“Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale” by Kate Lister; Thames & Hudson (256 pages, $35)
Vice has its price.
As long as humans have been having sex, they’ve been selling it. Usually, it only fetched a few dollars. But very rarely, it brought the kind of rich man’s favor that created courtesans.
Whatever the final cost, humans have a way of turning carnal attraction into financial transactions. And Kate Lister’s “Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale” suggests they always will.
Lister is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University in England, and couples her academic skills with a lively style. Her ongoing online research into human sexuality is at thewhoresofyore.com. She acknowledges that sex work can lead to exploitation. Still, she insists that it can also provide freedom.
“How we write about sex work, indeed how we think and talk about it, matters,” Lister writes. “It might not be the ‘oldest’ (profession), but as this book, and many others, show, it is a very ancient one. Its workers are deserving of rights and respect, of being genuinely heard and seen, rather than stereotyped and silenced.”
Lister begins her study of prostitution in the ancient world, where the line between the sacred and the profane was thin. In Babylon of 2,500 years ago, a wealthy woman would honor Aphrodite by going to the goddess’ temple and meekly sitting on the floor, waiting for any man to toss a few coins in her lap.
“It does not matter what sum the money is, the woman will never refuse, for that would be a sin,” the Greek historian Herodotus wrote. “She follows the first man who casts it and rejects no one. After their intercourse, having discharged her sacred duty to the goddess, she goes away to her home.”
Sex was part of worship in many cultures, but it was also a thriving business in ancient Greece and Rome.
Prostitution was regulated and taxed. There were specialists for every kink. Consider that the Greek language had more than 200 words describing the trade. At the top of the scale were hetaira, courtesans to wealthy men; at the bottom, the streetwalkers known as porne.
When archaeologists began unearthing Pompeii in the mid-1700s, they were shocked to find ancient brothels and pornographic frescoes. King Francis of Naples was so offended that he ordered some items to be locked away.
Since, broader minds have often prevailed. And so, translating the graffiti, we now know that some women were paid in livestock. “Felicla the slave” cost two asses, while the desirable Epafra fetched 10. We know that there were male prostitutes at work, too; one of them, Paris, is described as beautiful.
As Christianity rose, though, pagan permissiveness disappeared. Prostitutes were denigrated as disease-ridden. Cities passed laws restricting where they could work and mandating health inspections. Still, few nations moved to outlaw the industry; it brought in too much money.
Even the church profited. England’s Bishop of Winchester controlled over 90 acres of land filled with taverns and bear – not beer – gardens, where animals fought to the death. Prostitution was regulated, and pimping was outlawed. Women worked out of “stew houses” under the supervision of madams.
The arrangement existed until Henry VIII broke with the Vatican and seized the Church’s property. In 1546, he gave the “dissolute and miserable” women of the stew houses 11 days to find other lines of work. Many just moved their trade to the streets.
“You have put down the stews, but how is that matter amended?” the royal chaplain soon complained. “You have but changed the place and not taken the whoredom away… I hear say there is now in London more than ever.”
Bordellos remained legal in much of Catholic Europe, however. The Church considered illicit sex a sin but better than the alternatives. If men couldn’t patronize prostitutes, they might turn to other men’s wives or other men.
Prostitution was “a great evil,” one theologian acknowledged, “but if it were to be removed a great good would be eliminated, because there would be more adultery, more sodomy, which would be much worse.”
In Italy, prostitutes not only flourished, but also created lasting cuisine. Neapolitan bordellos served up cheap and hearty pasta puttanesca – literally, “pasta cooked in the whorish fashion.” Tiramisu was another whorehouse innovation created to “revive flagging energy levels.”
The very beautiful could even sometimes find respectability. Some sex workers modeled for artists; others became the mistresses of wealthy men. Imperia Cognati, known as the Queen of Courtesans, lived in a palazzo and posed for Raphael. She counted two banking moguls and a papal secretary among her patrons.
France legalized prostitution outright in 1802, with Parisian madams soon paying as much attention to the elegance of their maisons de tolerance as the city’s chefs did to haute cuisine. Le Chabanais, founded in 1878, boasted luxurious furnishings and themed suites, such as “The Hindu Room.”
Guy de Maupassant and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were regular visitors, but its most loyal patron was England’s Prince Albert. Dubbed Dirty Bertie, the lusty Prince of Wales kept a private suite at Le Chabanais, replete with custom-made furniture. One, an ornate “seat of love,” was designed to accommodate the portly royal and two vigorous playmates.
When women had few opportunities beyond marriage or a nunnery, bordellos could offer a chance for financial independence. Still, it wasn’t all velvet couches and chilled champagne. Around the world, some women were little more than sex slaves, sold into prostitution by their parents.
In 19th-century America, sex work was often divided along cultural lines. In continental, sophisticated New Orleans, establishments in the red-light district, Storyville, featured fine food, jazz and published pamphlets cataloging the charms of each working woman. In the rougher, wilder West, women sold sex out of tents.
Typically, both approaches drew complaints from progressive reformers and conservative clergymen. But the demand for female companionship was huge, and plenty of women were willing to meet it. What should local officials do? “If I send away all the loose females,” one Louisiana governor complained, “there will be no women left here at all.”
Twentieth-century America soon saw things differently. Social activists portrayed sex workers as victims in need of rescue. Government agencies decried bordellos as cesspools of disease. Although Nevada eventually took the European approach, regulating prostitution, the rest of the nation returned to its Puritan roots.
Selling sex was illegal – period. Also shameful.
“Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts” takes a more benign view. Sometimes even a blinkered one. Lister doesn’t spend much time on the vast criminal world of unwilling sex workers — women and girls forced into prostitution, trafficked across borders, and abused.
Instead, she argues, whether you agree with their choice, most women in the sex industry are making that choice themselves. They do not need your approval. They do, though, need a justice system that doesn’t aid in their exploitation.
“We are all selling something,” Lister writes. “But throughout history sex workers have been punished, shunned, marginalized and ignored because they sell sex, rather than their labor in factories or farms. It has taken thousands of years, but sex workers have finally created space to speak for themselves... (to demand) the right to work without harassment or abuse.