Angels, whores and healing

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.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

14 responses to “Angels, whores and healing

  • Metalgaia

    Beautiful post! I will link others to it. This is my problem with Abrahamic religion as well. At the surface, the idea of dressing living modestly doesn’t sound so bad. But it creates a dichotomy. If the moral woman is one who covers herself up and saves sex for her husband, than any woman who does otherwise is a she-devil. A woman’s morality is not governed by anything other than what she does with her genitals. Even if you have a whore who starts a charity, rescues a victim from a burning house or is sweet and kind to all – she is still regarded as a sinful woman. Even if you have a modest woman who gossips, slanders, steals and abuses others – she is still a “good” woman because of her modesty.

    So a woman’s worth is determined by what she can offer men.

    What is interesting to me is that in the Old Testament there were actually a few whores who saved the day. Ruth touched the “feet” of an old man and was praised for it, and then there was another whore who helped the Israelites raid a city of their enemies, and she was allowed to live alongside the Israelites in peace.

    Not that I like the Old Testament, but I think this shows that there might have been more openness towards whores in biblical times than the Victorian Era.

    Regardless, the ideal of the Celtic or Norse woman is something I prefer. A woman who is strong, smart and chooses her own lovers – even having many at the same time. Now that’s a lot more exciting.

  • syrbal-labrys

    I’ve had a penchant for the last 20 years or so to tear wings off angel figures of all sorts (one such stolen pair ended up on a wooden monkey); besides “whores” are allowed much better costuming! But then, I don’t accept either name just as I don’t limit myself to a single role in life.

  • Christopher Blackwell

    Basically anything that is seen as good and proper when man does it is see as bad and deviate if a woman does it. The scary part is not that men think this is right though it is obviously wrong because you understand how this appears to befit the men.

    The truly scary part is the number of women who attempt to force this male ideal on other women as the only proper role for a women.

    I doubt we can change those caught up in this game but we can work to bring it to a end in how we train our sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, grand children, and even those children we come across in our daily lives.

    We also can speak up and repudiate the idea whenever it does up in conversation. Silence is seen as expression of acceptance of these strange ideas about women. Men just become vocal that they do not believe this and give support to women who are fighting this. Women must support their sisters on this whoever possible an refuse to consider such destructive ideas as necessary for getting along with men. to all woe ay have to opportunity to resist this but we red all those that dare too for it is going to take a long fight to shoved this unacceptable idea out of our society. Those that support the unacceptable will always try to bring it back so we, who are opposed, must be just as stubborn and work eve harder to get rid of the idea.

  • locksley2010

    Totally respect this post!

  • helenjnoble

    Yes this ‘template’ for women in society has subsisted for far too long. It’s quite unbelievable that today, the choice of one newspaper to stop posting topless photos of women still dominates the news today. The key is for women not to buy into this false dichotomy of themselves.

  • Donna Donovan

    I rarely comment (though i do enjoy all of your posts), but this was very nicely done! Well said!

  • dkhyde2014

    As my daughters turn 12 this is a real issue for me – how to I enable them to grow to be fully rounded individuals as sexual beings, without telling them to repress their sexuality for safety’s sake? Even if I can empower them to be able to say No, I can’t opt them out of a society that creates expectations that may require them to say No (If I had boys I’d also be worried about how society affects their view of the opposite sex and sets expectations) Then as a man I can’t really use the words girls and sexuality in the same sentence without feeling guilty. I’d like just to crawl under a rock and hope it all goes away, but for the sake of the next generation (which for some may include our children) we need to take some sort of stand – of which your article forms a part – Thank you.

    • Nimue Brown

      I have a twelve year old boy who finds the whole notion of sexism utterly insane and struggles to see how older generations default to anything other than equality. This gives me hope. We can’t protect them from society as a whole, but reduced access to popular culture certainly seems to help!

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