Distinguishing between Prostitutes and Courtesans

So, I was just half-listening to a talk by Amy Tan on MPR while going about some daily routines, and I didn’t hear the whole thing, but, interestingly (to me), I tuned in as she began to talk about beginning to suspect that her beloved grandmother (who is long dead, but evidently still very active & present in her life, as ancestors ought to be – maneuvering circumstances to help her, etc.), may have been a Courtesan. 

This would have been in Shanghai, at a time when Courtesans had a lot of cultural influence, more legal freedoms than any other woman, etc. (a lot like the Hetaira of ancient Greece) – a fascinating historical period in any case. 

Having gone through the evidence, reaction, etc. Tan started to distinguish between Courtesans & Prostitutes, which I found disappointing. 

There is a growing fascination with (or willingness to talk about) the Courtesan life, an emerging willingness to not write those women off as either abject victims or as women of low morals – I think society has begun to grant some ethical leeway to the upper echelon of women who, in various historical contexts, have made sex and sexual-polarity-work their lives. And it is true that the Courtesan life is closer to the mythical image of the Sacred Prostitute than is a streetwalker. She’s a better model of what the archetype’s purpose is, and what might be possible – even if still a far cry from the ideal.

So, it’s fine to hold the Courtesan up as a possibility.

But to say a Courtesan is not a Prostitute, that just bugs me. That’s a class distinction that people use to distance their connection to the Courtesan (whatever that connection is: familial, academic, artistic) from Prostitution. It’s a distinction made to maintain a sense of safety and ethical integrity, without having to examine one’s own pre-judgements about what prostitution really is. 

That distinction is definitely about class and maybe about race one as well, it’s not about character difference. Courtesans may have had more clout, more status, more money – they were perhaps better politicians, negotiators, leaders, and influencers than garden variety whores.  But their essential difference from the rest of the world is the same as the Prostitute’s.

In either case, their relationship to sex is what makes them outsiders, and what creates their commonality.  It’s what creates the stigma, and what Patriarchy both requires and demonizes.

And I say – don’t cut a Courtesan slack you won’t cut a Prostitute. It’s like putting lipstick on a pig  so you can love it – it’s an insult to pigs. If that’s what you have to do to justify the courtesan, you’re still calling the whore a pig, and I object.

You’re not redeeming the whore in anyone’s eyes, you’re just exempting the top layer of whores from criticism.

Glossing over their essential sameness because of wealth or status does nothing to change the essential underlying paradigm. I’m not looking for ‘some of us get a special pass’, I’m looking for ‘none of us should require a pass’. 

Its just another divide & conquer attitude. And I think most Courtesans would agree – there’s no need to disrespect their less fortunate sisters just because you are fascinated by what the successful ones can teach you.

 

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"For a woman to explore and express the fullness of her sexuality, her emotional and intellectual capacities, would entail who knows what risks and who knows what truly revolutionary alteration of the social conditions that demean and constrain her."

-Louise J. Kaplan - Female Perversions