Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority, and the Accusation of Prostitution

Stephanie Lynn Budin, Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority, and the Accusation of Prostitution (London: Routledge, 2021). 9780367198299.

Reviewed by Mali Skotheim, Ashoka University,

Stephanie Lynn Budin’s Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority, and the Accusation of Prostitution, published in the Routledge series Interdisciplinary Research in Gender, is a comparative study of women who have been called prostitutes in ancient Mesopotamia and Greece, early modern Italy and Japan, and contemporary India. She demonstrates repeatedly that women who do not fall under the authority of a male figure, typically a husband or father, have been miscategorized and maligned as prostitutes, even in cases where evidence for sex work is lacking.

This book builds on Budin’s earlier study, The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), which focused on the ancient Near East, Greece, and Italy. In scope and focus, it is similar to the collection of essays (cited by Budin) edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon, The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), with contributions on Greek hetairai, Venetian cortigiane, Indian devadāsīs (among other courtesans in precolonial and contemporary India), Japanese geisha, and Korean gisaeng. Like Budin, the contributors to The Courtesan’s Arts emphasize the cross-cultural and trans-historical phenomenon of women who have relationships with men (whether sexual or non-sexual) outside of marriage, are highly skilled in the arts, and are thus considered keepers of culture rather than lineage (the realm of wives). Budin goes a step further by designating these women as “freewomen,” and incorporates ancient Mesopotamia, her own area of expertise.

Freewomen is impressive in its scope and forcefully argued. Budin deftly moves between premodernity and the contemporary world, across several different cultures, without losing focus on the source material and the texts in the original languages. She brings her philological and historical training to bear throughout the book, such that it speaks not only to an audience interested in feminist history, but also specialists in each field.

By “freewoman,” Budin means “a female who is not under patriarchal authority” (p. 5). Budin does not mean “free” in the sense of “not enslaved.” Rather, a “freewoman” in Budin’s terminology is a woman who is free from patriarchal control. So, a hetaira is a freewoman not because she is legally free—in fact, hetairai could be enslaved (p. 109)—but because she is not under the authority of a father or a husband. Freedom from patriarchal authority in this context really means freedom from the immediate control of a man, i.e., as head of household, or patriarchal institutions (pp. 5–6). Freewomen live in patriarchal societies, but do not follow the rules which apply to wives in those societies.

Budin identifies a number of common characteristics of freewomen in Mesopotamia, Greece, Italy, Japan, and India. They are educated women, “often in music and dance, literature and poetry, good conversation, and even philosophy” (p. 6); they socialize with men, putting their education to use by providing good company. They are also “extensively trained in the traditional arts of their respective cultures” (p. 6), and thus can be considered culture-bearers. While they are sexually active and may sell companionship or sex (p. 7), Budin is careful not to conflate these activities into the singular category of “prostitution.”

Chapter 1 introduces the scope and aims of the book, with a discussion of terminology and methodology. The methodological discussion focuses mainly on sexism in historiography and translation.

Chapter 2 takes up the Mesopotamian ḫarīmtu. The chapter is richly illustrated with textual evidence. For instance, we learn that in Old Babylonian lexical lists the KAR.KID appears “traveling…standing, or wearing sandals,” which Budin interprets as “being mobile, not confined to a house or specific locale” (pp. 25–26). In Sumerian literature the KAR.KID is closely associated with the tavern (pp. 26–27). Legal texts reveal that a man was to support a KAR.KID if she had borne him a child, and that in the absence of children from his wife, the child of a KAR.KID could be his heir (p. 28). The most famous ḫarīmtu is Šamhat in The Epic of Gilgamesh, who was responsible for civilizing the wildman Enkidu by having sex with him (p. 36). Middle Assyrian legal texts reveal that the ḫarīmtu is not to wear a veil, unlike the wife of a man, daughter of a man, or concubine. Budin argues convincingly that this shows that the ḫarīmtu was understood to be different from these veil-wearing females, but also distinct from a slave woman, also unveiled (p. 43). Budin begins the chapter by pointing out that Julia Assante had already shown two decades ago that there was no evidence that the Sumerian KAR.KID or Akkadian ḫarīmtu was a prostitute (p. 21), and in the final section, she argues that not only was the KAR.KID or ḫarīmtu not a prostitute, but that there is no evidence for the practice of prostitution at all in ancient Mesopotamia (pp. 55–58).

Chapter 3 delves into Greek hetairai. Budin argues that a hetaira does not sell sex (like a pornê) but companionship, and thus is not a prostitute (p. 63). Hetairai fulfilled a particular role in Classical Greece, when wives were typically much younger than their husbands and uneducated (p. 66). This began to change in the Hellenistic period; hetairai are still attested at this time, but women also took on more roles outside the home and had better access to education (p. 67). In Italy, the Etruscans and Romans were used to dining with their wives, making hetairai unnecessary (pp. 68–69). Budin warns against taking texts which rely on abusive language and insult, such as comedy and court speeches, at face value, and furthermore draws attention to the importance of considering the context of transmission of texts about hetairai. For example, many fragments about hetairai are preserved in Athenaeus’s Sophists at Dinner (3rd century CE), but this particular understanding of the hetaira was not the same as it was in Classical or Hellenistic Greece. Interestingly, one of Athenaeus’s dinner guests, Myrtilos, notices that the meaning of the word has changed, noting that in his own time hetairai charge a fee for companionship, “no longer with the original meaning” (i.e., of being friends, as in the Archaic period) (p. 79). The chapter concludes with an examination of Pseudo-Demosthenes’ (Apollodoros’s) Against Neaira. Budin argues that Apollodoros’s comment that many men were with Neaira when she was drunk is evidence not that hetairai engaged in sex work but that Neaira was raped (p. 91).

Chapter 4 takes us to Renaissance Italy, with the cortigiana onesta (“honest courtesan”). According to Budin, courtesans in 16th-century Italy sometimes exchanged money for sex, thus engaging in prostitution (p. 117), but primarily provided companionship and conversation (p. 123). To this end, they were highly educated in literature, music, and philosophy (p. 148). Interestingly, some cortigiane called themselves curiales. A cortigiana could also take the title curialis romanam curiam sequens, a reference to their association with high-ranking men in the church and court (p. 133). Cortigiane could become very wealthy, and were also able to make their own wills, which were in turn ratified by various noblemen (p. 151). Budin also engages extensively with visual evidence in this chapter, demonstrating the difficulties of distinguishing between wives and courtesans based on clothing, even to people in 16th-century Italy (pp. 152–59).

Chapter 5 covers the geisha of Japan. Budin argues against the misconception that geisha are prostitutes, showing that this is a misunderstanding of their role in Japanese culture. Instead, geisha are skilled performing artists, specializing in music, singing, and dance, as well as arts related to hospitality such as tea ceremonies and flower arranging (p. 183); in 18th-century Japan, geisha were forbidden from having sex with clients (p. 191). Geisha faced many constraints. In the early 20th century, debts incurred by geisha in training, including expensive clothing required, made them into “indentured servants” (p. 195). At this time, men could pay to ritually deflower geisha, spend the night with them (without sex), or become long-term patrons (an arrangement that could include sex) (p. 197). The conflation of geisha with prostitution seems to have crystallized during the American occupation during and after World War II, during which time many different kinds of women, including not only geisha but also waitresses and prostitutes, began to call themselves “Geisha Girls” (pp. 205–7). While she does not shy away from the topic of exploitation of women in geisha culture, particularly in the 20th century, Budin attempts to redirect attention to the idea of geisha as bearers of traditional culture in their artistic work and explores the idea of the geisha as anti-wives, not subject to patriarchal control.

Chapter 6 considers the devadāsī in India. Devadāsīs were “slaves of the god,” female ritual functionaries associated with Hindu temples. As with the geisha, the term devadāsī encompasses a complex variety of women. High-caste devadāsīs were historically trained in classical Indian dance, while the Dalit jogati and basavi devadāsīs specialized more in music and song (p. 231). In the 19th century, devadāsīs were misunderstood by the British as prostitutes, because they had sex with men outside of marriage (p. 233). Budin demonstrates that prostitution was not a cult function of the devadāsīs, but that more recently, some jogatis have become sex workers due to socio-economic pressures and migration to cities (pp. 232, 285). Budin works back from the 19th–21st century to the earlier history of the devadāsīs, from their earliest attestation in the Arthaśāstra (ca. 300 BCE). She emphasizes the importance of the religious activities of the devadāsīs, as well as their financial independence (p. 242). While the devadāsī was married to the god, she could have a long-term relationship with a high-caste patron (p. 248). Budin compares this arrangement to those which married Greek men had with hetairai, similarly educated to a higher degree than wives (p. 251). Repeated campaigns against the devadāsīs in the 19th and 20th centuries culminated in the practice being forbidden by the Madras government in 1947 (p. 276). A book which might be added to the bibliography on devadāsīs in contemporary India is Davesh Soneji’s Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India (University of Chicago Press, 2012), which explores the freedoms and restraints of devadāsīs in late colonial Tanjore, with particular attention to Dalit histories.

At a moment when there is growing interest in global histories, as well as comparative approaches, it would have been interesting to see more attention paid to the reasons for doing comparative history laid out at the end, or even in the introduction. A conclusion or epilogue might have helped to draw together the threads of such a wide-ranging argument and could have provided space to reflect on what this way of doing history might teach readers. Budin implicitly challenges scholars working in ancient studies, history, and gender studies to undertake ambitious projects outside of their area of expertise. She also demonstrates the value of philological training when undertaking such comparative work, as she is sensitive to the impact of translation on the scholarly and popular understanding of significant terms (such as ḫarīmtu), and the multiplicity of worlds which can be contained within a single word. In the end, the book is not only a historical-anthropological study of women who do not fall under the control of men, but an intellectual history of the study of such women across several academic fields.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction (1-20)
2. Ḫarīmtu (21-61)
3. Hetaira (62–116)
4. Cortigiana: the (so-called) cortigiana onesta (117–182))
5. Geisha (183–228)
6. Devadāsī (229–302)


1. How did you settle on the term “freewoman”? Did you consider other possible terms to express this concept?

To be perfectly honest, I really did not give it too much thought. I knew I needed something other than “not-wife-or-daughter-of-a-man” because that was simply far too many hyphens. My husband mentioned that he came across the word “freeman” in his Anglo-Saxon studies as a term that referred to a man who was neither slave nor serf, an independent farmer or tradesman not in thrall to noble or church. It struck me that a feminine form of that would work beautifully for what I was trying to express, and I just kept using it. Ultimately, there simply is no term for this concept (see above: hyphens), so it just needed a name. Not all freewomen are necessarily free—some have been enslaved—but as a relative designation I think it fit the bill.

2. One of the unique aspects of your book is that it puts ancient Mesopotamian history and gender in conversation with topics which are perhaps more popularly known (such as the hetaira and geisha). What are the benefits, in your view, of integrating Mesopotamia into these interdisciplinary conversations?

Why wouldn’t you? Mesopotamia is part of world history, just like Greece, China, Egypt, etc. From the perspective of Ancient History and Greco-Roman Classics, it isn’t unique at all—the ancient Near East has been part of the study of antiquity for over a century (even longer when considering Biblical Studies). I think of it as perfectly normal.

3. In one way or another, every chapter of your book engaged in a kind of excavation of the meaning of a term (ḫarīmtu/KAR.KID, hetaira, cortigiana onesta, geisha, devadāsī), such that you seek to introduce the complexity of historical development, and diversity and hierarchy within a group at any given time, along with the overarching “freewoman” archetype, which itself encompasses such an interesting diversity of women’s experiences. Could you speak to the ways in which the various aspects of your training contributed to this way of thinking, which seems to draw on a combination of philological, anthropological, and historical interests?

All of those are necessary tools, of course, especially the philology for seeing what specific terms are used in what specific ways. But for what you describe here I’d have to give the edge to feminism. I have learned never to believe anything the academy has to say about females. All female figurines relate to fertility. Prostitution is the oldest profession. Females are passive while males are active. There is an amazing amount of bullshit that passes for knowledge in academia. Thing is, there is also a lot of actual knowledge that passes for knowledge in academia, and it simply isn’t feasible to spend too much time constantly reevaluating if 1 + 1 really does equal 2. But it does help to get into the habit of trying to see through “received” wisdom. I think one of the big problems of scholarship is that we are trained to see things in a certain way, and we go on to accept these things rather uncritically (e.g., the translation of “hetaira” as “prostitute”). This is inevitable. But sometimes you have to stop and ask yourself: Does this word really mean this? What is the evidence? And if you don’t find the evidence, keep looking, figure out what happened.

4. Increasingly, scholars face precarity, adjunctification, and lack of access to library resources, among other challenges. You have admirably continued to publish, despite facing some of these challenges yourself. Has this changed your work, and if so, what impact did it make on Freewomen? I am wondering, for example, if your decision to undertake interdisciplinary and comparative work had something to do with not writing from within a department (of Classics or Near Eastern Studies, say) but from a position of greater disciplinary flexibility?

You have two rather separate questions here. For this first: I’m lucky, insofar as I have access to my alma mater’s library resources (including JSTOR access), and my husband works for another university, so I can get things through him when necessary. Both of these allow me to keep doing research and publishing (as did the practice of digitizing the world when COVID hit). So, I don’t think not being a university employee affected the writing of Freewomen: I could tap in to an older affiliation.

For the second, I think it works the other way around: It is the tendency to work in an interdisciplinary fashion that keeps a lot of scholars from finding normal positions in academia. Academic departments are quite conservative; they need the basics (Shakespeare rather than Marlowe, so to speak); and hiring committees tend to shy away from (people working on) topics they don’t understand. It is always safer—and more hirable—to do something normal. Classics departments prefer yet another scholar writing yet another book on gender in Euripides than someone writing about gender in the Linear B tablets or the material culture of Philistine women. Art History departments prefer the candidate whose dissertation was on Monet (again) than contemporary iconographic depictions of Darwinian evolution. Once a professor has tenure, she can pretty much do what she wants, interdisciplinary or not, but first she has to get the position.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s