From Ishtar to Harriette Wilson: A Scholarly Review of Prostitution Through the Ages

Rachael Jennings


“She distinguishes herself from all other merchants, no matter what goods or other saleable services are on offer, for the prostitute is all things at once.”

—Walter Benjamin



Modern Images of the Sex Industry

In March of this year, a courtroom in Ontario greenlighted brothels—meaning that sex workers will now be able to hire drivers, bodyguards and support staff and work indoors in brothels (according to the National Post). The decision has brought more attention to the people who engage in the sex trade. Who are sex workers exactly? What is their cultural history and identity?


Julia Roberts’ famous flash of teeth—head tilted back in laughter—in Pretty Woman; scandal built on images of businessmen and streetwalkers—juxtaposed opposites; an Instagramed image of a window in the Red Light District: Our foundational knowledge of what it is to be a prostitute is framed in a series of images.


What does it mean to be a prostitute? In terms of nomenclature, where are the distinguishing lines drawn, and where do societal representations, judgments and perceptions of “harlots” shift? When does seduction, service or servitude become the primary motivation for a woman/man of the night—and how, specifically, do different cultures remember or revere these individuals?


The concept of service—the sex worker’s role in a kind of service industry—is akin to another cultural and societal role: the hostess. From the bartender to the stewardess to the innkeeper to the entertainer—from Mrs. Dalloway on—she offers a reward and human gift to her guests. Like the sex worker, she offers both herself and a performance for the stranger. Her performative discourse begins at the door—before one even enters the anteroom of a house full of props and purpose—she welcomes the guest into a realm that is a mask of its true form, just as the sex worker shifts her/his identity at the door.   


In “The Game of Hearts,” Leslie Blanch’s introduction to famous Regency-period courtesan Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs, Blanch writes: “Harriette’s own evocation of the Regency scene is not so much a panorama as an interior with figures. And if at times we seem to be looking through the keyhole, it serves to sharpen our interest.” Through the keyhole, through the lens of a filtered iPhone, through the sharp image of an online news source, what deeper images can we find of the hostess, the harlot, and her intersection?



Hospitality and Identity

Before defining the English’s “harlot,” an elaboration on “the hostess” becomes pertinent: After all, a harlot is, in many ways and across many cultures, a hostess to her people, her gods and her time. In Tracy McNulty’s The Hostess: Hospitality, Femininity, and the Expropriation of Identity, she notes that in almost every Western religion, hospitality is “the attribute or special domain of the principle of divinity”; that in ancient Greece, most overtly or notably, “hospitality is religion.”


In “L’hospitalité,” from Le vocabularie des institutions indo-européennes, Volume I, Émile Benveniste illuminates the linguistic complication of the concept of hospitality. The Latin term hospites comes from two roots: hostis meaning “guest” and pet- or pot- meaning “master.” The conclusions are contradictory: the hostess is both guest and master, but the complication comes in the root pet- or pot-, which originally signified personal identity.


McNulty takes this information and clarifies that the pot- root that indicates identity and mastery grows to mean, more precisely, “the man [or woman] himself, the only person who matters.” She goes on to write that when combined, the roots hostis and potis give a somewhat opposing picture of hospitality: “a social or legal relationship defined by reciprocity and exchange, and despotic power, mastery, and personal identity … The linking of hostis and potis suggests that hospitality implies not only the power of mastery, but power over the guest, by virtue of his [or her] debt or obligation to the host.”   


This definition of hospitality serves as an understanding of the role of a harlot, in that, sex workers are not powerless in their roles as such. In fact, the power of desire, expectation and reciprocity that they exert over guests—built upon both their mastery of that guest, tied, by virtue of their debt to that guest—is hauntingly similar.


A World of Names & Namelessness

In the way that the hostess is complicated in her identity and power, harlots are— historically—equally complex. Take Ishtar, Mesopotamian goddess, who was considered both a virgin and a whore (Nils Johan Ringdal, Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution, 24). She, like her priestesses, quadishtu, who served as metaphysical therapists and aids to men with sexual problems, was revered for both her purity and promiscuity. Given the previous image of Pretty Woman’s Julia Roberts, or a Regency-period courtesan, there are vast differences in social regard, presentation and role.


There are more than three hundred different words for “prostitute” in late Sanskrit . The English word whore derives from the Old English word hōra, from the Germanic work for “prostitute”—kohoron, which derives from the proto-Indo-European root meaning "desire.” That same root for “desire” has also created the Latin caritas—meaning “love, charity,” and the French cher—meaning “dear, expensive” (“Call Girls,” Roberta Perkins and Francis Lovejoy). The desire—as with the hostess—is inexplicably connected to the gift, service and obligation.



Ancient Greece saw the highest-paid prostitutes as the first true free women; deichtrides were girls on display, who were almost all slaves and lived in dirt floors and with public contempt; auletrides were song-and-dance girls who possessed some skills and accomplishments and were free; Hetæræ were freely moving “companions,” who were both well-known and limited in number, enjoying even more freedom than most wives did, according to  Ringdal.


Ringdal also explains that China’s Tang Dynasty knew three classes of prostitutes: The highest-ranking were well-educated courtesans; the middle were the prostitutes of bordellos and wine bars; and the ch’ing-lou or ch’ang-lou  were the poor girls who roamed the streets, often banned from certain provinces.


Medieval Europe’s harlots were clearly identifiable: a professional female sex worker was described in Latin as a meretrix; Italy hosted puta or puttna; France was home to garce, fille joyeuse, fillete or ribaud. England’s strumpet or harlot were called dirne in Germany.


According to Griffin, in 16th century Europe, the courtesan emerged, derived from the Italian for a man of the royal court, la cortegiana. The courtesan was flirtatious, sensual and “brilliant”: “Beneath a thin veneer of intellectual associations, ‘brilliance,’ is fundamentally a sensual word … In this sense, it can be said of almost any successful courtesan that she was remarkably brilliant.”


In Japan, male prostitutes were kagema; love actors yaro; the highest-paid tayu, and they were praised in songs, novels  and  haikus; cheap brothels hosted hashi girls; bathing houses held yuna women.



Though part of the complexity in describing a “harlot,” “yaro,” or “ribaud” is in the word itself, it is also in the breadth and depth of cultural and societal ranks of prostitutes, of motivation, reason and specific role. Prostitutes were girls who, who were forced by rape, empty pockets, fathers or lovers to become their profession; they were pure vessels for goddesses; they were and are a host or hostesses, with colorful and intricate paths and professional roles.



The Culture of the Sex Industry

In Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution, Nils Johan Ringdal writes that prostitution has been the predominant solution for the social pattern of male promiscuity, which has produced—in turn—“an ideological by-product, a bipolar concept of femininity—the madonna/whore opposition, which instantly clouds and distorts both men’s and women’s understandings of the two genders.”


Geographically and historically, prostitution has surged significantly during times in which an area experiences a notable growth in population, a transformation in urbanization or economic demographics: from the Roman Empire to Western Europe in the 1800s, America’s Wild West days, 18th-century Japan, to current day Southeast Asia.


In varying countries, climates and times, sex workers were and are, as Griffin writes in The Book of the Courtesans: A Catalogue of Their Virtues, “inseparable from the demi-mondes [they inhabit]—slightly rebellious, risqué, or naughty worlds, alternate societies where a certain sophistication, including carnal knowledge that was banned from proper society, was allowed to thrive.”


However, could the harlot—like the hostess—be a projection of what society wanted and wants to be? Whether loose, animal and instinct-driven, chastely virtuous, or even brilliant and sophisticated, different times and places know and knew different versions of the harlot.


Artist Édouard Manet’s masterpiece from 1877, Nana, depicts a prostitute in silk undergarments and high heels doing her makeup, yet pausing to look at either the artist himself or her guest. She is based on a prostitute Manet read about in a piece by Émile Zola; she is “inviting and calculating, aloof and frank, filled with distance despite all the intimacy,” according to Ringdal.



Gifts for Gifts: Money and the Sex Industry

Finances, however—as they are such a part of most demi-mondes—were and are one of the most common reasons for motivation Griffin explains. In Europe, peasant families depended on the labor of women and children alike to support the family. Though it is often omitted from history—apart from nobility or women of the bourgeoisie—women were active professionals: seamstresses, weavers, charwomen, chambermaids—they earned wages. .


However, even while working 16 hours a day, many could not live with the slim wages they brought home, which were only a fraction of those that men earned. In 19th-century France, the word for a woman working in the garment industry, which derived from her work uniform, a dull muslin dress, was grisette. Into the mid-20th century, dictionaries still defined grisette as “a woman of easy virtue.”  Meager wages of 1.5 francs a day were not enough; for these women—as with many in a developing world—the choice fell between supporting oneself with a husband or finding alternate means on the streets; many courtesans in this period began as grisettes Griffin notes.


In Michael Noer’s Forbes article “The Economics of Prostitution,” he writes that “according to data assembled from a wide variety of times and places, ranging from mid-15th-century France to Malaysia of the late 1990s, prostitutes make more money—in some cases, a lot more money—than do working girls who, well, work for a living.” The insensitivity of his last  statement forgives the sexist wages that women have historically lost to men with higher-cut checks. However, Noer’s article does answer the question of why sex workers can earn so much.


Noer cites economist Gary Becker’s "A Theory of Marriage," in which Becker describes the sex industry as it compares to marriage, especially for wealthy men who can enjoy high-priced call girls as “a positive sorting of nonmarket traits with nonhuman wealth.” Relatedly, the key is the nonmarket traits or human, fleshly exchange that exists in prostitution. Perhaps, as the grisette could make a bit of money with her market trade in the garment factory, she could always make more by selling something that could not be as marketably created or traded: herself.


Does this extend into the role of the hostess? In a way, indeed, the human welcome of a hostess beats out the echo of an empty reception hall. The human touch, elegance, quirkiness and invitation of a hostess is marketed—and yet—not as marketable as a “Welcome” sign; one is easily replaceable, and the other uniquely replaceable. The significance is that—when compared—the “Welcome” sign never replaces the welcoming hostess.


Further, there is a comparison to be made in terms of social standing. A sex worker can change her social standing—can purchase pearls to replace her muslin dress—with earnings made through her exchange. She can buy her way up in social standing, just as many of Europe’s 19th-century courtesans did, as—beyond beauty—these women were prized for their intelligence, wit, and style. In fact, “courtesans did not follow the fashion; they were the fashion,” according to Courtesans: Money, Sex and Fame in the Nineteenth Century.


Though the hostess does not  universally gain monetary benefit from inviting guests, she does buy social capital. Obligated to her guests—and master over them—the great hostess leaves her visitors full of the desire to return. She is recognized and afforded the luxury of social reverence, which accrues a wealth of attention, whether via newspapers, social circles or elite recognition—from an extravagant mimosa and flower-filled Manhattan brunch to a suburban ladies’ club.


Harriette Wilson, like others of her profession, chose not to divulge her whys for engaging in the industry. Wilson famously writes: “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven. Whether it was love, or the severity of my father, the depravity of my own heart, or the winning arts of the noble Lord, which induced me to leave my paternal roof and place myself under his protection, does not now much signify, or if it does, I am not in the humour to gratify curiosity in this manner.”


However, the whys very much depend on culture, place and society.


Recorded Identity

As Griffin notes, remembering this history and culture is important.  “Without it,” she writes, “any reading of our cultural heritage must be somewhat shallow as well as naïve.” Camille Paglia, in Vamps and Tramps, writes: “The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw, who controls the sexual channels between nature and culture.”


Whether forced by life into her profession or elevated by riches and suitors—whether symbols of sin or reverence—the harlot, like the hostess, invites us in to examine that intersection. Nature, culture and her intricate dance between the two—her place and reflection of the demi-monde—are her identity. Her story behind the keyhole is a cultural mirror of hospitality, power, identity and purpose.


Author Bio:

Rachael Jennings is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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