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Author Topic: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?  (Read 1245 times)

Offline Lady Ty

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What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« on: June 17, 2018, 10:42:23 PM »

This discussion begun on another thread. Acknowledgments to @JMack and @Peat. I thought about it more and there are several good reasons.

Perhaps for same reason fantasy needs taverns. Travellers, soldiers, sailors all need food, drink and comfort away from home, so normal services in any town.

That came across as obvious, sorry, I should have expanded. Fantasy so often features characters on the move for a thousand reasons, but many times needing some degree of concealment. A tavern is a place where strangers are always noticed, but a brothel would be a useful place to stay with nobody being too inquisitive.  Our heroes or villains also need boltholes and a place to stash belongings and a change of clothes, so a useful location. There is guaranteed to be a brothel wherever you end up, even a small town and plenty in a city.

The reputation of a brothel, and its place in the local community relies on discretion. Those in authority including watch and councillors  almost certainly visit, but are not going to set up inspections or enquiries for fear of their own discovery. Often a useful place to conduct undercover business with people you cannot be seen with in public. Doh, that was not an intentional pun.  ::) A madame has prime opportunity for blackmail, but they all know it would be ridiculous for her to blatantly practise it. Instead favours for favours and nobody interferes and place is kept private.

This also provides an arc for female characters of older times to become semi legitimate businesswomen and gain some degree of social status, while making a good living independent of a man other than bouncers. They don’t necessarily need hearts of gold either, JMack. ;) Probably that is a bit of a disadvantage.

Would be interested to hear suggestions of establishments that could usefully fulfil those traveller/ adventurer/ rogue needs as easily.

Authority may use the ‘ ladies of the sheets’ (perfect new name Cam  ;D) as spies for extracting information or passing it on.
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Offline JMack

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #1 on: June 17, 2018, 11:42:51 PM »
Hi, @Lady Ty.

I really like the points you make about having places to go when you’re in a strange town, and how brothels can be places of discretion. The ability of a smart, savvy woman to build a business and position through brothels is also reasonable.

I think my objections are several:

> I find romanticisation of the sex trade to be problematic. But then again, fantasy romanticizes many, many problematic aspects of society, especially violence.
> It feels too easy. Can’t we come up with other ways for women to have an interesting societal role that are still credible in a pseudo-medieval society?
> Like many tropes, I bump into it so often. I just finished “Six of Crows” and prostitution is a core element of the female characters’ back stories. So I start to read “Traitor God” immediately after, and here’s another prostitute/madam.
> It feels like a male-focused fantasy, though I acknowledge I’m not a judge of women’s fantasies.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #2 on: June 18, 2018, 12:00:37 AM »
tbqh, unless you get explicitly into the how and why of it being a female-controlled business/industry--like Lynch does in Lies of Locke Lamora--then I'm going to assume organised crime / men are going to muscle in on pimping women. At the very least, a madame's going to have to pay for "protection" from both law and outlaw elements in the city. It's the same old story of physical/social intimidation, though perhaps less commonly in "frontier" societies where women step up a lot more firmly in all walks of life.

So I'm with JMack on the problem of romanticising a social construct that contains a whoooole bunch of power, gender, class and other issues. It's definitely something fantasy does a lot.

On the other hand, the problems of our society/history needn't apply in a fantasy world. But if they don't, there should be wider implications/applications of that than just the ready and easy availability of commercial sex.

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #3 on: June 18, 2018, 12:06:30 AM »
So I'm with JMack on the problem of romanticising a social construct that contains a whoooole bunch of power, gender, class and other issues. It's definitely something fantasy does a lot.

There is no rule that says prostitution HAS to be illegal and underworld.
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Offline Bender

Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #4 on: June 18, 2018, 12:20:40 AM »
It has its roots in reality. They don't call that world's oldest profession for no reason.

They were part of accepted social structure in olden times. Geisha in Japan, harems in Arabia etc...but 'courtesans' as popularly known in many  monarchial or feudal regimes of old times form a integral part of the society. In many cases, like Geisha for example...they are so much more than just "whores" as indicated in many books. They are reputed to be capable of intelligent conversation, Good in singing and dancing etc with sex being just part of their duties.

The 'Perfumed Quarter' primarily adds to the realism of the story weaving and is also a convenient way to do other shady businesses.

Offline Lady Ty

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #5 on: June 18, 2018, 03:03:04 AM »

Hi, @Lady Ty.

I really like the points you make about having places to go when you’re in a strange town, and how brothels can be places of discretion. The ability of a smart, savvy woman to build a business and position through brothels is also reasonable.

I think my objections are several:

> I find romanticisation of the sex trade to be problematic. But then again, fantasy romanticizes many, many problematic aspects of society, especially violence.
> It feels too easy. Can’t we come up with other ways for women to have an interesting societal role that are still credible in a pseudo-medieval society?
> Like many tropes, I bump into it so often. I just finished “Six of Crows” and prostitution is a core element of the female characters’ back stories. So I start to read “Traitor God” immediately after, and here’s another prostitute/madam.
> It feels like a male-focused fantasy, though I acknowledge I’m not a judge of women’s fantasies.


I couldn't move the spoilers with JMack's original question, but my reply was with some of the practical reasons of why brothels are used in fantasy worlds

It does not mean I condone brothels, or am romanticising brothels or ignoring the obvious facts of it being yet another example of men probably being the main controlling influence. But if we centre this discussion around fantasy needing to mirror our values, it seems pointless because that is a very different, complex approach and needs a different thread again.

Brothels are not always used in fantasy in a 'romanticised' way, often depicted as miserable and cruel as well, or place of last resort for desperate women, discarded mistresses and so on. 

Women in fantasy are being given more and varied roles often with power, so brothels are no longer the only way where women find a societal role, just one of them. Gwen in Riyria is only one of many varied powerful women or self sufficient women in the series.

Should I be concerned about JMack's proclivity for bumping into brothels so often ?  :P
We bump into battles often as well. ;D And docks, ships, castles, princes and wizards. Brothels are just another part of many societies, real life and fantasy.


So I'm with JMack on the problem of romanticising a social construct that contains a whoooole bunch of power, gender, class and other issues. It's definitely something fantasy does a lot.

You could also ask the same question "What is it with Courts/Religions/Armies in fantasy?" and the discussion could question them in a similar direction.


It has its roots in reality. They don't call that world's oldest profession for no reason.

They were part of accepted social structure in olden times. Geisha in Japan, harems in Arabia etc...but 'courtesans' as popularly known in many  monarchial or feudal regimes of old times form a integral part of the society. In many cases, like Geisha for example...they are so much more than just "whores" as indicated in many books. They are reputed to be capable of intelligent conversation, Good in singing and dancing etc with sex being just part of their duties.



On the other hand, the problems of our society/history needn't apply in a fantasy world. But if they don't, there should be wider implications/applications of that than just the ready and easy availability of commercial sex.

Agree with Bender about real world history. Definitely agree with cupiscent's comment. Sex and gender in fantasy can and has been used in so many different contexts, why need it be assumed to be wrong to sell it?

If these were brothels where it was in a world where there were multiple genders, sex was a highly prized art and prostitutes were often in government would you still see it as romanticising brothels? Or is it because it often happens in semi medieval worlds having a slight resemblance to our own?  Apart from multiple versions of magic, gods, demons and artefacts of power.






“This is the problem with even lesser demons. They come to your doorstep in velvet coats and polished shoes. They tip their hats and smile and demonstrate good table manners. They never show you their tails.” 
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Offline cupiscent

Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #6 on: June 18, 2018, 04:05:03 AM »
You could also ask the same question "What is it with Courts/Religions/Armies in fantasy?" and the discussion could question them in a similar direction.

Heck yes. And a lot of those questions get asked as well.

Sex and gender in fantasy can and has been used in so many different contexts, why need it be assumed to be wrong to sell it?

If these were brothels where it was in a world where there were multiple genders, sex was a highly prized art and prostitutes were often in government would you still see it as romanticising brothels? Or is it because it often happens in semi medieval worlds having a slight resemblance to our own?  Apart from multiple versions of magic, gods, demons and artefacts of power.

I never mind seeing anything included in a book if the world of that book fully explores how a thing works and what that means for the rest of society. (I am not saying everything included in a book has to be fully explored, but if you have a society where women aren't allowed to have careers or independent wealth or hold important positions, and then your brothels are run by sassy independent women with power, that's poor worldbuilding. If your world is shit for women, why is it lovely to be a whore? There's a whole lotta misogynist issues in that.)

If it's fine to sell sex, is it also fine to give it away? If it doesn't really matter how much sex you're having, or with whom, then what role does marriage play in the society? Purely economic? (I mean, this was largely the case for a bigger chunk of European history than is often realised.)

If it's not fine to sell sex, how does society feel about those who buy it? What problems do those who sell (and buy) face? Is there a double-standard? Are there class issues? Race issues? What does that say about your society?

I'm not saying brothels are unrealistic. I'm saying they are often a big pulsating symptom of a whole lotta poisonous stuff in real-world societies (which also goes for geisha, and other "respected" whore-types; those societies often have really appalling gender issues). If an author is engaging with that without thinking, a lot of that poison is just going to come along for the ride. Plus, if it's engaged with, things are a lot more interesting.

Offline Elfy

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #7 on: June 18, 2018, 07:01:47 AM »
Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory handles this very well, I felt.
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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #8 on: June 18, 2018, 07:47:31 AM »
There's no rule that says brothels need to be women-only. I think it was in Rebecca Levene's book that you had a gender-neutral brothel, so to speak. This would balance the power, I guess...
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Offline Peat

Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #9 on: June 18, 2018, 09:44:15 AM »
I'm not opposed per se to the inclusion - wide spread inclusion - of brothels and prostitutes in fantasy literature. Not for it either, but generally happy to accept it as a thing that's there and judge each portrayal on its merits.

Where the general happiness fades though is just how prevalent it is. Amusing as it is to imagine Jmack furtively sneaking up the book shelves, checking books for brothels scenes then sticking them in a brown paper bag while checking no one is watching, finding a fantasy book with a brothel is like finding a fantasy book with a dragon. Speaking of which, where's all the Dragon Brothel books at? Now there's a cult classic waiting to be written!

Anyhoo, It's a cliche in its own right and deserves questioning as such - and a cliche with a lot of baggage.

I'm mainly curious about "What's with all the brothels, huh?" thing intellectually. But there's at least a part of me that's a bit "Is this really all that healthy and respectful?"

To go with the intellectual part - I think Lady Ty's given a few good reasons, but as I said back in the original thread as well, there's a lot of things it makes good sense to include in fantasy and not all of them are there. So why are the ones that there, there?

Tbh, I find it hard to escape the notion that at least some of it is most of Fantasy's tropes come from the books of straight men and straight men enjoy writing about sexy women.

I also think a lot of it is that the presence of prostitution is used as a short hand for "Seamy underbelly of society". I know that I'm guilty of doing so.

And I guess that when you add the two of them around, you come close to (or in in some cases, you just do) romanticizing prostitution. Like, there's all this bad stuff, but its alright because there's hotties and its a big party. Which is where I wonder if it's all that healthy.

And if a more thoughtful thorough treatment of life's underbelly might be a better read anyway.

I mean, I'll keep reading books with them in, just like I'll keep reading books with weird "how do they function" monarchies and horses that never tire or throw shoes. But I do think it's a little weird how it's such a staple and think a lot of authors throw them in because its the done thing without too much thinking.

p.s. While there's no rule saying brothels have to follow how it's done in the Western world, given how much of fantasy relies on it being the "same but different", I think its fair to assume all fantasy brothels are how its done in the Western world until the book tells you different.

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #10 on: June 18, 2018, 10:32:52 AM »
Speaking of which, where's all the Dragon Brothel books at? Now there's a cult classic waiting to be written!

Well, in D&D dragons can shapeshift and do a LOT of intermixing...
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Offline cupiscent

Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #12 on: June 19, 2018, 04:24:47 AM »
Karen Memory was great, because it was really about the brothel and the people therein. All too often, the brothels and the people therein feel as disposable to the plot as they are to the society, and that just feels a bit icky.

The question of gender equality in brothels is an interesting one. To be honest, I'm more interested in the demographics of those buying than those selling. If it's just women and men for the consumption of men, the gender issue is still very much present, it just looks more like ancient Rome than the present-day West. (Rome's approach to sexuality was more like "those who penetrate" vs "those who are penetrated"; the former were virile and worth considering men, the latter were women and those hardly better than. It's differently toxic.)

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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #13 on: June 19, 2018, 04:58:32 AM »
I think the prevalence of gender in fictional brothels to be predominantly accurate - throughout history through to current day, by a massive majority men are the clients of the sex trade, even in Roman times and in Chicago this very night. On the whole, women can find a willing partner with a fraction of the effort and in fact expend many times the time and trouble to avoid unwanted sexual encounters than most men ever will.
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Re: What is it with brothels and the fantasy genre?
« Reply #14 on: June 19, 2018, 11:07:47 AM »
It has its roots in reality. They don't call that world's oldest profession for no reason.

They were part of accepted social structure in olden times. Geisha in Japan, harems in Arabia etc...but 'courtesans' as popularly known in many  monarchial or feudal regimes of old times form a integral part of the society. In many cases, like Geisha for example...they are so much more than just "whores" as indicated in many books. They are reputed to be capable of intelligent conversation, Good in singing and dancing etc with sex being just part of their duties.

The 'Perfumed Quarter' primarily adds to the realism of the story weaving and is also a convenient way to do other shady businesses.

Wow wow wow... Geisha are NOT prostitutes. They're not more "than just whores". They're not whores at all. Geishas weren't hired out to have sex with! They were trained to be good conversationalist and party hosts, dance and sing.
Whores/courtesans are called Oiran, and geishas arose from whores and chaste teen dancers. The name Geisha used to apply to male entertainer and shifted to female ones when former whores started to specialise in music, dance, and overall non sexual-related services.
When a geisha was performing in a 'brothel' she was strictly forbidden to sell sex, since that was the specific domain of the oiran. Some geishas may have slept with customers, but it wasn't the intended role. They were like classy escorts you paid for your party, and then you'd take a prostitute to bed...
After the war when Geishas were reformed in the 60s, what the women did with their sex life was (and still is) entirely up to them.
The idea of auctioning virginity popularised by the film/book Memoirs of a Geisha is wrong, and applied to the apprentices of oirans, not geisha. A lot of bull started spreading after the Americans settled in the country, since a lot of whores started going around calling themselves geisha and the word took the wrong meaning.

There's no rule that says brothels need to be women-only.

100% that.

There is no rule that says prostitution HAS to be illegal and underworld.

100% that too. Making it legal protects the prostitutes and takes them away from the dangerous shadow of the pimp. Romans already saw prostitution as a profession and taxed it, and now few countries do, but those that do are musch, much safer for prostitutes of every gender.

I'm all for brothels to be a thing in fantasy, but what is annoying is the idea of 'another female character with whore as a background'. Like there are few independent careers for a woman to do in your fantasy world, that dont include selling herself... And if she has that background, it has to be dark and traumatising...
So I think the best is when a brothel is around but it doesn't really impact the story much, or if a woman/man has this background, it'd be fun for them to not have minded this time in their lives, been mostly well sheltered, and have a ton of funny anecdotes from it.

I think I read little of the fantasy you all complain about, because I hardly see that sort of overuse of brothels.
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