The best books about prostitution and prostitutes

Patrick Holland Author Of The Darkest Little Room
By Patrick Holland

Who am I?

Prostitution is a thing one has to go looking for to get even a glimpse of in Australia. Since I first travelled, I realised how aberrant this is, and I became fascinated with the implications of making what for many of us is sacred into something transactional. Prostitution, certainly in Asia, where its relationship with ‘normal’ society is more complex than in the West, and where great economic disparity can mean it is a thing that may be both enslaving and freeing, is a fascinating subject for fiction, and one my work has often taken up.

I wrote...

The Darkest Little Room

By Patrick Holland,

Book cover of The Darkest Little Room

What is my book about?

The Darkest Little Room concerns a jaded journalist living in Saigon, who makes money out of blackmailing government officials, and who reluctantly follows rumours of abuse to a nightclub. At the club, he initially finds no evidence of anything extraordinary, but he meets a girl there who recalls a lost love. This girl becomes an obsession for him, especially after the night she comes to his room with wounds of the kind he was warned about when he began his investigation, only to have those wounds disappear shortly after.

I confess, I have always felt a little bad about the fact I set the book in Vietnam. The ‘darkest little room’ was a real place, but it was in Beijing, not Saigon – even then I cannot verify the abuses that were rumoured to go on there – I only heard about these in the talk of students when I was studying at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The one justification I can give for my choice is that I wished to re-create the mix of beauty and ugliness, of fantastical wealth and grim poverty, that I found in Saigon. So I set a story there that was not native to the place, but that seemed to me to leverage some of these essential qualities.

The Books I Picked & Why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

The Tale of Kieu: Truyen Kieu

By Nguyen Du,

Book cover of The Tale of Kieu: Truyen Kieu

Why this book?

The Tale of Kieu is an early 19th Century epic poem and the cornerstone of Vietnamese literature. Adapted from a 17th Century Chinese novel, it is the story of a beautiful, well-to-do young woman forced into prostitution to save her family from destitution in a time of great government corruption and civil unrest. The poem is so revered in Vietnam that there is a popular branch of fortune-telling that uses it for predictions, and Kieu’s sacrifice is seen as mirroring the sacrifices Vietnamese have made in times of war and hardship, even across the centuries before the poem was written. The poem is bejewelled with beautiful lines, and presents a unique depiction of a woman who retains her dignity despite the many who try to rob her of it.

Boule de Suif: Maupassant

By Guy de Maupassant,

Book cover of Boule de Suif: Maupassant

Why this book?

Maupassant’s story takes its name from the chubby prostitute at its centre, nicknamed ‘Bowl of Fat’. At the time of Prussian occupation of France, a group of petty bourgeoisie, upper bourgeoisie, noble and religious people encourage her to offer herself to a Prussian officer in return for the freedom to travel through an occupied town to Le Havre. Through this short novel, Maupassant reveals the hypocrisy and moral poverty of those who sit in the layers of society above such outcasts as ‘Boule de suif’ and, by contrast, both the moral solidity and even innocence of the ‘fallen woman’ herself.

House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

By Yasunari Kawabata,

Book cover of House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories

Why this book?

Yasunari Kawabata is one of the masters of Japanese minimalism, and his House of Sleeping Beauties is by far the strangest book on this list. It concerns a special kind of prostitution: a house where men pay to sleep beside girls – not with them – while the girls themselves are drugged to ensure they do not wake. Curiously, such houses do now operate in Tokyo (they are called ‘cuddle cafes’, though the young women, naturally, are not drugged). Old Eguchi frequents the house of Kawabata’s imagining, hoping to die while embracing a beautiful, sleeping young woman. The ending is extraordinary, and Kawabata’s ‘house of sleeping beauties’ sits on a precipice between beauty and ugliness, reality and dream, and at last heaven and hell. 

On the City Wall

By Rudyard Kipling,

Book cover of On the City Wall

Why this book?

I’m cheating a little here, as technically Kipling’s On the City Wall is a long story rather than a book itself, though I notice it’s recently been published as a standalone, and can be found in both Kipling’s Collected Stories and the original collection it appeared in, Soldiers Three. The story concerns a beautiful Punjabi courtesan called Lalun who welcomes ‘guests’ from all strata of society to her house on the ancient city wall of Lahore. Unlike the commonly depicted ‘fallen woman’, Lalun is a woman of significant wealth, great influence, and, especially, power over men. The story is full of wonderful comic ironies, lavish descriptions of a historical city, and the relationship at the heart of it, between Lalun and a fawning British official, is an enthralling study of matters romantic, spiritual and political.

The World of Suzie Wong

By Richard Mason,

Book cover of The World of Suzie Wong

Why this book?

I was originally put off this book by some of its critics – apparently, it was a lowbrow, sensationalist romance, full of idealised notions of beautiful prostitutes and East Asia. Today, when our literature is so heavy with fashionable cynicism, I welcome any attempt to celebrate beauty, and an ideal is a subject worth examining, as much as ‘reality’ (though I find the devotees of ‘reality’ typically put forth their own fantasies, the chief difference being that these latter are duller). The World of Suzi Wong offers a rich portrait of Hong Kong at one of the most romantic ages of the city. Also, the novel is a beautiful, simply told, humane story about the love between a man and a woman who come from two different worlds, the sacrifices love demands, and the redemption it offers. 

Closely Related Book Lists