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Prostitutes and Pink Poets: Queer Futurism in 1900's Italy

Published onDec 01, 2022
Prostitutes and Pink Poets: Queer Futurism in 1900's Italy

In the modern era, intimacy has become understood in a strictly utilitarian sense. As sentimentality is increasingly emphasized as the center of sexual relationships, desire has fallen to the wayside. Marriage and sexual relationships are understood purely as a means to produce posterity, devoid of genuine connection under a futuristic, heteronormative framework. When considering the propagation of these ideas, a utilitarian understanding of intimacy excludes both sex workers and queer bodies for similar reasons: those who engage in sexual acts for pleasure or welfare alone are seen as deviant and increasingly stigmatized. In response to these problematic understandings of intimate relationships, many queer people and allies have historically turned to artistic expression in order to contribute to “queered” understandings of sexual desire. Sex workers and those who fall outside of a typical heteronormative framework are liberated sexually by celebrating desire and sophistication. Subversive, avant-garde art in early 1900’s Italy became a popular form of resisting these overarching norms, helping to redefine gender norms for both queer bodies and sex workers.

Sex Workers: A Contact Point for Counterculture

When it comes to critically discussing sex work in the U.S., the most glaring issue is that most scholarship treats it as an issue isolated from disciplines other than gender studies and feminist discourse. In reality, the body of the sex worker is “the contact point for the contact point for histories of racialized repression, gender oppression, economic stratification, colonial projects, and the carceral regime, all at once”.1 Accordingly, this chapter will attempt to interrogate representations of prostitution in literature from a holistic perspective that considers the ways in which these works have created the politics necessary for new social movements and political progress, a conversation which centers queerness to seek to understand sexual liberation. This chapter will center the experiences of both queer people and sex workers, neither of which has gathered much attention from disciplines outside of those traditionally tasked with examining feminist sociology.

Reproductive Futurism and the Social Order

Utilitarianism being weaponized against queer bodies and sex workers is far from a new practice. Human culture has centered sexual relationships since before even recorded history, and as a result those who do not seek traditional sexual satisfaction have always been marginalized.2 That is, until Europeans in the nineteenth century suddenly thrust the prostitute into the central discourse of literature and art. Rather than considering the implications of a lack of reproduction on behalf of sex workers, forward-thinkers in cities such as Paris, Milan, and Florence suddenly became fascinated with placing sex workers into an artistic context. It was this shift which created a space for queer expression of desires alternative to heteronormative sexualities.3 These “Pink Poets” founded a new form of resistance to sexual repression, one which centered popular culture and self-expression in order to popularize Futurist ideas of reclaiming desire and sexuality. The Pink Poets sought to undermine those who promoted “reproductive futurism” and the symbol of the child, ideals they saw as tyrannical and repressive for queer people and sex workers: “[At] the heart of my polemical engagement with the cultural text of politics and the politics of cultural texts lies a simple provocation: that queerness names the side of those not “fighting for the children,” the side outside the consensus which all politics confirms the absolute value of reproductive futurism... [so that] queerness ... figures outside and beyond its political symptoms, the place of the social order’s death drive.”4 In response to this utilitarian view of sex, the Pink Poets celebrated lust as the center of sexual relationships. Lust became a counterpoint to antiqueer politics, whereby the physical desire of each body becomes the engine for change and sexual freedom. In Valentine de Saint-Point’s 1913 “Manifesto of Lust,” the figure of the prostitute is centered as an emblem of the carnal drive, sentimentality positioned opposite lust, while individuals are encouraged to serve only themselves within sexual encounters. Gender, occupation, and identity itself all play second fiddle to desire, liberating those who found themselves at the margins of the traditional heterosexual experience. Just one year earlier, in in her 1912 “Manifesto of the Futurist Woman”, de Saint-Point proclaimed: “the woman who retains man through her tears and her sentimentality is inferior to the prostitute who incites her man, through bragging, to retain his domination over the lower depths of the cities… at least she cultivates an energy that could serve better causes.”5 Through this lens, the rejection of sentimentality is turned into a set of warrior values, embodied by queer people and sex workers alike.

Deconstruction of the Christian Rite

Inspired by de Saint-Point, Italo Tavolato built upon her works with an open declaration of queer warfare in a March 15, 1913 edition of Lacerba, a magazine which had become popular for the Italian modernists to engage in ongoing dialogue with one another. Tavolato, another infamous Pink Poet, parodied a traditional religious tirade against moralism: “I believe that a score of vices is worth a hundred churches and a thousand redemptions, I believe that coitus is an intellectually and morally superior action to the creation of a new ethic, with all the strength of my soul I believe: in the duty not to impoverish in moral suggestion; in carnal communion that vivifies the spirit; in the remission of virtues, in earthly life. Amen.”6 This excerpt is just part of the extremely inflammatory use of religious motifs to express the counterculture of the modernist movement, even ending with “Amen” mock the Christian rite. While facing the death penalty for sacrilege, Tavolato flips traditional Christian values on their head by replacing the Holy Child of God, a symbol of reproductive futurism, with encouragement of coitus for the sake of pleasure alone. The central ideas of a religion which upholds sex for reproductive purposes only are queered, whereby the tenets of Christianity are replaced by desire. Tavolato goes on to compare marriage to long-term prostitution, whereby the wife is paying for a prostitute for life when she enters into a pact of matrimony. Here he not only destabilizes traditional gender roles, but offers a realm of love and sexual desire completely devoid of reproductive futurism: queer in its entirety. De Saint-Point and Tavolato were the harbingers of Queer Futurism, seeking sexual fulfillment and liberation in the future by upending popular culture and tradition.

Queer Futurism was a movement originating in early 1900’s Italy which ended up being extremely forward thinking. Through the work of the Pink Poets, the prostitute and queer body came to serve as the antithesis of Reproductive Futurism. Sex workers act as the antithesis to tradition, allowing proponents of sexual liberation to toy with traditional sex and gender roles. Through the propagation of works which sought to popularize desire as the center of sexual relations, the Pink Poets were able to establish a cultural and artistic movement which persists today.

Works Cited

Carslisle, Vanessa. “Take Me With You: Critical Encounters with Sex Work Literature.” Faculty of the USC Graduate School, University of Southern California, August 2017.

Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke University Press, 2004.

Jackson, Melanie, and Leslie Esther. “Queer Milk.” L200 Politics, June 2018.

Saint-Point, Valentine de. “The Manifesto of Futurist Woman (Response to F. T. Marinetti),” 1912.

Tavolato, Italo. “Grande Serata Futurista.” Lacerba, March 1913. Translated from Italian by Michael Duzyk. The original Italian reads: Credo credo credo che una ventina di vizi valga cento chiese e mille redenzioni, credo che il coito sia azione intelletualmente e moralmente superiore alla creazione d’una nuova etica, con tutta la forza dell’anima mia credo: nel dovere di non impoverire nella suggestione morale; nella comunione carnale che vivifica lo spirito; nella remissione delle virtù, nella vita terrena. Amen.

Van Ness, Emma. “(No) Queer Futurism: Prostitutes, Pink Poets, and Politics in Italy from 1913-1918.” Carte Italiane, 2010.

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