Sex work is believed to be the oldest profession in the world. Historical sex workers have always been fascinating, because of outdated (in our modern eyes) views of the profession, of women, and of sex in general. But, there are a wealth of women throughout history that you should definitely know about: sex workers, innovators, muses and pirate queens (yes, really). To learn more about some of the most fascinating historical sex workers, read on, take notes, and prepare to channel your inner badass.
⭐️ Imperia Cognati (1486-1512)
As well as being a muse to Renaissance painter Raphael, Imperia Cognati is also considered the first celebrity courtesan. After a new class of sex worker came to prominence in 15th-century Rome (still not ‘marriageable’, but educated and well-versed in court etiquette), she used her brains and charm to meet exclusive clients and maintain a standard of living suitable for royalty. Loved and respected by many, the saying goes that Rome was blessed by the Gods twice: Mars gave them Imperium Romanum (the Roman Empire); Venus gave them Imperia.
🍊 Nell Gwyn (1650-1687)
This rags-to-riches tale beats a Disney storyline any day of the week. A true folk heroine, the facts surrounding Nell Gwyn’s life are obscured and intriguing. Apparently born into a family of ‘low standing’, she took a job selling oranges at the Theatre Royal in London, (as well as in a nearby brothel), before working up the ranks to become an actress. There she caught the eye not only of diarist Samuel Pepys (who called her ‘pretty, witty Nell’), but also of King Charles II (who kept a nude painting of her hidden behind a landscape in his house). Charles’ deathbed wish was ‘let not poor Nelly starve’, which is romantic in its own way, we suppose.
⛓ Theresa Berkley (d. 1836)
Theresa Berkley was a dominatrix (love to see it) who ran a high-class London brothel that specialized in flagellation. As an expert in her field, she was sought out by aristocrats, both male and female, and earned a fortune in her craft. She invented the Berkley Horse – or ‘chevalet’, as she called it – a handy, hinged wooden device she could spread her clients out on while she flogged them.
Unafraid to reap what she sowed, Berkley would often allow her patrons to inflict torture upon her, and had a back-up posse of woman available to step in if the men servicing her got a bit too heavy-handed.
🏴☠️ Ching Shih (1775-1844)
If there’s anything more badass than a sex worker turned pirate queen, we’d like to hear it. Living her life like a blockbuster movie, Ching Shih worked in a floating brothel in the early 1800s, before seducing and marrying notorious pirate Cheng I. We’re not pointing fingers, but after he mysteriously ‘fell’ overboard to his death, Ching Shih just happened to step into his shoes as queen of the oceans. Using her power over men and giving them a share of the glory, she ended up commandeering more than 1500 ships, making her the most successful pirate to have ever lived.
💰 Miss Harriot (late 1700s)
After her husband’s death left her penniless, Miss Harriot was saved by a group of admirers, allowing her to set up a successful brothel in St James, London. Known as the only Black bawd in the city at the time, her clients included 20 members of the House of Lords, and 50 members of the House of Commons. As an educated and witty woman, it was Miss Harriot’s boast that patrons never spent less than ‘a soft paper’ on her – a £20 note: about £985 or $1,260 in today’s money.
🕵️♀️ Mata Hari (1876-1917)
After escaping an abusive marriage, Mata Hari ran away to Paris to become a circus performer, later becoming an erotic dancer. Her act was so successful, it pushed exotic dancing to a respectable status in society; from there Mata Hari started working as a courtesan. Naturally, her so-called ‘dangerous’ seduction led her to get tangled up in the espionage of WWI, during which she apparently ensnared men and learned military secrets through charm and beguilement. During her trial for spying, she’s rumoured to have exclaimed: ‘A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!’
👵 Sheila Vogel-Coupe (1928-present)
Allegedly the oldest sex worker in the UK, Sheila Vogel-Coupe came to prominence after appearing in the Channel 4 show ‘My Granny the Escort’. The documentary focused on older sex workers, and explored love, lust and ageing. Vogel-Coupe (who has been widowed twice) began working in sex at the age of 81 and, according to the show, in 2014 she was still seeing up to 10 clients a week at a price of £250 ($320) per hour.
🏡 Estella Marie Thompson (1960-present)
Estella Marie Thompson is probably best known as Divine Brown, who was arrested with actor Hugh Grant while working as a sex worker in 1995. What’s most empowering about Thompson’s situation is that she turned it into a chance to live a better life than she had before. Earning a reported $1.6 million from publicity and appearances, she bought a four-bed home in Beverly Hills and put her children through private school. ‘Everything worked out for the better,’ she stated in 2007, ‘I was blessed that it could get me out of that lifestyle.’
While sex work is a career that women are often derided for, we hope these women have shed more of a light on things for you. Of course, there’s a larger discourse surrounding sex work – that’s for another blog! For the time being, these historical sex workers have reminded us that it’s always pleasing to see women reclaim their narratives, take back control, and come out on top.
Meet the author...
Despite being a writer, Kirstyn Smith still isn’t very good at amusing bios. She works freelance as an editor + writer, and she’s also founder of Marbles – an independent magazine that explores mental illness with irreverence, rawness and humour. In her free time, she likes to nap, eat chips, run and consume all things spooky. But mainly the chips thing.