In the world we live in it’s hard to imagine a time when escorting or prostitution were not only accepted into society but respected. In the earliest known civilization of Sumer, women who were reserved for the gods sexually used their bodies in religious rites and are currently looked at as the first escorts. The ancient Greeks had three levels of prostitution, with the highest level of the hetaera being what we understand now to be escorts. The educated and classy hetaera had certain social and political rights not given to other women of the time. In the ancient Hindu rituals of India, women were also reserved as sexual escorts to the gods, and received privileges of their own.
The majority of what we know of prostitution and escorting in those ancient societies comes from their artwork. And the women so beloved by their cultures and given to their gods are well with us in the form of sculpture.
In Sumer, the goddess Ishtar was a known prostitute. Two of her many names were Har and Hor, and gave us the contemporary harlot and whore. She was considered a warm and giving goddess, and for thousands of years the priestesses that served in her temple would bed Sumerian kings in order to bestow Isthar’s power in them during their reign.
In this sculpture, now at the Louvre in Paris, we see the bountiful goddess in all her sexual glory. She is both feminine, with a small waist and straight legs, and incredibly womanly, with exaggerated hips suggesting strength in childbearing. She cups her breasts, giving herself generously. If a couple was blessed by Ishtar, they were blessed with love and fertility.
The hetaerae of ancient Greece are seen in this sculpture awaiting clients. The woman on the left holds a harp, symbolizing her education and skill. The other two sit with her at a banquet—a social forum, not a brothel.
Some of the most memorable women we know of from Greek society were hetaerae—because they socialized with the great political leaders and philosophers of the day, they were often regarded fondly in their literature and art. Aspasia, the mistress of Pericles, was in the same social circle as Sophocles and Socrates. Leontia was a lover of Epicurus and a respected philosopher herself. Thais was thought to be the escort of Alexander the Great.
It is especially fascinating to observe the hetaera escorting trade in Greece because it was, unlike other cultures throughout ancient history, completely unrelated to religion.
Far to the east in India, women were used religiously similarly to their Sumerian counterparts. Women would sing devotional songs and give offerings of themselves to the goddess Devadasi. Young girls were literally “married” to the gods and therefore unable to wed mortal men or live outside of the temples independently. In ancient times, they were respected for this devotion. As we can see in this sculpture, once again the exposed breasts and open arms are welcoming. The feet are together and quite dainty, the arms long and slim. A gentle smile is on the subject’s face and the ornate framing around suggests prosperity and culture.
It is no wonder that the same ancient society gave us the Kama Sutra, and so celebrated love and sexual voracity.
While prostitutes and escorts were denied for centuries in Europe in sculpture in favor of being show on a canvas, there is currently a rising trend in depicting the subject in contemporary sculpture.
Another sculpture, titled Belle, was unveiled in 2007 and stands in front of Amsterdam’s oldest church in the Netherlands. It is a truly stunning picture set in bronze. In it a full-breasted woman stands exposed, casually framing herself in a doorway, on high heals, with arms open and chest up and powerful.
Prostitution has been legal in Amsterdam for almost a hundred years now, and is fully regulated by the government. While different decades have shown varying lights on the trade (where the women were coming from to fill these jobs, their rights, and the criminal activity sometimes linked in with some brothels), it is generally accepted (though not always admired) in society and remains completely unrelated to religion. This statue is a common tourist spot, as is the red light district in general to international travelers and often-returning businessmen.
Unfortunately both social and political shunning and the result of war have made prostitution in contemporary Iran the subject of artist Shirin Fakhim. In her sculptures Fakhim does not honor women devoted to the gods or educated escorts such as in Greek society. Rather, she makes a humorous statement against the escort trade in Tehran: in a country that prides itself on “morality” there are undoubtedly thousands of women who enter or are forced into prostitution.
Fakhim uses found objects for her medium, collecting flower pots and things off the street. The clothing are either things she has found discarded or clothes she’s had in her closet. The pieces are brightly colored, often several leaning together on street corners suggesting women awaiting clients. While they look almost humorous in their exaggeration, they are also a stark reminder that prostitution is everywhere, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.
Luckily, visual art is so versatile and welcomes many opinions and perspectives. These artists give us their reverence for the women in the subject while also asking us to question their presence and position. Do we look at women as just bodies? Goddesses? Scholars? And are these things directly related to the jobs they keep and how they use their bodies? Is something wrong or right depending solely on the opinions of others in the time in which they live?
At least we can look at these and come up with our own answers.