I am wholeheartedly on the side of the unrepentant whore, the most maligned woman in history…in [this book she] speaks up to denounce and challenge her oppressors, and thereby overcome the centuries of lies, denial and stereotyping that have been her lot. Only when she is listened to by the rest of our society will women finally and irrevocably be able to end our division into Good Girls and Bad Girls. - Nickie Roberts, from her foreword
My initial bibliography entry for Nickie Roberts’ Whores In History (1992) did not remotely do it justice; it was literally the very first entry I wrote, and I hadn’t really settled on the length of description and depth of detail that I wanted in the reviews. But now, almost a year later, I feel I owe the book a longer and more elaborate review, especially after my disappointing experience with Aphrodite’s Trade (related in yesterday’s column). Up until now, all I had to say about Roberts’s monumental work was this rather terse paragraph:
Anyone who is really interested in the TRUE history of prostitution (as opposed to the traditional nonsense promulgated by Western governments and the even more ridiculous variety vomited forth by neofeminists) should read this book. As a former working girl herself, Nickie Roberts knows the lay of the land and this excellent and exhaustively-researched volume may open a few eyes about the origin and development of the profession and the way many of us see it.
And though that’s absolutely true, it isn’t nearly enough. In Roberts’ introduction she states,
Everything I had read about prostitution and prostitutes appeared to have been written by men – the client class – mostly academics who claimed scholarly objectivity. The thought occurred to me that if prostitution truly is the world’s oldest profession, then men writing about it is certainly the second oldest. From the time ink was invented, it seems that male writers have been obsessed with the whore…Only fairly recently has the subject of prostitution been tackled by feminists, often of the radical/revolutionary tendency; women who have an anti-sex industry axe to grind. To put it bluntly, the feminist movement has failed the prostitute, and failed her badly, in my view.
This is a crucial point, because it presents the entire philosophy underlying the book: It is, and was from the beginning intended to be, the first scholarly examination of the history of prostitution written by someone who actually knows about the subject firsthand. Roberts is not a male scholar looking at the lives and stories and statistics and reports from a male (and therefore an outsider’s) perspective, nor a feminist scholar warping the truth through the distorted lens of misandrist anti-sex rhetoric, but a harlot-scholar writing about a subject she understands because she has lived it.
The study starts in prehistory and then moves from Ancient Greece to Rome to Medieval Europe, then on through the Renaissance and Age of Reason to the 19th and 20th centuries, culminating in a discussion of the origins of the sex worker rights movement. In each chapter she gives a general sketch of the social conditions of the time as they relate to women in general and whores specifically, then discusses historical events and important personalities (both historical whores and the men who hired them, wrote about them or tried to control them). Where statistics are available she presents them, though as you might expect this happens much more often in the chapters on the 19th and 20th centuries (just as in any other historical subject). Her research is exhaustive; the bibliography contains about 150 sources and every important fact and declaration in the 358-page text is carefully attributed. Though the author certainly expresses her own informed interpretation of the various events and trends, she never stoops to the neofeminist tactic of just making things up; all of her judgments are backed up with solid facts.
I cannot possibly overstate how valuable Whores In History has been to me in writing this blog; whenever I set out to do a column on people or events from a certain period in history I usually scan the chapter which discusses it so as to re-familiarize myself with it, and in many cases Roberts quotes from sources which are not readily available online. My copy resides in the bookshelf nearest my desk (when it isn’t on the desk), and bears the unmistakable signs of heavy usage and consultation. I highly recommend this important work to all my whore sisters, to all the men who love and/or support us, and to all those who are interested in the truth about a long-hidden aspect of women’s history. Used copies can be purchased on Amazon for literally pocket change, and it’s well worth the modest investment.