lack of care and as lack of consent to vulnerability. By these criteria, the Christian mystification of prostitution, as well as the pimp, procurer, police and customer participate in creating evil. Our social and legal policies need to reflect this understanding of what creates evil.

Attitudes toward the body, women and sexuality form and are formed by the structures of a culture, its laws, economic practices, familial relationships, religions and political processes. The history of a culture reveals how these structures interact with attitudes, values and behavior. To understand sex industries more completely, therefore, we must attend closely to the historically contingent constructions of the body, women and sexuality they mirror. In the U.S., it means noting the long pathological Christian legacy around sexuality, suffering and women.

Western Christianity has had an enormous impact on how the laws about prostitution throughout the world, and especially in the Unites States and Asia, have been developed. Though U.S. constitutional law forbids an explicit link between the church and the state, in fact many of the laws surrounding prostitution are deeply rooted in the Christian history of the West. Religion has had a direct role in social attitudes towards the body and sex, and those social attitudes carry over into legislation.

As with all social institutions, sex industries and sexual exploitation exist within particular societies because political, economic and other forces enable, undergird and reinforce their presence, even when those forces are at odds with other forces that prohibit such exploitation.

Prostitution, because it constitutes a major aspect of legal and social policy, provides a window on the pathology of sexuality in a society. The spirit/flesh split, the association of sexuality and profound embodiment with sin, the subordination and exploitation of women and children, the protection of power and the political/economic nature of marriage become clearer when we look carefully at how Christianity and American culture have handled prostitution, or perhaps more accurately, tried not to see it. If we look in the window, we will see it, not only as a local or national issue, but also as a global one.


RITA NAKASHIMA BROCK is the Professor in the Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Reprinted by permission from Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States by Rita N. Brock and Susan Thislethwaite. ©1996 Augsburg Fortress.


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