The Commodification of Sex in Roxana

This blog post is in response to the first half of Defoe’s Roxana and was posted nine days late (due 1/26, posted 2/4).

In the past few years, the issue of protecting sex workers’ rights has garnered much attention and become an important cause for many feminists and advocates for women’s rights. Numerous global organizations have offered their support for the decriminalization of sex work, including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, and the International Labour Organization (Murphy). The possibility of passing such legislation has sparked debate and controversy across the world, and the logistics of doing so have proven to be quite complicated. Even so, as a feminist, I believe strongly in the notion behind the call for these policy changes—a woman’s (or man’s) body belongs to her, and she should be free to do with it as she pleases. If that involves exchanging sex for money, then she should have the right to do so without any legal ramifications.

When I first read the synopsis on the back of the Penguin edition of Roxana, I was under the impression that the protagonist would demonstrate an impressive agency and empowering determination to provide for herself: “Embarking on a career as a courtesan and kept woman, the glamour of her new existence soon becomes too enticing and Roxana passes from man to man in order to maintain her lavish society parties, luxurious clothes and amassed wealth” (Blewett). Honestly, she sounded like kind of a badass. Being aware of the current controversy surrounding the decriminalization of sex work, I was interested to see how Roxana’s commodification of her self played out in the novel. I’ve read Defoe in the past, so I expected Roxana to face moral consequences for her actions, but I hoped that the narrative leading up to her inevitable damnation would be at least a little bit interesting. I was disappointed. By having Roxana tell her story retrospectively, the entire narrative is overshadowed by her own regret and Defoe’s heavy-handed moralizing. Before recounting the moment in which she slept with the landlord/jeweler/quasi-husband, Roxana tells the reader:

Had I now had my Sences about me, and had my Reason not been overcome by the powerful Attraction of so kind, so beneficent a Friend; had I consulted Conscience and Virtue, I shou’d have repell’d this Amy, however faithful and honest to me in other things, as a Viper, and Engine of the Devil… The ignorant Jade’s Argument, That he had brought me out of the Hands of the Devil, by which she meant the Devil of Poverty and Distress, shou’d have been a powerful Motive to me, not to plunge myself into the Jaws of Hell, and into the Power of the real Devil, in Recompence for that Deliverance… I did what my own Conscience convinc’d me at the very Time I did it, was horribly unlawful, scandalous, and abominable. (Defoe 72-73)

The language and tone with which Roxana describes this and her other relationships with men make it clear that she does not look back on her decisions with pride, and she is quick to assert that she was equally ashamed at the time that she did these things. The nature of Roxana’s exchanges with the men who take care of her remove her entirely from any conversation about the rights of sex workers as they are being discussed today. One of the most important aspects of the push for the decriminalization of sex work is that it be made explicitly clear that it only apply to cases of consensual sex. In the first half of the novel, at least, Roxana’s decision to sleep with men is directly related to a sense of obligation or a need to express her gratitude for them having saved her from poverty (Defoe 68-69). The fact that the men give her money and assistance first, without her soliciting it in any way, puts Roxana in a position of unequal power. They have already helped her, and now she feels as though she has no choice but to pay them back with the one thing she has: her body. Defoe skirts around this issue and tries to suggest that this isn’t really a case of coercion (Defoe 68), but I think that’s bullshit.

Works Cited

Blewett, David. Roxana. London: Penguin, 1987. Print. Back cover.

Defoe, Daniel. Roxana. Ed. David Blewett. London: Penguin, 1987. Print.

Murphy, Catherine. “Sex Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights.” Amnesty International. N.p., 14 Aug. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2016.

One thought on “The Commodification of Sex in Roxana

  1. So, do you think that the novel functions, in part, to shape how a patriarchal culture understands women’s sexual agency? I think this might lead us to some really interesting discussions about the audience of the book. Another thing we might consider is the relative weight we are meant to give, as readers, to the moments where she regrets/moralizes/condemns herself–I’m thinking particularly about the ending as a perfect example. We are told that she “fell into a dreadful Course of Calamity” (329), which she sees as remuneration for her various “Crime[s]” (330), but this statement occupies a miniscule fraction of the entirety of the novel–which is a very exciting, salacious tale. I am reminded of Defoe’s protestations in the preface… Ultimately, those two points aren’t unrelated, though, which we can talk about!

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