The Difference Between a Prostitute and a Courtesan

So I realised that I start waaay too many posts with the word “So”.

Anyway, I haven’t got round to replying some of the comments in the last three posts so I’ll do that later on today.

Thanksgiving break is over (why?????? I was just getting started sleeping) and I am ashamed to say that I did not accomplish anything worth mentioning over the break. (well that is not entirely true. I cooked curry rice. 😀 – well technically it came in a box that said “add water and heat” – so maybe not). I did manage to do one drawing though. A drawing of Bilili (my Igbo courtesan :”)

If you don’t know who Bilili is, she’s a character in the story I’m writing. So some people have expressed reservations about the plausibility of an Igbo courtesan so let me explain.

If there is one universal truth in this world, it is this:

Wherever there are men, particularly wherever there are wealthy, powerful men, there will always be groups of women that fuck them. It’s the same in modern times, but some men would prefer to use Silicone Lovers Sex Dolls or sex toys. Never the less the harem mentality is still there.

It’s just the plain truth. It applies in ALL societies on Earth, in all time periods (well maybe except for Vatican City – but that’s a special case). Do you really think there isn’t some chick that’s getting jiggy with King Saud of Saudi Arabia as I type this? As far as sexual relationships between men and women are concerned, there have always been groups that have endured throughout time:

Wives (these of course evolve from fiances or betrotheds, etc)
Prostitutes (Streetwalkers)
Mistresses (Kept women)
Courtesans (Exclusive Upper class prostitutes to very wealthy and powerful clients with loadsa cash)

Always. No matter where you are. In the words of the dude that wrote Grips and Tonic, if it has a penis it likes fucking. You can see this in action by watching pornographic videos that are available through websites similar to m porn and such.

Good, now that that is out of the way, let me explain the social structure of 7th -9th century Igbo land.

Communities were divided into the following groups:

Villages, Towns, and Cities.

Villages are self-explanatory, just a bunch of people farming and doing mundane stuff.

Towns revolved around a particular industry and so were bigger. They typically developed most along the coast or the River Niger (the industry in question being fishing and transportation of goods for trade).

Cities are my particular favourite and here’s why.

The cities developed because of and revolved around the courts. By court I mean royal court as in The Nri Court (which as you know is the seat of the entire Igbo nation and the birthplace of mankind :D).

Here’s the basic principle. People tend to cluster most around those in power. So, whereas a village might be sparsely populated and highly uninteresting, key concentrations of power in Nri and Onicha were very densely populated because of the need to serve the court and the opportunity to rise to power.

For example, occupations in Nri and Onicha were highly differentiated compared to in other areas of Igbo land where every man was a farmer or a hunter or whatever. In Anambara, especially in these two areas, there was far more specification because of more emphasised social stratification. Basically, there was the Eze Nri, the dudes who served him, the dudes who served the dudes who served him, the people who provided them with different goods and services, the soldiers who fought in their armies and the rest of the people who did their damn best to ingratiate themselves to all these other people so that they could benefit financially and socially.

What has this got to do with Bilili and co? Well basically the premise of this whole thing is that you find the same basic people in different levels of society. And the strata of society they exist on determines how complicated or elaborate is what they do. Bilili is an Igbo courtesan making her an Akuna.

So, for instance, a man might be a simple subsistence farmer in a backwater village somewhere in Nnenasa, but another man with the same occupation (farming) would oversee a large and complex farm with many distribution channels to sell wholesale to market sellers and traders in Onicha. Same occupation, different levels of society, hence the difference. As this pertains to Bilili, it’s simple: In the villages, people who want to be unfaithful to their wives have lovers because everybody knows everybody else. In the towns, there are streetwalkers. So the choice is simple, you could watch these BJ clips or find one of the simple prostitutes that are solicited by men to give blowjobs behind Okoro’s house or whatever. Some men opt for porn, and some men need their urges met properly.

But in the cities, it becomes far more complex. The streetwalkers are still there and they are accessible to everyone, but Bilili and co are the exclusive bunch. The ones that you can’t just simply pay for. The ones who either deem you worthy or refuse to even notice you. And that’s where all the fun is, which is why I’m writing about her, because she and her clients are far more interesting than the babe on her knees behind Okoro’s house.

Now, let’s outline some basic differences between Prostitutes and Courtesans (there are words in almost every language for these two groups of people – the French one just happens to be the most popular).


  • Provide sex for money – to anyone who can pay
  • Are generally disapproved of
  • Generally act individually
  • Are often harassed by law or authority figures or even just regular members of society


  • Provide sex for money, clothes, housing, jewels, you name it – to only those of their choosing – who can pay
  • Are generally admired
  • Hone sexual services into a fine artform
  • Are well educated
  • Tend to have eccentric quirks
  • Tend to have highly ritualised habits
  • Are well versed in the arts
  • Live independent lives
  • Are often of high social status
  • Maintain a very glamourous and socially active lifestyle
  • Tend to have official backing
  • Where they exist in groups, tend to display high levels of strictly ranked organization
  • Exist and flourish only in close proximity with money and power
  • Are almost untouchable by law or authority figures and regular members of society

Isn’t this fun? Unfortunately Westernization has reduced the fine art of the courtesan to mere prostitution these days but they still exist in a very limited degree today.

Something very interesting I’ve discovered doing research about courtesans from all corners of the globe is that no matter where there are from in the world, almost all courtesans seem to smoke.

It’s very baffling. From African and Asian courtesans who smoke pipes to European courtesans who smoked cigars or cigarettes, almost all of them puffed on something. Does anyone have any idea why smoking was so widespread among pleasure women?

Also, they all seem to have mirrors, and these fabulous looking rooms, and luxuries that no one else seems to be able to get their hands on.

Another very interesting thing I noticed is that all courtesans seemed to have outrageous elaborate hair and clothes. I guess it’s all part of the show and the fantasy world that they create, but it’s so cool.

So yay to courtesans!! Anybody remember Jagua Nana? Yeah! So yay to Karuwanci, Ashawo, and Akuna everywhere!!! 😀

Anyway, I did a drawing of Bilili and I’ll put it up once I’ve scanned it. It’s just the preliminary drawing and I’ll probably adjust her a couple of times before I’m ready. I still don’t know if I want to make this a graphic novel, but I am SORELY tempted to. It’s just that the way the story is in my head, there’s so much beauty in it I’m not sure I can describe it all in words. I’ll put the sketch up later on today.

There are 19 comments

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  1. leggy

    i wouldnt think anyone would even argue the courtesan bit, i mean of all things to argue about courtesans should be the last thing…im from trust me when i say, ive heard stories.

  2. eccentricyoruba

    hey i sort of got carried away but your list of differences between prostitutes and courtesans is limited to Igboland shey?

    i’m still not convinced that there were courtesans in Yorubaland. not in the way your described them at least. i’ll accept prostitutes and mistresses but not courtesans. and i’m also assuming it is only in Igboland that courtesans had eccentric quirks, were well-educated and lived independent lives.

    it was my belief that most of those women who became courtesans were actually sold to the boss woman who controlled prostitutes and courtesans. anyway my knowledge is from the odd Japanese movie and manga thus i’ll take this as been unique to Igboland.

    @lucidlilith, i’m looking forward to your post because one of the first questions that popped up in my mind was ‘why are there no prostitutes in the Vatican city?’ it’s proximity to Italy is telling to me…

  3. sugabelly

    @eccentric: Actually, I think they existed in the Yoruba and Benin royal courts as well. Haven’t done much research there so don’t take my word for it, but usually all through history, where there have been courts of power there have always been COURTesans. So hey.

    As Azazel so eloquently put it: Man must fuck. And men get bored easily, so let’s extend that to mean

    “Man must fuck something new and interesting from time to time.”

  4. Lady X

    LOL I was gonna come and type ‘A Hoe is a Hoe’ but yeah Saz pretty much covered it. Btw SugaBelly have you heard about the Belle Du Jour Blog that was turned into a series as well as books? It’s based on the real life experiences of a call girl. And she came forward recently and revealed herself. I think you’ll find it interesting.

  5. eccentricyoruba

    a hoe is not a hoe oh! these women are human beings and i think quotes such as that trivalize their experiences.

    Sugabelly, i’ll take your word if i find any research that hints to this. i’m willing to accept that they existed in Igboland because you seem sure of yourself and i’m sure you’ve done your research. it’s not that i think the ancient Yoruba were not capable. it’s just that taking your and Azazel’s quote ‘Man must fuck something new and interesting from time to time’ they had a host of female slaves to choose from. so why would anyone go through the trouble to train women in the ‘art of love’. i just don’t see it. oh well, i personally do not view prostitutes or courtesans with rose glasses so i’m a bit indifferent.

  6. Anya P

    LOL… then it must really suck to be a village prosti. But then, the hope is that the village has not been tainted by the wide variety of diseases from the City. So this ashawo may be better off giving blowjobs behind Okoro’s house in Nnenasa than somewhere in Enugu (for instance).

    I dream about the courtesan types like Satine in Moulin Rouge. So selective, so appropriate. But then how can anything like hawking sex be appropriate. smh

  7. sugabelly

    @eccentric: well the whole point of or rather the whole principle that courtesans exist because of is the fact that men like women that they cannot have.

    Men who have female slaves ALREADY OWN their slaves. There is no question about whether or not they can have her. She belongs to them, end of.

    And that is PRECISELY why men get bored even in polygamous marriages… because the women already unquestionably belong to them.

    Because courtesans are highly SELECTIVE of their clients, bedding a courtesan turns into a competition and a power statement for men which generally gets them excited about the prospect. It’s like dating. If you have to work for it you feel more enthusiastic about it.

    Especially in a world where women are raised to be submissive and deferring to their husbands, courtesans are a breath of fresh air because they are independent and unashamedly so. Plus they have other lovers/clients so men who would have their attentions must constantly work at keeping it, which as we all know is a challenge like war or battle – something most men love.

    And in this case part of the thrill is the fact that even when a man works his hardest at wooing a courtesan, he’s STILL not guaranteed of her affections or acceptance… and that is where the spice lies.

  8. eccentricyoruba

    i admit you have a point Sugabelly. i’ll say that i don’t really believe that all men like women that they cannot have. it’s just that i’m yet to see this in real life. people say it but i don’t really believe it. so if we are to take this theory, then a man can always sleep with someone else’s slaves, lol. you have a point though as i’ve learnt to say, tu as raison!

    i believe several factors have to be present for the courtesan thing to work and the most important to me is wealth. because i imagine rich people in those days did not have to work and they would have wanted to find ways to entertain themselves etc.

    isn’t it the courtesan’s pimp that chooses who she sleeps with though? as in the pimps are the ones who create the market for the courtesan to begin with. it is not every beautiful proud woman in the city that will automatically become a courtesan right? again i’m basing this on what i have seen of courtesans from other cultures. perhaps after reading your work, i’ll change my mind.

    and were Igbo women historically raised to be submissive to their husbands? and if the men had courtesans, what did the upper class women have? or did they not have anything because ‘women are not like that’? from the works i’ve read though i am yet to encounter prostitutes or courtesans, i’ve read a lot about there being a freeness in sexuality in African history but this depends on the culture specifically. however what i’ve read about Yoruba is that they had the whole patriarchal system in place where women could be shamed for sleeping with men. i’ve read that men had mistresses. oh well, i won’t be surprised if the men who recorded history decided to ignore the women at the sidelines of society.

  9. sugabelly

    @eccentric: well obviously not all men are like that. But, men IN GENERAL are. Especially men who lived in times when men actually went to war and fought combat battles and homicide (in certain cases)wasn’t a criminal offense…yet.

    You’re right in saying that several factors contribute to the presence of courtesans in societies.

    Wealth is DEFINITELY one of the major ones. Power, I would say is another. Limited accessibility would be the third for me.

    Courtesans do not always have pimps. Actually, MOST courtesans never have pimps. Instead, they are technically free and independent, but their entire existence is tacitly supported and maintained by the wealthy elite of the society. They might exist singularly or in some kind of organization, and they might have obligations to that organization, but they are not hounded the way regular prostitutes are. Generally, there usually is some level of organization in place in order to restrict accessibility and maintain standards.. otherwise as you said, every beautiful, proud woman in the city would be a courtesan.

    In other words, while courtesans might not have any men with gold teeth bitch-slapping them for not turning over their earnings, their ability to earn and maintain that lifestyle is directly dependent on the existence of a wealthy elite class in the society.

    And, the existence of wealthy elite classes (at least in those days) depended (in part) on the existence of a royal court of some sort which provided official backing, status, etc.

  10. sugabelly

    As a rule, what separates courtesans from regular prostitutes (all obvious reasons aside) is the ability of the courtesan to choose to whom she extends her favours.

    Pimps do not create the market for courtesans, courts do. Also, sleeping with another man’s female slaves would very quickly degenerate into outright war. While it’s nice to get at something you cannot have, taking something that belongs to another man is an entirely different matter, an insult.

    In spite of the fact that Igbo women really the heads of the household (i.e. they were the economic backbone of the family and without them the family would fall into ruin) and despite the fact that Igbo women also had the freedom to take lovers outside their marriages if they so chose to do so, most Igbo women were STILL raised with the expectation to defer to their husbands and recognize HIM as the head of the household (despite his measly contributions ).

    Igbo society is strange in that while Igbos recognize BOTH matrilineal and patrilineal descent, Igbo society is in general very patriarchal. Igbos inherit either from the mother’s line or the father’s line depending on birth (can’t go into details here but it’s kinda complicated) and Igbos recognize their people in two distinct groups of mother’s people (all the women descended from the mother’s line) and father’s people (all the men descended from the father’s line)

    So, while Igbo women COULD have lovers and received no social sanctions for doing so, they were EXPECTED to hide it and display some level of bashfulness and secrecy about it. Under traditional Igbo marriage law, marriage gives the husband the right to claim paternity to all children that his wife may bear (whether they are actually his or not).

    Back to being a courtesan. Remember though that there also exist many constraints that would prevent many women from becoming courtesans.

    Number 1 (and the BIGGEST one as far as I’m concerned) is the general expectation for women to marry.

  11. sugabelly

    This is the hardest one to overcome, and that factor ALONE is more than capable of discouraging majority of the women in the society from becoming prostitutes/courtesans.

    2. The expectation that women have children.

    You can’t be a courtesan if you have kids and if you get pregnant you have to get rid of it ASAP. Yorubas and Igbos both cherish children so I can totally see how this would put a serious damper on any prostitutional aspirations.

    3. Disposable income: To be a courtesan you have to be prepared to spend shitloads of money to make money (assuming you’re working independently). If you’re in an organization then expect to be in debt to them for a very long time at least until you become successful enough to earn your financial freedom. Most people can’t do this. Nuff said.

    4. It is not easy to just spread your legs for any man that asks. And trust me, before you become a successful courtesan that can pick and choose, you will have to sleep with at least a couple of guys that you’d rather not do anything with. This would be another discouraging factor for women who tend to value emotion in sex. To live this kind of life you have to have your emotions on tap. You have to be able to shut them off immediately and put them on at a moment’s notice.

    5. Talent: Not everyone has the talent required to be a courtesan. Whether it is sexual talent, artistic or musical talent, conversational ability, etc etc.

    6. Not everyone is capable of being ruthless. And courtesans and assassinations always seem to go hand in hand.

    About literature though, historical or otherwise, I’ve noticed (at least I’ve noticed in Igbo writing) that many Igbo writers are Male, and they all tend to leave out the contributions of Igbo women entirely or they never go into detail about the lives of Igbo women.

    Now this, coupled with the fact that a lot of Igbo writers seem to try and align Igbo culture with the Bible (how the fuck that is possible is beyond me) in some sort of overzealous attempt to identify with their new religion, I’m not at all surprised that unsavoury details are simply blotted out like they never happened.

    Just like that Igbo dude that wrote a book claiming that all Igbo women have always been virgins before marriage and that homosexuality never existed in Igbo land and that Igbo people have always abhorred snakes as an devilish creature.

    The last assertation is particularly laughable because pythons are sacred in Igbo culture and much revered.

    The association of pythons and other snakes as devilish only came on the heels of overzealous Igbo converts to Christianity who were determined to destroy everything in their culture since their colonial masters had told them that it was “fetish”. O_o

  12. Ms Sula

    Discovered your blog by way of blogville hopping…

    Does anyone have any idea why smoking was so widespread among pleasure women?

    With some friends, we have developped a theory about this… A theory dating back to Freud: women with an oral fixation usually don’t like authority and don’t fit within the “norms”. They tend to adopt alternative lifestyles… i.e Courtesans, females with male-oriented jobs (back in the day) etc… So that might explain why most courtesans in the world smoked… Or just that the act of smoking is good for pondering… and they do have to ponder…

    But I am infinitely pleased with finding your blog and will keel an eye on the evolution of Bilili.

    Anybody who lists Inuyasha as part of their favorite movies is alright in my book!

  13. Hanna Darling

    I stumbled upon this post after doing a search for “African Courtesans” and was, initially, very disappointed with the results google provided until l came upon your posting via Eccentric Yoruba….

    The demimonde world is one that baffles and beguiles…If it is ok, may I link your post onto my blog?

    Thank you in advance.


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