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Subjects of the Visual Arts: Sex Workers  
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Modern art historians have given very little attention to visual representations of sex workers, especially those involving sexualities and gender constructions that challenge heterosexist norms. To a large extent, the neglect of this important theme is due to the same moralizing attitudes that long limited studies of issues of any sort.

Investigation of visual depictions of queer sex work in art has been hindered by several factors, including the systematic destruction of relevant images. Moreover, very few of the extant representations from earlier periods have been published.

Further complicating the study of the images of queer sex work is the circumstance that many of them can be securely distinguished from representations of other types of sexual encounters only by reference to contextual information, which is seldom readily accessible.

Ancient Art

Images of queer sex workers extend far back into history. Among the oldest preserved scenes of encounters are Greek vase paintings (6th-4th centuries B.C.E.), which depict various stages of the courtship of boys (ranging in age from the time of puberty to seventeen years old) by men.

Although payments to males for sexual services were illegal, a few of these scenes show a man offering a bag of money to a boy. The economic exchanges routinely involved in these complex relationships were more usually signified by the inclusion of a cock, hare, or stag, which were obligatory courting gifts.

While many of the vase paintings feature explicit scenes of intercourse and foreplay, others depict the instruction in intellectual, moral, and athletic values and skills that constituted an important component of the relationship between Greek men and the boys under their care.

The vase paintings eloquently reveal that while sex work inherently involves the sale of sexual activities for some type of economic benefit, it also often involves many other types of exchanges as well, including various psychological and spiritual factors.

The joyfully cavorting pairs and groups of figures that originally covered the exteriors of many Hindu temples probably were intended to allude, at least in part, to the sacred sex work practiced at them. Hinduism embraced sexuality as a means through which one could transcend earthly limitations and surrender in ecstasy to the godhead.

The temple complex at Khajuraho (950-1050) features one of the largest displays of sculpture to survive British efforts to eradicate this aspect of Indian culture; varied same-sex couplings are depicted with the same zeal and objectivity as those involving both sexes.

The blunt commodification of sexuality can be exemplified by the quickly painted frescoes on the walls of many ancient Roman bathhouses and brothels. In most instances, same-sex encounters are presented alongside scenes of heterosexual intercourse.

However, the so-called House of Jupiter and Ganymede (184-192 C.E.), an apartment building that undoubtedly served as a brothel at the Roman port of Ostia, is decorated exclusively with frescoes and graffiti describing many types of sexual encounters between pairs and groups of men.

The Art of Tokugawa Japan

Colored woodcuts produced in Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) provide the most extensive visual documentation ever produced of queer sex work. For perhaps the only time in recorded history, brothel scenes were avidly collected by large numbers of ordinary middle class collectors.

Moronobu, Shunsho, and Utamaro were among the leading artists who recorded life in the "floating world" pleasure quarters of cities, where working and middle class Japanese citizens could procure entertainment at the legalized brothels, as well as at kabuki theaters and restaurants.

Approximately half of the many hundreds of Tokugawa era prints of brothels involve queer sex workers. Some scenes wittily reveal the monetary basis of the transactions in brothels; for instance, the anonymous An interrupted tryst with a male prostitute (approximately 1700) shows a madam stopping a man who has exceeded his allotted time as he is about to penetrate the youth lying beneath him.

However, numerous other images poetically evoke a mood of tender romance between the sex worker and client (for example, Nishikawa Sukenobu's Customer with boy prostitute, approximately 1740).

Liaisons with sex workers enabled clients to bypass otherwise rigorously enforced gender and sexual norms. Thus, many of the images show the erect penises of male sex workers protruding out through the women's attire that they habitually wore.

Although women could (and did) freely utilize the services of both male and female sex workers, only about ten percent of brothel scenes represent women as clients. It has been suggested that most of the relatively rare lesbian brothel scenes (such as Katsushika Hokusai's Lesbian sex with double-headed dildo, early 1800s) may have been intended primarily to titillate male viewers, but they certainly could have been purchased and enjoyed by women as well.

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Top: An ancient Greek vase painting depicts a man offering a hare to a youth.
Above: A prostitute charms his client in this print created by Kitagawa Utamaro in 1788.

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