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January 7: Heidi Fleiss, Religion and Prostitution

Heidi Fleiss Sent to Prison (1997)
Religion and Prostitution

Heidi Fleiss

It was on this date, January 7, 1997, in Los Angeles, that Heidi Fleiss, known as the "Hollywood Madam," was sentenced to 37 months in prison for cheating on her taxes and laundering prostitution profits. Fleiss spent 21 months in a federal prison in Dublin, California, and was released in 1999. There was talk of a "little black book," which supposedly contained names of top studio executives and other entertainment figures, but Fleiss later admitted it didn't exist.

Prostitution, the crime underlying the crime for which Heidi Fleiss was jailed, has been present in every culture and every period of history. Sacred prostitution, at one time practiced by hierodouloi in the temples of Babylon, Canaan, Syria, Phoenicia, Asia Minor, Armenia, Greece and elsewhere, may have derived from the worship of Mother Earth and fertility. But there was always an air of sensuality mixed with profit associated with the practice, even when "higher" motives were professed.

Although we don't know when the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy was written, its condemnation of raising money for the temple by "whores" and "sodomites" (23:17-18) confirms the practice in early Hebrew history. Several other Old Testament verses (I Kings 14:24, and 15:12; II Kings 23:7) show the practice was widespread in the seventh century BCE.

Customer and a prostitute (with money pouch on wall) illustrated on an ancient Greek wine cup

In Christian times, as any secular study of the history of prostitution will tell you, prostitution was no less prevalent, and often far more so, in Europe. On the one hand, marital infidelity in Ancient Rome was rare in comparison with the general unchastity of medieval Europe, and therefore prostitutes thrived in the classical capital. However, as a percentage of population, Christendom at 5% has it over the pagan world at 3%* — though it was higher for Christian Europe in the Middle Ages.

The Church Fathers and the Councils were hardly taking the front lines to eradicate the profession. In fact, prostitutes flocked to the sides of the Council participants. Three hundred were imported in 1189 to accompany the Crusaders to Palestine, and thousands followed the Sixth Crusade. In medieval Germany, some prostitutes were called "cathedral girls," which is where they plied their trade. As one historian put it, after reviewing the experts on the world's oldest profession, "from the twelfth to the early nineteenth century prostitution was at least as extensive as, and more brazen than, in the ancient world, and incomparably worse than in recent times."**

As for Heidi Fleiss? She turned her life around after her release: like most celebrity criminals, she wrote a book about her career (Pandering). She also released a DVD of sex advice, hosted a radio talk show, and opened a lingerie boutique in 2003 called, appropriately enough, Hollywood Madam. Fleiss, who is Jewish and a vegetarian, made out better than the average prostitute in the U.S., who gets arrested but ends her days badly. As Heidi Fleiss herself said,

I don't recommend prostitution as a career, but if someone wants to do it, let them do it. But let them do it in a safe environment. I think it's wrong that it's illegal everywhere except in Nevada, but at the same time it's the women who are the only ones who are persecuted, prosecuted — they're the ones who suffer. The men are protected, coddled, patted on the back — they even brag about committing a crime. ... I think the laws on prostitution are archaic. ... I think if the U.S. decriminalized and regulated it, then everyone would benefit. By making it illegal, this is where murders, and drugs, and nefarious activity comes in. That's why the women always suffer.†

Perhaps we could take a lesson from the medieval popes who, even during the “reformist” papacy of Sixtus IV (1471-1484), licensed and taxed the trade for its revenue!

* A survey of London, 1800-10, recorded by Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun. ** Joseph McCabe, Story of the World's Oldest Profession, 1932. Works cited by McCabe include Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists, Book 13; Petrarch (Francesco Petrarca, 1304-1374), Letters Without A Title; E. Rodocanachi, Courtisanes et buffons, 1894; Xenophon, Memorable Things; Plato, The Banquet (Plato says Socrates did not require virtue in unmarried men); Pierre Dufour (aka, Paul Lacroix, a Catholic), Histoire de la prostitution, 6 vols., 1851-61; Augustine, De Ordine (declared prostitution a necessary evil), c. 388; Ordericus Vitalis (a monk, 1075-c.1143) Ecclesiastical History, Books 3-5 (describes the spread of sodomy throughout France and England), c. 1141; Max Bauer, Das Liebesleben in der deutschen Vergangenheit, 1924; Henry Duff Traill, ed., Social England, 1903; Arthur W. Calhoun, Social History of the American Family from Colonial Times to the Present, 3 vols., 1917-1919, 1945. † Heidi Fleiss, "Heidi Fleiss: The former Hollywood Madam discusses her life and her new book," from Court TV, interview at FindLaw for the Public website, December 22, 2003.

Originally published January 2004.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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