What Prostitutes Gave the World

The truth is that prostitution is more influential than you might think: ladies of the night have brought down governments, helped win wars, and shaped our aesthetics.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

It is, they say, the oldest profession in the world. But when it comes to the ways that prostitution has affected human history and society, it sounds like the set up for a bad sex-worker shaming joke. Good times and STIs, you say. The truth is that prostitution is more influential than you might think: not only have ladies of the night inspired poets and artists, they have brought down governments, helped win wars, and shaped our aesthetics. 

Avid watchers of The Crown probably know that call girl Christine Keeler brought down the Conservative British government in 1963. But she is not the first attractive young woman to undermine the political regime of her day. The not normally sex-positive Hebrew Bible narrates how the prostitute Rahab helped facilitate the downfall of the city of Jericho by assisting two Israelite spies. And the seductress Delilah (who was paid for her services) extracted the secret of Samson’s superhuman strength during pillow-talk. 

Because of their access to the bedroom, prostitutes have enormous potential as spies. During the Cold War, the USSR specifically trained agents as “honey traps” in the hopes that love, sex, and blackmail could produce sensitive information. During the 1950s East German Spymaster Markus Wolf sent a fleet of “Romeo spies” into the field to seduce high-flying lonely West German women. They were so effective that at one point the East Germans had spies inside NATO and working as a secretary in the office of West German Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt. But it wasn’t just the Soviets, in 2009 MI5 distributed a memorandum to bankers and financiers warning them Chinese intelligence services were trying to cultivate relationships in order “to pressurize individuals to cooperate with them.” 

Arguably the most famous honey trap of all was Dutchwoman Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod, better known as the exotic dancer and courtesan “Mata Hari.” Mata Hari was executed by the French in 1917 for working as a double-agent for the Germans. 

Amazingly it was not until Mata Hari was grilled by French investigators that people learned that her whole persona was an act. She was not actually a Javanese princess at all, she was born Margaretha Zelle and developed her persona when living in Indonesia with her philandering first husband. Historians like Julie Wheelwright have argued that the charges of spying for the Germans were trumped up and that she was used a scapegoat for the declining fortunes of the French war effort. Sadly, her ability to pass herself off as an Indonesian dancer did not help her case. One thing is sure; she did work as a spy for the French. 

On more than one occasion prostitution has supplied the inspiration for great works of art. To name just one, Manet’s Olympia, one of the most important paintings of the nineteenth century depicts an emboldened prostitute reclining in the nude. But prostitutes are also present in more subtle ways: Aspasia the “companion” of Greek statesman Pericles was rumored to have had pronounced political influence. It is true that she inspired admiration from many quarters; some have argued that the character of Diotima in Plato’s Symposia was based on Aspasia. The actress Nell Gwyn, the lover of King Charles II, is immortalized by Samuel Pepys and became a popular rags-to-riches heroine in Restoration era England. This is before we even get into the fictional prostitutes that endeared themselves to audiences: among others Fanny Hill, Fantine in Les Miserables and, of course, Vivian Ward in Pretty Woman. 

Generally speaking the judgment “you look like a painted whore” is rarely considered a compliment. On the contrary, it’s usually the preface to a parental demand to remove makeup and apply textiles. But the aesthetics of the world of the escort have subtly and deliberately infiltrated more mainstream culture: ancillary industries like pole-dancing have commercialized themselves as forms of exercise; and “porn star lips” (glossy nude lips to the rest of us) have become de rigeur among the youtubers and instagrammers of our time.

In other quarters, however, the ancient and closely guarded beauty secrets of the Geisha have inspired award winning skincare lines. Tatcha skincare, makers of cult products like “Rice Polish” (Full disclosure: I am obsessed with their line) have based their products on the beauty techniques of Japanese Geisha. They use ingredients specified in a 2,000 year old Japanese book rediscovered by Tatcha’s founder Vicky Tsai. The text is the only extant document to hold the beauty secrets of the Geisha and its utilization has made the Tatcha product line a celeb favorite. 

Then, there is Jesus. Bear with me, I am not defaming the memory of the Virgin Mary (although some ancient critics of Christianity erroneously made claims about her sleeping with a Roman soldier), I am referring to the lineage of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus that traces him back, through David, to Abraham. The list is almost exclusively male and only a small handful are women: Tamar (Matt 1:3), who disguises herself and plays the prostitute with her father-in-law, Judah; Rahab (1:5a); Bathsheba (1:6), the “widow of Uriah,” who committed adultery with David; and Ruth (1:5b), David’s grandmother, who snuck into the place that Boaz was sleeping (a place known for prostitutes) and “uncovered his feet.” 

We can imagine a number of reasons that Matthew took the time to name these women. He may have been pointing to the fact that the origins of the nation were unexpected. He may have been interested in these outsider women (Rahab was from Jericho and Ruth was from Moab) as representatives of the Gentiles to whom the Christian message was partially directed. But the take-away here is that Matthew goes out of his way to remind us that without these women of scandalous repute, we would have no Jesus.