We here at WoWasis were skeptical at first: would this be just another titillating tome, or would there be real substance here? We were thrilled, because Lujo Bassermann’s The Oldest Profession: A History of Prostitution (1967, ISBN 0-88029-248-2) is scholarly, well-written, and readable. And it’s not a history of prostitution so much as it is a history of some of the best-known prostitutes of all time, albeit limited to those residing in countries associated with Western civilization. He really digs, too. You’d expect to find luminaries such as La Belle Otero and Mata Hari, but we were delighted to read of the excesses of the Greek heterai Phryne in particular, as well as others in the era. Bassermann covers the Romans, medieval times, prostitution associated with the Church, the Russian monarchy, Viennese housemaids, and other fascinating topics as well.
We appreciate Bassermann’s non-judgmental perspective on prostitution, as set forth early in his foreword:
“Accordingly, the subject of venal love and its place in the history
of civilization have been treated in this book from the standpoint
that these are historical themes and do not greatly differ from other
features of human development. A history of torture, for example,
would discuss far more drastic perversions of the nature of man than
are dealt with here. A history of diplomacy would be concerned with
a great deal more wickedness, venality and fraud than are to be
found in the following pages, while if anyone were ever to give an
honest and duly documented account of prison conditions, slavery
or the marriage market, any public prosecutor would be more
justified in ordering the confiscation of such a work than in seizing
my own study of the oldest profession in the world.”
One of our favorite quotes on the matter (as stated by many Westerners in Bangkok) is “the difference between paid sex and free sex is that free sex costs more,” owing to the funding associated with marriages and mistresses. Some of the more sobering aspects of his book concern the exorbitant monies paid to prostitutes by many of their favorites. When their money ran out, so did their women, and a number of them committed suicide as a result. Caveat Emptor.
All in all, this book is a great read, and one that will appeal to historians, culture junkies, and followers of the art alike. Buy this book now at the WoWasis eStore.