My Trouble With Courtesans

VenusofUrbino If you spend much time around romance, particularly historical romance, you know that mistresses show up fairly often. Many, especially in older books, take the form of the woman that was kept by the hero before he met his special virgin snowflake and who inevitably compares unfavorably to the heroine. I still remember (and cringe) over my days of reading Barbara Cartland in high school. Her mistresses weren’t always evil, but they did have a tendency to appear fake and tawdry next to her innocent little dewdrop heroines.

In more modern times, it has gotten more acceptable to cast the heroine in the role of mistress or courtesan, and it’s become both controversial and also a powerful fantasy. Occasionally, the brothel is portrayed as a titillating, exciting place while in many others it is the house of horror from which the hero must rescue the heroine. And then there are the books where our heroine meets and falls for her first customer – the hero. Online we bemoan the faux courtesans, and we talk about “the real thing”, wondering why women can’t be more sexually empowered in novels. Still, sexually empowered is one thing; trapped in a life where you’re not much more than a sex object is quite another. Though I definitely have an appreciation for the more sexually confident heroines(especially in contemporary settings where this would be less anachronistic than the 30 year old accidental virgins), there’s always been something about the mistress/courtesan/prostitute characters that has bothered me.

Reading this article a few days ago really brought the issue to the front of my mind. While believing in the courtesan who delights in her sexual freedom can be a fun, steamy fairytale, the reality in this article is so much at odds with it that I find it hard to reconcile. The world of the sex worker today is still one in which the women are viewed as mere objects and while the men interviewed recognize on occasion that the women working do so against their will, they have sex with them anyway. Forget the fantasy of a hero falling in love with a prostitute or courtesan; these guys don’t even seem to view them as sentient human beings. In historical times where all women, no matter how beloved, were seen as lesser beings, I find it hard to believe that the women who had to sell their bodies to survive met fates so much better than the ones discussed in this article.

To be fair, some authors have shown a less rose-tinted view of the sex trade. The things we learn about Gabriel’s life in Broken Wing come to mind. And on a less horrific scale, even the casual act of using the heroine for sex with no regard for her pleasure and really not much thought about her has been shown occasionally. The initial encounter between the hero and heroine in Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel is one of the more famous, perhaps infamous for some, that I think of here. Blogger Magdalen has already done a wonderful job of describing it here so I won’t duplicate her efforts.

Still, many books featuring real mistresses or courtesans that had to live by what their sexual relationships with customers or protectors brought them do tend to gloss over things. Sometimes the courtesan is shown as empowered and mature, or the hero, upon meeting his companion for the night is instantly struck by her and treats her like she is special rather than someone being paid to have sex with him. When reading about times when women had few options, this myth of empowerment or the Cinderella story of the hero falling for the lowly heroine can both be very tempting fantasies. However, having worked with and read enough about the fate of women who fell prey to exploitative pimps, violent customers and sexually transmitted diseases, it has always been a little hard for me to idealize the life of the courtesan heroine.

While she may be comfortable with her body, the mistress/courtesan’s financial wellbeing still depends on the whim and generosity of her protectors, and she still must sell herself to keep a roof over her head. And after reading about the mindset and motivations of men in real life who visit women in this situation, I have trouble romanticizing it because of the exploitation often involved. I find some of the couples quite likable, but with a few notable exceptions (such as Broken Wing and Tracy Grant’s Fraser books), it’s very hard for me to lose myself in the fantasy.

What about you? Are you able to suspend disbelief and just go with the “courtesan meets hero who rescues her from life of sexual servitude and they live happily ever after” scenario, or do the realities intrude into the mind a little too much for you, too?

-Lynn Spencer

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19 Responses to My Trouble With Courtesans

  1. Lee says:

    I have to admit, coming off the Tiger Woods, John Edwards debacles, it’s very difficult not to let the realities of this tawdry lifestyle intrude. It’s more understandable in historicals when women legitimately had very few choices. But today, there’s really no excuse.

  2. AAR Sandy says:

    There is always a suspension of disbelief in romance. And in Suspending Disbelief Land I’m able to view the role of courtesan as one of a sexually confident and comfortable woman making her own choices in life. Sleeping Beauty by Ivory is a perfect example of this. Loretta Chase has also pulled it off.

    It’s hard not to view a brothel worker as a victim, however. The only one I can think of is A Precious Jewel and I have to admit I didn’t love the book. Not because of the brothel aspect – Mary Balogh could make me go with just about anything, I think – but that the characters didn’t resonate with me. I just didn’t care very much about either one of them. But then Balogh is hit or miss for me, generally. I don’t love them all, but when I do, I REALLY DO. (I thought Priscilla was a doormat. Maybe she wasn’t and I should have finished the book, but that is how she came off to me. Doormats ALWAYS irritate me — far more than courtesans.)

  3. Laura says:

    Heroes who have sex with courtesans/prostitutes bother me more than heroines who are in that profession. I see these women as victims too.
    Newspapers every day tell us about prostitution rings where girls are tricked into that kind of work – if I know it, of course the ‘john’ knows it too.
    If it’s true today I can only think it was a lot worse in the course of history.
    So when I read about a ‘hero’ who has a kept woman before meeting the oh-so-pure heroine, or who visits brothels, I just loathe him on principal. This makes for slim readings of historicals, but the ugliness of those women’s lives just keeps intruding.

  4. LizA says:

    I do not like heroes who visit prostitutes either. But I do think it is important to differentiate, and a mistress or kept woman was not necessary a prostitute. Some certainly were, but not all. The fact that the man supported them does not really mean these women would have slept with everyone, either. Some of these relationships were like marriage in many ways and lasted for a long time, and it was expected for the man to pay the bills. Women had such few options, after all. Class played a big role too. I think I read somewhere that working class women were not ashamed of being “kept” and that it did not make them outcasts in their own world, while of course a “gently bred” young lady who turned to such a life would be beyond the pale.
    I find that romance novels rarely bother with the nuances of these issues, things seem very black and white. I absolutely dislike the theme of the “fun brothel” because I just don’t buy it. It is an old theme that’s related to the world view about women, the weaker vessel who needed to be ruled or her sexuality would take over. I can actually see why 19th century men bought into that myth (although I still don’t like it) but not a modern man!

    Sorry for my disjointed thoughts… it is an interesting topic to be sure!

  5. Magdalen says:

    Thanks for the compliment about my take on A Precious Jewel, Lynn!

    Here’s what I get from the Jezebel article: the men who use prostitutes don’t see them as sufficiently equal morally to worry about. I actually think this is pretty prevalent thinking and it comes up in other situations. In a pre-Twitter social media group I belonged to years ago, one guy said he & his wife had a weekend visit with another professional couple. The host and hostess had school-aged kids and a Swedish au pair (roughly, a live-in nanny in her early 20s).

    In the course of the visit, the guy guest got up in the middle of the night to pee and saw his host coming down the stairs from the third floor, where only the au pair slept. In the ensuing online discussion about what should guy guest have said and to whom, NO ONE (but me) was concerned about the au pair. I think that’s because she was not enough like the two couples to be worthy of the group’s moral notice. Their discussion was all about the four professionals — does guy guest tell his wife, his hostess, or say something to the host about what he saw? Everyone in the online group identified with those four people.

    Well, I was completely outraged, because the au pair was in a difficult situation — her visa was undoubtedly predicated on this job, the host was her employer, etc. In one scenario, sure, she might have come on to him. But even there, she’s not in a moral position to make a free choice. The much more likely scenario is that the host had the hots for a Swedish nanny type and “imagined” more of a come-on than was really there. I’m not saying rape; I’m saying he took advantage.

    I find it hard to imagine many sex workers who aren’t — like Priscilla was in Balogh’s A Precious Jewel — in a desperate situation when they decide to hook. (If a decision is even part of the situation.) Drug use, homelessness, runaways — there are a lot of ways a woman (or man) gets to that point, but statistically it’s very rarely the “Belle du Jour,” “Pretty Woman,” or “Diary of a Call Girl” story. Those are just the versions of sex workers we’re comfortable with.

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  7. Lynn Spencer says:

    I find the mention of the heroes who go to prostitutes interesting, too. When I first starting reading romance, it didn’t really strike me, but after a while it started to bug me that the hero in many cases didn’t really seem to see these women as people or care what they thought. I suppose the man’s attitudes toward brothel workers, courtesans and others in like situations contrasts markedly with his treatment of the heroine, but it’s still unsettling.

  8. Keishon says:

    Well, I started reading Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel sometime last week. If I remember right, she’s featured the heroine as a prostitute in not only in A Precious Jewel but also, The Secret Pearl and I’m blanking on any others. To answer your question, yes, if the story’s good, I can go along with it. It’s like Pretty Woman with Julia Roberts and Richard Gere. A fairy tale story that just isn’t realistic at all but depending on the story and the author, I can be swept away by it, sure, but romance is fantasy after all right? To expand this further, I don’t take half of the romances I’ve enjoyed that seriously to think of the realistic implications of such a situation. But sometimes, you can’t help it, life does and can intrude.

  9. ElaineK says:

    I agree–the nature of an encounter with a prostitute is dehumanizing and I get very tired of the assumption that every man in every historical novel made use of prostitutes. But then…that’s the usual explanation of how he became so skilled in bed that he can bring the virgin heroine to ecstasy her very first time. Kind of a disconnect there, isn’t it, when the very nature of the prostitute encounter means that she’s responsible for making him feel good, not vice versa.

  10. Rebecca says:

    This is a very interesting blog. Thanks for posting on this.

    I recently Netflixed this very interesting Australian Showtime show called “Satisfaction” that is about a modern-day brothel in Sydney. I was really surprised at how realistic it all seemed. And it made me have a lot more compassion for women who choose to get into the sex trade young and then feel they can do nothing else. There are a lot of discussions about the whole show and the sex trade, as well. If anyone is interested in the topic, I would highly suggest watching this show.

    I definitely want to read that Mary Balogh book, now.

    Great post!

  11. Victoria S says:

    Don’t we have to live firmly in Suspending Disbelief Land (thanks Sandy, great phrase) to even read and enjoy historicals!? I would never have been admitted to the ton, but that does not mean I cannot enjoy reading about the life under the hand of a well-crafted story-teller. In “To Beguile A Beast”, the mistress of a powerful duke has to flee the country and accept a job as a housekeeper, in order to keep her “protector”, a powerful duke, from taking her children. The children, even though illeigetimate, are the father’s “property”, and she has no legal recourse available to her. She gets her HEA and I was thrilled.
    In Mary Balogh’s “More Than A Mistress” Lady Jane goes from gentle woman, to seamstress to nurse to mistress to wife of a duke! And under Ms. Balogh’s talented hands, YES, I did believe it and love it!
    Yes, I know that the women who work the sed-trade in the real world are abused, drugged and brutalized in order to keep them in line, but I read historical romance because it’s NOT the real world.
    I find it hard to even consider comparing historicals to the real world, as this period ,people,culture are so far outside my realm, all I can do is go along for the ride.

  12. Tracy Grant says:

    Thanks for a fascinating post, Lynn, and also for your kind mention of my books. I tend to like books with courtesan or prostitute heroines, particularly in an historical setting. It can make for wonderful conflict, and I like characters with emotional baggage and tangled pasts. As others have said, I think it’s all in the execution. I do see the risks of glamorizing prostitution. I tried to be sensitive to that in writing Mélanie Fraser. Her attitude toward her years as a prostitute, and the lack of power she felt (at one point she thinks of it as “soul destroying”), is very different from her attitude toward her years as a spy who had sex in the course of her work. I also agree there’s a difference between a courtesan, who controlled her fate and earned her own money, and a prostitute in a brothel. It’s also worth remembering that in many historical eras one’s dealing with a society in which marriage was a largely financial contract in which the man had power over the woman’s body. In fact, one could argue that legally a courtesan had more control over her life and whom she had sex with than a wife did.


  13. Janet W says: … Mrs. Giggles continues the convo over on her live journal site … interesting stuff altho her perspective seems skewed to me. I don’t think the life of whore in brothel up to top of the trees courtesan was undertaken by most of the women involved by anything other than economic reasons. From what I’ve read, it was a way to support themselves. No condemnation here, of course, but also not agreeing w/Mrs. Giggles that the historical virgins were the real sluts and the prostitutes were the gals with all the sexual freedom and choice yadda yadda.

    I know Mrs. Giggles is not terribly fond of Mary Balogh, and I am, but you would think she would admire Jane in More Than a Mistress — Jane wrote up a lucrative financial contract (with an exit strategy) and had her duke’s sleazy love nest redecorated before she gave it up: AND she enjoyed the sex. LOL

  14. JMM says:

    I’d rather see a (historical) heroine who chooses to be a mistress than another “supposedly pure and decent virgin who falls on her back and hikes up her skirt for the hero five minutes after meeting him”. Please. A genteel, sheltered girl of good reputation just tossing it away – “Oh, I hope he gets me pregnant so I will have something to remember him by!”

    In the end, IMHO, it’s more about CONTROL. A heroine (in most romance genres) who takes control of her life in any sense seems to make many readers upset. They seem to want the heroine to be in a miserable situation so she can be rescued by the hero.

    And yes, I’m sure a lot of courtesans had bad lives. A lot of “Good Girls” who did the right thing had miserable lives, too. Beaten by their husbands, imprisoned, abandoned, having their children taken away… life for women sucked back then.

  15. Janet W says:

    Goodness @JMM — the plots you’re describing (“… hikes up her skirt for the hero five minutes after meeting him” have me tossing the book at the wall or labelling it a DNF or more likely, not picking up in the first place. What are reviews for if not to warn the unsuspecting reader about bosh and tosh like this.

    For my tastes, Jane in Balogh’s More Than a Mistress had control. Of her life, her destiny and her sexual choices. I don’t read historical romances without a heady dose of disbelief but let’s agree to disagree now. That lives were tough for many many women back then (wives or courtesans) is probably undeniable. But I’m reading romance and I have been able to find women in rhistorical omance that are virginal (or not) and intelligent and decide how and when to give it up for the Duke of Slut (joke, haha).

  16. Janet W says:

    P.S. arrrrrrrrrgh rhistorical –> historical and omance is romance! AAR, how’s abouta edit function? :)

  17. Magdalen says:

    I completely agree with JMM that women’s choices were few, and disaster lurked down every avenue they might take. An attentive suitor might turn out to be abusive (a fate still suffered by some women today), marriage might prove lonelier than being single did, their financial security almost always relied on the financial security (and stability) of a man, whether it was a father, brother, or husband.

    Sexual chastity was a given for an unmarried woman in the 19th century. We read romances set in that century with a modern eye, though, and the plots tend to reflect our 21st century notions of women and their sexual and intellectual lives. We want heroines in a “modern historical romance” (if you see what I mean) to be smart about their own sexual satisfaction and financial security and, of course, have an HEA.

    I’ve never read a modern historical romance where the heroine gives up her virginity so quickly and for insufficient reason. Here, I agree with Janet: that just sounds like a bad book! And I have read romances with courtesan heroines who seemed smart and sensible about their own financial and sexual choices. But I’ve also read modern historical romances where the decision by the heroine to have sex seemed acceptably motivated and not at all stupid.

    Last thought: the DH presented me with a biography of Jane Austen he just happened to have lying around. Jane wrote letters to her niece about whether to marry someone the niece wasn’t sure she loved enough. Jane advocates a sensible match for all the sensible reasons, but also notes that marrying without love could result in love without marriage. What she was thinking of was marrying for the financial security but then falling love with someone else! And as we all know: that’s no HEA. So even back then, and without sex being an issue, Jane Austen was fully aware that marriage was not a guarantee of happiness.

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