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My Trouble With Courtesans

VenusofUrbino If you spend much time around romance, particularly historical romance, you know that mistresses show up fairly often. Many, especially in older books, take the form of the woman that was kept by the hero before he met his special virgin snowflake and who inevitably compares unfavorably to the heroine. I still remember (and cringe) over my days of reading Barbara Cartland in high school. Her mistresses weren’t always evil, but they did have a tendency to appear fake and tawdry next to her innocent little dewdrop heroines.

In more modern times, it has gotten more acceptable to cast the heroine in the role of mistress or courtesan, and it’s become both controversial and also a powerful fantasy. Occasionally, the brothel is portrayed as a titillating, exciting place while in many others it is the house of horror from which the hero must rescue the heroine. And then there are the books where our heroine meets and falls for her first customer – the hero. Online we bemoan the faux courtesans, and we talk about “the real thing”, wondering why women can’t be more sexually empowered in novels. Still, sexually empowered is one thing; trapped in a life where you’re not much more than a sex object is quite another. Though I definitely have an appreciation for the more sexually confident heroines(especially in contemporary settings where this would be less anachronistic than the 30 year old accidental virgins), there’s always been something about the mistress/courtesan/prostitute characters that has bothered me.

Reading this article a few days ago really brought the issue to the front of my mind. While believing in the courtesan who delights in her sexual freedom can be a fun, steamy fairytale, the reality in this article is so much at odds with it that I find it hard to reconcile. The world of the sex worker today is still one in which the women are viewed as mere objects and while the men interviewed recognize on occasion that the women working do so against their will, they have sex with them anyway. Forget the fantasy of a hero falling in love with a prostitute or courtesan; these guys don’t even seem to view them as sentient human beings. In historical times where all women, no matter how beloved, were seen as lesser beings, I find it hard to believe that the women who had to sell their bodies to survive met fates so much better than the ones discussed in this article.

To be fair, some authors have shown a less rose-tinted view of the sex trade. The things we learn about Gabriel’s life in Broken Wing come to mind. And on a less horrific scale, even the casual act of using the heroine for sex with no regard for her pleasure and really not much thought about her has been shown occasionally. The initial encounter between the hero and heroine in Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel is one of the more famous, perhaps infamous for some, that I think of here. Blogger Magdalen has already done a wonderful job of describing it here so I won’t duplicate her efforts.

Still, many books featuring real mistresses or courtesans that had to live by what their sexual relationships with customers or protectors brought them do tend to gloss over things. Sometimes the courtesan is shown as empowered and mature, or the hero, upon meeting his companion for the night is instantly struck by her and treats her like she is special rather than someone being paid to have sex with him. When reading about times when women had few options, this myth of empowerment or the Cinderella story of the hero falling for the lowly heroine can both be very tempting fantasies. However, having worked with and read enough about the fate of women who fell prey to exploitative pimps, violent customers and sexually transmitted diseases, it has always been a little hard for me to idealize the life of the courtesan heroine.

While she may be comfortable with her body, the mistress/courtesan’s financial wellbeing still depends on the whim and generosity of her protectors, and she still must sell herself to keep a roof over her head. And after reading about the mindset and motivations of men in real life who visit women in this situation, I have trouble romanticizing it because of the exploitation often involved. I find some of the couples quite likable, but with a few notable exceptions (such as Broken Wing and Tracy Grant’s Fraser books), it’s very hard for me to lose myself in the fantasy.

What about you? Are you able to suspend disbelief and just go with the “courtesan meets hero who rescues her from life of sexual servitude and they live happily ever after” scenario, or do the realities intrude into the mind a little too much for you, too?

-Lynn Spencer

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