“Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts. A History of Sex for Sale” by Kate Lister (published by Thames & Hudson)

Or, perhaps: ’Tarts, trollops and knocking shops’

A woman is free to do what she wants with her body – my body, my choice, the call goes up, usually in the context of abortion rights but also for prostitution. It’s a viable, if disputed, argument, and for the latter bear in mind the danger of white slavery where a girl or woman is forced or sold into the sex trade. Kate Lister peeps into the boudoirs through the ages.
28. January 2022 15:11

Historically most prostitutes have been women and most clients men. Is it, then, to advantage that such a book is written by a woman? Perhaps, perhaps not. But hopefully a woman might be more empathetic. Certainly Dr. Kate Lister, who is a lecturer in the School of Arts and Communication at Leeds Trinity University, UK, offers a chronicle of fascinating information and illustrations, not titillation.

At Leeds her speciality is primarily research into the literary history of sex work, and she curates the online research project Whores of Yore, an interdisciplinary digital archive for the study of historical sexuality. She has understanding, and in her book observes: “How we write about sex work, indeed how we think and talk about it, matters… Its workers are deserving of rights and respect, of being genuinely heard and seen, rather than stereotyped and silenced.”

Before getting into her history of the trade, Lister remarks on how stigmatising prostitutes with draconian laws and harsh punishments can create a social milieu in which violence against them may flourish. Her book makes plain that abolishing the ongoing stigma around sex work is everyone’s responsibility.

The “Hackabouts” of the title is an unknown word to us, and our curiosity reveals that it comes from “A Harlot’s Progress”, a series of six paintings and engravings by English artist William Hogarth in 1731. These show the story of a young woman, Moll, or Mary, Hackabout, who arrives in London from the country and becomes a prostitute. Well, the word may puzzle some people. Full marks if not.

More familiar to one and all is the phrase “the world’s oldest profession”, and Lister divulges that it was English author Rudyard Kipling who first wrote this in his short story “On the City Wall” in 1898, and the expression has since fallen into common parlance as a historical truth.

This is not so, though prostitution is, at least, a very ancient profession. Shattered clay tablets that archaeologists found at Nineveh, the flourishing capital of the Assyrian Empire, dated to 1800 BCE (Before the Common Era), and when the ancient fragments were pieced back together the cuneifporm script carved into them revealed a story that became known as “The Epic of Gilgamesh”. This contained the earliest surviving tale of transactional sex in the world, as Shamhat the harlot sold her goodies to the wild man Enkidu. Was Shamhat a sexual priestess, and did priestesses sell sex to worshippers in the temples of Ishtar?

There is ample evidence of a thriving sex trade in ancient Mesopotamia. In India somewhere around the 2nd century BCE and the 3rd century CE (Common Era), “The Arthasastra of Kautilya” text on politics discusses the duties of the ganikadhyaksa, the “superintendent of courtesans”, and details rules for women in this profession.

The selling and buying of sex was deeply woven into the very fabric of Greek and Roman society. Sex work was entirely legal throughout most of ancient Greece. Roman attitudes to sex work were deeply ambivalent, Lister writes. Those who sold sex were socially stigmatised but that did not mean they were socially banished. Sex workers were at once shameful but essential, and were as much a part of the Roman world as the roads and the wine.

On we proceed through sex work in medieval London, where its history is one of regulation, suppression and failed attempts at abolition. At one time, women accused of “common harlotry” or bawdry (pimping) as a first offence had their heads shaved and then were paraded about the town centre, holding a white rod and wearing a striped hood, while minstrels played and their crimes were read aloud. Then they were made to sit in a pillory.

In Renaissance Europe, Matteo Bandello wrote in his “Novelle” (Tales) in the 16th century that: “There is a custom in Venice… namely that a courtesan takes six or seven lovers, assigning to each a certain night of the week when she dines and sleeps with him. During the day she is free to entertain whomever she wishes so that her mill never lies idle and does not rust from the lack of opportunity to grind grain.”

The Paris of the Belle Epoque of the late 19th, early 20th centuries is described as a city for the sexual connoisseur, with its “maisons de tolerance” catering also for devotees of the lash and homosexuality, one bordello specifically for clergymen and another with erotic shows where customers put their money on the edge of a table for the ladies to “suck” up into their “slits”.

La Chabanais was extremely luxurious and became a byword for debauchery and decadence. Here Albert, the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII of Britain, kept his specially commissioned “seat of love” in his suite. Its two seat-high foot rests signal (to us, at least) that “Dirty Bertie” obviously fancied himself as a keen amateur gynaecologist, though in fact the priapic prince was also a pig for food, and the seat allowed him to shag away without squashing the mademoiselles under his bloating body. And two ladies at once, apparently. Between banging, the fornicators could bathe in champagne in his copper bath.

Albert is reported to have said to actress Lillie Langtry in the 1870s, “I’ve spent enough on you to build a battleship,” to which she apparently snapped the marvellous response, “And you’ve spent enough in me to float one.” (Oh, please let it not be apocryphal.)

It’s hard to top Dirty Bertie and La Chabanais, though according to Lister other top-drawer clients at this select knocking shop included Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Guy de Maupassant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and… Mae West. Mae West?

“Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts” abounds with photographs and illustrations showing erotic frescoes and postcards, paintings of slave markets, statuettes, prints, “molly houses”, sex in China’s Qing Dynasty, floating brothels (“flower boats”) of the Far East, Chinese “comfort women” for their Japanese conquerors, concentration camp brothels, contagious sexual diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea, red-light districts in the early frontier communities in the North America such as Klondike City, reformers of “fallen women”, bathhouses and the ladies themselves in all their corsetted and bloomered glory.

Things aren’t always as they seem, for instance Lister tells of recent research that suggests only two of Jack the Ripper’s five victims were prostitutes, when the narrative has long held that they all were. Tourists who go to Whitechapel to walk the Ripper’s streets may overlook this inconvenient fact; one of those cases, perhaps, of not letting the facts spoil a good story.

Prostitution allows people to blow off sexual steam. Lister examines it for what it is without passing judgement, though she has a high understanding: “Selling sex is a product of capitalism and commerce. It is not a moral failing, but the inevitable result of market forces that primarily disadvantage women… The modern-day sex worker rights movement asks for… the right to dictate their own working conditions, without the threat of arrest or rescue. To work without harassment or abuse and, of course, the right to be seen.”.

So patronise your local brothel or streetwalker today and do your bit, perhaps?

Leave a Reply