Harlots, Whores and Hackabouts by Kate Lister review – a history of sex for sale

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy</span>
Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

Consider Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Phryne Before the Areopagus, painted in 1861. It shows the ancient Greek courtesan Phryne, who was being tried for impiety. In Gérôme’s version, sensing the case isn’t going well, her defender, Hypereides, tears off all Phryne’s clothes to expose her beautiful breasts, leaving her creamily naked and shielding her face in burning shame, reasoning that no jury will convict such an exquisite creature. Meanwhile, the 25 or so jurors, all male and middle-aged, hold their hands to their mouths in a stagey gesture of horror and desire.

Aesthetically stunning, the painting is nonetheless unbearable in its bad faith. For while it pretends to condemn Phryne as a seller of sex, it simultaneously tickles the viewer with the thought of what it might be like to sleep with her. And it is this tension that runs like a faultline through Kate Lister’s strangely unsatisfying history of sex for sale. For while her excellent introduction makes clear that the sex industry, even in its fancier incarnations, is intimately linked with poverty, disease and coercion, the illustrations that pack this book send a message of fantasy, fulfilment and fun.

The sense of catering for an elite gaze permeates many of the objects in this book

It turns out that Gérôme liked the subject of women selling sex so much that he couldn’t leave it alone. The Slave Market in Rome, which he completed in 1884, shows a naked woman in exactly the same pose as Phryne. The only difference is that, this time, the crowd of gawping ancients is composed of toga-wearing Romans. That same year Gérôme helpfully produced a companion piece, A Roman Slave Market (titles were clearly not his thing), which shows the same female figure, but this time seen from the rear. The esteemed professor of the École des Beaux-Arts was presumably catering for those collectors who preferred bottoms to breasts.

The extent to which Gérôme, weighed down with civic honours, was actually shilling for the sex trade is not a tangle that Lister has space to unpick. Instead, her book gives precedence to the illustrative material, much of it taken from the Wellcome Collection. And hugely pleasurable it is too. Thames & Hudson is unsurpassed as a publisher of art history, and each image is laid out with loving care on thick paper. A scratchy fresco found in Pompeii of the god Priapus carefully weighing his own penis gets a full page. An illustration from a Norwegian novel of 1886 showing the heroine queueing to have a compulsory gynaecological examination is run extravagantly across two pages. And that is not forgetting the figures from the ancient Qing dynasty, who copulate with all the public service earnestness of the couple in Alex Comfort’s 1972 classic The Joy of Sex. Each unfeasible position – can legs really bend that far? – gets a generous half page.

The Qing pictures were intended for an aristocratic audience, and this sense of catering for an elite gaze permeates many of the objects in this book. There is, for instance, a photograph of Edward VII’s “Love Chair”, a strange contraption that was custom-made to allow “Edward the Caresser” to manoeuvre his walrus-like bulk without squashing the woman (or women: there was room for two friends) unfortunate enough to lie beneath. From the 1600s come images of “chopines”, the high platform shoes in jewel-toned velvet and silk that Venetian sex workers wore to elevate themselves above the literal and moral mire. Creepiest by far are the “porcelain fruits”, little bibelots of tiny china figurines engaged in their own versions of the karma sutra. Mothers would stow these at the bottom of a girl’s bridal trunk, to encourage – or terrify – her on her wedding night.

Alongside such eloquent objects, it is difficult for Lister to tell a sober story of pains and gains. Although her text makes it clear that the history of commercial sex is mostly concerned with quotidian objects – the speculum of forced examination, the homemade abortifacients, the rags and the blood – images of these items are either absent or oddly misleading. For instance, a photograph showing wartime Neapolitan sex workers being carted away by the army to get treated for VD shows the women with beaming smiles, as if they are delighted to get the afternoon off.

All too often it feels as though Lister, a university historian who has previously written well about the history of sex, is simply flicking through a smutty guidebook. In her company we float alongside the geishas of Japan, walk briskly with a copy of Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies to hand, or else stroll through the Storyville quarter of New Orleans where sex work comes with a jazz accompaniment. Even the British Victorians, who knew a thing or two about making a “fallen woman” feel bad about herself, seem to be having a lark.

Harlots, Whores and Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale by Kate Lister is published by Thames & Hudson (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer order a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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