Saturday, 1 December 2007

Pecunia non olet

As this blogpiece is let out into the world, a Chilean prostitute (or "escort VIP" as she is charmingly described in the local media) will be coming (or at least faking) towards the end of a 27 hour sex marathon, which she has embarked upon to raise money for the nation's equivalent of Children in Need. Already "one of the best known escorts in Chile", apparently, Maria Carolina's tale and image have sped round the world over the past few days. And the organisers of the Teleton charity appeal are, understandably, rather nonplussed.

The Santiago Times quoted Maria as saying, “I will work during the time that the program lasts in order to earn money for the children of the Teletón, and then deposit it in the bank. They will be my own 27 hours of love.” She was, she said, affected by the plight of disabled children. “I am going to contribute with my work to a purpose that touches me deeply,” said the brunette, adding that she expected to raise at least $4000.

The news has put the show's presenter, Mario Kreutzberger, is a somewhat awkward position. Chile's answer to Terry Wogan, who is popularly known as Don Francisco, admitted that the charitable shagfest was "outside my moral boundaries" (although he apparently doesn't mind being photographed with Barbara Bush). "Everyone can do what they want," he added. "But if someone tells me that they'll do something immoral ... I'm not going to encourage it."

It seems unlikely, however, that the organisers will turn down the cash.

Prostitution is legal in Chile and, as in other Catholic countries, occupies a morally ambiguous position. While the Church officially condemns it as "a social scourge" and proclaims that "it is always gravely sinful", it has historically been admitted as a necessary evil. (Though there were limits; the popes always used to shut down Rome's red light district during Lent). Indeed, a number of popular saints are supposed to have begun their careers as prostitutes, most famously Mary Magdalene.

Among those welcoming Maria Carolina's gesture was leading Catholic historian Ricardo Krebs, who described it as "a very good decision, and one of high moral value." Citing the example of the Magdalene, he commented,

That a person can offer herself to give her time and earnings (Sp: entradas, "entry fees"!) to help a cause like telethon, I think is very noteworthy, and it is appropriate that it is a prostitute who has performed such noble acts of Christian charity.

Appropriate or not, it won't have done Maria Carolina much harm, exhaustion aside. She has already garnered high-profile interviews, as well as appearing on the front page of Chilean glossy magazine Las Ultimas Noticias (which title translates as the rather less than glamorous "latest news"). And the gallery of sensuous photos on her website suggests that her earning capacity may stretch well beyond the merely horizontal.

Indeed, it is likely that the source of the TV station's unease derives as much from the possible ulterior motives of their benefactress as the morally questionable provenance of the money. Though the two are, perhaps, difficult to disentangle. By taking the cash, are they legitimising a sordid, immoral and exploitative industry? An industry which exploits the very children they are trying to help? Perhaps. Perhaps, too, the money itself, however transfigured by the good cause it is being donated too, retrains some psychic trace of its origins as the wages of sin. And will thereby taint the purpose for which it is spent.

Mary Douglas, in her seminal study Dirt and Disorder, examined the role that sex plays in many societies as a source of ritual pollution. The Yurok indians of Northern California, she noted, "so much believed that contact with women would destroy their powers of acquiring wealth that they held that women and money should never be brought into contact".

Or does transubstantiating power of Charity take that stain away? Is that, in fact, the problem? Somehow, to think kindly of this gesture, one has first to imagine Maria Carolina as a person, rather than a degraded whore, a victim, or a statistic. A person with concerns beyond the mercenary impulse implied by the very word "prostitute", which can only attribute motives of cold-hearted cynicism to one in the sex industry by choice rather than by compulsion.

Charity is always a two-way street, of course. Performers give their time for free, hoping to enhance their status (or, indeed, resurrect defunct careers) in return. Philanthropy has, moreover, long been the surest route to respectability, even power. In this country, knighthoods and OBEs are dished out, almost as a matter of course, to actors, sports stars and businesspeople who have put in the required number of hours for "charidee". Nor is this new. In the 18th century Thomas Coram, a sea-captain of humble origins, worked his way into the heart of the establishment (and found himself dining with Hogarth and Handel) through his endowment of the Foundling Hospital. And as the aristocracy gave way to capitalism in the industrial revolution, the path to noblesse of the nouveau riche was laid with charitable paving. The Heresiarch attended an Oxford college largely funded by the proceeds of Polynesian birdshit.

So with her charity sexathon Maria is, among other things, aiming a well-aimed dart at the always ambiguous intersection of beneficent intent and cold calculation that makes modern fundraising work.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the totally gratuitous pics, Heresiarch. It adds so much to your intellectual theorising.