Strange Bedfellows

The Hampshire W.I.'s campaign for licensed brothels is surprising in itself. (Prime mover Jean Johnson wants to see regular health-checks and "mandatory condom use", which irresistibly brings to mind the image of undercover policemen attempting to have unprotected sex with the government-approved hookers, before whipping out the handcuffs at the last moment. Kinky.) More surprising still, the matrons' calls for a radical liberalisation of the law has gained the support of the Roman Catholic Church.

The R.C. Bishop of Portsmouth, Crispian Hollis, told the Portsmouth News:

If you are going to take a pragmatic view and say prostitution happens, I think there's a need to make sure it's as well- regulated as possible for the health of people involved and for the safety of the ladies themselves... I would be very much happier if there was no prostitution in Portsmouth or anywhere else because I do regard those involved in any way as involved in some form of immorality. But it's going to be there whatever we do – it has been from time immemorial, so I think that's something we have to be realistic about.

"It's surprising sometimes where support comes from," commented Rachel Frost from the International Union of Sex Workers, welcoming the episcopal intervention. But is it that surprising, really? The Church in fact has a longstanding involvement in the sex industry.

Medieval Catholic theologians, like Mgr Hollis today, deplored prostitution in theory while tolerating, or even encouraging, it in practice. St Augustine warned of the perils of trying to eliminate commercial sex: "Suppress prostitution and capricious lusts will overthrow society." St Thomas Aquinas, meanwhile, believed that "prostitution in the town is like the cesspool in the palace; take away the cesspool and the palace will become an unclean and evil-smelling place."

And the Church authorities certainly practised what they preached. In Medieval Southwark, the brothels operated on land owned by the Bishop of Winchester, who was quite happy to collect the rent. The nuns of Stratford established a brothel in 1337, the proceeds going to support the convent, while a similar operation was set up a decade later in the papal enclave of Avignon. The Church authorities in Paris accepted donations from the Guild of Prostitutes, especially on the feast day of their patron saint, Mary Magdalene, while whores in Rome took part in religious processions led by priests.

It has also been estimated that clergy made up between a quarter and a third of a medieval prostitute's clientele.

Of course, a church which always tended to divide women into virgins and whores nourished the hope that prostitutes might, in the fullness of time and once their earning capacity had dwindled, repent their life of sin. Several saints, in fact, started out on the game. Saint Mary of Egypt (a.k.a. St Mary the Harlot) funded her pilgrimmage to Jerusalem by providing the passengers and crew of the ship she sailed in with sexual services, which certainly showed a properly devout nature if not a deep understanding of the finer points of Christian moral teaching. Having reached the holy city she repented and spent the next 47 years praying in a cave. Artistic depictions of the story sadly tend to concentrate on this part of her life, generally showing her as a wizened old crone.

More fun is to be had with that archetypal scarlet woman, Mary Magdalene (or Mrs J.H. Christ, if you're into conspiracy theory). This picture is by Titian. Of course there's no more evidence that she was actually a lady of the night than that she was married to the Messiah. Still, it made for a good moral tale. In the 13th century Pope Gregory IX set up the Order of the Magdalenes, which was supposed to provide refuge and redemption for ex-prostitutes. To symbolise their born-again virgin status, the Magdalene nuns wore white habits, which would certainly have made them stand out from the general run of nuns.

Unfortunately old habits (sorry) occasionally died hard. In one notorious incident in Vienna in 1480 a Magdalene convent had to be closed down when it was discovered that the sisters were doing it for themselves. They were trying to raise money to support the convent, of course, in the only way they knew how, but still.

The good bishop's support for legalised brothels, then, might be less an outbreak of clerical permissiveness than a return to traditional Catholic Values. One aspect worries me slightly, though. The W.I. proposals, after all, laid great stress on the need for enforced safe sex. So how does Mgr Hollis square that with his church's absolute prohibition on condoms?


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