Performing Prostitution: Agency and Discourse, Actresses and Whores (betty Boutell, Lydia Thompson)

Kirsten Wynne Pullen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    This dissertation examines historical and contemporary cultural struggles over the elision between actress and whore. Focusing on the first generation of late seventeenth-century English actresses, the first generation of mid-nineteenth century American female burlesque performers, and the first generation of American prostitutes' rights activists, I describe significant nodal moments in the discursive formation of the actress/prostitute. Betty Boutell, a Restoration actress specializing in breeches is roles, is labeled a whore despite a dearth of hard evidence. I argue that historiography is complicit in this designation; anecdotes, lampoons, and satires about are taken as historical fact and recited in traditional histories of the Restoration, offering little opportunity to narrativize her as exercising even limited agency. Burlesquer Lydia Thompson is also historicized as a sexually transgressive women. She battled to intervene in her own discursive representation, resorting to theatrical performance and physical violence when official channels were closed to her. The contemporary prostitutes' rights movement has reversed the trope of the actress/prostitute in order to insist that prostitutes are 'like' actresses, a strategy that reframes the discourse in order to legitimate sex work. In addition, some sex workers use performance strategies and acting techniques in order to both mitigate the whore stigma and keep an internal sense of self inviolate. From a broadly Foucauldian perspective, my theoretical trajectory sets models of performance and performativity in productive tension. Using archival research, interviews with several local sex industry workers, close readings of film and Internet texts, and critical engagement with feminist theories of sexuality, I argue that though these 'transgressive' women are marginalized both by the societies in which they live and historical/academic inquiry into their lives, they negotiate agency through the performance of femininity, fashioning a discursive space where women's sexuality is neither aberrant nor oppressed.
    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)1274-1577
    Number of pages304
    JournalDissertation Abstracts International. Section A: Humanities and Social Sciences
    Issue number04
    StatePublished - Oct 1 2001


    • WOMEN'S studies
    • HISTORY, Modern

    Fingerprint Dive into the research topics of 'Performing Prostitution: Agency and Discourse, Actresses and Whores (betty Boutell, Lydia Thompson)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this