Sex Work in Literature

Early portrayals of prostitution tended towards the overly romantic and/or pornographic, both in the raucous.  In the late 19th century, 'naturalism' became popular and books such as Emile Zola's Nana and Stephen Crane's Maggie, a Girl of the Streets tried to portray the poverty and grinding desperation of the inner city poor, concentrating on the circumstances that led women into sex work rather than passing any moral judgement. Later, violence and destruction became a recurring theme, the woman's downfall usually linked with other "moral failings" such as alcoholism or promiscuity.

Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress (1724) - Daniel Defoe

Like Moll Flanders, Defoe's other "fallen woman" tale, Roxana tells the story of a woman's rise and fall and rise through society, before winning her own freedom through becoming wealthy.  Roxana falls from wealth and security into prostitution when her husband abandons her and then climbs and falls (and climbs again) the social ladder through a series of marriages and romances.

Fanny Hill (Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure) (1748) - John Cleland

Fanny Hill became notorious as one of the most banned and prosecuted books in history due to its largely pornographic content. There is a story in there, about a girl, Fanny Hill, who comes to London after her parents die and end up living in a brothel before becoming mistress to a series of men and eventually finding true love. As well as her own sexual encounters, Fanny is fond of sneaking about and peeping on others; the book is essentially a series of increasing bawdy sex scenes linked with the minimum of plot. Bear in mind, though, that this was written in 1748:  "perfectly well turn'd and fashion'd, the proud stiffness of which distended its skin, whose smooth polish and velvet softness might vie with that of the most delicate of our sex".

La dame aux Camelias (The Lady of the Camellias) (1848) - Alexander Dumas fils

Dumas' novel and later play has spawned numerous other works, most notably Verdi's opera La Traviatta. Marguerite, a beautiful and spoiled courtesan, falls in love with a young middle-class man who can't afford to keep her in the style to which she is accustomed. She chooses love over her pampered lifestyle but then abandons him when his father persuades her that the scandal will ruin his life. Verdi's opera was one of the inspirations for Baz Luhrman's film Moulin Rouge.

Nana (1880) - Emile Zola

Nana marks the second appearance of Zola's character. In L'Assommoir Nana is the daughter of abusive alcoholic parents who, at the end of the novel, runs away to Paris and begins a life on the streets. Nana tells the story of Nana's rise from street sex worker to stage star and courtesan, and her destruction of every man who pursues her. Never one to shirk from moral retribution, Zola has her die a horrendous death from smallpox, her beauty totally destroyed.

Boule de Suif (1884) - Guy de Maupassant

An interesting short story, Boule de Suif follows a group of French travellers trapped in an inn by the Prussian invasion. Among them is the prostitute Boule de Suif (literally meaning 'Ball of Fat'), who the other travellers pointedly ignore until she shares her picnic with them. A Prussian officer takes a fancy to her and refuses to let the group leave until she sleeps with him; being a staunch patriot Boule de Suif refuses. The other travellers cajole, persuade and emotionally blackmail her until she gives in; as soon as they are released they treat her with total contempt and disgust, and refuse to share their own food.

Albertine (1886) - Christian Krohg

Unavailable in English, and immediately banned in Norway when it was published, Albertine is a story of poverty and street prostitution in Oslo. A statue of Albertine, standing between two men, is carved into a corner of Oslo's City Hall.

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) - Stephen Crane

Maggie is a sweet young girl from a desperately poor family who, upon 'taking up' with a nice young man with prospects, is accused by her family and neighbours of being 'loose'; she is abandoned by her lover and rejected by her family. A lone woman, assumed to be Maggie, is shown working on the streets before her family learns of her death and decide, too late, to forgive her.

Mrs Warren's Profession (1893) - George Bernard Shaw

Shaw's play is based upon a short story by Guy de Maupassant (Yvette Samoris), the tale of a brothel owner, Mrs. Warren (described as "on the whole, a genial and fairly presentable old blackguard of a woman", and her daughter Vivie. Vivie is Cambridge-educated, thoroughly modern, and horrified to discover that her mother's considerable fortune was made managing brothels. They briefly reconcile when Mrs. Warren tells Vivie about her poverty stricken childhood and how she was led into prostitution, but Vivie walks out of her mother's life when she discovers that she is still working as a madam.

Josephine Mutzenbacher (1906) - Felix Salten (probably)

Written in the style of a memoir, the story is told from the point of view of an ageing Viennese courtesan looking back on the sexual escapades of her childhood. The book begins when she is five and ends when she is twelve, about to begin work in a brothel. Unashamedly pornographic, the book covers a number of then and current taboos, including incest, homosexuality, group sex, child prostitution and fellatio. It was the subject of a major court case in Germany in 1990, when it was ruled to be both pornography and art. Interestingly, the presumed author (it was published anonymously) also wrote Bambi, a Life in the Woods, later bought by Walt Disney and turned into an animated classic film.

Belle de Jour (1928) - Joseph Kessel

More famous now for the Catherine Deneuve film and the blogger by the same name, Kessel's novel told the tale of a bored French housewife who begins moonlighting in a brothel.

We Are Looking at You, Agnes (1931) - Erskine Caldwell

A short story about a young woman, Agnes, who leaves home with $50 to become a stenographer but decides to train as a manicurist instead. After a series of tawdry advances she realises she can make more money as a sex worker and moves into a cheap hotel. The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness style as Agnes is home for her annual Christmas visit. She is convinced that her family know her guilty secret - because they never ask about her stenography work - and wishes they would ask, so that they can fall out and she won't have to come home ever again. As it turns out, they do know, and her father cleans her chair with running alcohol whenever she leaves the room, but they never bring it up, and the story ends as it began, with the family staring silently at each other.

Butterfield 8 (1935) - John O'Hara

In the film version Elizabeth Taylor played a model masquerading as an escort; in the novel Gloria is a call girl, although both versions portray her as an alcoholic and a nymphomaniac.  O'Hara's novel was inspired by the tragic life and death of Starr Faithful, whose body washed up on Long Island.

My Gun Is Quick (1950) - Mickey Spillane

Pure fiction, Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled detective Mike Hammer meets a redheaded hooker with a heart of gold in a diner, gives her money to 'get a real job' and then discovers that she died later that night, from an apparent hit and run. Unconvinced, he hunts down her killers and exposes and destroys a prostitution ring in New York City.

East of Eden (1952) - John Steinbeck

Steinbeck thought this was his greatest novel. Really the tale of multiple generations of sibling rivalry, prostitution features in the story as a plot device, in the form of a manipulative girl who marries into the family and then abandons her children to run a brothel. The discovery that she is still alive, and of her chosen profession, destroys both of her sons in very different ways. The second half of the book was made into a film in 1955, starring James Dean.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) - Hubert Selby, Jr.

A brutal look at life in working class Brooklyn, Selby's novel became a cult classic almost immediately. Made up of six separate stories, two explicitly deal with prostitution: The Queen is Dead, about a transvestite prostitute who is thrown out of the family home, and Tralala, the story of a young street sex worker who makes a living robbing drunken sailors. Despite the violent and terrible things that happen, Selby is tender and affectionate towards his characters.

Midnight Cowboy (1965) - James Leo Herlihy

Made into an extremely faithful film adaptation in 1969 (starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), Midnight Cowboy tells the story of Joe Buck, who moves from Texas to New York with the dream of become a male prostitute with a rich, glamorous female clientele. When these ladies fail to materialise, he ends up on the streets hustling gay men. The true story is one of loneliness and loyalty, centring on his relationship with a streetwise boy named Ratso.

The Green House (1966) - Mario Vargas Llosa

A Peruvian novel centred around a brothel (called The Green House) in a small city in the Peruvian desert, built by a mysterious stranger and later run by his daughter. The story lines cover several decades of Peruvian history and hundreds of miles of geography, from the desert to the Amazonian jungle.

Whoreson (1972) - Donald Goines

Donald Goines grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Detroit and, after a brief stint in the Air Force, slipped into a life of drug addiction and crime. Whoreson is semi-autobiographical, written while Goines was in prison, telling the story of the aptly-named Whoreson Jones, the son of a beautiful prostitute who grows up to become a ruthless pimp. Goines and his wife were shot to death in Detroit in 1974; their murder has never been solved. One theory is that a drug deal went wrong; another that neighbourhood criminal were enraged by what they saw a portrayals of themselves in his characters and story lines.

Leaving Las Vegas (1990) - John O'Brien

This was the only novel completed by O'Brien, who committed suicide shortly after learning that it would be made into a film. His family say that the story is his suicide note, following two lost souls, an alcoholic who moves to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, and a 'hooker with a heart of gold' who tries to take care of him. 

Junk (1996) - Melvin Burgess

Published in the wake of Trainspotting, Burgess' novel deals with similar themes, following a pair of runaway teenagers from their broken homes to a series of squats in Bristol.  Befriended by a group of anarchists and addicts, they become heroin addicts themselves, and Gemma becomes a prostitute to fund their habits. Aimed at teenagers and 'young adults', Burgess won several awards for this gritty novel, later re-released as Smack.

Cities of the Plain (1998) - Cormac McCarthy

The final novel in McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Cities of the Plain brings together the protagonists of the first two novels, working together on a cattle ranch in New Mexico in 1952. John Grady falls in love with a young prostitute in a brothel in Mexico and tries to bring her to the United States to be his wife. As in most of McCarthy's novels, nothing ends well, but there is a fragment of hope.

The Last Madam: A Life In The New Orleans Underworld (2001) - Christine Wiltz

Using her own tape-recorded memoirs, this is the story of Norma Wallace, who arrived in New Orleans in 1916, at the age of fifteen, and opened a brothel four years later that would go on to spawn countless imitators and stereotypes. Discreet, opulent, protected by powerful political allies, Norma Wallace worked as a "landlady" for over forty years, before retiring after her first arrest in 1962. 

The Dress Lodger (2001)

Set in Sunderland during a cholera outbreak in 1831, The Dress Lodger tells the story of Gustine, a 15 year old potter's assistant by day and prostitute by night, whose pimp sends her out to work in an extravagant blue dress, in the hopes that it will attract a higher class of clientele. Hoping to get help for her son, who has a heart condition, she enters into a pact with a surgeon looking for cadavers for dissection.

The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) - Michael Faber

A story of rigid class systems in the Victorian era, The Crimson Petal and the White follows several characters, but most notably Sugar, who moves from living and working in a brothel to being a kept mistress and then, in an attempt to get closer to her lover, a nanny in his household. A collection of short stories, The Apple, was published in 2006 and features characters from the novel.

Brothel: Mustang Ranch and its Women (2002) - Alexa Albert

Alexa Albert spent six years preparing this study of the Mustang Ranch brothel in Nevada. Initially working on a public-health study looking at condom use, Albert had worked with homeless prostitutes in New York City and was interested in whether or not the brothel system offered a less harmful model for the women involved. Over the six years Albert documented the stories of the women, the owners, the clients and even the cleaners and 'civilian' workers at the Ranch.

Eleven Minutes (2003) - Paulo Coelho

Originally published in Portuguese, Eleven Minutes follows the fortunes of Maria, a young girl from a remote village in Brazil who emigrates to Switzerland, where she moves from samba dancing in restaurants to working in a brothel. Sadly the novel gets a little mushy, as Maria documents her search for "sacred love" in her diary, but it's extremely well written.

Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

On the night before his ninetieth birthday, an ageing journalist, who has never had sex with a woman he didn't pay, decides to celebrate by buying a night with a virgin. The fourteen year old girl a local madam procures for him is beautiful, but so exhausted by caring for her younger siblings, sewing buttons for money, and poverty itself, that all she does is sleep. The love story that unfolds is intriguing.

The Lover (2004) - Laura Wilson

A fictionalised account of the real-life serial killer Gordon Cummins, a British airman who killed prostitutes in London in 1940, known as the Blackout Ripper. The novel follows three stories, that of a street sex worker with a young son who could become a victim herself, that of a young woman who becomes obsessed with Cummins, and that of Cummins himself.

Sold (2006) - Patricia McCormick

Sold is the story of Lakshmi, a young Nepalese village girl sold into prostitution by her stepfather, and her struggle to survive in, and triumph over, "Happiness House". 

Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul

The Everleigh sisters, and the Everleigh Club brothel that they founded and ran in Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century, became American folklore heroes, not the least because of the outlandish stories they told about their own lives. At a time when most brothels were run by an iron fist and women were treated as near-prisoners, the Everleigh sisters fed their workers gourmet meals, dressed them in couture gowns, and had them tutored in literature to entertain a celebrity clientele. This non-fiction work tells their story against the backdrop of growing Puritan zeal and crusading reformers.

Grotesque (2007) - Natsuo Kirino

Grotesque follows an unnamed woman, who lives under the shadow of her beautiful and popular sister Yuriko. She grows increasingly bitter and resentful of everyone around her, but is particularly spiteful about Yuriko and one of her classmates, Kazue. When both become prostitutes, and are murdered within a year of each other, by the same killer, the narrator acquires both of their journals and begins a journey of self-discovery.

application/pdf icon Download this file.