Episode 12: Sex Work Through History Part 2

Welcome, fans! After delays caused by a hard drive crash and COVID, we’re back (at last!) with the second of the two-part look at sex work through history.

In this episode, we chat about the Winchester Geese, a group of sex workers managed by the Bishop of Winchester, and muse about several historical sex worker philanthropists who seemed a lot more in tune with Christian charity than most Christians of the day.

We also detour into the philosophies of St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and chat about official state-sanctioned brothels in France. Check it out!

Here’s the transcript:

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and kinky, sopo, ace, chicana, feminst Renaissance cat, Joreth! My gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but “you guys” is cool.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, grey-ace, poly woman, bringing my genteel East Asian British viewpoint and all the tea. I do mean that literally, by the way, I’m drinking tea right now. Anyway, this is the second of our two-parter on the history of sex work, which is part of our mini-series on sex work. Yes, I know it’s a sub-mini-series in the middle of an already ridiculously long mini-series, don’t @ me. We just kept finding too much interesting stuff to talk about, ok? 

Franklin: I think this is a maxi-series at this point. This bit is about sex work in the “modern era”, by which we mean in the era since the spread of Christianity through the Indo-European world, which is kind of modern, I suppose. The appearance of Christianity and, later, Islam on the world stage changed the Face of sex work, not always in ways you might think.

Drawing the line with the advent of Christianity does tend to lead to an Anglocentric view of history.

Joreth:  Yep, we’re aware that this particular peek into history is Anglocentric, and we’re going to attempt to address some of that in yet another part of this multi-part series where we look at sex work in different cultures.  But the influence of Christianity on sex work was HUGE, and, as we were talking during the writing of this episode, could even be argued was *responsible* for creating the industry as we know it today, turning it from a rather common market into a giant black market.

Eunice: Turns out that when lots of people get very repressed about sex, suddenly it becomes way more appealling. Surprise! Who knew? Other than anyone who has ever met humans, I guess.

Franklin:  When I say the spread of Christianity changed sex work but not always in ways you might think, we generally assume Christian approaches to sex, rooted in a Pauline abhorrence of sex, was a disaster for sex workers. By and large, it was, but history is weird, and people are good at justifying all manner of things that maybe don’t align perfectly with their stated religious beliefs.

Eunice: Hypocrisy: the evergreen vice.

Franklin: Indeed. Take Renaissance Venice, for example. There’s a really cool article on the NY Times about sex work in Renaissance Venice, that talks about how sex work was openly tolerated:

In the 16th century, Venice, with a population of 150,000, had some 20,000 prostitutes. They were openly tolerated as a means of avoiding seduction or attacks against “honest women,” and because the taxes generated by the sex industry were enough to run a dozen warships. Courtesans were the top end of this market, recognized as the city’s greatest luxury item. Their apartments were decorated in the latest fashions and became the subject of many travelers’ tales. […]

Cross-dressing was popular with men and women, especially during the free-for-all of carnival, and prostitutes sometimes dressed as nuns to enjoy greater mobility of movement through the city. More generally, their dress was so ostentatious that they could be mistaken for noblewomen—and vice versa. An official complaint of 1578 even mentions prostitutes dressed as men, touring in gondolas and luring males into “floating paradises of Venus.”

So it’s not necessarily always true that Christianity meant no open tolerance of sex work. The reality is more nuanced than that.

Joreth:  The popular show Adam Ruins Everything even did a segment on the complexity of sex work.  Take this clip, for instance:  [insert Adam Ruins Everything clips about women in the old west https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2kJM9yQs9k&ab_channel=CollegeHumor]

Joreth: So this is kind of my area of interest, having grown up in California and worked as a tour guide for a historical house. Granted, prostitution had nothing at all to do with the house I worked in, but the history of the house and its owner was inextricably tied up with the American Old West so I learned a little bit about the adjacent subject of sex work in mining towns just by virtue of growing up and working where I did.

Eunice: As you can imagine, when you’re providing sexual services in a heavily male-dominated sex-starved area, that can create some very powerful, wealthy women in the American Old West (which is not to say that the majority of sex workers were wealthy and powerful, of course). A small town girl called Mattie Silks opened her first brothel at just 19. Whilst it was fairly typical for sex workers to be young, usually starting between 15 to 20 years old, this made her the youngest madam in America. She invested her profits back into the business, as well as growing her income and holdings by buying real estate and land. She also paid her staff a salary that made them some of the highest paid women in the country, which, good for her is all I can say.

And following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Diamond Jessie Hayman opened her brothel doors to feed, clothe and shelter anyone that needed help. And Diamond Jessie was far from alone amongst madams!

Franklin: So basically, sex workers are often better at expressing Christian traits than Christian churches are. And legendary nineteenth-century Seattle madame Lou Graham donated money to build Seattle’s schools and also saved countless businesses and banks from bankruptcy during a depression. Omaha’s first emergency hospital started out as madame Anna Wilson’s mansion; she gave it to the city in her will. And former slave turned brothel owner Mary Ellen “Mammy” Pleasant, campaigned to de-segregate San Francisco’s streetcars. If you think about it, it kinda makes sense that sex workers would be on the forefront of civil rights. They’re a demographic that’s quite familiar with social stigma and condemnation, so they have a front-row seat to the three-ring circus of Prejudice Sucks. 

Joreth: This is all starting to sound a little like the plot to Paint Your Wagon, which is a fantastic musical that was turned into a wonderfully terrible movie starring Clint Eastwood about a tiny little mining town that has a shortage of women and gets built up into a booming gold rush city. It’s a poly movie too! Unfortunately, all the good times come to an end when the Christians move into town. Christianity has some weird contradictions when it comes to sex work. Like, it’s totally opposed to it, except when it isn’t, like, except when it benefits the Church.

Eunice: Yeah, like the Winchester Geese in medieval London, who worked in an area called Southwark. They were directly licensed and taxed as prostitutes, and it was the Bishop of Winchester who regulated those licenses, hence ‘Winchester Geese’. To be ‘bitten by a Winchester goose’ meant to catch an STI from a Southwark prostitute. Isn’t that a great term? Why don’t we have anything that fun these days? Anyway, apparently the Bishop of Winchester was first given the power to license prostitutes and brothels in Southwark in 1161, although there’s some debate about that. If that’s true though (and I would love it if it were, cos that’s a great story) and considering the brothels weren’t officially closed until the seventeenth century, that’s 500 years of official prostitution, licensed by the Church! Not only that, but one of those Bishops, Henry Cardinal Beaufort, actually owned a really popular brothel, called The Cardinal’s Cap. Not just licensed, he owned it personally and profited from it directly.

Franklin: I want to say I was completely unfamiliar with the Winchester Geese, but man, what a cool story. And I’m not the least bit surprised that a prominent, highly-placed member of the clergy would manage a group of sex workers. That seems frighteningly on-brand for organized religion.

Joreth:  Yeah, I hadn’t heard about them until researching this episode either!  There are all kinds of wacky stories about religion and/or the government sanctioning prostitution!  Let’s start with Nell Gwyn from the late 1600s… what a fascinating character!  Almost the entirety of her early life has to be prefaced with “it is said that…” or “she may have…” or “according to one dubious source, she…” and what statements didn’t start with one of those qualifiers usually had to end with something to the effect of “but this cannot be confirmed”.

Eunice: Yeah, we don’t even know exactly when she was actually born! Mind you, that’s not unusual for women in history. There’s also three different cities that claim to be Nell Gwyn’s birthplace, and I’m absolutely certain that no matter how famous she later became, her mother could not have traveled around England quite that fast, whilst in labor.  

Joreth:  Nell Gwyn was considered a celebrity during the Restoration era, which is the late 1600s.  Yes, I said “celebrity”.  She was one of the first actresses allowed on the stage and her comedic performances were well-praised, although her experiments to pass as a man led to the creation of a character that was termed a “hilarious character interpretation”, which she then performed as a man on stage.  However, she was best known for being the mistress of King Charles II.  She was essentially the embodiment of the Cinderella story, making her kind of a folk hero for her rags-to-riches rise to fame and wealth.

Eunice: In case you’re not familiar with the Restoration Era, it was well known for being a time of absolutely filthy entertainment. People were really bored of being boring, you might say. So much stuff written at this time was such filthy, bawdy, sexual stuff that my English teacher wasn’t even allowed to show us the poems by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, when we were studying the Restoration. This was a time of unabashedly risque works, and the fact that she was a comedic actress means that these were the parts she excelled at. And yet, she and several other actresses were able to openly be the mistresses of aristocracy, including the king. Can you imagine that happening now?

Joreth:  Look at the shit that Meghan Markle got for dating and then marrying Prince Harry, and she is, by most accounts, a fairly respectable person.  She would never have been allowed that close to the Royal Family had she been … say … Ali Wong, or some other super crass comedianne.

Franklin: I do find it interesting that one of the first of her many accomplishments mentioned in Wikipedia is “she became best known for being a long-time mistress of King Charles II of England and Scotland.” Like, being known as the companion of a man is the first thing people mention about her.

Joreth:  I mean, isn’t that essentially how some people are famous today?  Merely by virtue of who they’re related to, or fucking?

Franklin: More with women than with men, it seems. Just sayin’.

Eunice: I mean, when you get to the point of having the 2nd Duke of Buckingham as your pimp—or, as wikipedia very delicately puts it, the “unofficial manager for Gwyn’s love affairs”—I think you’ve definitely hit “famous for fucking” status. Even though that really was only a tiny part of who she was.

Joreth:  Her mom was a madam herself, and she was possibly a child prostitute in her mom’s brothel, although she seems to have denied that.

Eunice: She clearly had no hesitation in describing herself as a whore later in life, though—according to multiple stories, she referred to herself with that actual word. There’s a story of her being mistaken for her main rival whilst riding in her coach, and leaning out the window to say “Good people, you are mistaken, I am the Protestant whore”. Plus another story of her breaking up a fight between her coachman and someone else who accused her of being a whore by saying “I am a whore. Find something else to fight about.” When I grow up, I would like to be as quick witted and bold as she was, please.

Joreth:  Yeah, so, about her rivals and how she got to be the King’s Protestant Whore… apparently her pimp, er, the Duke of Buckingham, wanted to remove his cousin from the King’s bed and install someone else, and being the man who procured the King’s favorite toy would have brought him favor with the King.  But, according to legend, Nell didn’t quite take to his plan and she demanded too much money.  So the Duke instead set up a rival actress to meet with the King.  Well, Nell couldn’t have her biggest rival catching the King’s attention, not when she had first dibs or something, so she apparently spiked this woman’s food with a laxative on the day she was supposed to hook up with the King so that she could take her place, and her position in history was assured.

Franklin: That’s kind of a petty trick, actually. 

Joreth:  I mean, when you live in an era where your entire livelihood literally depends on the men you associate with, one might be tempted to “petty tricks” to improve one’s lot.

Franklin: You’re not wrong, though the fact that’s the way the world works is unfortunate. So it’s hard to say if she was an actress who used her fame to connect with rich and powerful men, which happens often enough it’s almost a trope, or she used her connection with rich and powerful men to launch her acting career, which is less common.

Joreth:  She did seem pretty skilled in getting what she wanted.  If I had known how to bully a king into giving me a whole house, my life would look very different today.  I mean, he set her up in a house in a rich district of London, but not owning that house outright wasn’t good enough for her, so she refused to accept it unless he gave it to her, so he did. She was later given a house in Windsor, a summer house on King’s Cross Road, and she procured an earlship for her eldest son and a lordship for her youngest by King Charles II.

Eunice: Thing is, none of that would have been possible if she weren’t also smart, witty, beautiful, and very, very bold. Considering that she died when she was relatively young, by our modern day standards, I’m actually feeling exceedingly unaccomplished right now.

Franklin: It’s all about setting your sights on a goal and then going for it, I suppose. Like Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, who decided she wanted to become the king’s mistress, so when he went hunting near her estate she drove past his procession in a pink carriage wearing a blue dress, then the next day in a blue carriage in a pink dress, which apparently is how you auditioned for the position of official court mistress back in the day before Tinder. And it worked! A year later, she was installed as the official court mistress, which was, yes, apparently a thing back then.

Eunice: Well, when you think about it, ‘court mistress’ really isn’t any more of an odd position than, say, ‘court jester’ or ‘Gentlemen of the Bedchamber’, which, btw, sounds way filthier than court mistress, but it was actually an incredibly powerful position of trust, given only to peers and gentlemen. It’s only because of our weird approach to sex in the West that having an Offical Court Mistress is considered unusual. Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, or rather Madame de Pompadour, was far more than ‘just’ someone that the King had sex with, just like a Groom of the Stool was more than just a lowly servant who wiped the king’s backside. These were people of wealth and education.

Joreth:  Her background is a stark contrast to Nell Gwyn, who was a poor orange girl who just happened to be “discovered” by royalty because of the intersection of low-class entertainers and high class nobility, vs. a woman who was wealthy enough to own two different colored carriages and dresses to match, and who was groomed specifically to be a king’s mistress with education and social graces training and artistic training, etc. 

Franklin: I suspect most folks likely wouldn’t think of Madame de Pompadour as a sex worker in the traditional sense of the word, but there’s unquestionably an expectation of sex to the position of “court mistress,” I reckon. 

Eunice: Sex has historically been one of the few, if not sometimes the only, consistent avenue to power for many women, so I can understand why they would make use of it. It was just another tool, after all. Mistress was probably a fairly precarious position for many women, but often these high class court mistresses were married off to men of high status, if they weren’t already married, so that presumably became their reward or security. Remember, at this time marriage was generally just a business transactions for people with wealth, you didn’t typically get to marry the person you fell in love with—although it seems that Jeanne Antoinette’s husband fell passionately in love with her once they were married, so she was clearly someone who was extremely charismatic.

Joreth:  And what’s really fascinating is that she used sex to leverage her way into power, and then used the power she acquired to take the sex out.  It seems as though she may have even been on the ace spectrum, with public records of a low enough libido to be problematic and attempts to increase it with aphrodisiac foods.  So when political pressure was put on the king to drop his mistresses, she just reinvented her role as “friend to the king” doing a huge amount of emotional labor to console a moody royal (which was probably both a difficult as well as dangerous job) and also taking on political duties like unofficial “prime minister” becoming responsible for appointing advancements, favors and dismissals, and contributing in domestic and foreign politics.  

So, while it’s not the stereotype that modern Westerners have of sex workers being like street prostitutes or brothel workers, Court Mistress is a woman trading sex for power, wealth, and prestige so that she can use that power, wealth, and prestige to do the things she really wants to do in the same way that a brothel girl has sex for money so she can hopefully earn enough money to do the things she really wants to do, like gaining voting rights for women in her gold rush town before the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote.

Eunice: She might not have been the typical sex worker—Court mistress is really closer to what most people would think of as a courtesan, I guess—but it’s not like France hasn’t had a long history of exactly the type of sex workers we think of these days. You know, the type people sometimes called prostitutes, or ladies of the night, or whores, or call girls, or whatever. My favorite term was, I believe, a Terry Prattchetism—ladies of negotiable affection. Isn’t that a great term?

Franklin: The fortunes of the more conventional sort of sex worker—you know, the kind without a personal connection to the King—were more on-again, off-again through French history. France did this thing where they kept going back and forth between “sex work is okay” and “we must save ourselves from licentious women!!!”

In the 1300s, John II decided sex work was a “necessary evil,” and echoing arguments from religious figures like St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, ruled that rather than trying to ban sex work, it ought to be regulated. In modern terms, he favored what we would call a harm-reduction approach.

King Louis IX decreed that state-sanctioned brothels had to light a red lantern during business hours, which apparently is where “red-light district” comes from. In the early 1800s, a bloke by the name of Napoleon decided sex workers should be regularly inspected and brothels should be licensed. I personally find it fascinating that Paris had official, state-sanctioned brothels all the way up to just after WWII. There’s something about the idea of a ‘state-sanctioned brothel’ that just seems really “Winchester Geese, but for a secular society” to me. 

Eunice: Well, to be fair, being in the church was just another form of political power, in many times and places. Hence why younger sons of gentlemen who weren’t suited to the Army and wouldn’t inherit might sometimes end up there. 

Franklin: I also think it’s interesting that, by law, they had to be owned and operated by women…which is kinda cool, actually.

Joreth:  The workers were also only allowed to leave their brothels on certain days and only if accompanied by their madame.  By 1810 Paris alone had 180 officially approved brothels.  By the time they were outlawed in 1946, there were 1,500 across the country.  Part of the reason they got outlawed was because apparently brothel prostitutes make good German collaborators.  22 brothels were commandeered by German troops and one brothel in particular became part of the underground railroad getting German POWs and shot-down airmen out of the country.

There were all kinds of different brothels for different clientele, different sexual interests, all kinds of things!  The luxury brothels, for instance, catered to the royals, nobles, heads of state, and later prominent celebrities.  They often had themed rooms, one of which actually won a design prize at the 1900 World Fair in Paris.

Eunice: It all sounds very fancy and lovely, but let’s not forget that brothels that catered to the masses also existed, which were often significantly less appealing—in fact, they were often so notorious for treating their workers badly that they were nicknamed maisons d’abattage or ‘slaughterhouses’. And they were well named, at that, because the sex workers were at risk of abuse from the brothels, the clients, and the police force responsible for catching procurers. The more things change, right? And I wholeheartedly apologize to any French speakers for my utterly dire accent earlier.

Franklin: One Parisian slaughterhouse, “Le Moulin Galant,” catered exclusively to homeless patrons. Which is fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which is it suggests people who lacked the basic necessities of life were spending what little money they had to obtain sex.

Eunice: It’s basically the same urge that leads some homeless people to spend their limited money on alcohol, or drugs, or cigarettes or whatever, right? Can’t blame them for needing something to lift the unrelenting misery of being alive sometimes, we all do that.

Joreth:  And then there were a wide range of “specialist brothels”.  Everything from gay brothels (often raided for “employing” underage boys) to kink clubs to Asian fetish clubs to a peep house to a brothel just for clergy with all the heavy-handed Christian symbology you might expect.

Franklin: Because of course members of the clergy had their own brothel. If you’re a priest looking for the services of a lady of negotiable affection, you wouldn’t want to mix with the common rabble. What’s the use of having a position of wealth and prestige if it doesn’t give you a few sexual perks along the way, right? By now we’re all past the point of expecting members of the church hierarchy to live by the rules they set for others, right?

Joreth:  I mean, the poly kinky secular church I plan to build to host poly meetings, secular services, ballroom dancing, and kinky orgies is pretty heavily based on Catholic symbolism, so there is clearly a connection between Christianity and kinky sex.

Franklin: Many of the kinkiest people I’ve ever known have been Catholic. If you want your daughter to grow up sexually adventurous, send her to Catholic boarding school!

Joreth:  [raises hand]

Eunice: Catholics do love their ritual. Can’t say I blame them, I remember Franklin and I also getting a little heated by visiting some old churches. Not sure that was the intended purpose of being in a church, but hey, you take your wins where you can get them! Seems only reasonable that some of the clergy got heated under the collar too. If a somewhat different type of collar than the kinksters wear. Usually.

Franklin: I remember that! That was pretty hot, wasn’t it? I have fond memories of sexting in an old church, too.

Joreth:  If I haven’t told you about all the times in high school I gave blow jobs to a kid at church during choir practice out behind the chapel and in the sacristy, remind me to tell you sometime.

Eunice: Ok, I think that needs to go into a Patreon outtake. 

Franklin: That’s about all we have for this episode—not because we’re out of things to talk about but because we’re out of time!

Joreth: it should be noted that we really only covered a surface dive into prostitution in Western cultures. This is just such a huge topic that some people spend their entire careers studying it. And not just studying historical prostitution in general, you could build a career out of picking just one region and one era to study!

Eunice: We haven’t even mentioned Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies, which was an annual directory of prostitutes in the Covent Garden area of London that was published for something like 40 years in the Georgian era! That’s a lifetime’s work, or maybe a PhD, just in that alone.

Franklin: I think you did just mention it.

Joreth:  So basically, the takeaway here is, sex work is way more complicated than most folks think it is, it has always been more complicated and more diverse than people think it is, and that complexity tends to get buried beneath easy, simplistic cultural notions of sex and sex work.

Eunice: And this isn’t even the tiniest minute fragment of a particle of the history of sex work in Western culture. It’s not a historical overview, just a little sampling of some of the more well known titbits—yes I say titbits, I’m British—of sex work through the ages, and some famous courtesans that we found particularly fascinating or interesting or just plain cool. We really need a whole separate podcast to do this topic justice.

Joreth:  If there was a podcast where every episode was an in-depth look at famous sex workers or sex scandals throughout history, I would totally sign up to listen to that podcast!  So, y’know, any historians out there that specialize in historical sex work … you have at least one listener waiting in the wings!

Eunice: Yes, ditto, so if anyone wants to make that…please please please make that so we don’t end up doing it ourselves. Please.

Franklin: Next month, if all goes well, we’ll look at sex work in non-Western cultures, because we haven’t even scratched the surface of the kind of diversity that exists in sex work worldwide.

We’d love to hear from you! Send comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you listen to us. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you’ll find show notes and transcripts. And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which is linked on the website!

Joreth:  And remember, if it’s sex you want, just put a church nearby!

Franklin: When people talked about being a “bride of Christ,” I didn’t realize they meant a bride of negotiable affection.

Eunice: Being slutty for Jesus; a career path for the ages! Mind you, dude hung around with 12 men all the time, we don’t even know if he was interested in women.

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