In 1444 King Charles VII named Agnès Sorel his royal mistress, the first woman officially designated as such in France. In exchange for sexual favors, she received enormous rewards, her title an acknowledgment of her sexual prowess. The king’s generosity toward her, however, contrasted sharply with his repressive policies toward the sex trade in general. While he was cavorting with Agnès, “girls and women of ill repute” were rounded up and forced to work in state-run brothels, with the government taking a large cut of the profits.
In other words, the king’s policy toward prostitution was riddled with hypocrisy. That’s nothing new. Granted, Sorel was not strictly speaking a prostitute, but sex was her commodity. As Kate Lister argues: “What is meant by a ‘prostitute’ can vary considerably but however [the word] is deployed it is tangled in assumptions about a woman’s morality and worth.” The higher up the social scale, the less shame is attached to the woman who sells her body. The nomenclature reflects this hierarchy: mistress, courtesan, concubine, harlot, whore. The “prostitute” is judged according to the wealth and power of her patron.
Last year Lister published A Curious History of Sex, a delightful combination of serious research and irreverent commentary. That book and her popular Whores of Yore website have established her as a leading (or at least the most outspoken) authority on the history of sex. Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts (Lister loves alliteration) is a more serious book about the history of sex for sale. It’s still occasionally funny, but its main purpose is to uncover how “stereotypes, stigma and sensationalism have obscured the lived experience of people selling sex”.
Lister begins with the legend of Shamhat the harlot, the earliest surviving story of transactional sex, told in The Epic of Gilgamesh around 1800BC. She concludes with a discussion of the Charter for Prostitutes’ Rights, adopted at the World Whores’ Congress in 1985, part of a campaign to decriminalize the sex trade. Along the way, she travels through classical Greece, medieval London, Renaissance Italy, Edo Japan, the Qing dynasty, 19th-century France, Nazi Germany and other places. Wherever she goes, she encounters a similar story.
Around the world and across the ages reactions to the sex trade have remained remarkably the same. Sex has always been a popular commodity, but one that provokes shame and censure. Governments, fretting about the trade, have “moved through various stages of repression, toleration, legalisation, control, moral outrage and abolition, before circling back again”. The range of Lister’s scholarship is impressive, but the plethora of evidence she provides merely reinforces a few recurring and disturbing truths.
During phases of repression, governments have tried to eradicate the trade by imposing severe deterrents — on sellers rather than customers. In medieval London, for instance, women accused of “common harlotry” had their heads shaved and were paraded through the streets wearing a striped hood. They were then taken to Cock Lane where they were forced to sit in a thewe, a pillory specially designed for women. Harsh though that might seem, the punishment pales in comparison with Bologna, where a 1259 statute held that any woman caught selling sex would have her nose cut off.
More recently, the Nazis sent prostitutes to concentration camps such as Ravensbrück, where they were forced to work in camp brothels. In Maoist China, prostitution was seen as inherently capitalist; the guilty were sent to re-education camps where they were often sexually abused. A common punishment throughout the ages has been to banish “fallen women”. Between 1718 and 1775 “prostitute” was the second most common category among British women transported to the colonies. Outcasts, separated from friends and family, would become even more likely to resort to prostitution, especially since the wages of sin have always been more lucrative than what could be earned in a sweatshop.
Stated simply, repression has never worked because demand never dies. Nor does poverty, the single most important motivator for women who enter the trade. Punishment forces prostitution underground, into the seedier parts of cities. In 14th-century London sex could be bought in Gropecunt Lane, Codpiece Alley, Whores’ Nest and Sluts’ Hole. Prostitutes in 18th-century China could be found on “lob-lob boats” in the harbors of big cities. San Francisco and New York had their aptly named Tenderloin districts. Venetians in the 14th century forced prostitutes into an area called Castelletto, which was accessed by the Ponte delle Tette — or Bridge of Tits. Between clients they fortified themselves with pasta flavored with puttanesca sauce, which, translated literally, means “cooked in the whorish fashion”.
Recognizing the futility of repression, Napoleon tried tolerance instead. Prostitutes were licensed and subjected to bi-monthly vaginal examinations. Strict rules about where brothels could operate and how they could advertise were instituted. Pimping was outlawed. In truth, there was nothing new about this approach; in the 15th century the bishop of Winchester forced the “stewhouses” to conform to 36 regulations governing the sex trade, including the food that could be served in brothels and the opening hours on religious holidays. Women were inspected for the “sickness of burning”.
Between clients prostitutes fortified themselves with pasta flavored with puttanesca sauce, which, translated literally, means “cooked in the whorish fashion.”
While tolerance of this sort was undoubtedly more humane than cutting off noses, it never succeeded in regulating the trade. As Lister argues, all efforts to police prostitution fell at the same hurdle: “It is very difficult to define what counts as prostitution.” A brothel is easy to identify, but not all “prostitutes” worked in one. “What about kept women, professional mistresses or the countless women who were happy to occasionally top up their income by indulging the lusts of wealthy men?” Regulations and inspection, in any case, applied only to suppliers, seldom to customers.
Lister is a historian, but also an enthusiastic advocate for the rights of sex workers. Her two roles occasionally clash; she doesn’t pretend to objectivity in this book. That hardly matters, however, because she uses her knowledge to expose an ancient injustice, namely the persecution of workers in an industry that society deems both reprehensible and essential.
Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts is a fascinating book about a subject too often swept under the rug. It’s also very beautiful, magnificently designed and packed with hundreds of superb photos. The illustrations are appropriate because sex is, after all, an intensely visual thing. This is a coffee-table book that packs a powerful bite. There are erotic drawings from China, photos of the “seat of love” that the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) installed at his favorite brothel in Paris and reproductions from Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, an almanac of London’s sex workers published from 1757 to 1795. The most intriguing illustrations, however, are those of prostitutes looking entirely normal.
Lister’s book is by no means comprehensive, but it doesn’t need to be. The same tale of hypocrisy repeats itself ad infinitum. “It is testament to the sheer resilience of the sex trade,” she argues, “that the London authorities have yet to find a way to stamp it out despite over a thousand years of trying.” The same could be said of Beijing, New York or Berlin. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time for a new approach.