And courtesans, harlots, streetwalkers, ladies of negotiable virtue, and other various hangers-on.
1) First, the practical necessities.
I’m going to assume that, if you intend to have whores as major characters or otherwise intimately involved in the story (yes, do ignore the pun), you won’t be averse to thinking about and dealing with these. They’re ignored in 90% of the fantasy I’ve read, but that’s because the important characters there are, at least 98% of the time, not whores. (See point 2).
First! What kind of establishment is this? Can the customers hurt them? How many are they expected to bed in a day, or night? How long do they have in between customers? Does each whore have a room, or do they work in alleys and on streets, or do they work in pairs or in large rooms with several mattresses on the floor? Do they even have mattresses? This will affect things like the cleanliness of the work area, the physical health of the prostitutes involved, how many other people—such as bouncers who are there to stop the customers from hurting the prostitutes—are present, and how comfortable things are. If you’re working with a high-class courtesan (see point 3), then the room may be comfortable, private, and filled with carpets and silken whips, but it’s different if you’ve got a streetwalker whose one luxury is a cramped flat where she never brings her customers, since she’s working in the alleys.
Second, what about disease? I’ve remarked before that most common STD’s would take out most fantasy worlds like a wildfire, because in that 90% of fantasy I’ve read, no one takes any precautions. At all. And please don’t do stupid things like insist that everyone in this world is immune to STD’s because of being elves or something. It’s just lazy. In Victorian Britain, where a good number of the stereotypes and conceptions of prostitution come from, there were honest-to-god laws, the Contagious Disease Acts of the 1860’s, passed that mandated that prostitutes had to be medically examined because they might give diseases to sailors and other men the Empire needed in top working condition. And, of course, it was very easy to accuse a woman of prostitution even if she wasn’t one, and the women were not so much treated as detained until they were thought to be “clean.”
Were the men examined?
Don’t make me laugh. (See point 3 again).
It’s worth noting that the Contagious Disease Acts inspired people to act against that, and they were repealed in the 1880’s. But if the association of prostitutes and disease exists in your fantasy world—as it probably will if their status is not attended with respect (see point 3, again)—the subject should be dealt with.
Third, for female whores, there’s the issue of pregnancy to consider. They need not carry their pregnancies to term, but the same thing applies to this issue as to disease: with many partners and an absolute lack of precautions, it’s a bullet that no woman can dodge forever, unless she’s already sterile. (And, of course, not many authors are going to inflict sterility on their female characters, because then they can’t have cute little babies with the hero). Then there comes the risk of miscarriage, botched abortions, stillbirth, and death in childbed—not to mention the months when she won’t be able to work because of risk of damage to the child. If the woman survives the birth, then she’s got the trouble of considering how to raise it, with the chance that the child (at least, if a girl) will be forced into prostitution, too, or thievery, or other perils that attend lower-class life.
Fourth, how does she bear it? Alcoholism, and sometimes the use of other drugs, such as opium, was considered such a large problem for Victorian whores because they needed a way to escape the pain of their lives. But overuse of any drug will cut down the hours they can work, and probably the number of their customers. Yet it would be a minor miracle if your whore character came through the experience completely unchanged and with incurable optimism—one reason I find the “whore with a heart of gold” character so unrealistic. (Of course, there’s always the possibility that she doesn’t do this all the time. See point 4).
And yes, you can invent “excuses” for all of these, like the “everyone is an elf, and they never get sick or pregnant or discouraged” nonsense I mentioned earlier. But I think it’s more worthwhile to face the practical necessities and address them thoughtfully. If nothing else, it gives you more room for varying character reaction.
And that’s what you want, if you’re interested in writing about this, isn’t it?
2) Whores do deserve to have their subjectivity considered.
If she’s just a nameless stereotype that appears once and never again, maybe you won’t do it for her any more than you would for any other minor character. But if she’s a fairly major character, or a viewpoint character, then yeah, you should pay attention.
Think of the whores as people. I probably shouldn’t have to mention this, no, but, once again, fantasy has a bad habit of making everything revolve around its heroes. Only their griefs, their pasts, their angst, their joys, their loves, their friends, are important. The minor characters are often, at best, ignored or made into stock types; at worst, they’re slapped down whenever they do something that takes attention away from the hero.
Whores are particularly bad examples of this, because, when they do show up, it’s practically to be stereotypes: to give the hero his first sexual experience, to give the heroine someone to weep over and rescue (without, of course, being in the least an inconvenience to her), to be the heart-of-gold stock character bracing the virgin heroine for her experience as a “working girl” in the moments before she’s rescued. (Heroines must be virgins! Or, at the very least, every sexual experience must be significant, even in a society where that’s extremely unlikely for a woman! I think the only major exception I’ve encountered is Phedre, the heroine of the Kushiel books, and even there, the best sex she ever has is with the “true love” character. Of course. The heroes can’t be poor lovers, either).
So now you have a whore heroine. How she’s going to think?
As a citizen of her world, I hope. (Point 3! With a large hammer!) Also, as the heroine of her own story. I find it highly unlikely she’ll notice one customer as different from the others just because he has violet eyes. Remember how many partners she’s probably had. He’ll have to do something more significant for her to notice him. Be nice to her, perhaps. Not make some crude remark. Give her an especially large payment. (See point 5). No matter how much you may wish otherwise, once you accept her as a viewpoint character, she’s got to have reasons for thinking thoughts that are unusual for her, given her background, station, mindset, and current life. I think the second most cowardly thing an author with a major character like this can do, after making her a stereotype, is to refuse to deal with her life. So all that nasty sex is left over to the side, and the only thing she ever does on-stage is sing, because, really, she’s a musician! (Why can’t she make her living at that, then?) Or she gets involved in adventures! (Doesn’t that leave her too tired to do her work?) Or she’s the foster mother of the prophecy child, and spends all her time noting this little girl’s specialness and wonderfulness! (So she’s never tired, snappish, ashamed of her work, or hungry?)
This is just damn stupid. Have some fucking courage, if you’re going to write a character like this. No one says you have to, no. But having said you will, try to get through it without making her into a nebulous, bodiless cloud.
This, incidentally, is my major problem with “courtesan” characters: they always seem to swank around on some gentleman’s arm, smile, sing, laugh, drink expensive wines, and maybe work as assassins in their spare time, but they never, ever have sex.
3) Know how they interact with the social fabric around them.
If prostitution is considered exclusively a low-class activity, regarded with shame, I want to know where the hell those courtesans came from. Why do they get to be different? Why are they considered high-class instead of low and dirty?
There can be answers to this, of course. Perhaps an especially beautiful woman can achieve heights that most whores won’t get a chance to, because they’re worn out and broken down with their constant work and their battles with disease, poor sanitation, and alcoholism. Perhaps there’s a polite fiction in place that a courtesan’s “real” work is providing entertainment and witty conversation to her lover, so she can’t be considered in the same class as a woman who just grunts when you work her over. Perhaps the courtesan really does provide that entertainment. Perhaps a courtesan is trained, while the common prostitutes just spread their legs for anyone.
You can make it work. But you have to make it work, especially if in other parts of the story you have your protagonists sneering at those low-class harlots without even noticing the contradiction.
What about men? Can they also be whores? There might be some, but, in a typical patriarchal fantasy society, there will be more women. Why? Because there will be fewer opportunities for women to do other things, and because the double standard that’s practically required as part of patriarchal societies punishes women more for things like pregnancy. (One source of prostitutes in Victorian Britain was women who became pregnant outside wedlock and were left to bear the shame alone). Men can fall into some of the same traps, but you’ll have to explain why they couldn’t get out of it, especially if they have other skills. (See point 5, once more). If your society is gender-equal, the prostitution might be split another way, say along class lines, and thus might include more equal numbers of men.
What are the sexual morals in your society? Perhaps there are different classes of whores based on how many lovers they have; two or three is all right, even commendable for a noble widow, but have more than that and you’re a woman who opens the door of her boudoir for anyone. Perhaps people are more sympathetic to a woman who uses her body to buy bread for her children than one who uses it to buy opium to soothe her dreams.
Perhaps you have women who sleep with strangers for religious reasons, such as “temple prostitutes.” However, I remain skeptical that “temple prostitutes” are any such thing, based on most incorporations of them into fantasies I’ve read. If they don’t actually have sex with strangers for money, just for love of the gods, what makes them whores? Perhaps they’re considered that way by hostile strangers, or because they sleep with people who promise to make large donations to the temples for the favor, but most of the time, this strikes me as another way to avoid dealing with the reality of what prostitution involves.
In Victorian Britain, sexual morals were tied up tight with fear of disease, hence the Contagious Disease Acts, and fear of women’s desire—“fallen women” were often considered creatures of insatiable desire, because, of course, “good girls” didn’t feel nasty emotions of that sort and would never give in to men—and fear of women going about on the streets. Any woman walking alone in London during some parts of the century was liable to be accused of being a prostitute, and perhaps treated like one. Rape was not largely acknowledged as a social problem (it was often called “seduction”) and men’s sexual desires were considered natural and sometimes discreetly admired. All of this produced a large class of working prostitutes, with the majority of the people who weren’t working as prostitutes steadfastly ignoring the real causes of the problem.
Is it legal? Again, some kinds might be. Perhaps even streetwalkers just get hauled off for the night when caught and released the next morning. But if there’s a large sense of shame and disgust towards prostitutes in your imagined world, there will probably be people pushing for harsher laws. And whatever sexual morals you decide on should link to their legal treatment, too.
Is there homosexual prostitution? Maybe, maybe not. It will probably depend on how male and female homosexuality are treated in your society; many homosexual men in Victorian Britain had to be far more discreet than men who visited female prostitutes, and most people at the time didn’t consider that lesbians could have “actual” sex. And it will also depend on how much freedom the members of each sex have. If a noblewoman wants to have sex with her own sex, but she’s restricted from leaving the house and has nosy neighbors, it would be easier for her to just indulge herself with her maid, not order a pretty girl brought to her or creep off to a prostitute.
How are prostitutes treated in art and literature? In Victorian Britain, the sense of sin was strong in the artistic depictions. Here is a collection of several paintings about the subject, often tied in with some Biblical or religious reference. If your fantasy society also connects the subject with religion, it should show up in the art.
In novels, the motivation was often treated as a personal weakness on the part of the “fallen woman.” Mary Barton, a novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, has a prostitute character, Esther, who’s described this way by her sister’s husband:
“Not but what beauty is a sad snare. Here was Esther so puffed up, that there was no holding her in. Her spirit was always up, if I spoke ever so little in the way of advice to her; my wife spoiled her, it is true, for you see she was so much older than Esther, she was more like a mother to her, doing every thing for her….You see Esther spent her money in dress, thinking to set off her pretty face; and got to come home so late at night, that at last I told her my mind; my missis thinks I spoke crossly, but I meant right, for I loved Esther, if it was only for Mary’s sake. Says I, ‘Esther, I see what you’ll end at with your artificials, and your fly-away veils, and stopping out when honest women are in their beds; you’ll be a street-walker, Esther, and then, don’t you go to think I’ll have you darken my door, though my wife is your sister.’ So says she, ‘Don’t trouble yourself, John. I’ll pack up and be off now, for I’ll never stay to hear myself called as you call me.’ She flushed up like a turkey-cock, and I thought fire would come out of her eyes; but when she saw Mary cry (for Mary can’t abide words in a house), she went and kissed her, and said she was not so bad as I thought her. So we talked more friendly, for, as I said, I liked the lass well enough, and her pretty looks, and her cheery ways. But she said (and at that time I thought there was sense in what she said) we should be much better friends if she went into lodgings, and only came to see us now and then.”
Esther ends up irrevocably fallen, a sad lesson for her niece Mary Barton. Once again, this isn’t an unusual depiction for a society that regards prostitution as a source of sin and shame.
Whatever the dominant attitude(s) towards prostitution are in your society, the culture should reflect them, either straightforwardly or in order to argue with them.
4) Break up the idea of prostitution as some sort of monolith.
The dominant view of whores in British Victorian society was the middle-class one. One book I read selections from in one of my classes—unfortunately, I don’t remember the title of the book—had a letter that a woman who had been born in a village and had become a rich man’s mistress wrote to the newspapers. She revealed that she felt no shame, because her occupation enabled her to earn money for her family, and give extra treats, like ribbons and candy, to her younger siblings. She had been lucky enough to have a rich man fall in love with her, and also give her education in reading and writing. She had been raised with a far different view of prostitution than the middle-class one, and retained it into adulthood, because it benefited her.
So: Not all prostitutes are the same. Some will feel shame, if that’s part of the society’s view of them. Some won’t. Some will neglect their children. Some won’t have children, because they’ll take precautions against carrying any to term. Some will love their children and make shift to raise them. Some may avoid speaking to any “normal” women; others will seek them out, perhaps to show that they are still human.
They may not be prostitutes all the time, either. Closer study of streetwalkers in Victorian England has revealed that it was a seasonal occupation for many women; they became prostitutes in winter, when it was difficult to earn enough money for shelter and warmth or when their regular jobs closed up, and then returned to those normal jobs when the weather grew milder. They passed in and out of the different classifications under the middle class’s nose, because the middle class was too busy explaining to itself that any woman who “fell” would remain that way forever.
Likewise, perhaps a prostitute does exceptionally well for herself, puts money by, and changes employments as she grows older. Or she supplements that source of her income with others—not enough to keep her alive without the prostitution, but sufficing with it.
There are all kinds of possibilities. Combine this with point 2, and you’ve got a living, breathing class of characters, which works a lot better than just accepting another society segment’s word about them as the gospel truth.
5) Prostitution is sex for money.
But, as I’ve noted before, a lot of authors go out of their way to avoid actually tackling this subject, even when they’ve made their characters its subject. Thus the courtesans who seem to do everything but have sex. Thus the heroines who inexplicably remain virgins in the middle of whorehouses. Thus the prostitutes who never seem affected by their lives and remain cheerful and smiling and able to dispense good advice left and right.
Thus the characters who become prostitutes when they could live by other means. This strikes me as a case where the author wants angst and nothing else. Can the character pick pockets, play music, juggle, sew, or work in a factory? Then why is she subjecting herself to the risks of sex with strangers? Maybe her other job won’t keep her by itself, or is subject to seasonal variation, as mentioned in point 4. Then it’s reasonable for her to act as she must to survive. But why is prostitution ever a first resort for someone, unless she’s done it before? Consider this before your character spends her first cold, hungry night on the streets, and then decides that she absolutely must become a whore, nothing else will do!
And if you’ve chosen a prostitute as a major character, show the sex for money part, hmmm? Once again, no one’s forced you to write about this subject, but once you do it—just as happens when you choose to write about rape and torture—it’s dishonest to the story to flinch. If you’re uncomfortable writing straightforward sex scenes, there are plenty of ways to elide a bit and still suggest the character’s feelings.
And please, none of this “she doesn’t take payment, she does it for love!” nonsense. If this is her livelihood, she can’t afford not to charge. If she really likes the guy—and why is that?—then maybe she doesn’t accept his money, but if she did that all the time, she’d starve. Besides, if he loves her, why isn’t he insisting that she take a hefty payment?
Basically, if to you, sex always equals love, perhaps you shouldn’t be writing a prostitute character.
Anything but pretending that your prostitute character, who has sex for money, is really doing something else.
I think fantasy could use more whore characters—with their own voices, thanks.