Friday, January 29, 2016

Hustling Through the Ages

by Jean Roberta

The concept of sex workers (people, mostly women, paid to provide sexual services for customers) as “hustlers” has always filled me with mixed feelings. If a “hustle” is a con game, are whores/harlots/call girls/courtesans offering something bogus or overpriced? Is this because women are expected to provide unlimited sex for men without expecting anything in exchange?

In my experience, most heterosexual men are willing and eager to have sex with women, so why would women have to make a great effort to tempt them into it?

This line of thought reminds me of double-bind conversations I’ve had with men who disapprove of 1) women who manipulate men into marrying them and supporting them financially, and 2) women who boldly go into the paid workforce to steal “men’s” jobs. Men who don’t think women should try to survive in any material sense also tend to disapprove of: 1) “frigid” women who say no, and 2) sluts who don’t say no. These seem to be the dudes who resent the female “hustlers” who fascinate them and who supposedly spirit men’s money right out of their wallets.

Disapproval of women who offer sex as part of a “hustle” is often blended with disapproval of women who outwit men in various ways, often during a war. Behold “Rahab the Harlot” of ancient Hebrew times, as imagined by a nineteenth-century French painter, Jacques Tissot:

Supposedly she helped the Israelites conquer the city of Jericho by hiding two Israelite spies from the men who were searching for them. From a non-Israelite viewpoint, this made Rahab seem untrustworthy.

Here is a Greek image of a sex-worker plying her trade. For some reason, this has been associated with Rahab.

Part of the problem of morally evaluating the likes of Rahab is that the sex trade has often been conflated with other careers (such as tavern-keeping), and the cultures of the ancient Middle East were distinctly different from the later Christian cultures of Europe and Britain.
For example, this woman would look like a “hustler” to most puritans:

They would suspect her of being a follower of this guy:

According to traditional Christian theology, a wedding ceremony neutralizes the evil inherent in sex, so that married couples can procreate without committing sin, but women who couple with men who are not their husbands are doing something illicit, which is akin to other sins such as blasphemy, lying and stealing.

In 1660, when Puritan rule ended in England, and King Charles II brought back the monarchy, Christmas revels and the theatre as a popular place for hanky-panky, he had already fathered his first child on an early mistress. (Eventually, he fathered between 12 & 19 of them, none born to his legal wife.) One of his favourite playmates was Nell Gwyn, who worked in her mother’s bawdy house in her early teens, progressed to selling oranges in the theatre, then to performing onstage, and then to the King’s bed. Apparently, when he was on his deathbed in 1685, he told his advisors: “Let not poor Nelly starve.” How generous of him.

The Victorian Age brought about stricter morals in theory, since the reigning Queen and her husband the Prince were role-models of proper domesticity. In real life, the sexual double standard created a thriving “underworld,” some of which was surprisingly above-ground. Here are two relatively well-known courtesans of the time:

[Catherine Walters]
[Cora Pearl]

By the Edwardian Age (early 1900s), naughty postcards like this were popular. Undoubtedly, the women who modelled nude for photographers and painters were thought of as “hustlers” who earned a dishonest living.

Despite what I’ve sometimes claimed, this is not an image of me in my distant youth.

I haven’t actually sold sex since the early 1980s. Here is a very recent photo of me, taken this week for the university website. Am I still a "hustler" in any sense? I honestly don't know.

If women in general have an illicit relationship with a money economy, then yes, I am still "hustling," since I not only support myself, but help to support my spouse & stepsons. I do this by introducing impressionable young adults to the mysteries of grammar, and of literature. Heh. There are so many ways to corrupt the righteously ignorant.


  1. Interestingly (if a lack of information can count as "interesting"), neither Merriam-Webster Unabridged nor The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English seems to explain exactly how or why the more general "hustle[r]" spawned the prostitution-specific meaning. I did learn, though, from Partridge, that "hustle" in the sense of prostitution can be traced to 1895 (and is of U.S. origin), with "hustler" in that sense following along by 1924. Meanwhile, I find no evidence in these sources of any illicit-or-disreputable-business associations with "hustling" prior to 1840, suggesting that for its first century or so of use (M-W traces the word to 1720, when it meant to push or shove) it had no underworld connotations and possibly none of our contemporary connotations at all.

    Surprisingly, Partridge (a highly authoritative source, I believe) claims that a hustler was or is especially used to refer to a male prostitute.

  2. Jeremy, I don't know why, but I've long had the impression that "hustler" applied more to male prostitutes (mainly for the gay trade) than to the females. I suspect the hustling aspect is as much (or more) about getting the money as about offering sex for it, but I have no idea whether males can demand more than women can. My impression probably comes from things I've read, but I can't say what or when.


  3. I remember as far back as the fifties guys I knew in Philadelphia and New York would 'hustle queers' for a quick buck. There was a diner in Hell's kitchen where pedophiles hung out. Later, desperate and on my own in Florida, I 'hustled' a guy myself. I couldn't get into it for any length of time because I felt quite sorry for him, not to mention my being straight. Still later, when I worked bars in both North Beach and in the red light district of othis adjacent county, the euphemism was 'dating' ... for women.

    'There are so many ways to corrupt the righteously ignorant.'

    Carry on!

  4. I didn't consult an authoritative dictionary before writing this post, but I'm willing to take your word for it, Jeremy, that "hustler" is a relatively recent and US-based term for female prostitutes. However, the concept of an exchange of sex for money (regardless of who is buying and who is selling) as dishonest and illicit seems very old. In the case of men selling to men, the act itself would have been officially seen (until fairly recent times) as a violation of "God's laws," even aside from the issue of payment. In the case of women selling to men, traditional disapproval of this trade seems to come from the belief that women should be providing sex to men on men's terms, without expecting payment.

    1. Yes, and please know that I wasn't using the dictionaries to dispute any of your arguments. I was just curious about the history of the term.

  5. "Despite what I’ve sometimes claimed, this is not an image of me in my distant youth."

    Great image, Jean. Now this is how I will remember you!

    Seriously, though, you've succinctly expressed the impossible double-bind women face. We're damned if we do and damned if we don't. Much more fun to "do"...

  6. I was just talking this morning about some of the double binds you mention here: don't go out and take jobs from men/don't let a man support you, etc. I wish I felt like some of that had passed away, but I still feel like a lot of these double binds are alive and well.


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