Sex Work and the Law

Legalizing Prostitution:

From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business

By Ronald Weitzer

New York: New York University Press, 2012, 283 pp., $24.00, paperback

Reviewed by Anne Gray Fischer

When a woman is arrested for prostitution, before she is even convicted, her picture is posted on her local news website, along with her full name, age, hometown, and the officer’s details of her arrest. Subscribe to a Google news alert for the search term “prostitution” and you will receive a stream of these pictures of women every day. Prostitution arrests are swiftly converted into convictions and, in addition to the public disgrace, a convicted prostitute must contend with the court fines, lost earnings, and restricted job opportunities that accompany a criminal record—and whenever a job application asks if she has been convicted of a crime, she must check the box, hoping that her prospective employer won’t supplement the application process with a quick search online. 

Debates over prostitution have raged in the last few decades—whether it is a job or a crime, coerced or chosen—but amid the tumult, the arrest and public shaming of prostitutes continues unabated. Could any change in our legal regime stanch this systemic marginalization of prostitutes? In his latest contribution to the study of sexual commerce, sociologist and criminologist Ronald Weitzer investigates the challenges, successes, and unintended consequences of one possible remedy: legalization.

For more than a century, reformers have argued that the criminalization of prostitution doesn’t just perpetuate injurious stereotypes—it prevents prostitutes from accessing basic public goods like housing or healthcare, and bars them from legal recourse if they are attacked or robbed. Various plans to lessen prostitutes’ degradation and abuse have been proposed, from outright decriminalization to legalization with state monitors and regulation. In Europe, Asia, Latin America, and some pockets of the United States—in parts of rural Nevada, for instance, where brothels are legal; and, until recently, Rhode Island, where a legislative loophole made indoor prostitution “not illegal”—strategies have been implemented that use some combination of decriminalization and state oversight, each tailored to the region’s specific regulatory landscape and political climate. Weitzer takes the reader on a brisk yet thorough world tour of these policies before delving into three case studies of legalization, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Frankfurt, Germany; and Antwerp, Belgium. While this northern corner of the EU might initially seem homogeneous, Weitzer finds a stunning diversity of both sexual markets and regulatory strategies in the region.

Despite the book’s focus on legalized zones of sexual commerce, the enduring stigma of prostitution makes even the legal variety an elusive object of study. The data tracking prostitution is murky, and Weitzer is quick to point out how much we don’t know about the demand, profitability, and market structures of commercial sex. Because of this data vacuum, harmful myths about prostitution have proliferated—easy with an issue so prone to sensationalism and moral panic—which sculpt public opinion and policy. In his sober reading of the available research, paired with his own extensive ethnographic observations, Weitzer attempts to debunk the reigning myths about prostitution and make a case for legalization in the United States, inviting readers to “imagine an alternative to the conventional wisdom.”

Today’s prostitution debate is dominated by two competing views, which Weitzer calls “empowerment” and “oppression.” Like Weitzer himself, those who favor the “empowerment” approach make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. They argue that when erotic labor is decriminalized and fortified with basic labor protections, it can be safe, lucrative, even fulfilling—while smoothing an exit for those who want out. Empowerment-minded researchers are among the few in the field who study non-normative sex workers (notable exceptions to their colleagues, who, like Weitzer, overwhelmingly focus on women selling sex to men) and they have revealed subcultures of male, transgender, and lesbian prostitutes who challenge and subvert the prevailing heterosexist culture. Though Weitzer notes that empowerment scholars are generally careful to avoid dogma, some, he argues, “make bold claims that romanticize sex work.” A running theme throughout Legalizing Prostitution is Weitzer’s search for strategies that normalize—rather than celebrate or condemn—erotic labor.  

Adherents of the oppression approach are horrified at the prospect of normalizing, much less celebrating, commercial sex. These scholars and activists, who typically limit their inquiries to women and girls, reject the notion of prostitution as labor, arguing instead that sex work is sex slavery by another name. They consider the sex trade inherently exploitative, and support intensified criminalization to abolish it. Weitzer is mindful of the threat of exploitation, but he charges that those who see prostitution as exclusively oppressive “pay little heed to the canons of scientific objectivity”; their “central tenets are not derived from carefully conducted research which would contradict or radically qualify those very tenets.” Despite the lack of research that supports it, Weitzer charts the successful institutionalization of programs based on the oppression framework, which have received considerable government funding since the George W. Bush administration.

The two camps fundamentally disagree on the representative experience of prostitution—is it a routine and potentially affirming job or degrading bondage? Neither of these “one-dimensional and essentialist” images, Weitzer argues, can capture the “richly nuanced” realities of prostitution. Instead, he offers his own, “polymorphous paradigm,” which, he says, is “sensitive to complexities and to the structural conditions shaping sex work along a continuum of agency and subordination.” Using his framework, Weitzer argues, activists and politicians can craft policies that recognize the plurality of experience in sexual commerce, fostering safe, healthy work environments, and reducing harm and exploitation. “Victimization, exploitation, agency, job satisfaction, self-esteem,” Weitzer writes, “should be treated as variables, not constants.” Prostitution policy should aim to boost the positive variables while curbing the negatives.

For veterans of the feminist “sex wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, the oppression vs. empowerment debate is familiar, and Weitzer is not the first to try and break through the ideological gridlock. But as Weitzer highlights “best practices” for legal prostitution, he neglects the persistent “constants” of global wealth inequality, the feminization of poverty, and racism. 

A hierarchy exists in sexual commerce that mirrors larger social inequities: white, educated, affluent prostitutes with straight male clients typically work indoors, maintain the greatest control over their lives and wages, and face fewer legal repercussions; poor, LGBTQ, and nonwhite prostitutes, however, earn less and are more vulnerable to police brutality, pimp exploitation, and violent johns. Class and color determine a prostitute’s experience on the often-dangerous, degrading streets, where the poorest and most at-risk prostitutes work. Although there are a variety of legalization strategies around the world, most respond to this hierarchy by deploying a “two-track system,” in which indoor prostitution is legalized, while the sellers, and sometimes the buyers, of street sex are criminalized. This system creates “white collar” prostitutes, who are absorbed into the labor market and placed on the road to normalization, with its attendant legal protections, while those on the street remain subject to the vagaries of selectively enforced laws. In Weitzer’s ideal system, which currently has a sliver of American precedent in cities like Boston and San Francisco, streetworkers are still arrested (“which seems necessary to compel compliance [with the law],” Weitzer writes), then funneled into social support programs. Improved state services for prostitutes are certainly needed, but in a nation where the poorest and most marginalized do not receive a substantial measure of mercy or resources, perhaps we should be skeptical of a legal remedy that normalizes the privileged while continuing to criminalize and stigmatize the poor and nonconforming.

Weitzer, and other architects of two-track systems, uphold the “girlfriend experience”— where prostitutes simulate cuddly, romantic relationships with their clients—as the gold standard of sexual commerce, one that “humanizes” both parties and transforms “sheer monetary exchange” into a therapeutic service. Like the women who perform “girlfriend” services, the clients are typically affluent, educated, and white. Together, these client-girlfriend pairs mimic socially acceptable relations—private, emotional, bonded—domesticating hetero-sex work. As Weitzer documents, with little apparent alarm, legalized “girlfriends” reinforce the “deviance” of lower strata of same-sex and public prostitution: in Frankfurt, for example, women are banned from entering brothels (unless, of course, they are working in them); and in Antwerp, despite some outdoor legalization, male prostitutes working in parks are entrapped and arrested by police. Significantly, too, Weitzer’s research indicates that there is little social mobility from one class of prostitution to another, so poor, nonwhite, or queer prostitutes would be less likely to “jump tracks” to the safer, socially sanctioned, “girlfriend” work.

Legalizing Prostitution delivers a technocratic analysis of prostitution: Weitzer has deftly navigated the best available research, but his devotion to the data may blind him to the larger implications of his work. “Social stigma colors all sex work,” Weitzer acknowledges, but rather than combat the shame reserved for female and transgender prostitutes, he proposes instead to normalize it for the most socially palatable. By endorsing a widening wealth gap between “girlfriends” and street prostitutes, Weitzer offers a regime of “trickle down legalization,” that promotes the comfort and integrity of the relatively privileged, sacrificing to the criminal justice system those whose lives remain most precarious.

Anne Gray Fischer is a doctoral student in US History at Brown University, where she studies the politics of sex work in the late twentieth century. Her writing has appeared in the Boston Globe, Bitch magazine, and elsewhere.

Disability, in History and in Life

A Disability History of the United States

by Kim E. Nielsen

Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2012, 216 pp., $26.95, hardcover

Don’t Call Me Inspirational:

A Disabled Feminist Talks Back

by Harilyn Rousso

Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2013, 224 pp., $24.95, paperback

Reviewed by Susan McGee Bailey

Kim Nielsen, a professor of disability studies and history at the University of Toledo, has written previous books on Anne Sullivan Macy and Helen Keller. Her new volume addresses a larger landscape. A Disability History of the United States is the first broad history of the United States to place the lives of people with disabilities at the center of the narrative. It is the second volume in Beacon Press’s Revisioning American History Series (A Queer History of the United States, by Michael Bronski, was published in 2011.) 

Nielsen does even more than use the lens of disability to extend a familiar national narrative; she interrogates the concept of disability itself. In a country founded upon a “declaration of independence,” common understandings of able-bodiedness and disability have fundamentally shaped the national dialogue about the meaning of American citizenship: anyone who deviates from the hale and hearty white male “norm” poses a problem. He or she cannot perform the duties of a good citizen. And in fact, throughout US history, the established powers have used all kinds of differences—of physical or cognitive ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or class—to deny numerous groups of people full citizenship. Nielsen’s assumption that US history is the complex interweaving of many groups, the intersection of many struggles rather than a singular narrative, is not new—but few perspectives have illuminated this truth so clearly. 

Example after example illustrates how “disability” has been a catch-all justification for exclusion. Neilsen writes of how proponents of slavery routinely described the Africans brought forcibly to North America as physically and mentally inferior, and argued that slavery was “a ‘beneficial kindness’ owed to those in need of care.” Those seeking to limit women’s opportunities for higher education listened to Harvard Medical School Professor Edward H. Clarke, who warned in 1897 that higher education was unhealthy for women. He cited the case of a woman who, he said, had been “permanently disabled” by her college education, as “no woman could simultaneously use ‘a good brain’ and ‘a good reproductive system’”—it was simply too much for the female body.

Nielsen begins her history before the arrival of European colonists in North America. Starting here, with a discussion of the views of indigenous peoples on physical and cognitive differences, she quickly introduces readers to a central theme of her narrative—that concepts and definitions of disability are shaped by culture and changing conditions.

Most indigenous groups had no word for disability.  Nielsen writes, “In indigenous cultures ‘disability’ occurred when someone lacked or had weak community relationships.” She uses as an example a young man with cognitive impairments who could nonetheless provide a service needed by the community such as carrying water. By doing so, he was an integral part of the community and lived in balance with himself and others. Conditions later labeled as “mental illness” were seen by indigenous peoples as instances of “unhealthy imbalance.” The stark contrast between these perspectives and those most readers hold today is immediately thought provoking.

Nielsen contrasts indigenous views with those of the European colonists. In an agrarian economy, most people, even those with some physical impairments, could perform productive work, insuring their self sufficiency, so scant attention was paid to physical differences. Cognitive impairments were more problematic.  While the Puritan colonists considered these conditions “sent by God,” they posed questions of care. Gradually the rational and scientific approaches of the American Enlightenment prompted attempts to find solutions and treatments  rather than theological explanations. Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan minister, supported smallpox inoculations, and in 1773 Virginia established the first institution specifically designed to care for those with mental and cognitive disabilities, rather than lumping them in with drunkards and vagabonds.

The upheavals of the Civil War and industrialization led to an increase in physical disabilities from war injuries and industrial accidents, as technology created more, and more dangerous, employment options.  So-called ugly laws were passed to keep those with physical disfigurements off the streets.  In 1867 San Francisco banned “any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object” from all public spaces in the city.  Other cities soon adopted similar regulations. These laws mostly affected poor people who, as peddlers or beggars, were more likely than the wealthy to spend significant time in public spaces. And while some new institutions, such as the National Deaf-Mute College founded in 1864 and renamed Gallaudet College thirty years later, offered education for deaf, blind, or “feeble minded” students, other institutions warehoused anyone unfortunate enough to land in them in unbearable conditions, often with few options for release.

The era that historians have labeled Progressive further narrowed the definition of citizenship. Many “reformers” found ways to marginalize and exclude people they considered undesirable.  Would-be immigrants were subjected to invasive health inspections to determine whether they were sexual “deviants” or had communicable or sexually transmitted diseases, cognitive or behavioral deficiencies, or physical disabilities. The capacity for economically productive work remained central to the definition of health and citizenship, and determinations often rested on racial and gender myths and prejudices.  Eugenics, despite being repeatedly discredited, captured public attention as a way to insure that only “good traits” were reproduced, and citizens were required to conform to eugenicist standards of cognitive, physical, racial, and socioeconomic purity and productivity 

The chapter “We Don’t Want Tin Cups: Laying the Groundwork, 1927-1968” is particularly informative.  While most with an interest in disability rights are familiar with the struggles from the 1970s on, fewer are aware of the important organizing work of earlier activists.  Parents, particularly mothers, advocating for children with cognitive disabilities formed the National Association for Retarded Children in 1952. The organization was renamed the National Association for Retarded Citizens in 1974 and simply the ARC in 1992.  The evolution of the name illustrates forty years of changing societal perceptions.

During the 1940s, conscientious objectors to World War II who were assigned to work in institutions for people with psychiatric disorders and/or developmental disabilities led the way in exposing the unspeakable conditions endemic in such places. Perhaps most importantly, early efforts to build alliances among and across groups advocating on behalf of people with specific disabilities led to explorations of the ways discrimination affected people across a wide range of disabilities and of the hierarchy of disabilities within the broader disability movement.

The book’s final chapter illustrates the significant progress disability activists have made, including passage of Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA).  Since 1975, IDEA has required states to provide a free, appropriate public education to all children. Before this, only twenty percent of children with disabilities attended public schools, and many states actively barred them from public classrooms. The practical result of IDEA was the integration of students with special needs into public schools across the country. This, in turn, has given generations of students the opportunity to learn first hand about people with disabilities and has, I believe, helped to ease the stigma attached to disability and promoted increased integration of a wide range of people with disabilities into mainstream culture, a trend continued by the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.

Harilyn Rousso’s memoir Don’t Call Me Inspirational is at the other end of the spectrum from Nielsen’s sweeping history. An intimate portrait of one woman’s journey, it is a worthy  companion piece to read next to the larger history. Rousso provides an up-close encounter with what physical disability means in the life of a woman born in midtwentieth-century America. 

Complications at Rousso’s birth resulted in cerebral palsy and noticeable physical differences—facial grimaces, slurred speech, an uneven gait. Her short, engaging memoir recounts how she moved from denying her disability to claiming it as “a source of positive identity and community.” Rejecting a chronological approach in favor of a deliberate patchwork, she writes, “As a visual artist, I think about the book as a collage or a series of images about my life rather than a formal portrait.” She invites readers to create their own collage by reading the book’s 52 short chapters in any sequence they choose.  

This approach is especially fitting for a book designed to reach disabled girls and young women, and to give them permission to make their own decisions rather than follow a prescribed path from a single starting point to one, and only one, ending. It is also an effective structure for a memoir that proclaims itself as a conversation: “a disabled feminist talks back.” The short chapters replicate the way we often come to know a friend—a bit at a time, a few key facts at first, perhaps bits and pieces of family history, then more detailed stories.  As the friendship deepens, conversations become more intimate—sex, romance, strongly held beliefs, successes and failures, joys and heartaches.   Even the occasional repetition in these short chapters mirrors the kinds of talking we do with friends—we repeat certain critical facts, retell bits of experience, but connect them with different issues and aspects of our life stories.

Rousso divides her book into five sections organized around major themes in her life. Anyone who has had experience with noticeable physical disabilities will identify immediately with the title of the first: “Close Encounters with the Clueless.”  In it, she not only deals with what she calls “The Stare” but also provides information about her birth and her mother’s fierce determination that her daughter fit in with other children her age.

Long before IDEA required the integration of children with special needs into public classrooms, Rousso was among the small group of those with disabilities who attended public school. She missed the opportunity to develop friendships with others with disabilities, but learned valuable lessons about the limits of passing and about dealing with the world of the able-bodied. Her mother’s determination became her determination, which led to years of denial, significant accomplishments, and major uncertainties. It was not until her late twenties, she writes, that she first encountered blatant discrimination. With a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brandeis and a master’s in social work, she enrolled in a psychotherapy institute.  After a year, the administration asked her to leave. They felt her cerebral palsy mannerisms would distress her future clients.

As outrageous and hurtful as this overt discrimination was, Rousso writes with painful honestly about how it led her to a clearer understanding of prejudice against people with disabilities, both those of others and her own. It forced her, she says, to “embrace my identity as a person with a disability still further.” It fueled her activism. 

Rousso writes of feminism as her pathway both to a fuller sense of self and to advocacy on behalf of people with disabilities. Her strong feminist perspective and commitment make her sharp critique of feminist support—and the lack of it—for the rights of disabled women particularly incisive. Her chapter title, “Token of Approval,” says it all. Too many of us have learned too little from our own struggles for equality. Rousso was the first and only disabled board member of several feminist organizations.  At first hopeful that she could make a difference, she felt increasingly ineffectual, finally resigning from her first board in frustration. Never one to give up, she continued to accept board roles. Her expectations were lower, but she believed she could “open the door a bit.” She did that and more, all the while experiencing first hand the excruciatingly slow pace of organizational change, even in organizations focused on changing society. Disabled women are still rarities on boards or in leadership positions in mainstream women’s organizations, and Rousso’s assessment is characteristically blunt: “The welcome mat is not yet out.”

Don’t Call Me Inspirational is many things: a coming of age story, a family memoir, and a collection of beautifully written essays on what disability means for one woman. It is also in-your-face straight talk for everyone who assumes people with disabilities are all the same, all “less than,” all wishing they were different from the way they are. She shows the how the label “inspirational” is often just one more way of expressing a sense of difference rather than an understanding of equality.   

Both of these books belong in college classrooms—in US history, women’s and gender studies and, of course, disability studies. They are lively, insightful, and moving reading for both general audiences and scholars. Some readers may be familiar with some of the information, but few will know it all. The books can each inspire, in its own way, the work of advocacy both among and for those with disabilities.

Because the reality is that not all people with disabilities can achieve traditional forms of independence, nor can all advocate for themselves. Many require 24-hour care. Rousso hints at this issue in her discussion of her own prejudices about people with disabilities, her own coming to terms with seeing herself and being seen as a disabled woman

Nielsen concludes her book with an important reminder of how ableist ideologies define disability and make it difficult for disabled people to develop a sense of pride, saying, “Without pride, individual and collective resistance to oppression becomes nearly impossible.” The unfinished business in the fight for justice for people with disabilities is the work of moving our culture’s view closer to that of the indigenous peoples on this continent. This includes an understanding that even the most severely impaired have gifts to share, and that a healthy society is one that fosters relationships. In addition, to be truly inclusive, the struggle must include not only advocacy for people with disabilities but also advocacy for their caregivers. If their work is not valued, they too are robbed of pride and unable to insure good, just care for all.  

Susan McGee Bailey directed the Wellesley Centers for Women from 1985 to 2011. The mother of a daughter with physical and intellectual disabilities, she has been active in volunteer work for people with disabilities for forty years.

Leaping into Mystery

The Dancing Goddesses:

Folklore, Archeology, and the Origins of European Dance

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

New York: Norton, 2013, 429 pp., $35.00, hardcover

Reviewed by Debra Cash

The study of material culture is, at heart, the study of the unspoken. In recent decades, as it has taken its place among historiographic and sociological research methods, it has given us access to the look, touch, taste, and feel of ephemeral culture: the farm implements of peasantry, the homespun aprons of working women, the iron shackles and pine cabins of antebellum slaves. Most of human history, especially that of women, remains unwritten, so it’s no surprise that feminist scholars have often turned to the study of material culture to recapture lives lost to official, recorded history.

Dance is the quintessential ephemeral cultural artifact. No culture discovered to date has been entirely danceless, and there’s reason to believe that human beings have always danced, yet western notions of dance culture, both before and after the advent of film, have often been fraught with denigration, colonialism, and exoticism. Until recently, it was not uncommon for a college-level dance history syllabus to promote the idea of cultural “progress” by starting with the so-called “primitivism” of “African tribes” or “aboriginal” dancing in the Americas and then moving toward a perceived cultural apotheosis in the ballets of George Balanchine.

Yet all along, both scholarly and amateur dance lovers have tried to piece together the history of the art form from remaining traces. That search has been infused with extrapolations that say as much about contemporary preoccupations as they do about the past.  As the scholar Samuel Dorf has demonstrated, for instance, when Isadora Duncan started dancing barefoot and uncorseted on a beach near San Francisco and in Parisian drawing rooms, her performances conflated her experience of her own physicality; images repurposed from an 1896 “scientific” classification of the meanings of the figures portrayed on Greek vases—raised arms signaling praise, etc.; popular ideas about the eroticism and “Sapphism” of antiquity (those flowing tunics must have meant a lot to the literally straight-laced Victorians); assertions about nature and the so-called natural rights that formed the basis of American freedoms; and the nascent ideologies of feminism and universal suffrage. Duncan’s “Greek” dancing, in other words, was a mixture of the tastes of her time, and a skewed and perhaps self-serving ethnography. As twenty-first-century readers, we need to be alert to the histories and contexts of aesthetic choices.

Which brings me to Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Dancing Goddesses. Like her 1995 Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, in which Barber argued for the importance of the invention of string and sewing, she shoots for the encyclopedic with breathtaking confidence. Professor emerita at Occidental College and the leader of an international (i.e., pan-European) folkdance ensemble, she has described her scholarly work as standing at the crossroads of archeology and linguistics. This work, however, is not a social history but rather an excavation of myth and legend that draws attention to tantalizing traces of dancing in the shape of agrarian ritual, primarily in the Balkans, and then leaps, like Nijinsky, into mystery.

The Dancing Goddesses—a title that automatically signals credulity and romanticism—posits a kind of terpsichorean Collective Unconscious. Civilizations from Bronze Age Crete and classical Greece and Rome to the premodern, agrarian Balkans “sought to influence the flow of life by means of dance...form[ing] a sort of glue holding people and life together, bonding communities,” posits Barber. In such societies, she asserts, dance “marked off ritual time and space, served to anesthetize fatigue and heal sickness, and even sought to produce life. Dance was not an ‘art form’ but the essence of life itself.”

Barber’s dancing goddesses are the spirits of young women who died before their time. She tracks them across national boundaries, open fields, and threshing floors. Nymphs and spirits of water and air, they are called, in various languages, rusalki, nixies, wilis, and neraida. Ballet-goers know these maidens from the plot of the 1841 Giselle and recognize their long braids from Natalia Gontcharova’s famous costumes for Bronislava Nijinska’s 1923 Les Noces. Barber paints a picture of the correspondences among and persistence of these figures across the European continent, especially in Russia and the Balkans. Her retold tales are lush with evocative, fairytale-worthy detail.

Unfortunately, though, her assertions about the underlying meaning of these figures stand on marshy soil. The Slavic rusalki, Barber writes, represented women who had “not used their natural store of fertility.” She suggests that believers in rusalki hoped those spirits might be enjoined to bestow their “unused” fertility on needy families, flocks, and fields, and argues that young Russian girls who danced the May dances were analogized to these spirits. Thus, villagers “delegate[d] the village maidens to behave like the Dancing Goddesses, in hopes of either jump-starting the goddess’ activities ... or even creating the same effects directly [Barber’s italics].”

Of the young men who also died without descendents in illness or in battle, Barber is silent. Nor does she consider that these unmothering, seductive spirit maidens may be one way that a culture disavows or contains certain types of female behavior. She considers no counterexamples. She’s too enchanted with watching the rusalki dance in the gloaming.

Barber spotlights the construction, appearance, and use of folk paraphernalia, and how the dancing body is ornamented and reshaped in space by special props, shoes, and clothing. Her process is associative and personal, but her range of references is impressively deep, and her rough line drawings illustrating the text attest to years spent prowling museum display cases, notebook in hand. She describes the red fringes draping dance clothing from Macedonia; the leaves that disguise an orphan as she sings a charm for rain; the horse-head bonnets worn by Welsh mummers; and the staves and swords of garlic-and-wormwood chewing men from herding societies. She lovingly describes rituals step by step, based primarily on records collected during nineteenth- and twentieth-century ethnographic tours and her own observations and participation. She ranges far into prehistory, quoting others’ research about Neolithic clay figurines and Danish bog men and, like almost everyone in the popular social sciences these days, refers to brain science and neurology by way of Oliver Sacks.  She is alert to the meaning of musical details because of her folkdancing practice: she makes the point that the difference between walking naturally in 2/4 time and dancing in “non-practical” Balkan 7/8 time would signal that something special was happening during a bridal procession, and she convincingly explains how the very conformity among people in a village who danced in their own distinctive, local style reinforces neighborly social bonds.

The problem is that once Barber gets an idea, she casually attributes it to an entire civilization and beyond. “How could the glorious fragrance of amassed roses not [Barber’s italics] herald the presence of divinity, especially of flower-loving spirit girls who had died before their time?” she asks with a rhetorical flourish that shouldn’t have gotten past her editors and certainly won’t inspire trust in her scholarly peers. If the women she interviewed in the 1970s in Kargopol, Russia, were not aware that the traditional chain-stitch embroidery on their aprons represented a twelve-month calendar, does a similar pattern on a fourth-century tureen prove anything? Does the experience of a single Russian family in the 1990s in which the wife worked from 4 a.m. until midnight while the husband played electronic games correlate in any reliable way with the division of labor in the premodern Russia of folk tales?

Her assertions about the role and nature of dance in a given agrarian society are equally questionable. I can believe that the Balkan folk dance “test”—in which a man breaks into a ring of women, selects one, and tugs her hand to see if she can stay on her feet and keep dancing—represents a challenge to the young woman’s balance and strength. It is probably fun! But everything we know about the economic determinants of marriage in premodern European village communities indicates that even women who “failed” the bride test dance were probably desirable for all sorts of other reasons.

Looking for linguistic correspondences, Barber piles up details and bibliographic references in multiple languages, as if quantity implies proof. And astonishingly, on the very last page of this sprawling volume, she admits to confirmation bias. Citing Galileo, of all people, she notes that “immediate satisfaction flows from a story that covers the apparent facts of the case [Barber’s italics].”

Given its shaping by ideas and values about the nature of embodiment, gender, and time, dance deserves to be investigated by feminist researchers as a resonant topic in the history of ideas. Alas, The Dancing Goddesses is ultimately neither history nor sociology. It’s wish fulfillment.

Debra Cash has been scholar in residence at both the Bates Dance Festival and Jacob’s Pillow, and contributes regular arts criticism to She was awarded a 2012 Creative Arts grant for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute.

Her Mad Beauty

Body Sweats:

The Uncensored Writing of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012, 418 pp., $34.95, hardcover

Reviewed by Ana Isabel Keilson

In December 1919, Jane Heap, the co-editor of American literary magazine The Little Review, described contributor Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven as having a madness wrought into artistic perspective. According to Heap, the German poet, performer, and personality was

a woman of brains, of mad beauty and elegantes wesen, who has abandoned sanity: left it cold. She has recognized that if one has the guts and the constitution to abandon sanity one may at all times enjoy an exalted state. Madness is her chosen state of consciousness. It is this consciousness which she works to produce Art.

For Heap and readers of The Little Review, Freytag-Loringhoven’s work afforded a new take on the world. Razor sharp in its execution, her writing was wild and unpredictable.

The life and work of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874 – 1927) is as fascinating and fraught as Heap’s description. She was a contemporary of some of the most famous figures in literary and art history, and her work was recognized by many at the time for its merit. Yet her life and work is little known today. Body Sweats, edited by Irene Gammel and Suzanne Zelazo, is the first English-language anthology of work by Freytag-Loringhoven. In many ways a companion volume to Gammel’s lucid biography, The Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada and Everyday Modernism (2003), Body Sweats does much to bring this fascinating figure into focus.

Born Elsa Plötz in the German town of Swinemünde on the Baltic coast (in present-day Poland),  Freytag-Loringhoven lived a socially comfortable and emotionally turbulent childhood. Her mother came from a family marked by depression and suicide—and herself attempted suicide when Freytag-Loringhoven was a teenager—while her father, a successful city councilor, hailed from a family with a history of abuse and alcoholism. At sixteen, Freytag-Loringhoven fled to Berlin, where she enrolled in art school. During this time she developed the sensibilities that were to shape her life and work: her sexual experimentation, her explorations of gender and androgyny, her unconventional use of artistic source materials, and her interest in urban life as creative inspiration. After performing as an erotic dancer, she became part of the artistic circle of writer Stefan George—first as an artists’ model, then as a friend, lover, and colleague to its members.

Berlin was the first of many stops on her path as an artist and writer. From Berlin she moved to Munich, which at the fin de siècle was a hotbed of avant-garde theatrical activity, and became involved in its community of Kosmiker—artists, writers, and actors devoted, in the spirit of Nietzschean philosophy, to the pursuit of eros through art. In 1910, she left Europe for the United States, where she lived for the next thirteen years, predominantly in New York’s Greenwich Village, and predominantly in poverty. She returned to Berlin in 1923 to find the city changed by the war. Unhappy there, she traveled to Paris, where she stayed for a year and a half before her death, most likely suicide, at 52. 

Out of all of her homes, New York City was the most important for her literary production. Freytag-Loringhoven moved among its artistic and intellectual circles, befriending, for example, the photographer Berenice Abbot, the poet William Carlos Williams, and the Dada artists Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. She distinguished herself as a poet, artists’ model, and, through her unconventional lifestyle, as a social curiosity—turning, for example, her daily dress into a performance event. In The Baroness Elsa, Gammel evokes the unusual figure Freytag-Loringhoven cut:

Her head: shaved and occasionally shellacked in striking colors like vermillion red. Her makeup: yellow face powder, black lipstick, and an American stamp on her cheek. Her jewels: utilitarian, mass-produced objects like teaspoons as earrings or large buttons as finger-rings. Her accessories: tomato cans and celluloid rings adorning her body; the hem of her skirt decorated with horse blanket pins. An electric battery taillight decorates the bustle of her black dress in imitation of a car or bicycle … a wooden birdcage around her neck housing a live canary; five dogs on her gilded leash as she promenaded up Fifth Avenue.


For Freytag-Loringhoven, life was a work of art ignited by the everyday act of walking down the street. Clothing was animated into performance, the body transformed into a palette, movement turned into a language, the banal turned into the extraordinary.

It was with this uncompromising attitude that Freytag-Loringhoven took her pen to paper and wrote for The Little Review. For the next several years, Jane Heap served as Freytag-Loringhoven’s publisher and editor, and in turn, Freytag-Loringhoven’s writing served as a focal point for debates among the magazine’s writers and readers. Heap felt Freytag-Loringhoven, with her “brains” and “mad beauty” was a new kind of American Dada, while other writers felt her work resembled a more precedented form of literary modernism. Some, including Ezra Pound, simply celebrated her writing for its nonconformity and candor: “The immense cowardice of advertised literati/ & Elsa Kassandra, “the Barroness”/ von Freytag etc. sd/ several true things/ in the old days/ driven nuts. / Well of course, there was a certain strain/ on the gal in them days in Manhattan / the principle of non-acquiescence / laid a burden” (from Canto 95). And still others saw her status as a woman—as well as her overt sexuality—as problematic: as Gammel notes, debates about Freytag-Loringhoven’s work were undergirded by anxieties among many dadaists about a female artist infringing on their mostly masculine circle.

In 1920, The Little Review serially published James Joyce’s Ulysses, which shocked American audiences and eventually brought the magazine to trial for violating US obscenity laws; shortly before the charges were filed, Freytag-Loringhoven wrote “The Modest Woman,” a poetic defense of Joyce and a scathing critique of American society. She believed that the American public’s scandalized reaction to Ulysses exposed a crucial unwillingness to confront the reality of their own bodies, which for Freytag Loringhoven formed the highest order of art:

To show the hidden beauty of things—there are no limitations! Only artist can do that—

that is is his holy office. Stronger—braver he is—more he will explore into depths.

His eye—ear—finger—nose—tongue—are as keen as yours dull.

Without him—without his help—you would become less than dog—cow—worm.

Like Joyce, Freytag-Loringhoven made it her duty to jolt her readers back into their bodies. And the poems collected in Body Sweats show us just how magnificently she did so.

With Body Sweats, a reference to a 1926 poem by the same title, Gammel and Zelazo have assembled some 150 of Freytag-Loringhoven’s poems, only thirty of which were published during her lifetime. Body Sweats also contains a rich archive of material on Freytag-Loringhoven’s life. Her poetry is accompanied throughout the anthology by full-page, color reproductions of original manuscripts, and images of sculptures, photos, and paintings. The poems are organized into several parts (“poems of love and longing,” “poems of embodiment,” “poems on death and suicide,” “sonic poems,” etc.), each with a short introduction by the editors. The volume also features key biographical and historical information: an appendix with a chronology of Freytag-Loringhoven’s life, reviews of her poetry by peers at The Little Review, extensive notes on the poems themselves, and a typescript of “Spectrum,” an unpublished poem edited by the author Djuna Barnes, who met Freytag-Loringhoven in 1923 and who quickly became a fierce champion of her work.

Freytag-Loringhoven wrote in German and English, and sometimes in a combination of the two. Like her clothing built from colorful and unusual objects, her poems are built from a vibrant reserve of language. Running through her verse are terms like “octopuslovepillow” (“Aphrodite to Mars,” c. 1921-1922); “mossrocking” (“Bloodsoil,” 1911/1925); “icefanged” (“Tryst,” 1922); “orgasmlitter” (“Ultramundanity,” c. 1925-1927); and “limbswish” (“Ostentatious,” 1926-1927). Many lines are only a single word, some poems are simply a nonsense combination of consonants and vowels.

The content of her work ranges widely, a feature highlighted by Gammel and Zelazo’s organization of the anthology. With topics from the minute to the universal, her verse pulls the reader onto a roller coaster of sounds and images. Take her irreverent views on love, sex (and sex-toys):

There’s the vibrator—

Coy flappertoy! I am adult citizen with

Vote—I demand my unstinted share

In roofeden—witchsabbath of our Baby-

Lonian obelisk

(From “A Dozen Cocktails, Please,” c. 1927)

And here is her passionate picture of religion and its Freudian undertones:

Inside my weeping heart

throttled blood




down stares sun—

glistening eye—

laughter—thy deep sapphire sky.

Limbs bleeding

heart weeping

our blood tears—our tears blood!


(From “Father!” 1920)

And here, her wry yet somber depiction of death:

There is but one safe charm in life: distance.

How charming safe is death.

(From “Endpoint,” c. 1925)

In all of her writing, Freytag-Loringhoven wrests ideas and emotions from their contexts and unites them in a single, often bizarre, situation. Gammel and Zelazo describe her work as as “corporeal readymades”—the verbal equivalent of the dadaist technique of using found objects for artistic composition. Gammel and Zelazo further argue that the body forms the lens through which to read all of her poetry: “it was her attention to the ability of that body to tell a story, document its own expression, and perpetuate and interpret a language constantly in flux that lends her poems their electrical impulse.”

The decision to organize Freytag-Loringhoven’s corpus around the corporeal is an interesting one, and in general, Gammel and Zelazo’s editorial comments and analytic suggestions are helpful. Reading Freytag-Loringhoven’s poetry, however, one can’t help but be struck by her energy, radicalism, and physicality: her work speaks for itself and, quite frankly, needs little introduction. Thus, at times Gammel and Zelazo's editorial voices are distracting. Their emphasis throughout the volume on the scope of Freytag-Loringhoven’s influence—on everyone from Madonna and Yoko Ono, to Nina Hagen, Laurie Anderson, Andy Warhol, and Marina Abramovic—feels clumsy, ahistorical, and unnecessary.

Yet they point to some interesting questions about how to anthologize female artists who have been excluded from official canons, often because of their embrace of the body. Is canonicity itself inherently patriarchal?  To what degree is the act of drawing lines of influence complicit with dominant paradigms that seek to name and order—and thereby control—what we make, write, receive? Perhaps Freytag-Loringhoven’s status as a “peripheral figure” in the history of art and literature may not be such a bad thing after all.

We should take our cues from Djuna Barnes, Freytag-Loringhoven’s most dedicated reader. Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) is a masterpiece of modernist literature, and while it is generally accepted that Robin Vote, the main character in the novel, is modeled after Barnes’s lover Thelma Wood, some believe that Freytag-Loringhoven inspired the character. In one of the novel’s central scenes, Barnes describes Robin as a figure who appears, and then vanishes:

The louder she cried out the farther went the floor below, as if Robin and she, in their extremity, were a pair of opera glasses turned to the wrong end, diminishing in their painful love; a speed that ran away with the two ends of the building, stretching her apart.


Just as Robin is perpetually lost to Barnes’s narrator, so too is Freytag-Loringhoven to us. As tough as it may be, we should read Freytag-Loringhoven’s work in this same spirit: as something physical, passionate, and out of our control.

Ana Isabel Keilson is a PhD student in History at Columbia University, writing on intellectual history and dance in Germany. She is also a choreographer.

Women's Review of Books

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