Introduction to the series
George R.R. Martin has been hailed as the American Tolkien by many critics. His high fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire is equal parts sophisticated storytelling and dramatic soap opera with fantastical elements. The two authors differ greatly in their handling and approach to sex, violence, violent sex, and sexy violence. Very much unlike Tolkien, Martin is quite unabashed in his inclusion of prostitutes in his story, making his fantasy world much more realistic and Earth-adjacent.
A Song of Ice and Fire (herein abbreviated ASOIaF) is set on a world that is not Earth but very, very similar to it. The books have highly detailed maps of the world in question and the continent shape and layout is similar enough to make a reader do a double-take. The most obvious and honestly, disturbing, difference between our world and that of ASOIaF is the seasonal changes. Seasons can last entire lifetimes or be as short as two weeks. When the story begins, there are signs that the Long Summer, which has lasted approximately 14 years at this point is winding down and that an equally long or longer winter will be on its way.
However, winter brings literal dangers beyond too much snow– creatures called The Others or the White Walkers who bring with them even more cold and darkness. Skin as white as snow, armor as clear as ice and stronger than steel and the only feature setting them apart from the snow and ice are their electric blue eyes. One doesn’t notice them until they’re right upon you. Sweet dreams! But, this isn’t a meteorlogical forecast, so if you would like to read more about that part of the series, I suggest the Tower of the Hand or A Wiki of Ice and Fire. Of course, I highly suggest reading the series itself!
The social hierarchy in the world of ASOIaF is almost parallel to medieval Europe and, to a lesser extent, Middle East/West Asia. There is a Catholic Church analogy, with regard to the highly ceremonial nature and powerful political influence, in The Faith, a religion that worships a god in seven aspects; their houses of worship are called Septs and the clergy that serve in them Septons (male) or Septas (female). The Faith is highly intertwined with the Iron Throne, the power of the Seven Kingdoms ruled by a single king. Women have varying forms of power but if you know anything about Medieval Europe than you know about the status of women in this world. Children born out of wedlock have the official legal status of bastard and as such, calling someone a bastard when they are not may earn the accuser a hanging. Scratch that. A very, very, very bloody war is being fought over such an accusation (in addition to the accusation of being a product of incest). But even among bastards, there is a social hierarchy and a “family” name that is both a blessing and a curse: bastards born of a noble parent (of course, usually the father) is given a surname based on the region they were born in and whatever feature of that region that is most common. For example, in the North there is always snow on the ground even during the summer. Therefore, highborn bastards born in the North are given the last name Snow. Common bastards most likely have no last name. So as you can see, having a last name like Snow both shows your noble heritage and your stigma through the circumstances of birth.
Here is a society where sex is only for marriage…at least for women. Though, as always, there are those who rebel. “Fallen”, “damaged”, low-born women become whores as found in brothels and following camps or unofficially serving the lord of the house. Highborn women become concubines and castle-bred bastards become paramours.
Prostitutes in the Seven Kingdoms
Brothels and camp followers
“There are a hundred whorehouses in this city where a clipped copper will buy me all the cunt I want.” -Bronn, A Clash of Kings, p. 199
Brothels, sometimes called pillow houses, are plentiful in the Seven Kingdoms and they range in quality from ones with “penny whores” to those who charge silver or gold exclusively. The brothels that only deal in copper (pennies) are the most numerous because that’s all most men can afford. These establishments are in every nook and cranny in the Seven Kingdoms, including in the capital of King’s Landing. Brothels charging silver or gold are extremely rare, but one notable example is also in King’s Landing, Chataya’s. More on Chataya and her establishment later.
The other common whore in the Seven Kingdoms is that of the camp follower. These women were also found in medieval Europe. Their moniker is literal: they followed camps, specifically of soldiers on campaigns. Camp follower could also describe those people providing non-sexual services, such as hedge knights or landless knights hoping to find some glory on the battlefield to better their fortunes. Female camp followers provided both sexual and non-sexual services, the latter including tending to a soldier’s armor and weapons, clothing, food preparation and gathering, or anything else they needed in addition to sex if they didn’t have a squire to do the job for them. In ASOIaF, one camp follower, Shae, becomes a major character in her own rags-to-riches-to-tragic fall story.
Chataya is the proprietress of a high-end brothel in King’s Landing catering only to those who have the money for it: silver and gold. She hails from the Summer Isles where prostitution is far from being a stigma, but is a religious calling and an art form that even the highborn participate in. Chataya runs the brothel and occasionally still sees customers herself. Her daughter, Alayaya, has similarly been trained in the erotic arts and works at her mother’s establishment. Naturally, neither Chataya nor Alayaya ascribe to the Westerosi notion of shame in their calling and the other women who work there similarly are positive about their work. Of the work, Chataya has the following exchange with one of the main characters, Tyrion Lannister (A Clash of Kings, p. 179, USPB):
“My people hold there is no shame to be found in the pillow house. In the Summer Isles, those who are skilled at giving pleasure are greatly esteemed. Many highborn youths and maidens serve for a few years after their flowerings, to honor the gods.”
“What do the gods have to do with it?”
“The gods made our bodies as well as our souls, is it not so? They give us voices, so we might worship them with songs. They give us hands, so we might build them temples. And they give us desire, so we might mate and worship them in that way.”
“Remind me to tell the High Septon,” said Tyrion. “If I could pray with my cock, I’d be much more religious.
Unfortunately the television show, A Game of Thrones, has deprived us of this character, who, by description, would have the look of a darker-skinned Iman. Instead, a similar brothel is in the series, but it is run by an unscrupulous man who, in the book, is merely a financial backer of Chataya’s with no say in daily operations: it is a woman-owned and run establishment. When Tyrion compliments Chataya on her establishment she tells him that, “I have labored long to make it so” and that all her ladies, “are as sweet as they are beautiful, and skilled in every art of love”. So this is not a place for those women in prostitution against their will or who do not take it seriously. Even though Chataya’s is high end (it was a favorite of the king’s), it still attracts some deviants. Due to the fact that the brothel was favored by the king and other lords and wealthy knights, she can count on some protection against the offenses that occur in other houses.
“My mother named me Shae. Men call me… often.” -Shae, A Game of Thrones, p. 567 (USPB)
Shae started out as a camp follower. Her background story of how she ended up as a camp follower may or may not be fabricated. The story as is would be an abolitionist’s wet dream of all the offenses against girls and women prostitution enables. However, Shae is also known to be an excellent, ah, storyteller, can we say? Liar would be a more ruthless but less euphemistic term, though there are some nuances to her lying which may ultimately excuse her in my view. Nonetheless, when we first meet her, she has been procured for Tyrion Lannister, who was mentioned in the above quote. Tyrion would definitely be a hobbyist or punter in today’s world, but the best kind who has a genuine affection and appreciation and shows this in both payment and treatment for sex workers (that is, until he is betrayed by Shae). Tyrion has relied on whores for his sexual experiences due to the fact that he was born deformed and dwarven, which is at times worse than being born a bastard. No other “civilian” woman would look at him twice, much less have sex with him. His first love may or may not have been a prostitute hired to fall in love with him but this very important aspect of Tyrion has yet to be satisfactorily resolved in the story and may very well never be.
Shae is procured for Tyrion by his hired sword Bronn, which in this world is called a sellsword. She was with a lesser knight when Bronn discovered her for Tyrion and this knight tried to take exception to this “reassignment” but Tyrion’s social status as a Lannister, despite his deformity, carries a lot of weight. In an instant, Shae goes from being a common whore to being a concubine to a scion of the most powerful house in the land. Despite being instructed by his as yet revealed hypocritical father, Tywin, that, “you will not take the whore to court”, Tyrion does so anyway. Shae is set up in King’s Landing with a manse (mansion), a generous allowance, luxurious clothes and gems, and everything she could ever want. For reasons I won’t spoil here, Shae betrays Tyrion and ends up paying for that betrayal with her life. This murder had nothing to do with her chosen profession but who she was as a person.
“You can match the queen coin for coin, I have no doubt, but she has a second purse that is quite inexhaustible.” – Varys, A Storm of Swords, p. 165 (USPB)
Queen Cersei Lannister Baratheon of the Seven Kingdoms leads the pack of unofficial whores. Tall, curvaceous, beautiful, intelligent if not more than a little hot-headed, and ambitious, Cersei is definitely a woman who is well aware of her erotic capital. She is also well-aware of the fact that in a sexist society such as the one she lives in, women need to use everything at their disposal to survive and get ahead and survive in life. Cersei says as much in the following quote to a young lady, Sansa Stark, who believes that all knights are good and true men (ACoK, p. 638, USPB):
“You little fool. Tears are not a woman’s only weapon. You’ve got another between your legs, and you’d best learn to use it. You’ll find men use their swords freely enough. Both kinds of swords.”
Cersei has a twin brother, Jaime, who is also her clandestine lover and the true father of the royal issue she claims to be the (now deceased) king’s, hence the aforementioned war based on accusations of bastardy and incest. Cersei and Jaime are as close to being physically identical as two different sex fraternal twins can be. It is this physical sameness yet sexual difference and the treatment this engenders in society that pisses Cersei off (A Clash of Kings, p. 639, USPB):
When we were little, Jaime and I were so much alike that even our lord father could not tell us apart. Sometimes as a lark we would dress in each other’s clothes and spend a whole day each as the other. Yet even so, when Jaime was given his first sword, there was none for me. “What do I get?” I remember asking. We were so much alike, I could never understand why they treated us so differently. Jaime learned to fight with sword and lance and mace, while I was taught to smile and sing and please. He was heir to Casterly Rock, while I was to be sold to some stranger like a horse, to be ridden whenever my new owner liked, beaten whenever he liked, and cast aside in time for a younger filly. Jaime’s lot was to be glory and power, while mine was birth and moonblood.
Jaime is not Cersei’s only secret lover during the series as she also takes her cousin Lancel Lannister, a low-born knight Osney Kettleblack, and one of her ladies-in-waiting Taena Merryweather. Each of these relationships was initiated to gain influence and power, you know, those “other considerations” that anti-prostitution laws merely hint at. Cersei engages in a type of prostitution, though she would be loathe to admit it, that is usually only assigned to lower-end workers in our reality, that being survival sex. Or at least, survival for her. She consolidated and grew her power through various means including, as I mentioned earlier in the paragraph, sexual relationships. If she didn’t, then she would have been toppled from power much sooner than she eventually was.
A minor character who never appears in the book herself but is only mentioned by the forlorn remembrance of her ex-husband, Ser Jorah Mormont. Lynesse is a lady born to an influential house, the Hightowers of Oldtown. Beautiful and charming, Jorah fell in love with her at first site at a jousting tournament. She returned the feelings and they were soon married, despite the fact that his House is not particularly wealthy or influential (though they do produce some great warrior women) nor is he particularly attractive. He was, however, tournament champion and it was that prestige that allowed Jorah to receive the blessing of marriage to Lynesse from her lord father.
Oldtown is a wealthy city in a warm environment, a place filled with culture and various distractions. Jorah’s land is decidedly the opposite: cold, desolate, isolated and, as described by the knight himself, has more trees and bears than people. Houses are not castles filled with elegant and rich tapestries and carpets and lovely stained glass so much as cabins that one would find in deeply wooded areas.
Lynesse became very bored very quickly as their marriage was based more on momentary infatuation than any actual feelings of love. Jorah spent all his money to make her happy and to provide the lifestyle a lady of her station is expected to have. Desperate to keep her, Jorah committed a crime that garners a high penalty when the perpetrators are caught: he sold poachers caught on his land to slavers for profit, instead of turning them into his liege lord. By this time Lynesse and Jorah had to go on the run to escape the punishment of his liege lord.
Jorah informs another character, the exiled Targaryen queen Daenerys that Lynesse has become the chief concubine for a wealthy and powerful merchant prince in Lys, having left Jorah half a year after their arrival in the city. Lynesse has even surpassed the merchant’s wife; reportedly, the wife lives in fear of angering her husband’s concubine.
“Once I might have carried you home as a prize, and kept you to wife whether you willed it or no. The ironmen of old did such things. A man had his rock wife, his true bride, ironborn like himself, but he had his salt wives too, women captured on raids.” – Theon Greyjoy, A Clash of Kings, p. 128
Among the peoples of the Iron Islands, it is tradition to do raids up and down nearby shores for gold, silver, weapons, supplies, food, women, and any number of other things they lack on the desolate isles. The women taken by men during these raids were referred to as “salt wives”. Salt refers to the sea and the fact that these women were acquired during raidings at sea; being a salt wife is similar to being an official mistress or concubine. Proper marriages among the Ironmen were usually between people who lived on the islands, not those from the “greenlands”, which is how they refer to the main continent of Westeros as the soil and terrain of the Iron Islands was rocky and thin. Occasionally, a wife may come from a House on the mainland but this arrangement was never a first choice. The Ironmen are very similar to Earth’s Viking culture. Losers of previous attempts at insurrection against various powers on the mainland, the Ironmen look down upon the people of the mainland, believing them to be soft and weak in order to salvage their collective wounded pride. This is why salt wives, who come from the greenlands, are considered to be lesser in status to any woman from the Iron Islands.
Paramours of Dorne
Paramours are the officially recognized consort of powerful Dornish lords and ladies. The high status of paramours is due to the matriarchal culture brought to Dorne by the warrior queen Nymeria, from whom the ruling house is descendant. While paramours are above regular mistresses and below wives in the rest of the Seven Kingdoms and even within Dorne, some Dornish nobles only have their paramour as their primary partner and so this line is highly flexible and moveable. Dorne is culturally unique among the people of the Seven Kingdoms: homosexuality and other alternative sexual lifestyles are not stigmatized, extramarital affairs are generally not treated with shame (if they involve paramours), and premarital sex is common, even among the highborn. Bastards are also treated much better in Dorne, often given near-equal treatment to trueborn ladies and lords. These cultural differences are also thanks to the matriarchal culture of Nymeria.
Prince Oberyn of Dorne, hinted at being bisexual, has eight bastard-born daughters: the oldest four are referred to as the Sand Snakes and were conceived with four different women. They are highly regarded in Dorne and are the constant companions of their trueborn cousin, Princess Arianne, heir to the throne of Dorne. The younger four daughters are Oberyn’s children with his paramour, Ellaria Sand, herself the bastard daughter of Lord Harmon Uller of Hellholt and possibly his paramour, though that has not been revealed.
When Oberyn travels to King’s Landing to as proxy for his brother, the ruler of Dorne Prince Doran, he brings Ellaria with him. There is a royal wedding coming up and Ellaria’s presence complicates the seating hierarchy (A Storm of Swords, p. 522, USPB):
He raised a slender hand toward a black-haired woman to the rear, beckoning her forward. “And this is Ellaria Sand, mine own paramour.”
Tyrion swallowed a groan. His paramour, and bastard-born, Cersei will pitch a holy fit if he wants her at the wedding. If she consigned the woman to some dark corner below the salt, his sister would risk the Red Viper’s wrath. Seat her beside him at the high table, and every other lady on the dais would take offense.
Outside of Dorne, paramours are generally considered nothing but “up-jumped” whores but how they are outwardly treated will depend on who their lover is and the diplomatic degree to which deference must be shown. Oberyn is called the Red Viper for his tendency to, ahem, fight dirty, allegedly coating the tip of his fighting spear with snake venom on numerous occasions that left one opponent dead and another cripped for life. Not the man you want to make an enemy out of. His sobriquet is obviously the inspiration for his oldest four daughter to be called Sand Snakes as they learned their various fighting styles from dear ol’ dad.
Braavos is a city on the eastern continent of this world, settled on several small islands. It can be recognized as an amalgam of famous European cities during the Renaissance: the geographical layout (complete with a Grand Canal) and the use of extravagant personal gondolas is almost identical to Venice, its position as the center of the banking industry is reminiscent of Florence, and the presence of courtesans and cavaliers (called bravos) were popular in Venice, Florence, and Paris, especially. The weather, however, is closer to London. There also a dash of the ancient world in Braavos’ geography: the Titan of Braavos is a clear analogue of the Colossus of Rhodes and travelers by sea enter Braavos through the legs of the Titan, as seen on the map at left.
We are first introduced to the Braavosi courtesans through the travels of Arya Stark, sister to Sansa, who was mentioned earlier in the post. I won’t delve too deeply into Arya’s backstory and how she came to be in Braavos, but she is there to learn the art of the assassin. This requires her to shed her aristocratic, noble background which, though she is a through and through tomboy, she has difficulty doing due to the fact that the entire reason she wants to learn how to kill is to avenge the lives of her parents and siblings who were killed at the hands of House Lannister and their allies. Her Yoda, if you will, challenges her dedication to this pursuit and he gives us a glimpse of how the courtesans of Braavos are regarded and gives us the sobriquets of two of the most famous (A Feast for Crows, p. 318 (USHC)):
“Or would you sooner be a courtesan, and have songs sung of your beauty? Speak the word, and we will send you to the Black Pearl or the Daughter of the Dusk. You will sleep on rose petals and wear silken skirts that rustle when you walk, and great lords will beggar themselves for your maiden’s blood.”
Later, Arya as “Cat” is completing her training, she observes the courtesans up close in her role as a fishmonger (AFFC, p. 511 (USHC)):
“The courtesans of Braavos were famed across the world. Singers sang of them, goldsmiths and jewelers showered them with gifts, craftsmen begged for the honor of their custom, merchant princes paid royal ransoms to have them on their arms at balls and feasts and mummer’s shows, and bravos slew each other in their names. Cat would sometimes glimpse one of them floating by on her way to an evening with some lover. The Poetess always had a book to hand, the Moonshadow wore only white and silver, and the Merling Queen was never seen without her Mermaids, four young maidens in the blush of their first flowering who held her train and did her hair. Each courtesan was more beautiful than the last. Even the Veiled Lady was beautiful, though only those she took as lovers ever saw her face.”
“Cat” sold cockles to the courtesan known as The Black Pearl. The most famous of all of them, she is rumored to be the descendant of a prince from the near-extinct House Targaryen and a pirate queen, the first Black Pearl. Their daughter became a courtesan, starting a line of courtesans with the art passed from mother to daughter (just as it was in our reality, usually), with their given names alternating between Bellegere and Bellonara Otherys but all of them being called The Black Pearl. “Cat” is instructed by her fishmonger supervisor (not her assassin handler) not to speak to a courtesan unless they call to her, showing the level of deference given to them. As yet, there are no male courtesans among the Braavosi.
The Pillowhouses of Lys
These hit closer to the preferred narrative of abolitionists. The pillowhouses of Lys train and assign bedwarmers of both sexes to the wealthy and powerful: in short, they are sex slaves. By and large, those being trained in Lys are the very definition of sex trafficked. Slavery is outlawed in the group of nine cities known as The Free Cities on the eastern continent, but this is lip service. When groups of slaves are brought to the markets, the most beautiful and handsome and young are chosen by the pillowhouses in Lys. They are trained in the sexual arts for several years before being sold again to the highest bidder. The series has not said if any of the trainees at the pillowhouses are there of their own accord but I would assume that there are some. There are pillowhouses in the other Free Cities as well, but the Lysene pillowhouses are the most renowned.
This practice is widely accepted and merely taken as fact and apparently if one simply must have a sex slave, that is the place to procure them. ASOIaF only has the dialogue of one former slave, Doreah, at one of these pillowhouses who was bought to serve as a handmaiden to Daenerys Targaryen, the young queen-in-exile. She does not speak much about her time at the pillowhouse but that she learned to tell stories in manner similar to Scheherazade; Doreah tells one such story to Daenerys. Doreah became one of Daenerys’ closest confidants and teacher in many things that made her life much easier as time went by. It was with Doreah’s help and guidance that Daenerys transformed from a frightened young girl to a confident young woman ready to take her rightful place on the Iron Throne. Doreah’s death in the following book, A Clash of Kings, due to heat exhaustion, one of many in Daenerys’ retinue to suffer such fate, greatly grieved the queen, who gave the former slave formal funeral rites.
What I appreciate about the depiction of prostitutes and prostitution in this series is that it is nuanced. It shows women (and some young men) making choices even in constrained circumstances, similar to what quite a few sex workers have to deal with in this reality. There are a variety of permutations of whoredom as I listed but another prostitute, known as The Sailor’s Wife, who works in Braavos and only takes as customers men who agree to marry her for a night, divorcing again in the morning (a drunken, defrocked Septon is rumored to do the honors). In one battle, two whores from a local brothel in the nearby town joined the fight, proving themselves capable with a bow. At the same battle and on the same side a brothel born and bred young man named Satin (named after the brothel) also fought. Undoubtedly there are some who would rather do another job than prostitution but I doubt any of them would think being put into the prison system of the Seven Kingdoms is the route to freedom, especially considering how brutal that system is even to men, much less to women. Yet, that is the thinking we deal with here on Earth in the 21st century.
Other forms of work open to women in this world may have been even tougher and the sexual component wouldn’t necessarily be removed; in fact, it may be even worse as they would not be able to dictate price as it would be expected for chambermaids and scullery maids and serving women to provide sex on demand with no compensation at all. The situation would become worse still if they ended up pregnant due to this, now having to raise a bastard and, if the lord is married, incurring the wrath of his wife and possibly losing her job in the process.
In my opinion, the way Martin has incorporated prostitutes and prostitution in the story could serve as a template for other authors wishing to have similar characters without making it a freak show. Prostitution simply is in this work, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but always multifaceted.