Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The 'World's Oldest Profession' : Considerations for Fantasy Writers

The recent scandal involving the Secret Service's advance teams has prodded me into thinking about the way prostitution is portrayed in the fantasy literature I have read. Prostitution is not well regarded in the U.S. and is illegal in most locales here. Surveys show that in the U.S., Australia and the U.K., the overwhelming majority of men do not patronize prostitutes. Many feminists, sociologists and scholars feel that prostitution leads to the exploitation and abuse of sex workers and that few enter the profession willingly. However, some activists and researchers claim that decriminalizing prostitution would lead to increased empowerment of those in the profession and that the portrayal of all sex workers as unwilling victims is simplistic and patronizing.

Although it is not really thought to be the world's oldest profession (that would be hunting and gathering), prostitution has been ubiquitous throughout recorded human history and across cultures. Therefore, is hardly surprising that it crops up frequently in fantasy novels, where prostitutes working in brothels, as streetwalkers or as courtesans sometimes appear as characters and the presence of streetwalkers or bordellos, even in the background, often provide atmosphere for a story.

One thing that interests me is that prostitutes and at least some of their customers are often shown in a positive light, and the dangers associated with the profession (rape, assault, STD's, unintended pregnancy, loss of autonomy, mental illness, substance abuse) are often skimmed over or not portrayed at all.

The hardest part of writing this piece for me was deciding on what aspect of the institution to focus on. There are so many questions about the issue that a fantasy writer could benefit from researching before he or she can decide how to portray the institution in the context of his or her world. What has its legal status been in various times, cultures and locations? What have religious attitudes about it been in different times and places in history? What are the differences in male and female attitudes about prostitution and do these attitudes vary in different cultures? How common have male prostitutes been throughout history, and how common has the practice of men selling sex to women been? What is the effect of gender equality, contraception and the liberalization of pre-marital sexual relations for both genders on demand for paid sex? What are the characteristics of the males who use the services of female prostitutes in different cultures? What reasons do women/girls (and or men/boys) have for taking up the profession and have these changed throughout history and across cultures? How common is the prostitution of children in different cultures? Does prostitution either arise from or result in the objectification of women? Can it ever be empowering for a women to be a prostitute or is it always degrading? Are there women (or men) who enjoy being prostitutes?What kind of effect does prostitution have on a woman's (or man's) non professional sexual/romantic relationships?

Any of these topics could be the subject for a long paper, even a thesis study, by themselves. I got pretty overwhelmed when I started researching this. After some deliberation, I decided that this is a topic that I may revisit from time to time, as a lot of what I have read so far is fascinating ... and also very confusing. As it turns out, there is not a clear consensus among scholars, sociologists and women's rights activists on many of these questions.

The question I started out with was, 'how do I want to portray prostitutes and prostitution in my own fantasy world?' Since it has been such an ubiquitous institution, at some point or another it is going to crop up, at least in a peripheral way. Is it reasonable, for instance, to assume that any or all of my male characters have obtained the services of a sex worker at some time in their lives? Would this reflect or shape their attitudes about sex and women in general? What about my female characters? What would their attitudes about it be? Would the presence of male prostitutes who service women be plausible in the context of my world? What circumstances would lead someone to become a prostitute? How do the religions I've created regard it? What is its legal status? Would prostitutes, in general, be degraded or empowered or something in between?

Next time I write on this topic, I think I will go through some of the perceptions/portrayals of prostitutes in literature and the media. I will then use this as a springboard to summarize/discuss the way it's been portrayed by some of my favorite authors and to determine if there's any sort of pattern. At some point, I will attempt to determine which, if any of these portrayals is most 'realistic,' given the context of the world the author has created.

So if anyone who stumbles across this has any suggestions about stereotyped portrayals of prostitutes and prostitution (I've already come up with six) or has any suggestions about fantasy novels where prostitutes or prostitution is fairly prominent (doesn't have to be related to the main plot, but it should be there in the background and in sufficient detail to get a sense for how it's regarded), I'd love to hear them. I already have a list of six or seven novels I've read over the past few years, but I know they are only the tip of the iceberg.


Brents J. (2005). J. of  Interpersonal Violence. 20(3) 270-95

Farley, Melissa, and Barkan, Howard, "Prostitution, Violence Against Women,and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder"Women & Health 27 (3): 37-49. The Haworth Press, Inc. 1998

Liberator, M (2005) http://www.liberator.net/articles/prostitution.html

Maron, D.F. (2008). What Sex Workers Want: Will Decriminalizing Prostitution Make it Any Safer? http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2008/12/18/what-sex-workers-want.html

ProCon.org. http://prostitution.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=004119

Weitzer, R., (2010). The mythology of prostitution: Advocacy research and public policy.
Sexuality research and social policy, 7: 15-29

 A less that romantic portrayal of some aging prostitutes by Otto Dix in the 1920's


  1. The main character of C.S. Friedman's novel Feast of Souls is a former prostitute, and it colors how she sees the world.

    I'll admit it's not my favorite C.S. Friedman novel though. Great concept, but I found the story a bit thin.

  2. Thanks, Erik. I'll have to look at that one. Some of the stories I've thought of so far where the institution gets more than a passing reference are:

    Lynn Flewelling's Nightrunner books (the Street of Lights is portrayed as a clean and happy place that serves the needs of a sexually egalitarian society with liberal views about sex).

    Michael Sullivan's Crown Conspiracy books (one of the two protagonist's love interest owns a brothel and was, or possibly still is, a prostitute herself, and the girls are portrayed as being spunky and smart and relatively content with their lot).

    Robbin Hobb's Liveship trilogy (one of the characters is a prostitute who runs away from her bordello to join in the other protagonists' adventures).

    Glenda Larke's Stormlord books (one of the main characters runs away from a brothel at the beginning of the story--I'd say doing so is her 'plot catalyst.')

    Green Rider by Kristen Britain also has a chapter where the protagonist is assisted by a woman who owns a brothel, and she has to come to terms with her discovery that her own father is the establishment's patron.

    I also remember something involving a brothel and a madame as a character (Durzo Blint's old lover?) in the Night Angel trilogy, but it's been a while since I read those.

    Then there are novels where it's simply happening in the background. In Game of Thrones, Catelyn meets Eddard in a brothel, and there's a passing reference to the girls there, but not a lot of detail is provided about what their lives are like.

    The problem is, I tend to gravitate towards certain kinds of fantasy stories, so the ones I've read may or may not be representative of how the institution is represented across the genre.

    I'll have to think about where I want to go with this.


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