June 2 is International Sex Workers' Day, a day that celebrates the struggles of sex workers for the rights, security and dignity afforded to workers in other industries. Leo Larkin takes a look at the role sex workers have played in society throughout the ages. 

Sex work and kink go hand in hand and have done for way longer than International Sex Workers' Day has been around. In that time, sex workers have played various roles in society, from social outcasts to celebrities – and sometimes both at once. In some times and places – even in communities where sex workers were shunned by “respectable” society – they have risen to have a significant impact on history.

Street, temple, theatre and palace: sex workers throughout history

A lot has been written about the “temple prostitutes” of the ancient Middle East. Sadly, the truth is that we don't know a huge amount about them. They may never even have existed; many modern historians believe that sacred prostitution is something ancient writers tended to accuse other cultures of.

But that's no fun! Let's engage in some bleeding-edge speculation instead. If there were temple prostitutes, what might they have got up to? Well, the traditional theory is that they enacted sexual rituals to ensure the fertility of the land. However, there may have been more to it than just reproductive symbolism. Archaeologists have theorised that physical stress positions may have induced altered states of consciousness in ancient religious rites. Could this be the root of those images of ancient deities with whips? Probably not, but it's nice to believe it.


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Great Wall vs great … um … friend?

In China in the 4th century BC, female members of the royal family were served by eunuchs. This was supposed to prevent sexual relations with unauthorised people, but it didn't bother a young man named Lao Ai. You see, Lao Ai was only pretending to be a eunuch. In fact, not only did he still have a penis, but he had a spectacularly big one.

The great historian Sima Qian claimed that he used to hang a cartwheel on it and walk around to impress the ladies. He succeeded in impressing Queen Dowager Zhao and lived well at her expense. All the while, however, he was secretly advancing a rival's political agenda. Not content with wealth, land, titles and a great big dick, Lao Ai schemed to gain power at court. Unfortunately for China's most famous gigolo, he had picked the wrong guy to plot against. His chief rival for power was Zhao Zheng, better known as Qin Shi Huang, soon to become the first emperor of China.

Like most people who become first emperors of things, he was a singularly ruthless and determined opponent. And that's how Lao Ai found himself being torn to pieces by horses. A sad end for a man who had very nearly slept his way to the top.


 International Sex Workers' Day burlesque dancer
 International Sex Workers' Day also includes burlesque dancers. Image: mikegoat via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0 license


Hardass harlot

Sleeping with people for money is sex work, of course, but not all sex work is sleeping with people for money. Erotic dancers, adult performers and many other kinds of sex workers all fall within the boundaries of the sex industry. Indeed, in many ancient societies, all actors and dancers were assumed to be somewhat disreputable. But being disreputable didn't mean not being influential. Take the case of the Byzantine Empress Theodora, for example.

Most of what we know about Theodora's career as a dancer comes from historian Procopius of Caesarea. Procopius hated Theodora and her husband, the Emperor Justinian, so we don't know how reliable he is. But if even a small part of what he wrote about her is true, it's still pretty amazing. According to Procopius, Theodora's performances as a dancer were pretty exciting. For instance, he claimed that she trained geese to peck grain out of, ahem, “the calyx of [her] passion flower” in a reenactment of the myth of Leda and the swan.

Once she married Justinian, Theodora became a powerful force in Byzantine politics. This era was one of the empire's strongest, as her husband's armies reconquered much of the old Roman empire. Theodora was a vital part of Justinian's government and even worked to improve the safety of other sex workers. Quite the initiative long before the establishment of International Sex Workers' Day! That doesn't make her a nice person, though. If Procopius is to be believed, she was a scheming politician who wasn't above ordering a rival killed.


Activist on International Sex Workers' Day
 International Sex Workers' Day protest. Image: fibonacciblue via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0 license


International sex workers' day

The early modern era is full of kinky sex workers who rubbed elbows – and more than elbows – with the rich and powerful. We're not going to go into too much detail here, though, because we already covered a lot of those people in our article on the history of the dominatrix. Suffice it to say that if you were  Madame in Georgian London and you weren't whipping people in a special whipping parlour, you weren't trying.

Far from always being on the fringe of respectable society, then, the sex industry has often been deeply intertwined with it, even if in ways no one talks about. On 2 June, the International Sex Workers' Day, then – and ideally the rest of the time too – remember the fight for sex workers' rights and do what you can to support it.


Leo Larkin is a writer here at Fetish.com. He's also me. Or ... close enough, anyway. I write about history and the humorous side of sex. Despite the fact that Leo is a pen name, I am a real person.


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Did we leave out any of your favourite historical sex workers? Do you know of an International Sex Workers' Day event? Share all in the Fetish.com forum.

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Cover image: sergiouceda via Flickr.com CC BY 2.0 license



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