The Indispensable Prostitute

“Gosh, Bear,” you might think, “at least she’s a good person, in spite of being a prostitute!”

Hi! I’m Elizabeth Bear, the author of Karen Memory, and I’m here to talk about the fine art of avoiding some of Western literature’s most tired sex-worker tropes, such as The Disposable Prostitute and The Hooker with a Heart Of Gold.

On The Hooker with a Heart of Gold… words to strike dread into the hearts of… well, everybody who ever consciously tried, in their work, to avoid a stereotype. Any stereotype. And it’s not the only—or worst—stereotype—of sex workers around!

“Gosh, Bear,” you might think, “at least she’s a good person, in spite of being a prostitute!”

In fact, it’s hard to think of a fictional prostitute who isn’t a stereotype of some sort or another. Who isn’t in some respect othered, exoticised, and placed in an object position. It’s what we do, as a society. Sex workers aren’t people. They’re whores. This societal attitude is brutal, and prevalent, and it’s often fatal. It’s the reason many serial killers prey on prostitutes. Because they can get away with it. Because very few people care. These women are, quite simply, seen as disposable.


I made a joking comment many years ago about Frank Miller Feminism: all the women are whores, but some are really badass whores. It applies. Every nerd in the room over the age of 35 surely remembers the old D&D Prostitute Encounter table, after all! (see above.) If that isn’t a list of common stereotypes, I’ve never seen one.

The thing is—like soldiers, police, firefighters, nurses, clerks, lawyers, rock stars, T.S.A. agents, and society ladies—like every other role by which people are generally filed, sorted, and categorized as being nothing but their profession, without any regard for who they are in the privacy of their own heads—sex workers are people. Characters who are sex workers are characters first, and sex workers second. It’s a job.
So I asked myself, when I undertook to write a book about parlor girls in a steampunk version of the Gold Rush West, who these women really were. What they did with themselves when they weren’t punching a clock.

I have a little postcard print of a fairly famous period photo that hangs in the preserved portions of the Seattle Underground, which can be toured. It shows a group of parlor girls awaiting their clientele in a room decorated with statuary and Asian carpets, and the striking thing about them, for me, is their individuality. The variety of expression on their faces. Their body language, and the varying ways in which they address the camera. (One of these ladies was the inspiration for Miss Francina, by the way.)

One of the great joys in having a number of female characters […] is that it neatly dodges the Smurfette Problem.

So I felt, in writing this book, that I owed these hard-working, adventuresome, mettlesome women a little respect. I tried to make them an assortment of very different people, with different goals and experiences and desires. Also, one of the great joys in having a number of female characters in a story—in telling a story in a predominately female homosocial environment—is that it neatly dodges the Smurfette Problem. Which is to say, one woman is not presented as the type example of all women, as—to steal a title from John D. MacDonald— “The Only Girl in the Game.” We avoid female exceptionalism by avoiding female exceptionalism. Bang!

(Also, there are a lot of stories set in primarily male environments. I’ve written a few myself. It’s fun to address a women’s domain through the eyes of the women who live and work there, for a change.)

Buy Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear: Book/eBook

Buy Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear: Book/eBook

And the thing is, for Karen and her colleagues, prostitution is a job. It’s how they make a living, not how they identify themselves. The protagonists of most urban fantasy novels seem to work waiting tables or as private investigators, if they’re not starving artists. Either their job is the adventure, or it’s something that provides a gateway to the adventure, but we’re never supposed to care too much about the job qua job itself!

So Karen’s job gives her an entre into her adventure—but it certainly doesn’t define her. And to me, the adventure is the interesting thing. She’s not having adventures or being a good person in spite of being a prostitute. She’s a prostitute, and she also gets to have adventures.
As to whether she’s a good person, well, I’ll leave that to the reader to judge. I sure like her, anyway.

Written by Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Campbell, Sturgeon, and multiple-Hugo-award winning author of over twenty novels and nearly one hundred short stories. She lives in Massachusetts with a Giant Ridiculous Dog, but divides her time in Wisconsin, the home of her partner, fantasist Scott Lynch.     @matociquala

  • Paul Weimer February 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm

    Every nerd in the room over the age of 35 surely remembers the old D&D Prostitute Encounter table, after all!

    My God, I remember seeing that and wondering what the words meant. I got out my dictionary…

    I’ve never actually rolled on it as a GM for players, though. I didn’t have the nerve. Or the bad sense, maybe.

  • LizT February 2, 2015 at 7:56 pm

    I was ‘protected’ from that table, but not from the consequences of that attitude toward women. Can’t wait to get to know Karen and the ladies.

  • » Blog Archive » Book Day is the Best Day February 3, 2015 at 6:44 am

    […] And a post over at Aidan Moher’s A Dribble of Ink on the subject of Soiled Doves and stereotyp…. […]

  • Links from the Week | Saunatina Writing February 9, 2015 at 4:22 pm

    […] People are people first, something we forget when sex enters the picture. The Indispensable Prostitute by Elizabeth Bear […]

  • Daily Reads: 16 February 2015 | Violin in a Void February 16, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    […] in particular, I didn’t take a closer look. However, I put it on my priority list after reading Bear’s guest post about writing an authentic prostitute character for whom selling sex is a job, not a definition of who she is. Yay for interesting, complex female […]

  • […] All the supporting characters feel like people you’d want to know too. Of course there’s Priya, the indentured girl rescued from Bantle and Karen’s love interest – she’s whip-smart and has a core of steel, despite being abused. She’s a full, three-dimensional person that is treated as such and isn’t really exoticized at all despite being from India, which is pretty amazing (I’ve met people in real life who have the best intentions but feel like they have to treat me differently because I’m from India, so I really mean that it’s amazing). There’s the kind but determined U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, who was a real person, and Tomoatooah, his badass Numu posseman, and Merry Lee the also-badass woman that rescued indentured slaves. And all the other girls at the Hôtel Mon Cherie have their own distinct personalities without any reference to what they do for a living (something that is carried over from the Eternal Sky trilogy and sorely missing from fantasy – a cast of mainly women that all defy stereotypes) – in fact, there’s very little sex in this book, and none actually described. Here’s Elizabeth Bear talking about how she sees that: […]

  • Wes Brodsky June 28, 2015 at 10:27 am

    I have just started reading Karen Memory. The main character is a teenage girl working in a house of prostitution; which is describes thusly;
    “You want to work for a house, if you’re working. … Because Madam Damnable is a battleship and she runs the Hôtel Mon Cherie tight, but nobody hits her girls, and we’ve got an Ancient and Honorable Guild of Seamstresses and nobody’s going to make us do anything we really don’t want to unless it’s by paying us so much we’ll consider it in spite of.”
    I have read that prostitution is synonymous with “human trafficking”; and all prostitutes are victim who, given a choice, would not be doing this job for any amount of money, This novel seems to promote the idea that prostitution, even for teenage girls in the late 1800s, could be a fair and desirable means of employment.
    Was it really like that, anyplace? What would modern opponents of “human trafficking” think of the novel in this context? I have no idea of the answers to these questions. I invite comments.

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