In the series Dialectics of the Sexes: no. 8


Mighty interesting, the varied manner of female self-presentation, of prostitutes more particularly.

On the eve of Emperor Augustus’ reign the shame culture of ancient Rome already presented us with bourgeois women emancipating themselves in a curious manner. Like the city’s whores at the time, they enlivened the enterprise by painting their hair an intense yellow. Thus adorned, they left their spouse’s house to seduce strangers and allure them into their beds.

After acceding to his throne, the Sublime Emperor considered such abominable behaviour as source of all Rome’s decadence, fearing that it was the beginning of the end of The Empire. He ordained real whores to be registered. Promptly, however, the bourgeoises also wrote their own names in that register, next to the signatures of their sin sisters.

Ah, the intriguing guerrilla of the sexes!


Public Roman Porno

Yet, though these settled Roman bourgeois women behaved as prostitutes, they still considered their fallen sisters with great disdain. As, for that matter, did their counterparts on the eve of the French Revolution, this for the simple reason that a whore sells her body to anyone who pays the price, while the bourgeois libertine merely wanted to chose her lovers freely. The gift of a present now and then, why not of a jewel, was certainly accepted. After all, the notion of ‘cheap women’ can only imply that other women sell themselves less cheaply – perhaps an early version of feminism?

The conspicuous dress and that flashy hairdo were not presented primarily to excite men, they were considered as necessary detour towards achieving their august aim – liberty that is, including the freedom to flirt with their chosen ones. Of course, that striking yellow must have had its own horny brilliance in the chiaroscuro interior of the boudoirs.

In the 19th century we see an interesting development, the reverse of what happened in Rome, the reverse also of what went on in Europe before this time. In the old days, a whore was not only considered a ‘cheap woman’, she was this visibly so. Quite suddenly, however, she began to dress as ‘quite a lady’, masking herself as it were.

Already in the first half of the 18th century the settled bourgeoisie had fulminated against masked balls. The real masque worn at such festivities afforded – as Mudge clarifies in The Whore’s Story – both men and women the disguise of their own features, as well as of their social background. The masque allowed the wearer to play another ‘social role’ than his or her usual ‘self’. Such personal anonymity facilitated doing and saying things otherwise tabooed and ‘not done’.

Perhaps the stereotype of the masque can be said to bypass the usual social stereotypes of everyday life. In England this paradox resulted in cross dressing as fashionable. Even in our times Mick Jagger once said: ‘We British do like to dress up, you know!’ As a result, three problems frequently arose: Mistaking women for men; mistaking men for women; and interestingly so, mistaking a solid bourgeoise for a whore. French la forbade women in the street to look exciting or provocative. This, then, must have added to the confusion.

Looking at a painted version one does not make the mistake that easily. However, here the projective eye of the painter has already been at work:



The Dutch artist Breitner often used whores as models and, before painting them, also made photographs of them. Here the mistake between respectable and non-respectable sometimes seems to be intended:



Two of the painter Breitner’s photographs

Already in The Whore’s Catechism from 1830 it is written that the thoroughbred whore must be able to assume every form and vary her attitudes of pleasure in accord with times, circumstances and temperaments. When around 1870 the distinction between a prostitute and a lady became almost invisible, this prescript had obviously become everyday practice.

Men were ridiculed by fellow men for not having seen a whore in the lady they approached – and vice versa. Mason, in his Victorian Sexuality, aptly writes about ‘the blurring boundaries between the sexually transgressive and the sexually respectable, resulting from the growth of prostitutional decorum.’ Vice versa, a succesful actress on stage, as well as a decent bourgeoise, was constantly risking to be taken for a secret whore, taken the fact that many women on stage actually were – a grande horizontale for sure, a courtisane, but even that would not be to her liking.

Cues distinguishing the respectable from the bawdy became extremely slight. The women took subterfuge in the subtle art of eye movements, certainly avoiding rude accosting, and men suddenly needed schooling in the hermeneutics of the sexes. A lover of prostitutes needed to be able to gauge the little traces of vulgarity that marked his target. In line with a more general cultural development since the 18th century, when real masques were ‘banned’ and the ‘reading of the soul’ of men and woman began, flirting itself had become an art.

Only when in the 20th century feminism began to run full steam did the problematic difference between ‘cheap’ and ‘respectable’ women sort of disappear. Stating that all married women are ‘after all’ whores and opting for ‘free’ sexuality, radical feminism brought an end to the subtleties of flirting – in their endeavour to more or less abolish them, perhaps an end to all dialectics of the sexes.

Sierksma summer/autumn 2015





Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

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