I’ve participated on a particular public discussion forum way more than has been necessary. It’s called the HDH (High Dollor Hotties) forum and concerns courtesans, paid companions, and those who simply charge higher-than-normal rates for their time. Scrolling through the forum one will read page after page of what defines a “courtesan”, which nearly everyone seems to feel is the pinnacle of the “provider” spectrum.

When I worked, I aspired to be as courtesan-like as possible, using my own definitions, biases and prejudices. I know I didn’t hit the mark all the time. If I did, I would’ve achieved my goal. Every escort uses her own definition of what a courtesan is, whether self-proclaimed or simply jumping into a discussion. And then we have to contend with the long history of courtesans, which vary from country to country and century to century. The word “courtesan” has been used to describe everything from a modern-day Nevada brothel employee to a handful of rarified newsmakers and trendsetters in 19th century France and England. With such a wide range of concepts to choose from; what really is a courtesan?

Without a doubt, the word conjures images of rare beauty, impeccable grooming and poise, a sophisticated woman who is not worldly enough to be hard, charming, educated to the point of overkill, and able to captivate a man with a glance. There can be other qualities; such as being multi-lingual or a connoisseur of travel. She must be selective with her patrons and is always very expensive. The idea of sexual expertise is usually implied. Some self-described courtesans emphasize the romantic, lover-like quality they bring to each encounter. Others emphasize their wild sexual abandon. A certain agency in Australia is very upfront about the sexual techniques their courtesans are trained in, part of what they believe makes a courtesan a courtesan (and different from a mere escort).

None of these working definitions satisfied me. There was something lacking no matter how I twisted the combination around. And then I read a book that changed my perceptions forever.

By chance, I saw the cover on a friend’s coffee table. Intrigued, I picked it up and read the back cover. Raging with curiosity, I borrowed the book and read it within 48 hours; not only being transported into this beautiful fantasy world but feeling the mystery of my profession solved in one fell swoop by a religious historian inspired to write about a headstrong, masochistic, courtesan. I devoured the next two books in the series as soon as they were published. I’ve re-read these three books at least ten times each in the last three years, gleaning some new understanding every time (I’m a speed-reader).

The loveliest thing about the society in which Phedre lives in is the sexual freedom everyone enjoys. Her profession is considered a religious calling. Simply having a confirmed place in society makes such a big difference in the openness and honesty of the courtesans. Both men and women are freely accepted into training and as clients. There are thirteen “Houses” where the innate skills every adept has is honed into textbook perfection (and each house does indeed have its own code of desired perfection). And then there are the “street guilds” where perfection is probably less studiously attended to but the enthusiasm remains the same.

The mere idea of being able to freely pursue the perfection of my innate skills and talents with trained masters of my art is a heady one. But don’t think that everything revolves around sex. The first thing all adepts learn to do is to kneel properly. Then they learn the art of serving food and drink. There is the study of history and religion and lessons in their art. Each house has its own art; such as massage, passion, domination, the arts (music, drawing, improv, acrobatics, etc.), and even honing a shrewd sense of finance. While this might be enough for most people; in this world, they go one step further.

Like I said, being a courtesan is considered a religious calling. Their goddess, Naamah, is so revered that none enter into the contract lightly. Adepts are asked if they wish to be dedicated to the service of their goddess. Only the willing are wanted. The contract between courtesan and patron is considered a religious pact. Breaking it is a crime and blasphemy. Patrons would never dream of leaving less than the contracted fee for the service or harming their courtesan. And the courtesans would never dream of giving less than everything their patrons desired.

Yes, I realize this is a fantasy world where sexual disease does not exist. However, I discovered the concepts translated quite beautifully. The idea of entering into every appointment with a whole-souled devotion (within my boundaries) was a final piece of the puzzle for me. I like the idea of service without being servile. I like to make someone happy. I am a perfectionist as well. Giving myself permission to be all that was a freeing experience for me. While I still had my “image” that I marketed, more and more I turned to these books as a guide because these works of fiction gave me the internal response that was lacking when I read the discussion boards or others’ definitions of a courtesan. There were no “rules” of what a courtesan was or wasn’t. By virtue of the fact that Phedre made the perfection of her calling her goal; she was a courtesan.

Another concept that attracted me was the idea that each person in the profession had some unique attribute that only they could contribute, if asked. Of course, there were standards of natural beauty and talent that had to be upheld to be a member of a house. Beyond that, every adept developed into their own person. Again, here was the intoxicating freedom to just be. A courtesan can only be the way she is by being a whole person.

I never believed I was worshipping a goddess. But when I felt I’d reached the ideal I’d created in my head, borne of these books, the feeling was completely fulfilling. It was more than a job well done. It was that my current place in this world being filled as it should be. It was about being more. Not more than anyone else; but becoming more than myself for just a moment. It was a reaching out and connecting in a way that did not harm me or take anything from me. The books showed me a graceful way to strike the balance of professional and personal. Using all the facets of my being in a concentrated span of time created a wholeness that is lacking in everyday chores. Phedre states that she loves all of her patrons, even if just a little bit. I will say that’s true for me too (except in the case of bad clients). Courtesan-ship is not the intimacy of bodies, as so many believe, but the intimacy of spirit.

I’m still amazed that it took a book of fiction, written by someone who has zero experience in the adult industry, to perfectly capture the beauty of the profession, with no prejudice or taint, and then improve upon it like nothing I’ve ever read. I owe Carey a debt of thanks for giving me a tangible, attainable ideal. I’m still digesting and learning from these books, even in my personal life. Phedre learns something new about the mystery of the service of Naamah every year of her life. I can expect no less for myself.

In the second book, Phedre is given the opportunity to perfectly reveal what she is all about. A foreign prince mocks her chosen profession. He sneers that for a price she will pretend interest in him. She responds, “…for a price, I will pretend absolutely nothing.”

22 thoughts on “The Way of the Courtesan

  1. You’d like “Firefly” by Joss Whedon. I think he would have headed in this direction with the character Inara Serra, a courtesan and sacred prostitute who is called a Companion. They are part of a Guild, enjoy near Royal status in society as well as a Temple where future Companions are trained starting at age twelve until age 18. From the clues given in the series (which was cancelled by Fox) and the movie, it seems as though the Companions are mostly practicing Buddhists. However, it is a wonderful blend of a secular and spiritual calling.

    And I TOTALLY agree with this: “I like the idea of service without being servile. I like to make someone happy. I am a perfectionist as well.”

    That is the balance which is most important to me when I begin working. Ensuring service is not conflated with servility. There IS a difference. And perfection, yes. It’s a shame that self-improvement seems to be a four-letter word these days! I’d heard from many others how good the books are in general, but especially in difference to courtesans.

  2. Aspasia,

    Nice to see you over here!

    I’ve heard of the Firefly series and had interest, but it wasn’t a priority. Now it is, thanks to you. Sounds beautiful. If only more people read books like these and let the ideas seep into their heads!

    Self-improvement is a four letter word because of the silly industry it’s spawned. In reference to a quiet journey in one’s own life, it certainly is not a four-letter word.

    XX

  3. Glad the books touched you as much as me. Indeed the world is one I wish existed. Thank you for posting this and congratulations on the publishing. Hopefully it will spread the books further.

    There is also a great quote from the, currently, final book in the series, Kushiel’s Mercy. I think it hits on your last paragraph: “there is no shame in aught done in love.”

    May Naamah guide your steps!

  4. Valerian,

    I’m glad you enjoyed my essay and I do hope Carey’s ideas spread. The world needs a little more love right now.

    The spirit of Naamah has been a guide for me for several years now.

    XX

  5. I agree with the recommendation of watching Firefly. The amount of information they give on the Companion Guild is minuscule, but that hasn’t stopped a few of the fans from forming their own mock guild. (playful only) I’ve been trying to start discussion about what we think the Guild training houses were like, including the presence of temples and priestesses within the Guild structures. To answer many of these questions, we’ve pulled from the Kushiel series. Its guided us quite a bit. There are still gaps in our guesses, none of us having any experience with practicing courtesans or any kind of guild training. We don’t even have a Buddhist! Still, thank you very much for writing this! As a fan of Kushiel’s Dart and its sequels, I’m happy to know that its been as helpful to others as it was for me, if for entirely different reasons. I’m planning to link this essay to our Guild forum for further discussion.
    Thanks!

  6. Puckish,

    Thanks for stopping by! A fellow sex worker friend of mine has strongly suggested I watch the Firefly series. He’s a HUGE fan. So I have to.

    I think Carey’s imaginings have a stronger basis in reality than most people are willing to give her credit for. She has an ability to put herself into someone else’s shoes. I would happily use the Thirteen Houses as a basis for a real guild (if it were legal). Combined with what I know of the Firefly guild, it would make for an astonishing world of courtesans — truly goddesses walking on earth!

    (blushing) So glad you enjoyed my thoughts on the real-life application of Carey’s ideas. Thank you.

    XX

  7. I have found so many interesting discussions on this blog – really wonderful. Have you seen the movie “Dangerous Beauty” about a Courtesan in the City-State of Naples in the 16th Century? Also, have you read the booklet titled: “Instruction & Advice for the Young Bride” by Ruth Smythers allegedly written in 1894? Whether it is a hoax or not, it is a really funny read. Relating th former to the latter, in the 1950s I witnessed my sister being required to walk with a book on her head just as Catherine McCormack’s character in the movie had to do the same. Very little had changed in 400 years; my mother learned from her mother who learned from her mother who learned from her mother etc, etc. Only in the sixties and seventies was the chain broken and the sexual revolution began. Here in the US, it needs to continue for awhile so sexual workers will not be stigmatzed as they are now.

  8. Benjamin,

    Yes, I’ve watched Dangerous Beauty a number of times. But I did NOT know about “Instruction & Advice for the Young Bride” — that sounds like fun! Thanks for the suggestion.

    I’ve tried the book on the head trick as a teenager but it only forced me to walk stiffly and slowly, which I didn’t care for.

    As to whether or not the sexual revolution helps reduce stigma against sex workers is a WHOLE other topic. 🙂

    XX

  9. The following is the best place I have been able to find anything that pertains to the booklet: “Instruction & Advice for the Young Bride” http://www.squaredancecd.com/Bride/brides.
    Regardless if it is a hoax or not, it was the mindset of a lot women of many generations.
    A couple of illustrations of that mindset; taking into account that my mother was born in the middle teens of the last century and was raised in the Deep South where, at that time, the Civil War was still called the War of Northern Aggression. I was 21, in college and remember this as if it were yesterday; I was driving her to catch a flight to visit my older sister and out of the blue she says; “son, you know you should not be having sex with the college girls you are dating; that is why there are ‘houses of ill repute'”. Fast forward to several years ago when I had been single for about 10 years. The last three serious relationships I was involved in were with women somewhat in my generation. At the time I was dating them, one was 8 years younger, the second was 10 years younger and the 3rd was 12 years younger. At the appropriate moment, when I asked each, “Do you spit or swallow” not one of the three had any idea what I was asking. Besides that, none had experienced the joy of receiving oral sex and it was very evident that each was being truthful. All three were born of women either my mother’s age or a few years younger.
    And now an example of the effect of the sexual revolution. I have a good friend (without “benefits”) who was telling me that when she was in college in the ’80s, she and her sorority sisters would, instead of studying late at night, get several bunches of bananas and practice oral sex techniques. Care to guess which age group made their boyfriends/husbands happier “from the get-go”?
    The sexual liberation of women is one of the greatest things that has ever happened. I know some religious fanatics and ultra conservative wing nuts will always disagree, but most of them are members of the Flat Earth Society. It will take time, but the stigma, persecution, and prosecution of sex workers will go the way the horse and buggy. And, IMHO the sexual revolution beginning in the ’60s was the “opening shot”. Besides, being a doctor, lawyer, indian chief, or provider is what the person does; not who the person is. And, who you are, as a person, is much more important than what you do for as a profession/job!

  10. Benjamin,

    Thanks for the link! Will get to reading.

    I agree that the sexual revolution was very good for women in general. It has not helped sex workers in many ways because the radical feminists spawned from the 60s and 70s work hard at keeping the advances of women separate from the advances for sex workers. (The stupid Swedish model is a product of radical feminists.) The surge of morality America is currently experiencing doesn’t help either.

    I’m optimistic that things will change for the better for sex workers all over the world. As for the US, I don’t think the changes I want will occur in my lifetime. It would be nice, but I’m not betting on it. Doing what I can to crack it open though — along with a growing number of other people. 🙂

    XX

  11. “Courtesan-ship is not the intimacy of bodies, as so many believe, but the intimacy of spirit.”
    and
    “…for a price, I will pretend absolutely nothing.”

    Never mind sex work, those are deep concepts in life in general. The best authors tap into archetypes that we all share, on a conscious level or not. This is where their universal appeal comes from, and how they can talk meaningfully about subjects they have never experienced themselves.

    The “goddess” mythology you hinted at does sound a bit corny to me, but I do enjoy an approach to sex that goes beyond the purely physical.

    I’m grateful to all the wonderful providers I met who were willing to explore and give, instead of act.
    Pretending can be soul-crushing.

  12. Hobbyist,

    You should read the books. The goddess worship in there is anything but corny. I wish it were a real religion so I could join. Plus, the books are just fun reading!

    Carey is a very talented author and I have enjoyed her insights since I first picked up her book.

    XX

  13. Daddy,

    Aussies are great clients. They have an earthy sexuality that really works for me and their culture is very accepting and respecting of sex workers. Not that I’ve sampled every Aussie out there. 🙂

    As far as relationships go, most women say Aussies are jerks and based on my VERY limited experience in that realm — I’d say those women are right.

    XX

  14. Great commentary! I liked your insight into loving each of your good clients a little bit. My question is how do you keep a lid on those feelings? I personally develop crushes too easily. Last section of your essay with quote on “…pretending nothing” is fantastic! That is actually where I want my relationship to be with the escort to be. It is the ultimate compliment if neither party is pretending. Sorry to be jumping all over the place in your archives, but your replies are always appreciated. No wonder Aussie Flatmate says he admires your work ethic.

  15. Michael — I’m glad you liked this.

    It’s not about “keeping a lid” on feelings, it’s simply realizing that they have a certain place where they’re appropriate and only in that place. I carry around a LOT of fond memories with many different clients and would love to see each of them anytime — but neither am I going to interrupt their lives with my own wishes. I guess it’s hard to explain. This is a relationship between 2 people, just not a traditionally-defined one.

    It’s easy to follow comments in WP, I just have to keep up with the spam-stomping!

  16. Love this thread. As a working courtesan (it comes in waves, as it does, with discernment), I relate to many of the sentiments shared here. Looking forward to reading the books.

    1. Anon — 🙂 Thank you!

      Thanks to your comment, I re-read this post for the first time in YEARS. I’ve come round full circle…from here, to hating my clients, back to loving them again. Controlling who my clients are makes such a difference to my professional and personal satisfaction. Not everyone personally invests themselves in their sex work, I do, I can’t avoid it. Which is why it’s SO important to get it right.

      Carry on!

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