“Too Hot for God”:
Beasts and Sovereigns in Prostitutes’ Discourse
The linked images of beast and sovereign recur throughout much of contemporary prostitutes’ writings. Though these images are traditionally linked to more overt practices of power and the exercise of state control, prostitutes rework the pairing to capture their own position and their own set of concerns and contradictions. Prostitutes occupy a position outside the law and the norms of family and femininity; as such they are simultaneously disempowered and degraded in the eyes of society and possessed of a unique status and power. Stories of courtesans who rose to political power through their professional activities are well known, and moralistic discourses credit prostitutes with unique powers to undermine community standards and the rule of law. In this capacity, prostitutes figure as “beastly” women, outside the laws of the state and of human society and discussed in terms of their animal passions and their physical bodies. This discursive positioning is a source of both (at least subjective) power and vicious political and legal disempowerment. The decision to become a prostitute is, in the eyes of many contemporary sex workers, a fundamentally sovereign decision: to declare oneself outside the law.
In recognizing this paradoxical position, many contemporary prostitutes turn to the iconography of the “sacred prostitute,” a quasi-historical construct providing a “golden age” when the prostitute’s unique power was honored rather than reviled. Relying on mythology and animal imagery of Near Eastern goddesses, particularly Lilith and Inanna, this strain of discourse constructs a position of political and spiritual sovereignty within which prostitutes can contextualize their work and their political struggles. However, this strategy captures a central paradox of the prostitute’s claim to sovereignty: if sovereignty is defined as an individual, unreplicable phenomenon, then how can it be grounded in a set of images and stories in which all sex workers are invited to share equally? If the decision to become a prostitute has the same mythological function and ramifications for each woman who makes it, how can it be sovereign rather than merely programmatic? Would such a programmatic quality not merely return the prostitute to the extreme representative of women’s disempowerment and exploitation, rather than constituting a statement of autonomy? For these reasons, prostitutes’ political activism, even that growing out of “sacred whore” discourses, always eventually diverges from the mythologically based model.
Shannon Bell addresses the distinction between these two strains of discourse, arguing, “Pagan prostitute discourse functions to disturb, destabilize, and undermine our philosophical foundations from within; postmodern prostitute discourse, on the other hand, … challenges these dominant discourses from their outside” (Bell 1). Like the redefinition of sovereignty that gives rise to democratization rather than monarchy, prostitutes’ political discourse undermines the basis of the claim to archetypal sovereignty in creating a new definition of prostitutes as political participants and citizens rather than outlaws.
Whores as Sovereigns: The Golden Age and the Modern Outlaw
The proposition that a woman can be sovereign only as a whore points to the gendered distinction in the title, “La Bête et le Souverain.” The sovereign is masculine, designating the masculine systems of state and theological power that have historically constituted sovereignty, and the sexual metaphor by which a head of state comes to be identified with the male erection. The beast is femininethe female enters into this picture only in bestial form, implying already that the female sovereign (in this case the prostitute) must necessarily embody the monstrous nature of the exceptionality that constitutes sovereignty. Bell explains this dynamic: “Modernity through a process of othering has produced ‘the prostitute’ as the other of within the categorical other, ‘woman’” (Bell 2). If sovereignty follows the logic of the absolute exception, then the “other within the categorical other” comes to look very much like a figure of sovereignty. The whore, as the woman who excepts herself from the structures of family that define the traditional feminine role, embodies this feminine monstrosity that constitutes the female sovereign. Such a designation is troubling in that it suggests that feminine sovereignty functions in contradistinction to, not in concert with, real political power.
In attempting to address this inherent conflict, many pro-prostitute writers focus on documents that point to the mythical courtesans of a “golden age” of prostitution actually having a role in the founding philosophical discourses of Western society. Bell, for example, makes much of references to hetaerae in Plato’s discourses. Such a reliance demonstrates her claim that the focus on pagan prostitutes as icons for contemporary struggle “functions to disturb, destabilize and undermine our philosophical foundations from within.” With ironic intention, Bell replicates, within the discourse that claims to undermine “the foundational metaphysics of Western thought” (Bell 2) that privilege the masculine over the feminine and the bestial, one of the most common moves of Western philosophy: invoking the Greeks as the model of an idealized past. She presents this move as “a textual-political act, the intent of which is to displace the more traditional linkage of the prostitute to the profane, diseased and excluded female body of the nineteenth century, foregrounding instead its lineage to the ancient sexual, sacred, healing female body” (Bell 2). However, such a formulation has perhaps more in common with 1970s cultural feminism than with much of Pagan prostitute discourse, which often does recognize the reliance of the claim to prostitute sovereignty, by way of bestiality, on the claim to being profaned and excluded by the world at large. This more Bataille-esque formulation will be discussed later in connection to appropriations of Lilith as the figure of the whore; first a more detailed examination of Bell’s use of the hetairae as a figure of prostitute sovereignty is necessary.
Bell makes one of the standard claims of pro-prostitute writers who refer to idealized ancient times: prostitution was a means to power and self-determination denied to normal women. It placed women outside the law in real, practical and privileged terms, not merely in subjective identification and criminality. She writes, “The hetairae functioned outside the restrictions that the male state imposed on the dicteriades, wives and daughters” (Bell 25), and quotes Jess Wells at length on the matter: “They were…the only women in Athenian society allowed to manage their own financial affairs, to stroll through the streets anywhere at any time. They were free to attend plays, ceremonies and speeches, to speak with whomever, whenever they pleased, to share the intellectual activities of Greece” (cited in Bell 25). This was possible because “the hetairae were outside the law, remnants of the pre-legal archaic institution of sacred prostitution, before male law encoded the splitting of the female body into reproductive and sexual bodies and the female sexual body into high and low bodies” (Bell 38). Even the name, in its similarity to “hetero,” implies a distinct differentiation between the “hetairae” and the degraded majority of women; this otherness was, in this supposed halcyon age, a means to autonomy. Bell further emphasizes the participation of the hetaerae in “the intellectual activities of Greece” through the figures of Diotima and Aspasia in the Symposium and the Menexus. Her argument is relatively simple: “the first women of Western philosophy” were prostitutes, “Diotima as spiritual teacher and whore; Aspasia as secularized political prostitute philosopher” (Bell 19). Inscribing prostitute sovereignty within the origins of Western philosophy allows Bell to countermand the subsequent discourses of prostitute degradation she details. However, her desire to use these early figures to deny later discourses, in which “the prostitute become ‘the born prostitute’” (Bell 66) and such figures as Havelock Ellis state that “it is almost possible to look upon prostitutes as a special human variety analogous to instinctive criminals” (cited in Bell 66), means that she must ignore a large amount of the pagan prostitute discourse she seeks to valorize, for such discourse often profoundly recognizes the paradoxically empowering implications of the image of “the born prostitute” as a “special human variety.”
Even secular prostitute discourse often takes up the same imagery of the prostitute as a dangerous, subversive “other” to the ensconced system and celebrates the “bad girl” imagery Bell wishes to expunge. The most important recent volume on sex work, Whores and Other Feminists, contains an essay by Veronica Monet titled, “Sedition.” She defines her claiming of whore identity as a form of overtly political instigation. The term “sedition” implies a direct relationship to the state, a resistance to the established sovereigntyMonet gives the definition as “conduct or language that incites others to rebel against the authority of a state” (Monet 218). Though she backs away from the implications of her title, punning on state to mean “the current ‘state’ of affairs, i.e., the standards and prohibitions used to control women’s sexual behavior” (Monet 218), she partakes in the imagery of the whore as idealized “other,” the sexually and therefore politically and personally empowered woman, that Bell emphasizes in her discussion of the hetairae. However, Monet simultaneously plays with that thread of the argument which Bell leaves dormant: that it is the very illegality of her activity which constitutes its logic of exception from established political authority. Sedition, after all, requires that the inciter make a claim to sovereignty (her own or another’s) in direct rebellion against the current order. It is a form of treason, and has in many times and places been punishable by severe penalties, even by death.
Though Monet does not follow the logic of her title through fully, her choice of “sedition” as a descriptor for what outspoken prostitutes do points to the darker political dimension of the “otherness” that constitutes the figure of the prostitute. Like many other pagan prostitute authors, she claims her “bad girl” status (what Bell would refer to as being profane, diseased and excluded) as the source of her power, and argues that having “felt the pain and rejection” (Monet 220) that come with that status actually serves as the source of her power to countervene the expected standards of feminine sexual behavior. Sedition would not be a meaningful term, nor constitute a claim to sovereignty, were it not accompanied by profound dangers and severe punishments. Monet’s essay therefore implicitly takes up the connection to law which is central to both pagan prostitute discourse and questions of sovereignty. In order to understand the implications of the claim to be a “bad girl” in spiritual and bestial terms, it is necessary first to trace out the implications of the claim to prostitution as sedition in the more overtly political realm to which Monet directs us.
Human and Natural Law: Men, Beasts, and Whores
Monet’s essay embodies one of the central contradictions of the claim to prostitute status as outlaw, and therefore sovereign status. It is not a contradiction unique to prostitution, but inherent in the very equation of the outlaw with the sovereign. Both stand outside the law, but one does so by creating it, a unique position, and the other by breaking it, an infinitely replicable position. For any outlaw, male or female, prostitute or otherwise, the condition of the claim to sovereign status is that one has placed oneself outside the law. This can only be sovereignty on a subjective level; on a practical level it is shared by all criminals and places one in greater subjection, not greater freedom. The prostitute can claim sovereign subjective status with regard to the lawthat is, she can choose to disregard the law--, but no individual prostitute has the power to actually change the law. The difference between an “outlaw” and a common criminal is subjective, a matter of interpretation and intention rather than a recognized legal distinction. Hence, Monet characterizes her work as “sedition” rather than revolutionto claim actual revolution requires a measurable degree of power possessed by the victor of a struggle or by the legal protestor, but not by the outlaw. Her position is strikingly similar to that which Hobbes addresses in Leviathan with regard to individuals who claim to have allegiances beyond their covenant with the state.
And whereas some men have pretended for their disobedience to their Soveraign, a new Covenant, made, not with men, but with God; this also is unjust: for there is no Covenant made with God, but by mediation of some body that representeth Gods Person; which none doth but Gods Lieutenant, who hath the Soveraignty under God. But this pretence of Covenant with God, is so evident a lye, even in the pretenders own consciences, that it is not merely an act of unjust, but also of a vile, and unmanly disposition. (Hobbes 122)
Hobbes’ identification of the sovereign as the earthly stand-in for God is still quite apropos of the political situation in which prostitutes find themselves, given that their outlaw status is based on the derivation of much of Western law from religious standardsin this case, that of chastity. Like the men Hobbes reviles, prostitutes claim moral authority based on an allegiance superseding that to God or to his legal representative, the state. Thus, to claim an “outlaw” status by claiming a superior moral position becomes not merely a defiance of religious injunctions to chastity but an actual form of “sedition,” and from the vantage point of Western religion it is indeed all the reprehensible things Hobbes claims it is.
Therefore, prostitutes often base their claim to be in the right in demanding the legitimization of their profession on a different religious order, creating for themselves a history and a set of religious figures on which they can draw directly to authorize their rebellion against the state. Carol Queen directly draws upon this pagan framework prostitutes in her questioning of current California law. Describing madams as the contemporary equivalent of the ancient temple priestess, she writes, “In California the prostitute’s first arrest is on a misdemeanor charge, but the madam faces a felony conviction. Perhaps this is the legacy of Judeo-Christian law with its emphasis on bringing down those who possess Goddess-given power” (Queen 188). Thus, the outlaw status that simultaneously empowers and debases the prostitute becomes part of a larger context in which women who place themselves outside the laws of religion and state take on the sovereignty granted by a higher moral authority, deriving not from Hobbes’ unreachable God but from a living history.
However, the totalizing formulation of such a general moral claim points out another problem the prostitute’s claim to sovereignty shares with the equation of any outlaw status with sovereignty. Monet’s essay traces the political implications of the decision to become a prostitute, to make oneself an outlaw and a rebel against the state (be it the political state or the more general “state of affairs”) and sets up this decision as a definitive one for the prostitute. However, if this outlaw status and this singular decision are definitive for prostitutes as a group, the very claim to sovereignty becomes programmatic rather than unique, thus contradicting sovereignty’s basic condition as the logic of the exception.
Though not framed in these precise terms, this dilemma is recognized by anti-prostitution speakers who accuse pagan prostitute discourse of setting up a programmatic framework with which to pull women into the business, regardless of their individual circumstances or subjectivities (e.g., US Pros and WHISPER). Pro-prostitute discourse has devised two ways of addressing this problem. One, which I shall take up in detail later, is to shift the terms of the debate from a mythological referent of sovereignty to a more familiar civil-rights movement demanding a revision of the concept of citizenship and claiming participant status for prostitutes. This strategy foregoes the power claimed with outsider status in favor of the benefits of inclusion. The other strategy is to circumvent the problem of claiming that all women engaged in prostitution are fundamentally enacting the same dynamic by introducing a third referent, the “archetype,” to mediate between the individual and the systemic levels and carry the burden of sameness. This strategy allows individual women to be cleared of the charge of merely participating in a programmatic sameness, while also retaining the unitary and absolute nature of the image in which sovereignty is seen to reside. The drawback of this strategy is that it often steers its users away from overt political action, and by displacing the claim to sovereignty from the material and legal condition of the prostitute as an outlaw to an “archetype” expands the domain of the claim to the point, sometimes, of meaninglessness.
Nancy Qualls-Corbett offers a clear example of the drawbacks of relying on the “archetype.” Her book, The Sacred Prostitute: Eternal Aspect of the Feminine, utterly ignores the political dimensions of prostitution, introducing the prostitute not as a woman who is illegally paid for sex but as a quasi-Jungian archetype and therefore “a pre-existing form that is a part of the inherited structure of the psyche common to all people” (Qualls-Corbett 14). The prostitute, therefore, loses the outlaw edge that gives her any claim to power and becomes merely “the instinctive, erotic, dynamic facet of feminine nature” (Qualls-Corbett 18).
However, there are many writers (like Carol Queen) who insist on continuing the “sedition” that first led them to claim the authority of the pagan-prostitute model, and who privilege the archetype of the sexual outlaw, claiming it as a distinct, and distinctly political, prostitute identity or trope rather than as a universally shared facet of personality. The split in pagan prostitute discourse between the depoliticized, universal archetype and the outlaw archetypethe specifically “whore” archetypetends to break down along very clear lines. Those who invoke the claim to prostitute sovereignty in general, universalized terms focus primarily on the goddess Inanna, while those who invoke the outlaw archetype devote far more attention to Lilith.
The Goddess as Sovereign
If the masculine, state-identified sovereign claims his authority in the image of God, the whore claims hers in the image of the Goddess. Most of the time this Goddess imagery relies quite heavily on mythological associations with animals as well, calling up again the gendered nature of the split between bestial feminine sovereignty and more easily recognizable masculine sovereignty. However, because the prostitute’s claim to sovereignty in the name of the Goddess relies on archetypes, it splits along lines of generalization versus differentiation, represented by Inanna and Lilith respectively. Even when investigating the works of an individual author, the switch from one of these figure to another is often enough to indicate quite clearly when the author wishes to switch from a generalized discourse, invoking Inanna much as Bell invokes the idealized hetairae of ancient Greece, to a more confrontational, “seditious” mode.
Inanna: Lioness of Heaven
Inanna, the ancient Sumerian goddess addressed as “Queen of Heaven and Earth,” provides a clear model of a female sovereign. Always pictured with and often represented by lions and lionesses, she is a sovereign in the image of this “king of beasts,” and at the same time translates the authority symbolized by the lion into specifically female imagery, extolling the vulva as a symbol of authority and power. Her sovereignty is not identified with the erect phallus but with the vulva, often symbolized in the stories as “the boat of heaven.” Her texts and the available historical evidence suggest that prostitution may have had an important role in her worship in the form of temple prostitutes, or Qadesha; contemporary prostitutes have seized upon this possibility and employ it discursively in much the same way that they employ the image of the hetairae as an idealized model of the sovereignty they desire for themselves. However, Inanna’s texts contain no overt representations of prostitution, so their appropriation by advocates of prostitution tends to follow the more generalized “archetypes” of female power and sexuality. In this model, prostitutes hold themselves up alongside Inanna as the ultimate representation of such empowerment. For example, one San Francisco sex worker, Teri Goodson, goes by the working name of Qadesha, representing herself as a priestess of the goddess.
Prostitutes’ discussions of the Inanna texts tend to focus on the early sections, in which Inanna gains her sovereignty and celebrates her sexuality. One frequently quoted chapter begins, “Inanna placed the shugurra, the crown of the steppe, on her head. She went to the sheepfold, to the shepherd. She leaned back against the apple tree. When she leaned against the apple tree, her vulva was wondrous to behold. Rejoicing at her wondrous vulva, the young woman Inanna applauded herself” (Wolkstein 12). This passage introduces several of the elements of Inanna’s legend. It emphasizes her sovereignty, describing it as something she claims for herself rather than something she receives from a man. Having placed the crown on her head, she proceeds to admire her sexual glory. Her vulva is discussed at greater length than, and seemingly attracts her attention more than her crown, but this attention to her sexuality is quite pointedly prefaced by her claiming of the crown’s authority. Prostitutes who focus on Inanna picture themselves in her position, placing the crown of authority on their own heads rather than accepting the rule of law, and applauding their own sexual prowess as the sign of their sovereignty. The age of the texts further enhances the claim to be appealing to a greater authority than that of Christianity or American law to justify and ennoble prostitution. Cosi Fabian introduces the above quote by saying, “The Temple Harlot is as old as writing itself, for it is in humankind’s first known writingcuneiformthat I found the Qadesha, the ‘sacred one,’ and her Great Goddess Inanna, ‘queen of heaven and Earth.’” (Fabian 45). However, since the vulva does not necessarily imply prostitution, such an image of female sexuality and sovereignty easily extends to all women; hence the dispersion of the image’s power into mere generalized “archetype,” as in Qualls-Corbett’s formulation.
The “wondrous vulva” chapter goes on to describe Inanna’s cementation of her power. She visits the god of wisdom, Enki, and in a drunken moment he gives her all his power, or “me.” This section attracts attention because the “me” she claims include not only the positions and symbols of sovereignty: high priesthood; godship; the noble, enduring crown and the throne of kingship; but also “the art of prostitution” and “the cult prostitute” (Wolkstein 16-17). Prostitution is specifically given by the god of wisdom as one of the necessary powers of sovereignty, and some contemporary sex workers like Fabian and Goodson claim their profession as a religious practice in honor of Inanna, considering it to be the enactment of her sacred, and politically authoritative, “me.”
In later chapters, Inanna enacts these powers of sovereignty through her marriage to Dumuzi, on whom she bestows kingship when “he laid his hands on my holy vulva” (Wolkstein 44). When he attempts to usurp her position as ruler, she banishes him to the underworld. While not specifically focused on prostitution, these chapters continue to present the female genitals as the source and symbol of sovereignty, and to present Inanna’s sovereignty as inseparable from her sexuality. This model is extremely well-liked by women who make their sexuality their profession. Fabian calls upon the imagery of Inanna in refuting the argument that prostitution degrades women’s sexuality and teaches men to objectify their bodies, saying, “Having become a whore, I have been enlightened by the tender and worshipful nature of men’s desire for ‘the Wondrous Vulva’” (Fabian 44).
However, Inanna has another, less easily idealized aspect. She is considered by scholars of ancient Mesopotamian religion and culture to be the same as the goddess Ishtar, with Inanna as the earlier Sumerian form of the more famous Babylonian goddess. Though Inanna’s “me” include “the dagger and sword” and “the plundering of cities,” and she displays extreme ruthlessness in dispatching Dumuzi to the tortures of the underworld, she is better known for the eroticism and tenderness of the early chapters of her texts. Ishtar, however, is as legendary for her insatiable cruelty as for her insatiable sexuality, and some authors consider her to be “the great whore” reviled in Revelations 17:5 as “Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations,” metonymically identified with the city over which she reigns. Inasmuch as she is identified with the Great Whore of Revelations, her beastly associations are much more salient than are Inanna’s, as is her association with prostitution and her outlaw position relative to Christian doctrine. The role of temple prostitution in her worship is much more soundly established than for Inanna, and she is sometimes described in Babylonian scriptures as “the compassionate prostitute” (Walker 450).
Ishtar therefore occupies a much more threatening role, less easily assimilable into a general “archetype” of female sexual empowerment. Zainab Bahrani (who uses Ishtar’s name interchangeably with Inanna’s), writes,
Ishtar is the personification of all that is analogous to the feminine, all that is other, or falls into the realm of alterity, and, as such, she is the superlative figure of difference…As the rhetorical figure of difference, Ishtar is the place of all extremes; she is all that is in excess or out of control. Therefore, she functions as a sign not only of the essence of femininity, but of that which is outside societal norms, against whose image…Mesopotamian patriarchal culture delineated its boundaries. (Bahrani 159)
This description returns us to the image of the whore, here in the figure of a goddess, as “the other of the categorical other,” the essence of feminine alterity. It therefore moves from the general archetypal descriptions of Inanna to the territory occupied in prostitute discourse by another folkloric figure, Lilith.
Lilith: Harlot of Hell
Lilith is a folkloric figure from the same tradition as Inanna and Ishtar. Her legend states that she was the true first woman, created at the same time as Adam. When she refused to lie beneath him, she was banished from the Garden of Eden, and Eve was created as her more docile replacement while Lilith coupled with demons by the Red Sea. However, several versions of the myth exist: either Lilith was banished by God, or she “pronounced the ineffable name of God; thereafter she pronounced herself a demoness” (Fabian 1992) and flew off to the Red Sea, or “She sneered at Adam’s sexual crudity, cursed him, and flew away to make her home by the Red Sea” (Walker 541). Lilith lingered in folkore as a succubus, or lilim, and a “night hag,” and with her daughters formed a band of “harlots of hell” (Walker 542). Within prostitute discourse, Lilith is taken as the figure of the woman who refuses to submit her sexuality to the rule of law, and who, in paying the price of her disobedience, finds her freedom from the order of traditional sovereignty. Hers is the sovereignty of exile and darkness, and she is associated in imagery with owls. Ironically, though Lilith is less explicitly associated with prostitution in the mythology, she is more ardently claimed by contemporary prostitutes, and as the “archetypal” sexual outlaw bears a more specific relation to prostitute identity than does Inanna.
Lilith is much older than the Biblical story into which folklore attempts to place her. She actually appears in the oldest written texts, those of Inanna. In the very first of Inanna’s stories, “The Huluppu-Tree,” Inanna takes the tree to her garden to establish her sovereignty, tending it until she can make the throne and bed of her queenship from its wood. However, her plans are disrupted when “a serpent that could not be charmed made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree. The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree. And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk” (Wolkstein 6). This passage is repeated three times in the story, as Inanna attempts to find someone who will help her reclaim her tree. Even in this pre-Biblical version, Lilith appears as a bestial figure, connected to the “serpent that could not be charmed” that invades the prized tree of the sacred garden. She occupies the same textual space as the serpent and the “Anzu-bird,” functioning as a disruptor of the dominant narrative of sovereignty. In the end, the hero Gilgamesh banishes the serpent and the Anzu-bird: “Gilgamesh struck the serpent who could not be charmed. The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains” (Wolkstein 9). However, Lilith is not banished by the hero’s hand, and her last act is to strike against the sovereignty the tree represents, even at her own expense: “Lilith smashed her home and fled to the wild, uninhabited places” (Wolkstein 9). Inanna gets her throne and bed and goes on to reign.
The art that accompanies this early text also establishes Lilith’s symbolic representation. Two clay plaques represent her as a human-animal composite. Elizabeth Williams-Forte explains the images: “A nude, winged bird-goddess wears a crown composed of multiple horns…A demonic composite being, part-bird, part-human, is represented on this clay plaque…She has been identified as the dark maid Lilith, called ‘screech owl’ in a biblical passage (Isaiah XXXIV:14)” (Williams-Forte 179). And for the second plaque: “An enormous winged bird-footed goddess stand frontally with hands clasped…This goddess with bird features has been identified with Lilith…She may represent the chthonic aspect of Inanna/Ishtar derived from her association with the demonic and frequently birdlike creatures and gods that inhabit the underworld” (Williams-Forte 189). The biblical passage to which the author refers describes the landscape of God’s vengeance. It will be inhabitable only by beasts, and therefore “They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes shall be nothing” (Isaiah XXXIV: 12). In this landscape, “Wildcats shall meet with hyenas, goat-demons shall call to each other; there too Lilith shall repose, and find a place to rest” (Isaiah XXXIV:14). The Bible’s notes describe Lilith as “a malevolent winged female demon, at home in that devastated environment, in later Jewish tradition identified as Adam’s first wife” (New Oxford Annotated Bible, 1024).
In all of these descriptions, Lilith appears as a strange type of bestial sovereign. She wears a crown, but it is of horns; as the chthonic aspect of the Queen of Heaven she appears as Queen of the Underworld, but is thereby associated with banishment and with the screeching of owls rather than the decrees of a ruler; she finds her repose in the absence of any human or divine sovereignty, residing in comfort, authority and demonic power in a place identified only pronominally, and only in terms of its lack of sovereignty: “No Kingdom There.”
Prostitutes claim Lilith as a figure for their own political position based on precisely this dual tendency in her imagery, taking it as exemplification of her disruptive status. Cosi Fabian captures Lilith’s appeal, writing, There is a key mythic figurethe patron saint of ‘bad girls’ and feministswhose stories cradled and inspired me in my transition [to prostitution]… She is Lilith…over four thousand years ago, an ambivalence already existed about her potent combination of sex and power: she appears in ancient hymns as both a sacred prostitute who lured men into the goddess Inanna’s temple, and as an uncontrollable demon who fled to the wilderness when Gilgameshand patrilineal kingshipcolonized both temple and goddess. Always defiant, always sexual, Lilith has been in exile ever sinceglimpsed only as ‘night hag,’ ‘succuba,’ ‘witch,’ ‘vampire,’ or ‘harlot of hell.’…If Lilith could choose exile over the values she opposed, so could I. (Fabian 50)
Lilith represents the sovereignty Monet describes as “sedition,” the power of turning ostracism and condemnation into a new position of authority as an outlaw to both man and God. Fabian describes this as the power to turn “tragedy into strength, loss into freedom” (Fabian 44). The prostitute refuses to “lie beneath” the law that constrains her sexuality, and the subsequent social ostracism and loss of legal rights represents the sovereignty Lilith finds in exile. Though the connection is more symbolic than literal, it is much more deeply felt by most prostitutes than are the myths of Inanna. Some sex workers take “Lilith” as their working name; others write hymns to her (see appendix); many have small altars to her in their homes and/or working spaces. Prostitutes find deep personal resonance in the iconography of remaining steadfast and independent in the face of banishment and condemnation, and likewise in the alternate mythologies of pronouncing one’s self a demoness and renouncing the material benefits and moral approval that come with obedience to the dictates of patriarchal law.
A sovereignty formed out of loss and pain the sovereignty of the outlaw can only be an inner, subjective sovereignty, perhaps inspiring fear in the reigning order but not possessed of actual political power. Therefore, the place of Lilith in prostitute discourse comes to look very similar to the sovereignty Bataille describes in Inner Experience. A further connection is suggested by Barbara Walker’s account of Lilith’s place in medieval folklore: Christians also adopted [the lilim] and called them harlots of hell, or succubi…Celibate monks tried to fend them off by sleeping with their hands crossed over their genitals, clutching a crucifix. It was said that every time a pious Christian had a wet dream, Lilith laughed. Even if a male child laughed in his sleep, people said Lilith was fondling him. (Walker 542)
Bataille connects laughter to the inner experience of sovereignty as a subjective phenomenon, found equally in laughter, sexuality, and suffering or death. The discourse of Lilith defines sovereignty as a subjective stance defined in terms of pain, danger and exile as much as sexuality and celebration (where celebration is to exuberantly “couple with demons” rather than the usual more benign connotations), and connects this state of sexual sovereignty to dreams and laughter, emphasizing the subjective quality and the danger of this model. The discourse of Lilith avoids the problems of the discourse of Inanna, in that it refuses to extend the image of sovereignty to all women in the form of an overgeneralized archetype, but its weaknesses as a model of sovereignty are captured in its congruence with Bataille’s model of sovereignty as an inner, subjective experience perhaps more compatible with political and material subjection and ostracism than with a demand for measurable political power or for the legal and social rights of citizens.
Bataille’s Inner Experience portrays sovereignty as defined by the rupture of consciousness into marginality, into the unspeakable. Such experience can be both transcendent and despondent; it is defined by its extremity and its transgression rather than by its power within the dominant order. Inner experience functions as sovereignty in these moments of extremity because it isolates the individual, separating her from the mundane order of the world. Such rupture is uniquely accessible through laughter and sexual experience, according to Bataille’s translator, “in particular as sexual experience reveals the absence of God. It is a space which is interior and sovereign, locked by the Unspeakable which exists at its margins, an impossible abyss glimpsed at the moment of transgression” (Boldt ix). This model of sovereignty very closely matches the sovereignty prostitutes find in Lilith, found at the moment of transgression or refusal and denying the authorityeven the existenceof God through her sexual behavior. If prostitutes are the “unspeakable” other of femininity, then they also occupy the sovereign, interior space found at the margin of feminine alterity.
Bataille’s description of this journey to the extreme limit again echoes prostitute discourse: “The extreme limit is a window: fear of the extreme limit commits one to the darkness of a prison, with an empty will for ‘penal administration’” (Bataille 45). One “extreme limit” of the feminine sexual role is prostitution; many of the authors already cited (particularly Fabian and Monet) emphasize the importance of transgressing the limits of sexual virtue rather than fearing the repercussions of being a “bad girl.” The comparison of fearing the limit with being imprisoned is reminiscent of the metaphor prostitutes use Lilith to embody: the fear of outlaw status, with its potential imprisonment and loss of all rights, is to be combated through the realization that remaining trapped in such fear is its own sort of “prison,” that in administering this self-imprisonment, one is not even following one’s own will except in subservience to societal standards (thus “an empty will”), and that outlaw status in fact represents a kind of sovereignty inaccessible to those who never push “the extreme limit.” Fabian refers to this as choosing “the rage of exile over the cancer of servitude” (Liturgy for Lilith). Bataille even makes this model of sovereignty analogous to prostitution, writing that he descends into the depths in which sovereignty can be found “quite nude (as the woman of pleasure is nude)” (Bataille 67).
The similarities between Bataille’s and Lilith’s models of sovereignty extend into the role of laughter. Lilith demonstrates her continuing sovereign presence by inspiring sexual dreams and laughter, taken as frightening ruptures of propriety by the superstitious people who kept her legends alive. Bataille likewise writes of laughter as the sign of revelation through transgression: “at first I had laughed, upon emerging from a long Christian piety, my life having dissolved, with a spring-like bad faith, into laughter. Of this laughter, I have already described the point of ecstasy but, from the first day onward, I no longer had any doubt: laughter was revelation, opened up the depth of things” (Bataille 66). It is this depth into which he descends after the fashion of “the woman of pleasure.” His bad religious faith becomes a spring, dissolving into laughter that denotes both the point of ecstasy and the descent into the abjection of the apostate to his faith. This abjection in the face of God (for the prostitute, also in the face of the law) in turn becomes revelation. Expanding on this paradoxical role of laughter as the point of both ecstasy and ruin, Bataille continues, “[man] ruins himself in [Nothingness], but illuminates its darkness with his laughter, which he reaches only when intoxicated with the very void which kills him” (Bataille 92). This, then is the spiritual model of outlaw sovereignty that Lilith represents: the prostitute ruins herself, legally and in terms of Christian morality, in the void of her transgression (the wasteland to which Lilith is banished), yet in her inner experience that very void intoxicates her with her own being and power, inspiring the laughter that illuminates her condition of exile and reveals it as sovereignty.
To choose this void is to give up one notion of self, which Bataille later describes as the “ambiguous and submissive position” of “the I.” The “I” conforms itself to the model of personhoodfor the prostitute, the model of law-abiding citizenshipin order to attain the benefits of the universal (such as Hobbes’ universally binding contract between the sovereign and his state). In thus domesticating itself into a form recognizable within the social contract, “[the I] loses the wildness of the ipse,” the self-designation that is the sign of sovereignty without subjection to surroundings. This domestication, analogous to God and Adam’s symbolically interpreted demand that Lilith “lie beneath” her husband, “shows the foolishness which the absence of wildness is” (Bataille 115).
Bell interprets the performance work of prostitute activist Veronica Vera using precisely this model. Vera extends the range of pagan prostitute imagery by referring to herself as a “shady Madonna,” identified as much with the whore goddesses as with the docile virgin, and by using explicit Catholic imagery in her performances and eroticizing the suffering of martyrs and of Christ as analogous to the suffering and eroticism of prostitutes. Bell argues that Vera “presents sex as transgression and transgression as both ‘a continuous process of self-transcendence’ and the ‘incessant cross[ing] and recross[ing] of a line which closes up’ as it is crossed” (Bell 155). Vera’s comment that, “God is exciting! He introduced me to the forbidden,” (cited in Bell 154) given as an explanation of her experience as a sex worker, leads Bell to opine that “Vera unites the spiritual and the sexual in precisely the same way Bataille does: ‘God is a whore exactly like other whores’” (Bell 155).
However compelling and confirming this model may be on a subjective level, however, a focus entirely on inner experience as the criterion of sovereignty interferes with one of the aims that led prostitutes to seek for models of sovereignty in the first place: legitimizing their profession in legal and political terms. The idealized models of Inanna and of the hetairae of ancient Greece fail to capture the basis on which prostitutes claim sovereignty, focusing only on refuting the charge that their profession is inherently degrading and disqualifies them from the rights of citizens. Outlaw sovereignty, by definition, can never serve as a basis for demanding decriminalization, and sovereignty defined in inner, subjective terms is harder to idealize if (unlike Bataille) you actually face imprisonment for your transgression. Though prostitutes cling to the bestial model of Lilith in order to claim sovereignty in their current situation, the discourse loses meaning at the level of political activism. For this reason, the politically oriented movement for prostitutes’ rights declines the “beast and sovereign” imagery of the prostitute goddesses, making a discursive move very similar to the shift from sovereignty defined in terms of monarchy to the more diffuse and conceptual model of sovereignty as the power held by the citizenry of a democracy.
Outlaws Demanding Decriminalization: From Bestial to Legal Sovereignty
The material exigencies of outlaw status function quite differently than does its symbolic valence. While being an outlaw means declaring one’s self free of the state’s laws and constraints, being a criminal means being all the more subject to the constraints of the state. Therefore, outlaw status spurs an entirely different stance politically than it does in subjective discourse. Though some groups have attempted to meld the appeal to mythological, bestial figures of sovereignty with the demand for political rights, as in Scarlot Harlot’s activism with the Whores of Babylon, such activism itself occupies an intermediary territory between subjective discourse and political confrontation, usually functioning as politically driven performance rather than overt political demand. The Whores of Babylon, in fact, organized not in response to any state action or policy, but to “a papal fundraiser for the 1987 visit of Pope John Paul II” (Bell 177); their activism consisted mainly of musical performance.
Politically focused prostitute activists, in contrast, take the oppressive implications of their outlaw status very seriously. As Bell notes, “The transcripts of the Second World Whores’ Congress confirm that ‘personal experience of state abuse is usually the catalyst for political action among prostitutes’” (Bell 105). Margo St. James, the organizer of COYOTE (the best-known US pro-prostitution group), not only took up activism but became a prostitute after being falsely arrested in her early twenties. Her experience of the outlaw status of the whore led her to claim that identity both personally and professionally, but with the goal of working to end the criminalization of prostitution rather than of valorizing her status as an “outlaw.”
In fact, women identified legally as prostitutes (either through mandatory registration in legalized countries or through a criminal record) are denied the basic right of entry into many nations. The denial of sovereignty and of basic rights is enforced not only within a particular state system, but in the international regulation of borders. Prostitutes are denied participation within the sovereignty of their home countries and simultaneously denied the right to enter the social contract of another sovereign state. This literalization of Lilith’s exile status functions not as an enactment of individual sovereignty, but as an international disenfranchisement from the most basic elements of political self-determination. An Amsterdam women’s studies professor, Gail Pheterson, explains how the outlaw status of the prostitute leads to her exclusion from the international protocol of “human rights”:
Basic denial of citizenship status to prostitutes cuts across all other rights. Whore-identified women are not considered citizens…That’s clear from the Human Rights Convention of the European Community, for instance, wherein a whole list of human rights concludes with the sentence: “That none of these rights hold if one is considered a moral offense to society.” And obviously, prostitutes are always included in that clause. (cited in Bell, 113)
This denial of citizenship status explains how pagan prostitute discourse can see the claiming of outlaw status as significant enough to function as a declaration of sovereignty, even if it is interpreted as the same declaration for each woman rather than as a truly unique decision. However, a more trenchant problem remains: how to reconcile the claim to outlaw sovereignty with the need for the sovereign rights that come with citizenship, not with imprisonment. To resolve this dilemma, prostitutes, constituted as an identity group largely by the discourse of archetypal identification that sidesteps political engagement, use that claim to group identity as the foundation for a claim to the rights of democracy.
Writing on “The Prostitute as a New Political Subject,” Bell identifies this demand for inclusion within a participatory democracy with “postmodern pluralism” (Bell 103). She calls upon the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on “new democratic struggles” to explain the shift from traditional democratic discourse to the “radical democratic struggle” of prostitutes. The prostitute, as an identity category largely defined by outlaw status, can lobby for inclusion because “what is occurring is the extension of the democratic revolution to previously occluded forms of subordination and subjugation. The political is expanded to include new subjectivities” (Bell 103). This extension, as the revolution shifts from “the extension of egalitarian equivalences” based on assertions of fundamental sameness, becomes able to incorporate groups whose behavior previously defined them as “a moral offense to society” (in Pheterson’s words) or as “profane, diseased and excluded” (in Bell’s words). To quote Mouffe’s explanation, “The new rights that are being claimed today are the expression of differences…they are no longer rights that can be universalized. Radical democracy demands that we acknowledge difference--…the particular, the multiple, the heterogenouseverything that has been excluded by the concept of Man in the abstract” (cited in Bell 104).
This radical democracy shifts the terms in which sovereignty is defined much as the shift from monarchy to democracy shifted those terms in the past. In this case, the model of prostitute participation in democracy becomes very similar to the model of the hetairae with which Bell opens her examination: their very participation within the body politic, and thus their experience of sovereignty, is based on their difference. Thus, the model of Lilith as the exiled night-hag becomes the foundation for a demand to be included in the rights of the body politic: that difference, currently constitutive of outlaw status, becomes an identity through its exploration in pagan prostitute discourse. Only once that move has occurredonce prostitute discourse has claimed that outlaw identity and explored the “extreme limit” of social transgressioncan prostitutes make a demand for a new, radicalized model of democracy in which they can participate without subsuming themselves to the rule of moral law on which liberal democracy is based. Thus, in a roundabout way, the models of sovereignty that avoid political participation set up the basis on which it becomes possible. Even in this democratized model of sovereign rights shared by a citizenship, the prostitute’s sovereignty is still monstrous, still based on difference rather than on universality. The sovereignty claimed in these “new democratic struggles” shifts from the logic of singularity through universality back to the logic of singularity through exception. The sacred prostitute serves as a necessary figure to introduce the radical citizen, and beast and sovereign are once again uniquely united in prostitute discourse.
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Liturgy for Lilith
By Cosi Fabian (reproduced from 1992 audiocassette)
I am Lilith
Grandmother of Mary Magdalene
I am Lilith
Whose sexual fire was too hot for God
I am Lilith
The first woman
Who chose the rage of exile
Over the cancer of servitude
I am Lilith
Mother to the motherless
I am Lilith
Whose blood covers the moon
I am Lilith
Standing on owl’s claws
At a woman’s crossroads
I am Lilith
The Great Whore
Whose charm lured the warrior
Into my Goddess’s final warmth
I am Lilith
Whose serpentine tongue caused Eve to laugh
And pick the apple
I am Lilith
Revolving sword of flame
Scorching hypocrisy from truth’s white bones
I am Lilith
Free-moving in the wilderness
I am Lilith
Spirit of night and air
I am Lilith
In whose dark caves transgressors find sanctuary
I am Lilith
Seducing through the mystery of adornment
I am Lilith
Whose whispered endearments steal the heart away
Even from the thought-form
I am Lilith
When I dance
Dust becomes silver
Stones become made of gold
I am Salome
I am Morgan le Fay
I am the Queen of Sheba
My hair is black
And I am dark but comely
Solomon sang my song
My hair is red
And my skin ivory
I am Eve’s big sister
My tongue is sharp like a sword
My words are smooth like oil
I am Lilith
Mother to the motherless
I am Lilith
Whose sexual fire was too hot for God
I am Lilith
Living in the shadow
Waiting for you.