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New Worlds: Streetwalkers and Bawdy Houses

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Very broadly speaking, you can divide prostitution into three categories.

Okay, maybe four.

Or five.

Let’s start with the core three. Street prostitution involves soliciting customers in public places; brothels gather prostitutes into fixed establishments for clients to visit; escort prostitution sends the professional to the client, and shades over into the topic of next week’s essay, so I’ll save it until then. To these three you might add a fourth, which I’ll call casual prostitution: a borderline zone in which a woman trades her favors for money or other forms of support on a more casual basis. This was historically common with, for example, the maids that served in taverns or made up rooms in an inn, where patrons might assume the “girls” offer other services on the side. You see another variant of it in rural areas, where a woman supplements her marginal income through relationships with one or more local men. Such a woman will likely be known as the village whore to her neighbors, with all the negative consequences that often implies, but it’s more an ad hoc arrangement than an ongoing line of work. And as for the fifth type of prostitution, I’ll save that until the end.

Street prostitution is almost always illegal, even in jurisdictions where other forms are permitted. Which makes sense; it’s hard to regulate this kind of informal work. It’s also low-end, hazardous, and exhausting. That last not just from the work itself: in Victorian London, whores could be run in for soliciting if they stood in one place for too long, so “streetwalkers” literally had to keep walking; the church of St. Botolph’s Aldgate in the East End was known as a “prostitute roundabout” because so many of them went in circles around it. Since this version of things doesn’t offer a fixed place of work, they have to take their clients to any out-of-the-way place that offers a fig leaf of concealment, like a car or carriage, an alley, or under a nearby dock. But being in an isolated place like that means it’s easy for (non-sexual) crime to happen: the client robbing the prostitute, the prostitute robbing the client, physical assault, and so forth.

Since wearing heavy boots (good for both walking in and kicking an assailant) only gets you a little way toward safety, a lot of street prostitutes don’t work entirely alone. They sometimes support and defend each other, but this approach also depends on pimps. Whether male or female, they’re a common feature of street prostitution because they can provide a degree of organization and protection, chasing off competitors and stepping in if a client gets violent. Of course, that has its dark side: the pimps might instead help rob the client, and even if they don’t commit extra crimes, they’re taking a cut of the prostitutes’ earnings in exchange for their help. Sometimes that cut is high, and if their “girls” fail to bring in enough, the pimps are the ones dishing out the violence.

Working in a brothel is safer, but don’t imagine anything too idyllic. For every luxurious, well-run establishment that can firmly usher a misbehaving client to the curb, there’s probably a thousand dingy tenements where the inhabitants struggle to defend themselves when someone gets angry. The person in charge here also tends to claim a cut, and when working in the house takes the form of something like indentured servitude, it can take a long time to buy your way out — if you ever do.

But where prostitution is legalized, this is the form most commonly approved, because it’s the easiest to monitor. Believe it or not, European cities used to set up “municipal brothels,” or at least designate specific districts where such houses could operate, perhaps only during specific hours. In our modern, bureaucratic times, this goes further: just like a restaurant or a gym, a brothel can be required to meet certain health and safety standards. And just like any business, it has to keep records and pay taxes on a set schedule. Unlicensed brothels “pay taxes,” too, in the form of regular bribes to the police . . . which may or may not save them when there’s a push to crack down on immorality or a local official wants to burnish his credentials by conducting a purge of the local whorehouses.

Higher-end brothels and the prostitutes in them can sometimes exercise an odd kind of power. More than one influential man has lost his heart and his head to a whore, though if she attempts to push that leverage too far, it’s liable to backfire on her quite spectacularly. In other cases, prostitutes have extracted valuable political information from stray comments their clients let slip. And especially once you have documentation in the form of photographs or video, it becomes very possible to blackmail someone with a threat to expose his extra-marital and/or extra-legal affair — though again, this is a “handle with care” scenario. Whatever power the brothel and its workers may have, exerting it too directly may cause it, their business, or the women themselves to go up in smoke.

Since we’re delaying a discussion of escort services for now, I want to turn last to that odd fifth type I mentioned: sacred prostitution.

This is a highly contentious topic among historians. Did it ever really exist? If so, where and in what forms? Are some or all references to it based on exaggeration, misunderstanding, or outright slander by foreigners? Since I’m writing from the perspective of worldbuilding rather than historical research, I get to dodge those questions; instead, let’s look at what it could mean in your world.

There are religious rites which involve sex, especially where the leading celebrants are embodying the union of two deities, but “sacred prostitution” tends to refer to something more specific: the offering to the general public of sexual services, whether for money or for free, in the specific context of religion. Depending on how exactly you spin this, it might essentially be secular prostitution run out of a temple that doubles as a brothel (especially a temple to a fertility deity), or it might be a form of worship in its own right. Claims like that of Herodotus, that every woman in Babylon was required at some point in her life to go sit in the temple of “Aphrodite” and have sex with the first man who offered her money, are a little implausible . . . but the notion that someone might give up their virginity in a ritual context, or that people could undertake this long-term as an act of religion, is not beyond the pale of possibility. How tawdry and exploitative that is, versus how spiritual and uplifting, depends on how you choose to build everything from the religion to the society’s views of gender and the sexual act.

Which is true to some extent of all these forms of prostitution. Selling one’s body on the street will probably never be an ideal scenario, but how much people have to resort to that, versus attaining the greater safety of a different model, is in the hands of the writer.

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2 thoughts on “New Worlds: Streetwalkers and Bawdy Houses”

  1. What about ‘mistresses’ or ‘sugar babies’? I guess sometimes could fall into your ‘casual’ category a la the ‘village whore model’, a semi-transactional relationship with one-to-few men.

    Incall escorts (client goes to the worker) technically falls under ‘brothel’ (fixed location) but one-to-few workers in a place feels different from a large managed brothel. Plus a lot of escorts offer incall and outcall, though I’m probably stepping on next week’s post now.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Yeah, I feel like that lands somewhere between casual prostitution + adultery in general — I mean, not all sugar babies are being kept by married men, but it’s not uncommon.

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