Prostitution is often quoted to be the “oldest profession in the Book” meaning it has been in practice ever since the Bible. Prostitutes, as in the Bible, are socially ostracized even now. Brothels are treated as Red Light areas and people tend to avoid them in civilized society. The entire industry, though very well known, is talked about in tabooed language and dominated by stereotypes in popular imagination. It is all part of the patriarchal notion of treating the woman’s body as mysterious and tabooed, and creating a huge uproar about a woman’s virginity as well as her fidelity to one man. However they were, and are famous prostitutes from all over the world who showed how prostitution need not be a tabooed concept at all. People can be very free and rational about it as well. For example, Marilyn Monroe. Everybody knew she made a lot of money but people tend to ignore that and talk about her singing instead. Nevertheless, the fact was, she was a prostitute and there is nothing immoral about the profession.
But there were other prostitutes, besides Monroe or fictionally Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, who were equally well known for leaving their mark in history.
Nell Gwynn was a prostitute in London in the mid seventeenth century. She was the daughter of an alcoholic brothel owner in pitiful financial condition. She started working quite early, selling snacks during plays and delivering messages to young noblemen.
One lucky day, when Nell was in her late teens, she met King Charles II during a play. The king was impressed with the young harlot’s quick wit, and invited her back to the castle. One thing lead to another, and pretty soon Nell Gwynn was a regular attendee of the king’s court.
However as such a story often reveals, the king had a wife, a mistress and a long chain of former and aspiring mistresses all fighting for his attention and hence get their name associated to him. Nell took full advantage of the situation though, and by a combination of her natural wit and charm and a manipulative poisoning of her rivals with laxatives, she managed to become the king’s most beloved concubine.
Nell Gwynn never denied her past, nor did she regret it. There were times, when with the king’s name she had become respectable, people often doubted and even fought over her status as a prostitute. She always admitted it and cut all contacts with those who did not accept that fact about her.
One time, a large crowd mistook her for a rival mistress, the Duchess of Portsmouth, and began to shout at her carriage, calling her a Catholic whore, which at that time, was a rather insulting swearword. They used it as an abuse only, not literally. Nell stuck her head out of the carriage window and corrected them,”Good people, you are mistaken. I am the Protestant whore.”
This mixture of wit and bigotry won the crowd over. Soon she was the only one of King Charles’s many mistresses to become really popular among the people. Nell was a shrewd woman, and she used her favor with the king and the people of England to secure her son a dukedom, and convince the king to approve the establishment of a Royal Hospital for ex-servicemen in London.
The Empress Theodora sold her body for wealth in the fifth century AD in Constantinople.She was the wife and co-ruler of the great Justinian, the most lauded ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire.Why would an Empress need to take resort to prostitution for money? That is because Theodora was not born an Empress.
Theodora’s father died when she was quite young. Her mother and her two sisters became completely destitute. Desperate for money, Theo’s mother sent her three daughters off to work “in the theater.” Which obviously meant that they would “entertain” men. Unmarried poor women were not considered for their worth for anything else at that time. Marriage was out the question without much name or money to their credit.
Theo took to harlotry quickly. As for our Empress, she could n t sing or dance or play an instrument so this was more or less the only option left for her. But soon she became the most promiscuous courtesan Constantinople had ever seen. She took it as a performance, and developed skills in the profession.
The historian Procopius elaborated on the subject with graphic sexual images and very strong pejorative language ostracizing her for her extreme virility.
Eventually Theo found a John whom she could serve for more than one night. Fortunately, for her, that John was the Emperor Justinian. The rest is history. Theodora became his valued co-ruler and was, by all accounts, an equal partner.
After rising to prosperity and power, the Empress abolished forced prostitution, made rape punishable by death and helped establish basic property rights for women across the Eastern Empire. Despite her lofty position, Theodora never forgot her humble roots. She was a friend to the poor, and one of the greatest women’s rights reformers in history.
Wilful prostitution thus was a sign of women liberation and those who did it, showed you how.