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Review: Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale by Kate Lister

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Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale by Kate Lister is a beautifully illustrated summary of the sex industry throughout human history. Published in a hardcover edition in late 2021 the book documents various forms that sex work has taken throughout various periods and spaces. Importantly the book also documents the frequent attacks on sex work that have dogged the industry insistently.

Anyone who has read one of my many “sex is on sale” posts describing the commercial sex scenes in cities are varied as Macau and Medellin should know that I would appreciate this book.

But while I have examined and reported on the sex industry as it exists today the author of Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts has traced sex work from its origins through the present period. In doing this she points out the foibles and inconsistences of the hypocrites who would keep sex work outlawed and sex workers in the shadows. Instead she sensible argues for decriminalization of sex work.

An illustrated history of sex work

Stories of sex work in renaissance Europe are contained here along with a history of sex work in ancient Japan. Curious about the development of sex work in the United States? How about the fate of sex workers in the aftermath of World War II? You will find it on the pages of this book.

harlots and whores

At least as interesting as the words contained in this book are the many pictures. Everything from ancient Italian wall paintings of prostitutes engaged in sex to more modern brothel menus from Victorian England are reprinted here in full detail. Photographs, pottery and more stretching from the United States to Japan is organized and laid out along with tales of the way things were. This is all really something to look at for anyone even remotely interested in the history of sex work around the globe.

It makes sense that such great illustrations would fill the book. The author Kate Lister created the Whores of Yore website which contains everything from vintage erotica to a gallery of Parisian Sex Workers from the 1930s.

Summarizing a good summary

Sure this book is not a definitive history of sex work everywhere it has existed. A monumental feat like that would require multiple researches and writers assembling some huge number of volumes. But Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts doesn’t pose as a full picture. Instead it gives us a well rounded glimpse into sex work as it has actually existed in various spaces and times. In other words it is a wonderful summary of sex work so far.

As it turns out there are some constants that can be found throughout time and space. No matter where or when you look in modern organized society you tend to find at least some men paying at least some women for sex. And yet this doesn’t spell the end of the world. We are here as the evidence of that.

While Armageddon may be indeed be in the cards in our future it won’t be brought about by the exchange of sexual services for cash. And although some are driven to provide sexual services in exchange for cash it is not necessarily the worst choice they could make. People are a product of their conditions and can only act within the space provided. We all have to work with the hands we are dealt.

Kate Lister has utilized her time to produce a very well done sex positive history of the sex industry. In doing that she has also helped paint a more complete portrait of humanity. I must admit that I have long thought of penning a sort of atlas of the international sex work. Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts is superior to anything I could hope to produce with my meagre resources and abilities.

I can freely admit my admiration for Kate Lister and her Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts simply because I am happy to know such a book exists. I couldn’t have imagined finding something like this even a few years ago. My only hope is that many people will find this wonderful work and dig through its many pages. Perhaps some will come to find that sex work history is human history and thus that sex workers are people like the rest of us too. Five stars.

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