Most Famous Sex Workers in History
From ancient times to the modern era, sex workers have been a part of everyday life. Though their profession has long been surrounded by stigma and discrimination that exacerbate the issues of violence and isolation, some have persevered to become notorious figures, not in spite of, but because of their calling. From historical figures like Cleopatra and courtesans like Ninon de Lenclos to modern activists like Abacus Peace, these are the most famous sex workers in history.
The most famous sex worker in history is arguably Cleopatra, the renowned queen of Egypt. By manipulating her status as an active participant in sexuality, Cleopatra was able to gain political advantage and attain her dream of ruling Egypt in the process. A celebrity of the times, Cleopatra is said to have had numerous lovers and insatiably enjoyed sex, but she was equally driven by political ambition, skillfully playing her rivals at the game of diplomacy.
Ninon de Lenclos
Not all famous sex workers were as cleverly masterful as Cleopatra. In 17th-century France, Ninon de Lenclos enjoyed a career as an elite courtesan. Designer jewelry, extravagant clothes, and jewel-studded walking sticks and chairs were some of the gifts bestowed on her by her clientele: high-ranking members of the aristocracy, including Louis XIV. A woman of remarkable culture and wit, de Lenclos was even able to fool the infamous Marquis de Sade into marrying her long-term lover, a ploy which allowed her to continue her sexual liaisons without the threat of legal action.
Some of the most remembered names in the history of sex work were trailblazers in the field. One such figure was Annie Sprinkle who, a generation ago, challenged traditional conceptions of sex work in the 1970s feminist movement. Widely credited with popularizing the term “sex worker”, Sprinkle was a performance artist who used her work to draw attention to the power dynamics related to sex work and to combat, often successfully, laws criminalizing prostitution around the world. In addition to hosting lectures and developing films on sex the field, she co-founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the World Charter of Prostitutes’ Rights, which reassured prosecutors that the workers were not criminals but people worthy of respect.
Nancy Hofffman, is another name synonymous with the feminist sex worker movement. For years, Hoffman studied the stigma related to sex work and its impact on the lives of those in the profession. Hoffman wrote groundbreaking books, lobbied for abortion rights and pushed for the decriminalization of sex work. Throughout her career, she formed key alliances with other activists in the field, provided financial support to sex workers, and advocated for better labor rights and protections for the profession. Her advocacy within the industry was so great that she herself was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1991.
Norma Jean Hotaling is yet another sex worker who has done major work to improve the lives of those involved in the profession. She is probably best known for founding the SAGE Project (Standing Against Global Exploitation) in San Francisco in 1988. Hotaling’s own experience of being sexually exploited shaped her understanding of the sex trafficking world and her missionary zeal to aid the exploited. In 1997, the Violence Intervention Program (VIP), which she developed, was recognized with five Emmys for its peer-based counseling program for sex workers and victims of domestic violence. In 2009, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom named her “Citizen of the Year” for her efforts to fight trafficking and support recovery for survivors.
Abacus Peace is a modern-day figure in the fight for sex worker rights. An Aotearoa/New Zealand-based recovery worker and author, Peace is committed to amplifying the voices of those in the sex industry and advocating for their rights. A pioneering thinker and orator, she has become a public figure, both locally and internationally, due to her work in advancing the rights and visibility of sex workers. In 2015, she was awarded the Order of Merit of New Zealand for her contributions to the sex work sector and her efforts in campaigning for the decriminalization of sex work.
For better or worse, sex has been and probably always will be a part of human culture and history. The famous sex workers outlined here demonstrate how those in the profession have been able to gain power, influence, and respect by capitalizing on their status. From ancient figures to modern activists, these are the most famous sex workers in history.