The best books about prostitutes

11 authors have picked their favorite books about prostitutes and why they recommend each book.

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Book cover of Black Wings Has My Angel

Black Wings Has My Angel

By Elliott Chaze,

Why this book?

In a tough prostitute named Virginia, escaped convict Timothy Sunblade finds the perfect partner to help execute the perfect crime. The extraordinary relationship between these two makes the book memorable. Sunblade is clear-eyed, thoughtful, disillusioned, sensitive, brutish, self-assured at times, and wavering at others. Virginia is wise, world-weary, sure of herself and what she wants, sometimes crazed like a caged animal, but always strong.

Chaze's atmospheric detail adds depth and presence to the story. The characters' arc is one of darkening fate and inevitable tragedy. Watching their slow descent is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. The characters…

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Book cover of Smonk: Or Widow Town

Smonk: Or Widow Town

By Tom Franklin,

Why this book?

Franklin’s book is one of the key inspirations for my book, The Reapers Are the Angels. Combining a frontier western sensibility with Faulkner’s wicked gothic brutality, Franklin tells an engrossing tale of a young prostitute who finds herself mired in a world of outlaws, perverts, dandies, and murderers. Frantically running back and forth between high comedy and guttered grotesquerie, this story feels like it’s just barely clinging to its own rails—and that sense of dangerous tipping is what feels so thrilling about it. What Franklin inherits from Faulkner is a wide-eyed beguilement with degeneracy—or what Conrad would call a…

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Book cover of Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas

By John O'Brien,

Why this book?

A truly heartbreaking book about an alcoholic who travels to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, and the prostitute who falls in love with him. It’s a haunting story about addiction, but also a tragic love story. I feel this book is one of the best depictions of alcoholism, and how it can ultimately destroy you. The tragic story extended into real life as the author committed suicide a few weeks after signing the film rights. It is a hard read, but that’s what makes it amazing.

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Book cover of Madeleine

Madeleine

By Marcia Carlisle, Ben B. Lindsey,

Why this book?

In my quest to learn about the inner lives of 19th-century prostitutes, I found three memoirs, all gold mines. Demi-mondaines always used a stage name and that’s what the eponymous Madeleine chose. Even though she wasn’t a writer by trade, her story as a young “public woman” in the 1890s is riveting, and heartbreaking. When Madeleine’s autobiography was first published by Harper & Brothers in 1919, it caused a scandal and led to a lawsuit against the publisher. Harper eventually successfully defended itself but still ended up withdrawing the book from circulation. It wouldn’t be available to the public again…

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Book cover of Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam, by Herself

Nell Kimball: Her Life as an American Madam, by Herself

By Nell Kimball,

Why this book?

Nell Kimball was the least educated of the prostitute authors I read but also the most colorful. And the only one who didn’t feel trapped in the profession. Like Josie Washburn, Nell couldn’t find a publisher for her memoir when she looked for one in 1932. She was 78 years old and reportedly in dire straits financially. Nell had started in the “trade” in St. Louis at the age of fifteen in 1867 and worked as a prostitute and then as a madam, lastly in New Orleans’s famed Storyville red-light district, until it was shut down in 1917. Nell died…
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Book cover of Woman at Point Zero

Woman at Point Zero

By Nawal El Saadawi, Sherif Hetata (translator),

Why this book?

A feministic milestone, a must-read for all activists and people engaged in the battle for a better society. It tells the story of Firdaus, a young woman coming of age in the male-dominant Egyptian society, who never eyes an escape from the hardships and trials imposed on her by senseless men. It’s such a strong description of women as an underclass, as slaves in a male dominant society, that it changes your basic outlook on life. “Every single man I did get to know filled me with but one desire: to lift my hand and bring it smashing down on…

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Book cover of The Crimson Petal and the White

The Crimson Petal and the White

By Michel Faber,

Why this book?

Recommended by a book-loving friend in Tai Chi class (Thanks, Shirley) The Crimson Petal and the White is a lengthy yet riveting journey into Dickensian London. The writer invites the reader into the streets at the outset, breaking the veil between narrator and reader, warning the reader “watch your step.” I couldn’t help but accept this invitation and, once there, I couldn’t leave. I followed the narrator through poverty-stricken alleys where I met the Crimson Petal (Sugar, the prostitute) and from there into the world of the White (Agnes, the innocent), two women connected by business magnate William Rackam. A…

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Book cover of Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban

Dirty Blonde and Half-Cuban

By Lisa Wixon,

Why this book?

I also write about this book in my work. I again have problems with it, but it gives a kind of slice-of-life snapshot of Cuban life at that moment (around 2005), and especially about jineteras, or “jockeys,” women who supplement their income by going out with wealthy foreigners. Doing research on that book gave me a look at Cuba that was invaluable. And it is sometimes funny. It serves as a kind of coda to my book in that it reproduces many of the rhetorical moves of other chica lit but in a completely different setting. 

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Book cover of The Pervert

The Pervert

By Michelle Perez,

Why this book?

A truly singular book that details a semi-fictionalized account of a transgender sex worker surviving in Seattle. Depicted as a cute anthropomorphic dog-like creature, the story follows her as she meets with various clients and navigates her own identity struggles and in-progress transition (not to mention her own safety in her dangerous line of work). A deeply emotional and raw story that still manages to retain its own dark sense of humor throughout.

(Deals with themes of drugs, sex, and violence. 18+ only.)

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Book cover of The World of Suzie Wong

The World of Suzie Wong

By Richard Mason,

Why this book?

This story is so sweet and funny, I must have read it a dozen times since first arriving in China. That a Western male writer conceived a female Chinese character as charming and relatable as Suzie without ever straying into offensive farce really says something about the author, Richard Mason’s, craft. His prose is old-school eloquent, and deftly includes the smallest details that bring Suzie, a naughty yet affectionate hooker with a big heart, and her 1950s Hong Kong brothel settings, to vivid life. If I had only five desert-island books, The World of Suzie Wong would be one of…
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