A survey of the world’s oldest profession, which becomes, in effect, a sexual history of the world.
Not terribly interested in gender-crusading, but still more intellectually rigorous than Camille Paglia, Norwegian academic Ringdal offers a heady romp through the ages and under the covers. His approach begins inauspiciously by rambling through Babylon, ancient Israel, and Egypt, tossing generalizations about these societies, their usage of temple prostitutes and what it said about gender roles. Once he extends his sources beyond the Bible, however, the author builds some steam, and an improved sense of humor; on the famous Chinese courtesan Yü Hsüan-chi, Ringdal says: “By now, Yü had become the foremost sex symbol of her day. What then did this imply? In this case not a very good sex life.” His main focus, unsurprisingly, is on Western societies, and when discussing other regions like Africa or the South Seas, seems primarily interested in how their mores of sold sex were perceived and reacted to by Westerners. Although this approach gives grist to the overarching subtitle, by hewing closer to the author’s area of interest, it results in a much more enlightening and entertaining piece of work. Ringdal’s narrative dances from the escapades of Paris’s legendary Nana, to the short, brutal lives of the Wild West prostitute, Ottoman Empire harems, and preppie call girls of 1980s Manhattan without missing a beat. If, by its conclusion, this all seems nostalgic for a time when sex for sale seemed less seedy, it makes a good argument for that being so because of the Sexual Revolution: once men could get free, no-strings-sex, prostitution started to specialize in grotty fetishes and lost what little glamour it had once had.
Cheeky without minimizing the seriousness: social history at its poppiest.