The subjects of prostitution and education both have been in the news lately. Locally, the question seems to be variations of why do women choose to work in the sex business? That is one of the dumbest questions one can ask, to my mind. It is like asking, why does Apple sell I-pads and I-phones?
The more pertinent question is why do men become johns? (Interesting isn’t, how many words, mostly derogatory, we have in English and Spanish for women who are sexually active and how few we have for men.)
The usual answer to both these questions is based upon our assumptions about sexuality and women, and these assumptions still reflect 19th century morality and patriarchy: men are sexual, women are not, and the proper place for women is marriage and motherhood. I had a dictionary circa 1950s that defined prostitute as “A woman who sells her herself for the purpose of sexual intercourse; a man who sells his talents for less than they are worth.” My more up-to-date dictionary substitutes the word person.
Some years ago I was walking across San Jose State University campus with my friend and boss, Ellen. She made the comment that a college education is its own reward. I agreed with her. (I read somewhere, “Information is everywhere, it takes a goal-seeking organism to turn it into knowledge.”) There is a thrill in turning information into knowledge.
Today, with its costs and the types of jobs available, college is not its own reward, and pundits are listing the “most useless” college majors. As you can imagine, these include the liberal arts, English, history, anthropology, literature, and, to my mind, anything that might make a person well rounded or give depth and coherence to their knowledge through knowing other cultures or even good grammar. Although there still are companies that are looking for applicants with rounded educational backgrounds, many corporations, it seems, are not looking for educated people. They want specialized people who are or can be trained to do something specific.
What do prostitution and education have to do with each other?
Everyone has heard the phrase, “The oldest profession.” And that is literally true. As soon as there was marriage, there was prostitution, not necessarily for the needs of men, but rather for women who did not wish to be tied down to marriage and children.
The Ancient Greeks, as usual, had a word for it – hetaera, or
companion. Hetaerism as a profession or way of life does not exist today. It disappeared with the demise of the salon, and perhaps the French concept of the courtesan (which once meant lady of the court.) Both in today’s dictionaries are described as mistresses to men or concubines. In fact, they were women of independent means (granted, the means were usually obtained from the high fees they charged men). According to Myra Mannes in her article, “The Problem of the Creative Woman,” in order to be successful, the ancient hetaera had to be “intelligent, if not brilliant, educated, independent, adventuresome, dominant, aggressive, highly sexed, creative, and probably not very nurturing.” In ancient Greece and throughout history they have been the liberated women, whether companions at symposia, patrons of the arts and theatre and mistresses of the salon where sparkling and intelligent conversation was supposed to prevail.
Today, both education and hetaerism have degenerated into the lowest common denominator, perhaps you could say, the street hetaerae were paid for the evening, prostitutes are paid for the deed. Today’s valued college majors are preparing graduates for the deed. A well-rounded education is not being encouraged.
Perhaps today call girls fill the role of hetaerae. But let’s remember, since before the Bible, even, it has been men who have written history and defined the words we use and the terms that describe men and women. In one of my earliest anthropology courses, the professor showed us a slide of a small statue, made some 25,000 years ago, of what is called the Venus of Willendorf, and said, “This was a household fetish.” Then he showed a slide of a coin with the head of a warrior, perhaps 2,000 years old. “This,” he said, “Is obviously a god.”