Rereading de Beauvoir 23: Prostitutes and Hetaeras

Volume II: Situation. Part Two. Chapter 8. Prostitutes and Hetaeras. (613- 32)

[This is part of a chapter by chapter re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”. You can find all the posts here.]

girlsgirlsgirlsFirst, a definition, from the New Oxford American Dictionary, of “hetaera/s”: “a courtesan or mistress, especially one in ancient Greece akin to the modern geisha.” (And, surprisingly late in the chapter (626) SdB explains her usage: “I will use the word hetaera to designate women who use not only their bodies but their entire person as exploitable capital.” For SdB, this is not the same as prostitution, a (little) bit more on that later.)

SdB starts out this chapter focusing on ‘prostitution’, which she says is the corollary to marriage. “Man, out of prudence, destines his wife to chastity but he does not derive satisfaction from the regime he imposes on her.” (613) Prostitutes are treated as akin to the sewers necessary to keep the palaces sanitary (paraphrasing SdB paraphrasing the Church Fathers) or, as the Dutch philosopher Bernard Mandeville argued, “some women must be sacrificed to save others and to prevent an even more abject filth.” Aww, nice of them to be so concerned about keeping society clean and sanitary by sacrificing women.

And not just a corollary of prostitution? It is often said that marriage is actually a kind of prostitution:

“From the economic point of view, her situation is symmetrical to the married woman’s. ‘Between those who sell themselves through prostitution and those who sell themselves through marriage, the only difference resides in the price and length of the contract,’ says Marro.” (613-4)

And “Marro” would be an A. Marro writing on puberty in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 1901. (Wonders to herself if there was a Madame Marro and what she thought about this idea.)  The main difference between them, SdB writes, is that the married woman is oppressed as a woman but respected as a human being, but the prostitute “does not have the rights of a person, she is the sum of all types of feminine slavery at once.” (614)

There’s a short but curious discussion about whether women who “choose” prostitution “have a slightly below average mental level…women with fewer mental faculties readily choose jobs that do not demand of them any specialisation; but most are normal and some are very intelligent”. (614) Soooo, OK, I think prostitution does require quite a bit of specialisation, but aside from that, this group sounds a lot like “all of us” — some of us are smart, some of us not so smart. Perhaps SdB is just trying to challenge the idea that prostitutes are stupid.

She goes on to make this rather good point, in response to moralists:

“One asks why did she choose it? The question should be: why should she not choose it?” (614-5)

She quotes here some actual empirical research (you know, as opposed to all the ‘truths’ uttered by psychoanalysts) that, in Germany and Belgium, (then, I guess) about 50 percent of prostitutes were first servants. And even the most cursory look at the conditions and prospects (not) enjoyed by maids, chambermaids etc. makes that pretty understandable: “exploited, enslaved, treated as an object rather than a person…” (615)


There’s a lot of discussion of the age and circumstances of various ‘deflowerings’…not pretty reading, given the youthfulness of the women, and the positions of relative power of the men. (i.e. that shit never changes). Here’s an example:

“Deflowered in the provinces, at nineteen, by a sixty-year-old director while she was still living at home, she had to leave her family, as she was pregnant, and she gave birth to a healthy girl that she brought up well. After nursing, she went to Paris, found a job as a nanny and began to carouse at the age of twenty-nine. She has been a prostitute for thirty-three years. Weak and exhausted, she is now asking to be hospitalized in Saint-Lazare.” (617)

The above is from research by a Dr. Leon Bizard, described in “Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, Volume 2,” (ed. Melissa Hope Ditmore) as a French police doctor. There are many more “deflowered” at age 13, at 14, at 15, at 17…. This chapter contains excerpts from quite a few stories from real people and as such is based, obviously, on empirical research, so it’s perhaps more personal (or intimate) than elsewhere in the book, where SdB’s examples often spring from novels, or memoirs by writers. The people here are “everyday” people, and in that I found it a lot more interesting (and sobering).


There are some depressing passage, particularly on p. 622, about men. Their perversions, their self-deceits… Women confided in Dr. Bizard that “all men are more or less perverted”. There are a few observations that, again, highlight the hypocrisy and double standards of ‘society’:

“Most prostitutes are morally adapted to their condition; that does not mean they are hereditarily or congenitally immoral, but they rightly feel integrated into a society that demands their services. They know well that the edifying lecture of the policeman who puts them through an inspection is pure verbiage, and the lofty principles their clients pronounce outside the brothel do little to intimidate them.” (623)

On one hand, I’d have enjoyed reading a bit more of what the prostitutes, and SdB, have to say about the men in all this. On the other hand, this is a book about women, so I can see why not.

SdB goes on to say that it’s not their moral or psychological situation that makes prostitutes’ existence miserable, but their material conditions — the exploitation, lack of security, STIs. It’s interesting that her answer to prostitution, or at least her recipe for its elimination, is not in the body of the text but in a brief footnotes, thus:

“Obviously, it is not through negative and hypocritical measures that this situation can be changed. For prostitution to disappear, two conditions are necessary: A decent job must be guaranteed to all women; customs must not place any obstacles to free love. Prostitution will be suppressed only by suppressing the needs to which it responds.” (624fn)

Ahhh, Simone, if only it were that (relatively) simple. It seems to me women’s oppression in its entirety would need to be eliminated for prostitution, as such, to “disappear” (whatever that might mean). That the idea you can fix this particular manifestation of the imbalance of power between men and women without fixing all the others is totally fanciful.

Note: I’ve stayed away from the pretty fraught debate over legalization of the sex trade because, to be honest, I don’t know the arguments well enough and am not sure ‘which side I’m on’ — I encounter this schism increasingly, though, in feminist discussion and it’s shameful that I haven’t managed to get off my nono and dig into it.


About here, SdB moves on from the ‘prostitute’ to the ‘heteara’, whom it would seem is perhaps a little better off than the prostitute (and for reasons that may not become clear). In terms of the “hetaera”, SdB writes that she “does not disavow this passive femininity that dooms her to man: she endows it with a magic power that allows her to take males into the trap of their presence, and to feed herself on them; she engulfs them with herself in immanence. In this way, woman succeeds in acquiring a certain independence.” (626)

And crucially to her whole analysis of woman as object/other not subject, SdB argues that it is through the role of ‘hetaera’ (here, I think SdB suggests unlike the ‘hetaera’, the ‘common prostitute’ works like a labourer, and for a pimp — maybe it’s simply a class difference?) that women can “create a situation for themselves nearly equal to that of a man; moving from this sex that delivers them to men as objects, they become subjects.” (626) And, yeah, virtuous women are boring — ain’t that the truth — and way more hypocritical than prostitutes/hetaera. She also alludes to the fact that a prostitute/hetaera is perhaps “less of a slave” than are women in many other professions (perhaps than a married woman?) , particularly entertainers … since the latter “must seduce the public and men over and over without respite.” (629)

But, really, don’t we all, have to do that in one way or another?

But after luring us into the positive, SdB pulls out the bad. That the hetaera’s life is all show, that her ‘freedom’ is not real, her apparent independence  is “the deceptive reverse side of a thousand dependencies”. (630)

Slightly confused, then, about the ways in which the ‘hetaera’ seems to be, according to SdB, living more authentically — or more honestly? — than the average bourgeois woman; followed by an account that seems to say, no, that’s not true, any apparent authenticity she might have is a chimera. Or is she talking about actors here? Same-same? I guess one crucial difference is that the ‘wife’ (at least, back in the day and within certain classes) cemented in economic support for life, even after she’s been “ravaged” by old age; not so the prostitute, actress, hetaera…

In the end, as is probably obvious by now, I wound up confused about SdB’s analysis of “prostitutes and hetaeras”. And just a wee bit too intellectually lazy to read through the chapter again to try to work it out. Some interesting points that I have failed to tie together into a coherent whole. Sorry folks! Perhaps I’ll revisit this at some point. Or not.

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