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The Naked Whore

Alice Sebold






“You live on the streets as a girl, you get raped. It just is.”
– Jackie, homeless prostitute 9/16/91–8/8/14


Voiceless. 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.

The 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.

I 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 their suffering.

Immediately 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.”

I 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.

In 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.