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Why housewives are not prostitutes

Date

Jane Caro

'I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night': Jane Caro, photographed in August.

'I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night': Jane Caro, photographed in August. Photo: Dominic Lorrimer/Getty Images

On Monday night I was on the ABC's Q&A all female panel from the Festival of Dangerous Ideas with five other festival  participants. Our brief from the festival organisers was to be provocative and take risks.

After 35 years in advertising, I am trained to always fulfill the brief. Half way through the show, there was a question about sex workers. I was relaxed, there was an expert on the subject on the panel - Kajsa Ekis Ekman who had written a book on the subject.

But Tony Jones pulled an old rugby move and instead of asking her, threw the question to me. For a few moments I fumbled the pass as I tried to gather my thoughts. I did not want to isolate sex workers as a group, so I sought to broaden the question out to the way all women were caught up in an economic transaction in the past by talking about traditional marriages that included conjugal rights. This has resulted in many people thinking that I meant marriage as it is practised today and women who choose to work in the home currently. I did not and I would like to put the record straight.

For better, for worse: Modern marriages a different proposition to the traditional kind.

For better, for worse: Modern marriages a different proposition to the traditional kind. Photo: Fairfax Media

I have been married to the same man for 39 years. Does that make me a prostitute? No. Do I think any of the women and men living together in today's Australia, whether married or not, are engaging in a form of prostitution? No. I was a stay-at-home mother for five years when my daughters were small. Was that a form of prostitution? No, it was not and for women who decide that staying at home and caring for their kids is where they want to be, it isn't either. I refuse to judge women for the choices they make. Live your life the way you want to and the devil take anyone else. Indeed, as I also said on Q&A, the best advice I can give anyone is to be yourself and don't worry about whether others approve of you or not.

I guess I may have lived up to my own advice too well last night.

Given the reaction to my remarks about marriages from the past, I obviously expressed myself badly – an occupational hazard on Q&A, as others have also discovered. I was trying to talk about marriage in the bad old days when it was much more of an economic transaction than it is today. Once, when married women were unable to retain their own earnings or property (only changed in Britain in 1882), they had no rights to their own children. When a husband had not only his conjugal rights enshrined in law but also the right to "discipline" his wife as he saw fit, society very much made women the possessions of their husbands. Women's currency was pretty much reduced to – as I said – their sexual and reproductive capacity. That still did not make the women in such relationships prostitutes but it did make marriage much more about survival than choice.

Things have changed and very much for the better. Now marriage is about free choice, at least in the western world. These days, two people with agency and economic alternatives come together because they want to and I am a complete fan of love and relationships. Indeed, I created and presented a six part radio series on ABC Radio National's Life Matters called "For Better, For Worse" about successful long lasting marriages. My daughter was married in April and I wept with joy just like mothers of the bride everywhere.

But, before we get too sanguine, conjugal rights - the legal right of partners to sexual relationships in marriage - existed for much longer than you might imagine. Indeed, South Australia was the first place in the English-speaking world to acknowledge that rape in marriage could exist and to criminalise it as an offence. They did it - and this shocked even me - in 1976!

Right up until the 1970s, in some parts of Australia and in some professions, women were fired when they married or when they got pregnant. Did that make them, or our grandmothers prostitutes? No, but it did make the way society policed marriage uncomfortably close to an economic transaction and that is precisely why feminists fought to change it.

Obviously, in some parts of the world, marriage remains an economic transaction. There is even still a bride-price in some cultures, making the buying and selling aspects between father and prospective husband even more overt. That is the analogy I was clumsily trying to make.

Hence my reference to "once upon a time…"

Jane Caro is an author, speaker, columnist and historical novelist.

67 comments

  • Marriage is very much based on patterning, it's a ritual, rite of passage, even developmental stage. The weird thing about it is that it's participants have no way of knowing what the heck lies in front of them! You can write all the contracts you like, but you simply will not be able to necessarily predict game changers which actually implode all goodwill. People tend to make up their own rules, based on their parents' experiences, good and bad, more than anything. And a lot of assumptions are made at the outset, many not fully realised at the time. Makes you wonder how any marriages do work out for all involved in the long run! It takes an awful lot of adaptation and flexibility from everyone, a big team effort really where scoring goals should be seen as a team effort.

    Commenter
    Team player
    Location
    Off court
    Date and time
    September 02, 2014, 5:08PM
    • It is absurd.
      I think the comment assumes that the woman is prostituting themselves, but that means the man want's sex and the woman want's something in exchange for it. As if women don't have desires... Is that what she really meant? That women never want sex and only do it for material possessions?

      If so then I would say the prostitution goes both ways. sometimes its the man, sometimes the woman

      Commenter
      Bob
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 8:37PM
    • Bob what article are you talking about?

      Commenter
      philip
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 9:02PM
    • Team player, one of the facets of this is that the goal posts move over a couple's lifespan.

      Couples can wake up one day and find themselves as merely two individuals possessing a shared history as a team of two, and who are trying to kick goals towards opposite ends of the field.

      Sometimes there is nothing either of them can do about it, no matter how hard they try. It takes some doing to realise that one's partner is not the same person one married ten or so years ago, and that it's time to say "Hey, that was fun, but it's time to move on." I look at my partner and think that will happen one day, and I can only hope that when that time comes, I will have the moral strength to let them move on to their next chapter in life.

      Commenter
      Goalie
      Location
      Field of Dreams
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 9:54PM
    • Goalie, you're right about those goal posts shifting and scoring own goals! Look around and you see it happen a lot. Of course people evolve over time and these days there's any number of sources of thought provoking material which will change attitudes at different paces and stages and make minds which used to fit well seem quite suddenly way out of whack. When that becomes intolerable to either partner, it's over. But then, one of the two may not see it that way and the tearing apart process can easily be gut-wrenching and actually cause physiological distress as well as mental anguish for quite some time (years) after for them. I have come to the conclusion that this is possibly the original reference 'to death us do part' bit of marriage vows alludes to. It can really feel like a death to the partner who isn't ready to part, even though there are plenty of other fish left in the world's sea of love and lovers. Wish it was simpler than it really is for everyone! Keep taking care and always keep an eye out for luck, it's very handy and works best when it's appreciated.

      Commenter
      Team player
      Location
      Off field
      Date and time
      September 03, 2014, 12:03PM
  • Jane I saw the program and heard exactly what you said. And yes know what you meant. Unfortunately though I suspect the lack of equality and respect in some relationships today in Australia still exists.

    Commenter
    ian
    Date and time
    September 02, 2014, 5:12PM
    • Your slice of history is cut pretty narrow.

      Commenter
      allie
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 5:33PM
      • How?

        Commenter
        PP
        Date and time
        September 02, 2014, 8:27PM
      • For example; in common law countries for centuries women could retain all prenuptial property and prevent their husband from accessing it. Under common law the assets of a married couple merged and the husband was responsible for the common entity. However, under equity a person, often a woman, could create a trust that held all her assets, and her husband would have no rights to that trust. In our legal system equity trumps common law.

        In Jane Austen novels all the ladies have their incomes, (their 400 a year or 10,000 at 4 percent), held in trust so their husband cannot get it. The men rarely had trusts so their money reverted to their wives on their deaths, the exception being estates that were sometimes entailed to heir of his body, or male heirs.

        If you don't believe that women in the 1700's had any rights, google Elizabeth Montagu, she inherited all her husbands money (which she already managed by the time of his death) and became wealthy in her own right.

        Or try Arthur Phillip, the first governor of NSW. When he was a young lieutenant on half pay he couldn't afford to support a lady wife, so he married a rich woman about 15 years older than he. She set out a prenuptial agreement and trust that retained all property as hers. When the marriage failed he had to repay her all the monies he had spent, and pay her an allowance for life--despite her being wealthier. Divorce was impossible back then except for a handful of the wealthiest people so he had to wait for her death before he could remarry. Before 1857 divorce required an act of parliament and cost around 5,000 pounds.

        I write historical fiction, and like to get the history right.

        Commenter
        Jack Tar
        Date and time
        September 03, 2014, 8:01AM
    • I know friends who use their "furry chequebooks" to get exactly what they want, they use their children as pawns in their desperate attempts to control them as well. That's why divorce can be so acrimonious; at this juncture women often use everything and everyone to get the most they can because they are often not the bread winner, and are uncertain they good get want they want and maintain a lifestyle without their husband or partner. This is also why women often get remarried quickly whilst men will hold out for their "soul mate".

      It's a matter if fact they we prostitute ourselves everyday in marriage, in work and with friends to get what we want, to fit in and to be accepted. The only difference in the professional prostitutes are honest about how they earn their lifestyle.

      MOO

      Commenter
      Mother
      Location
      Australia
      Date and time
      September 02, 2014, 5:36PM

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