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A history of sex for sale

The history of selling sex is a hidden one – and too often its practitioners are pushed to the margins of history. In ‘Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts’, Kate Lister redresses the balance, revealing the history of the sex trade through the eyes of sex workers. In this extract, she argues why the way we write, think and talk about sex work matters.

Words by Dr Kate Listerphotography by Steven Pocockaverage reading time 5 minutes

  • Book extract
Colour photograph of a round table top covered in a white lace table cloth against a wooden panelled wall. On the table are two champagne coupes filled with sparkling champagne. Propped up against one of the glasses is a old hand tinted photographic print. The print is from the turn of the 20th century and show a woman in under garments sitting on a dining chair backwards, legs astride the backrest. Behind her a man is seated pouring a drink from a champagne glass into her mouth. A red ribbon snakes on its side around the bases of the glasses and the photographic print and off the side of the table.
A history of sex for sale. Archive image: Representation of a scene in a brothel (France) c. 1900. © Corbis Historical/adoc-photos, Photo: Steven Pocock. Source: Wellcome Collection.

Stereotypes, stigma and sensationalism have obscured the lived experience of people selling sex throughout much of history. The stigma forced, and continues to force, many into silence, meaning the dominant social narrative around sex work has been constructed and deployed by law makers, moralisers, medics and the media. Stereotypes of the unrepentant, titillating whore or the tragic victim in need of rescue have long stifled the voices of those who sold sex.

The very nature of sex work is, and has always been, to sell a fantasy. When we watch porn, for example, we see only the carefully choreographed final product. We see the actors, the set and the make-believe sex. We do not see the camera crew standing around and eating sandwiches, the multiple takes, the fake cum or the discussions around consent and boundaries. The fantasy is the finished product, but it is never the whole story.

Sex work is, and has always been, a highly complex experience that resists easy definition. From the temple whores of Babylon and the legendary courtesans of ancient Greece, to the hustling molly boys of Georgian London, the lob-lob girls of Canton, and the Winchester Geese trading on medieval London’s Gropecunt Lane, there is no one version of sex work: there are legion. Some made their name trading sex for fabulous sums of money, others occasionally turned to sex work to supplement a low wage: a side hustle once known as ‘dollymopping’.

Many who sold sex lived, and continue to live, in terrible poverty, and choose full bellies over empty platitudes of morality. Then there are those who did not choose at all but lived in sexual slavery. All traded fantasy and sexual favours, and all faced varying levels of abuse and social stigma.

Quite how much stigma various groups have shouldered has historically been dictated by money and class – the wealthier the client, the less stigma involved. The glamorous, diamond-studded courtesans and professional mistresses of the medieval and Renaissance European aristocracy, for example, not only commanded respect, but many wielded considerable political influence over their besotted clients. Royal mistresses were so powerful, many were referred to as the “power behind the throne”.

Throughout history, authorities have fretted about how to best ‘deal’ with those who want to buy or sell sex, moving through various stages of repression, toleration, legalisation, control, moral outrage and abolition, before circling back again.

History is littered with various efforts to prevent sexual exploitation by abolishing sex work. None of them have worked.

History is littered with various efforts to prevent sexual exploitation by abolishing sex work. None of them have worked. Torture, mutilation, fines, imprisonment, banishment, excommunication and even the death penalty have all been deployed at various points, and none have succeeded in abolishing the sale of sex. Nor have these punitive measures ended sexual abuse.

All that happens is consenting sex workers are forced to work in dangerous conditions and are further stigmatised for what they do, and those who are abused become even harder to find.

One of the central mantras of the modern-day sex worker rights movement is ‘Stigma Kills’, and with good reason. In 2000, Canadian professor John Lowman analysed descriptions in the media of efforts to abolish sex work by politicians, police and local residents, and identified a “discourse of disposability”. Lowman linked this with a sharp increase in the murders of street sex workers in British Columbia, Canada, after 1980.

He argued that, “It appears that the discourse on prostitution of the early 1980s was dominated by demands to get rid of prostitutes from the streets, creating a social milieu in which violence against prostitutes could flourish.”

This is how stigma works. Once the sex worker is stigmatised as ‘less than’, or ‘disposable’, a message formed, shaped and deployed in debates around morality and abolition, this discourse then influences how sex workers are treated. We can see this rhetoric at work throughout history. Draconian laws and harsh punishments against those selling sex reinforce social stigma, which enables violence to flourish.

My book ‘Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts’ uncovers the history of people who have bought and sold sex, but abolishing the ongoing stigma around sex work is everyone’s responsibility.

It is said that sex work is the world’s oldest profession, but this is not true. In cultures without money, there were no professions at all and little evidence of prostitution – though, doubtless, sex has always been a useful commodity in one way or another.

It was Rudyard Kipling who first coined the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” in his short story ‘On the City Wall’ (1898). The tale opens with the immortal line: “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world.” The expression has since fallen into common parlance as a historical truth.

But perhaps what Kipling wrote after those words offers even more insight into what is, at least, a very ancient profession indeed: “In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved.”

How we write about sex work, indeed how we think and talk about it, matters. It might not be the ‘oldest’, but it is a very ancient one. Its workers are deserving of rights and respect, of being genuinely heard and seen, rather than stereotyped and silenced. It is time to move beyond the fantasy. It is time to look, listen and learn.

About the contributors

Photographic black and white head and shoulders portrait of Dr Kate Lister.

Dr Kate Lister


Kate Lister is the creator of the award-winning online research project Whores of Yore, which seeks to build public engagement and disseminate research on the history of sex and sexuality through social media. She also lectures at Leeds Trinity University, and is widely published on the sex trade.

Photographic head and shoulders, black and white portrait of Steven Pocock.

Steven Pocock


Steven is a photographer at Wellcome. His photography takes inspiration from the museum’s rich and varied collections. He enjoys collaborating on creative projects and taking them to imaginative places.