The Pope has changed his mind about condoms: they can be used after all!
That's what the world's media has decided to splash over the front pages this weekend. ("Pope Benedict's condom U-turn" said the headline over Andrew Brown's blog piece at The Guardian.) They are being scandalously irresponsible as usual: the Pope has said nothing of the kind. Rather, he grudgingly acknowledged, in one answer during a book-length interview, that perhaps in some cases perhaps the use of a condom by a prostitute (una prostituta) might be "a first step toward a moralization, a first act of responsibility, on the way toward recovering awareness of the fact that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants." Absolutely no sign of a Catholic Church volte face on contraception there. But I have a linguistic question: what did he mean when he used the word prostituta?
Some sources this Sunday morning are claiming that the morphosyntactically feminine word prostituta is sex-neutral; others (like the blog commenter Geremia on the National Catholic Register) say it means only "female prostitute". Yet the official translation of the Pope's remark translates it as "male prostitute". The three claims flatly contradict each other. Which is the most defensible, on the basis of linguistic facts?
I do not know the answer (I know relatively little Italian). I ask merely for information. Here is the relevant passage from the forthcoming book-length interview that is the basis for all the stories:
Vi possono essere singoli casi giustificati, ad esempio quando una prostituta utilizza un profilattico, e questo può essere il primo passo verso una moralizzazione, un primo atto di responsabilità per sviluppare di nuovo la consapevolezza del fatto che non tutto è permesso e che non si può far tutto ciò che si vuole. Tuttavia, questo non è il modo vero e proprio per vincere l'infezione dell'Hiv. È veramente necessaria una umanizzazione della sessualità.
As translated in the forthcoming book itself (read it in the Catholic World Report here), the English equivalent is supposed to be this:
There may be a basis in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility, on the way toward recovering an awareness that not everything is allowed and that one cannot do whatever one wants. But it is not really the way to deal with the evil of HIV infection. That can really lie only in a humanization of sexuality.
This is Language Log, not Church Dogma And Sexual Repression Log, so we are not going to get into the moral or religious issues (the comments policy will be enforced in ways as ruthless as those of the Spanish Inquisition). But some of the odd things about the foggy passage just quoted might be relevant to my linguistic puzzle. One is the fact that using a condom generally means putting one on one's own penis, and if that is to count as an assumption of responsibility, Pope Benedict must be envisaging an infected male prostitute whose service consists of active penetration and ejaculation of a passively participating client. I know very little about the world of prostitution, but it is my understanding that it is much more typical for it to be the other way round, in which case the prostitute would not be using the condom, but asking the client to use it, and the motivation would be the selfish one of protecting the prostitute's own health, hence not an assumption of responsibility at all.
Then again, the remark comes from an old man who knows even less about paying for sex than I do, and perhaps he is just befuddled and the issue of who does what to whom in a prostitution encounter is irrelevant.
So back to the lexical question itself. Tell me, you readers with a native knowledge of Standard Italian: is there a morphosyntactically masculine word prostituto that he could have used instead? And is the word prostituta (i) semantically feminine, (ii) semantically neutral, or (iii) semantically masculine? Because if (i) or (ii) is the case, I simply do not see where the decision to render it as "male prostitute" came from.