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New Worlds: Courtesans

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Contrary to how the term is often used, “courtesan” does not simply mean “expensive prostitute.” But since there’s genuinely a blurry transitional zone there, it seems fair to wrap up the discussion of prostitution with a look at this line of work.

On the closer-to-prostitution end, this is the escort service I mentioned last week. It’s also why, in Japan as well as in the West, there’s such a profound misunderstanding around the term “geisha;” when American forces outlawed prostitution there after World War II, many such women rebranded themselves as geisha to get around that prohibition. Escorts ostensibly are not prostitutes (since that’s illegal in many jurisdictions); they’re hired for other purposes, and if they just happen to wind up sleeping with their clients, well, sometimes people just hit it off, you know? This makes them far more acceptable to the powers that be, who get plausible deniability for their own patronage of escort services, while simultaneously decrying the moral corruption of the more economically vulnerable streetwalkers and brothel prostitutes.

But just as escorts can be formally prohibited from selling sex, the same can be true of the various other professions I’m grouping under the term “courtesan.” In fact, Edo-period geisha could be kicked out of their houses if they were found to be sleeping with their clients. So if it’s not sex, what exactly is the service these women (or occasional men, cf. gigolos) are offering?

Terms like “entertainment” or “companionship” sound like euphemisms, but they genuinely aren’t. Greek hetairai, Egyptian awalim, Arabic qiyan, Indian nagarvadhus and ganikas, Mughal tawaifs, Korean gisaeng, and Chinese geji all orbit in the same general space, of providing cultured arts and conversation for their male clients. The exact arts in question depend on what that society likes, but often include singing, playing musical instruments, dancing, and composing and reciting poetry; not for nothing does “geisha” literally translate to “art person.” As for conversation, a courtesan is expected to be well-read, at least in certain spheres — I suspect scientific and religious topics are less common than literary or philosophical ones — and witty, perhaps acting as the hostess for a gathering, making sure that everyone has a (non-euphemistic) good time.

The paradoxical thing is, these professions tend to flourish in exactly those societies which offer regular women the fewest opportunities to acquire these kinds of accomplishments. Wives remain secluded at home and quite possibly illiterate, while courtesans mingle with men at the highest levels of aristocratic power, wearing beautiful clothing and enjoying all the luxuries such life has to offer. It sounds paradisical . . .

. . . and of course, it isn’t. Despite their wealth and high-culture skills, courtesans were often drawn from the lower strata of society; in some cases they were routinely enslaved. How could women from such disadvantaged backgrounds gain education, artistic training, and elaborate, expensive garments to wear?

By being profoundly in debt. And usually by being sent into that life from a very young age.

If you weren’t born into slavery, you might get sold for all the reasons that came up in my Year Six essay. If you’re not enslaved, you are very likely to be indentured for the cost of your support, training, and equipment: clothing, instruments, makeup, and so forth. Since it takes years of practice to become an accomplished multi-field artist, and since men who hire such women usually want someone on the younger side, this means you begin training in childhood. That’s years of room and board and associated expenses before you can even begin to start earning money for the person who decided you were an investment worth taking on.

The payoff does exist, though. (At least for the success stories, which will certainly not be everyone.) Despite their officially low status, courtesans in these kinds of societies can gain all manner of freedoms denied to ordinary women. Unlike a prostitute, they don’t need to bring in many clients a day; they’re more likely to be hired for an evening, a weekend, even an ongoing relationship with an exclusive patron who — perhaps in addition to a baseline fee — may shower them with expensive gifts of clothing, food, jewelry, even houses.

Which is where this can begin sliding back over toward prostitution. A man who lays exclusive claim to the services of a courtesan is highly likely to expect more from her than just witty conversation and a song. Whether that’s permitted or not goes back to those questions of legality, and also the exact framework in which the courtesan operates: if she’s successfully paid off her debts, she might be able to do what she likes, and bribe officials to look the other way as necessary. If she’s a historical geisha, she’s probably answerable to the house she belongs to, and they can punish her for crossing that line.

In theory, an indentured or even an enslaved courtesan might be redeemed out of that status by her patron. The slave gets manumitted or the indenture gets paid off, not by the gradual accumulation of fees, but in one fell swoop. Stereotypically, said patron then marries her, because the motivation for his generosity is love and a desire to free her from that life — or, to put it more cynically, ensure his exclusive claim to her forevermore.

I have no idea how often this happened in reality. I won’t go so far as to say it never did, because human beings do all kinds of things, but it certainly wasn’t as common as the romantic stories would like us to believe. After all, remember that courtesans tend to exist in patriarchal, hierarchical societies, where the guy with enough money to buy her freedom is also the guy most expected to marry someone of suitable wealth and standing. Even if he does buck those duties to wed a former courtesan, she’s not going to find a very warm welcome in high society. She’ll be lucky if she isn’t accused of bewitching her husband — a common peril even for those who don’t marry their patrons.

The question of what her future will look like is a thorny one for courtesans. They don’t all have to be fresh-faced teenagers or twenty-somethings — when it comes to art and good conversation, there’s a lot to be said for experience — but as a courtesan’s beauty fades with age, there’s a high risk that her opportunities will fade along with it. Patrons drift away, the gifts dry up . . . what does she do now?

If she’s savvy and if the law permits, she’s saved and invested and provided for a decent retirement. But more than a few such women who once lived a life of glitter and luxury have wound up ending their lives in shabby poverty — or selling their bodies as prostitutes on the street.

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8 thoughts on “New Worlds: Courtesans”

  1. When I lived in Washington D.C. area in the 1960s, politics was almost always a male driven profession. D.C. was party city to rival Las Vegas and New Orleans. A lot of backroom deals took place around the swimming pool or over cocktails. The most powerful hostesses were usually wives of politicians or lobbyists.

    But the guests had their own power games to play and their image depended upon the arm candy they brought to the party. Old, paunchy, forgetful senators could appear young and vigorous if their companion that night was young, beautiful, witty, and a charming conversationalist. In other words a paid escort.

    Being an escort evovled into clubs. The women all knew each other. The hostesses all knew who they were and their role in their society. And like the instances described above their successful years were often short.

    Women entering politics mostly eliminated the escort services. The question often asked is how many women in politics in those early years had begun as escorts and used their salaries to put themselves through school, so they could put to use all they’d learned from those back room political deals?

    1. Marie Brennan

      Honestly, I’d cheer the women on if they were in fact former escorts! Use the power they handed you.

  2. “I have no idea how often this happened in reality.”

    I wonder if more common in societies with more levels of ‘wife’. In Christian Europe your only options were “married wife” or “mistress/kept woman”, but in some other societies there’s “secondary wife” or maybe some legally acknowledged concubine (and of course in some, simply multiple wives period), allowing a formal relationship that doesn’t mean producing low-class heirs or tying up a primary alliance slot.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Fair point; I had European models in mind when I said that. I’ll tweak it for the book version!

  3. Hetaira in ancient Greek were in much the same place. Some had stable enough relationship that they would be referred to as their patron’s hetaira.

    The big rule to avoid being a common prostitute was not not selling your body, it was not selling your body for a fixed price to all comers.

  4. Which makes the rise of Empress Theodora to wife of Emperor Justinian all the more baffling, doesn’t it. How in the world did she do it? Even Procopius, as much as he hates them both, has not been able to actually answer that question.

  5. Which makes the rise of Empress Theodora to wife of Emperor Justinian all the more baffling, doesn’t it. How in the world did she do it? Even Procopius, as much as he hates them both, has not been able to actually answer that question.

    In the Muslim cultures, it wasn’t as unusual, of course, as in the Greek empire. A member of the harem who produced a male baby — rose in rank and status. This was reflected in the households all through the Muslim worlds, from Spain to Istanbul (once Justinian’s capital became Ottoman).

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yeah, even if Procopius is exaggerating by calling her a prostitute, her rise was still gobsmacking.

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