This week, we’ll be featuring books featuring sex worker protagonists, and are kicking things off with a discussion post about the portrayal of sex workers in romance more broadly.
Bottom line: Do you like the sex worker archetype?
Erin: I didn’t always like it back in the day when I was reading about aristocrats rescuing their poor, tarnished mistresses, though at the time I didn’t quite understand why. Now I enjoy reading this archetype with caveats. I like that I have found stories that explore this archetype without being buried in sex shaming, but I have found even the most sex-positive versions of these stories still tend not to embrace or explore some ideas that I’d like to see, specifically that it’s possible for people to be in a healthy relationship even with the sex work continuing.
Holly: I’ll be honest, I kinda like the fallen courtesan historical romances. The heroines may be sad and jaded, but they’re also more worldly and sexually experienced than the average historical romance heroine.
I’m not saying that these stories are sex positive or don’t have problems, but when I was first reading romance 20 years ago, these heroines felt like a breath of fresh air, and I continue to have a fondness for them. As the Music Man says: “I hope, I pray, for Hester to earn just one more A.”
Ingrid: I think for the most part they tend to be refreshing when, as Erin pointed out, they aren’t done as a savior/fallen woman thing. I especially like when the sex worker hasn’t had a ton of terrible experiences and needs a magical ding dong to fix things for her.
What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the sex worker archetype?
Erin: At least one of the protagonists is engaged in sex work, so one who engages in prostitution (mistress/prostitute/escort) or works in the adult film industry (porn star) or is a stripper or theoretically is engaged in sex therapy or does webcam sex work or is a professional dominant or the like, but I haven’t read any books that include protagonists who do that. Prostitution/porn/stripper definitely seem to be the literary faves.
Holly: Note: that thing that happens in bodice rippers where the hero suspects that the virgin heroine is a prostitute and therefore rapes her DOES NOT COUNT.
Ingrid: Agree with all of the above.
What do you think is fun about the archetype?
Erin: It explores ideas about sexuality and power dynamics, especially when it’s thoughtfully executed.
Holly: Having a sex worker protagonist sometimes takes the mystique out of sex, you know? Maybe that means that casual sex is on the table, or maybe that means that characters are really conscientious about developing ties that aren’t about being horny. I don’t know, I made that up.
Ingrid: I think in the examples I’ve seen and really enjoyed, I like that it levels the playing field. So often it’s one person, usually a guy, who has a plethora of sexual experience, and (usually the) girl kind of unfurls due to his sexual ministrations. But in this case they’re both bringing a wealth of experience to the table and it’s…pretty fun.
What do you find problematic about the archetype?
Erin: You don’t have to reach very far back to read this archetype as rescued from poverty and misery by the love interest who is willing to overlook the sexual partners in the past. Even in the more sex positive narratives, the archetype seems still to be primarily centered in ideas of shame and very traditional views of monogamy. I suppose it makes sense for the protagonists to have experiences and/or conversations that force the non-sex worker to confront biases, but the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a story that includes the love interest being unconditionally and publicly supportive of the sex worker or for the sex worker to continue the sex work once the relationship is cemented bums me out because it still feels like it’s supporting a cultural narrative that being a sex worker and having a happy, loving relationship are mutually exclusive things.
Holly: Uh, what Erin said.
Ingrid: I really can’t add to that.
Would you say that you see authors representing sex work more frequently in a positive or a negative light?
Erin: Overall I do not think that sex work is portrayed in a particularly positive light. There are some authors exploring this archetype in ways that challenge cultural ideas about sex work, but I would argue that the reason books like, for example, Stripped by Zoey Castile or The Roommate by Rosie Danan or The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang have been so notable in recent years is (in part) because they include a character with this culturally taboo job. And all of these books that arguably do show the sex worker in a positive light include an interlude in which the sex worker is publicly shamed, even if the sex work is not entirely outed in the interlude. It makes sense that these scenes occur, but the fact that they are used in, like, every book indicates to me that, as readers, we are still grappling with the idea that we could view sex work without attaching shame to the occupation.
Holly: I absolutely agree with Erin. Sex work is something that characters do out of necessity and that they desperately want to leave behind (either by running away from their past or by finding a way to stop doing sex work). One exception I can think of is Priest by Sierra Simone, where the heroine is working as a stripper to escape from her WASP background, and who explicitly gets off on stripping. But sex work is still portrayed as negative and shameful—the character does it specifically because of the stigma attached, because it separates her from her other life, and there’s no indication that she will keep stripping once she and Father Bell figure out their relationship.
However, I think we do have to acknowledge that while there are certainly sex workers in real life who choose their work because it’s something they really want to do, there are also a lot of sex workers who do this work because of economic necessity, and I don’t think that romance novels should gloss over that completely.
Ingrid: I completely agree with this. I think that the issue in real life is pretty complex and there are a lot of factors and considerations for us as people in a society to weigh and discuss, so it goes to show that what we see in literature might be the same. I do think that the “shame factor” is a real thing that can’t be ignored–just because we believe things should be a certain way doesn’t mean they ARE yet, and so I can understand why we’d have that factor represented. I feel like there’s some opportunity to examine it in a more fantasy-based environment, where the characters exist in a society that has approached sex work differently (and perhaps in a healthier way).
What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?
Erin: Though in some ways I would have liked to see some elements play out a little differently, The Roommate by Rosie Danan was overall very sex positive. Josh is an adult film star who is dealing with his own career problems and has to figure out how to move forward in a way that he’s still comfortable with what he’s doing, and the solution that he and Clara come up with doesn’t take them away from the adult film industry, but spins their project in a feel-good, sex positive way.
Holly: First of all, I don’t think a discussion of sex workers in romance can be complete without bringing up Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners books. Nora might be known as a bestselling erotica author, but she makes her real money as a professional dominatrix. Though her relationship with Søren is tumultuous, she absolutely continues her sex work throughout the series as she moves towards her HEA.
In a slightly different vein, Eight Kinky Nights by Xan West features a sex educator who gives demonstrations on how to safely engage in kink. Leah loves her work and is privileged enough to maintain control of her boundaries—and rather than being shamed for what she does, it makes her a more desirable partner for Jordan, who wants to learn about dominance from someone experienced in teaching it.
And finally, I want to give a shout out to Jeannie Lin’s Lotus Palace mysteries. These books take place in the pleasure quarter of the capital city in Tang dynasty China, so bonus points for a unique historical setting. What’s interesting here is because the courtesans cater to a high-class clientele, they are well-educated and desirable (and maybe even powerful). This is not to say that they will continue to work in the pleasure quarter post-HEA, because they won’t, but it was still fun to read about a time when sex work wasn’t so furtive.
Ingrid: I’m so bad at remembering books–I’m thinking off the top of my head of Priest, which we all know wasn’t my jam in some ways but it touches on the heroine’s work as a stripper (which was something she did for multiple reasons). Lingus by Mariana Zapata was an interesting read–in that one we have the hero who is a porn star and working his way through school. While he struggles with that career path, other major characters are also porn stars and have really positive experiences. So it was a pretty interesting read!
PS: Here are the books we’ll be talking about in more detail this week.
Have a favorite romance featuring a sex worker? Let us know in the comments!