This paper reexamines the stories of penitent women in early monastic sources and proposes that these are not stories of penitence but rather stories of women forced into the sex slave industry who overcame their devastating forced conditions and preserved their faith, which secured their rescue from bondage. They are heroines not penitents.
Benedicta Ward’s Harlots of the Desert, A Study of Repentance in early Monastic Sources is an excellent example of a scholarly, as well church, view of stories of repentant women that needs to be reexamined. To prove the argument the paper will focus on the stories of three women rescued from brothels by three famous monastic figures: Thaïs (rescued by Paphnutius), Paësia (rescued by John the Dwarf), and Mary (rescued by her uncle, Abba Abraham). These stories primarily portray the heroism of the saintly male characters who come to rescue these fallen women. I will argue that these women did not choose to be prostitutes but were rather forced into sex slavery to repay the debt of their families and that the rescue efforts followed the guidelines set by the Theodosian Code (4,6,3; 15,8; NTh 18; and laws of debt). The male characters either responded to requests from these women to come to their rescue or were obligated to act based on the ecclesial obligations set by Roman law. These women persevered in their faith and worked hard to save themselves from their forced enslavement and thus deserve to be portrayed as heroines rather than penitents.