The Victorian era seeded into our culture the division of women into angels and whores. The angel belongs to the domestic sphere. She is wife, mother or good daughter. Dutiful, gentle, self sacrificing, she puts all other needs before her own, and seeks no part in the world of men – in matters of religion, politics and social interaction, she is guided by her husband, father or brother. While if she can, she will bear children, the love of the angel is not carnal. She has no sexual desire, only the desire to please. Any woman who is not an angel, is a whore. The whores are not to be trusted, fair game for any kind of misuse and are assumed to deserve whatever happens to them. Men caught up in narratives with whores can be redeemed, but the whore will only be redeemed by a really penitent death. She does not get to win, only to remind women that they are much better off being docile and domesticated.
The overt language of the angel and the whore may seem not to be with us, but both are still here. Angels become domestic goddesses, yummy mummies, supermums. Now they work full time and are also paragons of the domestic sphere, pandering to everyone else’s needs and being selfless at every turn. The whores have turned into career women, tarts, slappers, hoes, and at the surface it seems we’re ok with them, and that there is room for more freedom of expression and to be something other than a doormat. But our media calls women cold, and bitches, if they don’t conform to angel standards. The woman who is not an angel is still considered fair game. What were you wearing? How much makeup? How many men have you slept with? Do you read or write erotica, or wear high heels, or dance sexy, or flirt…? Then you are in truth, a whore and we can safely assume you consented. You probably did more than consent, you were probably asking for it…(a ghastly, toxic notion in this context) and so play out the vast majority of court cases around the sexual abuse and rape of women.
The angel ideal is a personification of passive, obedient servitude. It’s not much to aspire to if you have feelings and opinions of your own. Express feelings and opinions of your own, and even today, you risk crossing over into unacceptability.
I was clearly never an angel. Not once I hit puberty. I had a wild and passionate nature, was a sensuous creature, generous in my affections and open hearted. I say ‘was’ because a good ten years of being treated as though that made me a whore left its marks. The angels and whores dynamic means that if you are anything other than very guarded, there are those who will assume you have no boundaries at all. You’ll find some of those people in courtrooms. You’ll find them putting hands on your body assuming you have neither the will nor the capacity to refuse them.
Underpinning the angels and whores paradigm is the key Victorian assumption that women exist to serve men. Angels do it gently in the home and are to be treated kindly. Whores are there to satisfy all the urges you can’t vent on an angel, but in the end, both kinds of women are designed to answer male needs, not to be people in their own right. And after all this time, the same underlying thoughts still affect our culture. We still call working mums, and childless women selfish. We also call stay at home mums lazy, so you don’t get to win this one.
Where is the healing in this? It comes from seeing the story, and realising that it is nothing more than a set of ideas. It is not a truth, and I am not bound by it. I am not defined by how other people have seen fit to treat my body. It comes from recognising that I do not have to be one or the other. I am not an angel in the house. I am not a whore. There is nothing in how I am and what I do that entitles anyone else to do anything to me. My curves are not permission.
My impression of mythic Celtic women is that they were able to be sexual and able to choose, free to say yes or no. There’s healing in that thought, and hope.