This assumption of privilege that makes the will or consent of the lower-status woman simply irrelevant is clearly reflected in descriptions of rape in literature, from Andreas Capellanus’s recommendation on how to deal with a peasant woman onwards. (Karras 1996) The Old French pastourelle is a genre in which one basic plot line involves the rape of a shepherdess by a knight. The texts assume that the woman is there for the taking. As Kathryn Gravdal writes, “The pastourelle genre mediates class conflict by displacing it onto a sexual axis where its violence can be directed at the figure of the woman.” (Karras 1996) The consent of the woman is not always irrelevant here: in many of the poems the woman ends up enjoying the rape, even asking the knight to return. Only in about eighteen percent of the poems in the genre does the knight rape the shepherdess; in the others she freely consents. This norm of consent would have created expectations that justified the rape in the other poems. The poems work to naturalize the sexual access aristocratic men had to women of lower social standing.
The heterosexual behavior of men, in literature and in practice, varied according to the social status of the women (and men) involved. (Walkowitz 1980) It is more difficult to determine how poorer men and women felt about elite male sexual privilege. In a community where poor, unattached women did sometimes work as prostitutes on a casual basis in order to make ends meet, this behavior might have been accepted by those around them, and this acceptance might have helped make it possible for men to assume that such women were generally available for sex.
It seems more likely, however, that even lower levels of society accepted the church’s sexual norms and therefore treated women who did not meet those standards with lack of respect. In other words, women of lower social standing were in a double bind: the expectations of their behavior in practice were quite different from those for elite women, but they could still be criticized for not adhering to the same standards as elite women. The degree of respect prostitutes received, or did not receive, from the communities around them provides an illustration.
Prostitutes did not compose a separate subculture, especially since many worked as prostitutes only occasionally or were labeled as such when they were not involved in commercial sex. Nor were they effectively limited to a particular district: legal brothels were in one particular area of each town, and towns attempted to restrict clandestine prostitution to one part of town as well, but this was often not effective. These women lived among and interacted with the rest of the townspeople. Nevertheless the stigma placed upon the prostitute did affect her relations with her contemporaries and was not just a legal fiction. (Karras 1996) The attitude of the authorities, religious and secular, towards prostitution cannot be taken as reflective of the attitude of society in general, but it did have a deep effect on it. Though not necessarily shunned or ostracized, prostitutes were never considered quite respectable.