“You live on the streets as a girl,
you get raped. It just is.”
– Jackie, homeless prostitute 9/16/91–8/8/14
Ungirt. Eyes agog. Eyes full of avarice, described as hungry, a harlot riding a
beast, her savage lover in a bestial rage whips her from head to foot. She is a
slut, a whore, a doxie queen. She is voiceless, and even her face, even with
eyes agog on meth, on heroin, on crack, her skin raw from living outside, from
bad shit, from picking and scratching, does not matter as much as her price.
Her body does matter and so even in the perverse world of prostitution, where
survival – getting food, scoring drugs, finding a place to sleep – can be too
much to achieve in a day, the tits are trussed up with the cleavage prominent,
the legs – the most ageless of a woman’s sexualized parts – are shoved into
hose or leggings that in the midst of winter, can not hope to protect these
women from the bitter cold, and finally, despite the conditions of the roads or
alleys they walk, the higher the heel or more badass the boot, the better to
sell sell sell.
whore is a romance we refuse to give up. It is a romance, like innocence, that
permits us to remain comfortable in our comfortable lives. Do I accuse you? No,
yet how can we realize our inhumanity unless we see it first. Unless we try to
give the whore a name, allow her a face.
read Dante while looking at the portraits of women, almost all of them
prostitutes, taken in Hunts Point Brooklyn by the photographer Chris Arnade.
Jackie, quoted above, spoke a simple line that to me is deeply profound. It
defines a modern hell that allows me to be with Dante, to argue with him, to
aggressively enter the poetry and fight, if only in my own mind, for the
inclusion of these women, to have names, and stories and to be allowed the
particularities of their own torture and the corresponding redemption from
when I encountered the work of Marina Sagona, I was drawn to the stark and
brutal portrait of The Naked Whore. No matter how many different women who walk
the streets of Hunts Point, this is what most of the men who pay them see –
holes to fuck, tits to maul and bite, a mouth meant to be wrapped around their
cock. The idea that there are eyes, hardened, broken, bruised – because also a
whore is often there to beat – has no import. The fact that almost every one of
these women has children somewhere far away, taken from them that they wish to
get back in a dream they dream every day, is not something these men care to
know. Whores are holes. Simple as that. “It just is.”
will not do a 180: make a whore the
Madonna/the Madonna a whore in the same black and white definition of women
that still largely rules the day. Were there falls from grace that could be
found warranted? Of course. People – both men and women – do horrible things
every day. But even then, women deserve to be seen as more than their anatomy
no matter what sins they may be guilty of. Marina Sagona’s Naked Whore is a lens
on our world. It rings true whether we see her as “an ungirt harlot” or a
homeless prostitute named Jackie dead in 2014.
San Francisco, I walk through the Tenderloin district. There they are, The
Naked Whores tweaking in the street, one so far gone she stands against a chain-link
fence with her pants down around her ankles. It is broad daylight.
“No one wants to
see that shit,” a man walking near me says.
No, I think, they
just want to fuck it.
She is descending.
Later or just minutes from now, when her high wears off or when she’s arrested or,
if lucky, just told to pull her pants up and move along by two bored cops for
whom this is routine, she’ll go into a place that’s darker in every way – a
doorway, an alley, through the small opening of a boarded up building – and do
what she needs to get paid. She lives each level of Dante’s Divine Comedy every
day. Hell is the job. Purgatory the hours when you’re leaning against a fence
with your pants down being told that no one wants to see that shit. Paradise is
heroin, crack, booze, speed. The Naked Whores of Dante are in Hunts Point,
Brooklyn, and in the Tenderloin of San Francisco. They are also the girls sold
by their families in every country on this Earth. If we take the time to fill
in the blanks that Sagona’s portrait begs us to see, we might help each of
these discarded women wrest back their humanity. If we can save them from
symbol – even if they’re dead – even if they have no grave – even if, as
people, often beneath the drugs and shame, you might spy that they won’t ever
be the nicest human beings, than we’ve done justice somehow, to poetry.
I go from Sagona’s
portrait of The Naked Whore to the faces on Arnade’s Flcikr stream to a walk in
the Tenderloin and then, that night, back to Dante again. In every thing I do
and any place I travel, I carry a shared anatomy with all women. In a toss of
the dice or a walk in the park, I can be defined by this anatomy alone. As
women, ten centuries after Dante first wrote of her, all women live at risk of
being valued for what Sagona so knowingly leaves blank. To believe otherwise is
to insist on remaining in a fool’s paradise.