4 Sex Workers Who Became Major Historical Influencers

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by Mike Bedard

Despite being the world’s supposedly oldest profession, sex workers don’t get enough credit. Every sitcom seems contractually obligated to include one ridiculous “dead hooker in the trunk” joke per season. Even the “hooker with a heart of gold” trope suggests finding a prostitute capable of empathy is somehow a rarity.

But prostitutes deserve respect because, you know, they’re human beings. And some of them have gone on to change the course of history and have accomplished things far more impressive than any stockbroker. Take, for instance ...


Ching Shih Commanded One Of The Largest Pirate Fleets In History

In the 2007 film, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, you may recall that one of the nine Pirate Lords is referred to as "Mistress Cheng". As it turns out, she was based on an actual person -- one who will make you wonder why she doesn’t have her own series of movies, instead of our current version of Johnny Depp as Keith Richards as Jack Sparrow as Keith Richards again.

Ching Shih is, quite frankly, one of the most successful pirates to ever set sail. She originally worked as a prostitute at a brothel in Canton before catching the eye of the pirate Zheng Yi, whom she married in what some speculate was a major business transaction. Together they amassed an enormous fleet of hundreds of ships and tens of thousands of men, dwarfing the entire navies of some countries. They were basically the most badass power couple in the world. When Zheng Yi died, however, Ching Shih saw her chance to claim real power, and she took control of the whole operation.

"Excuse me ... I'd like to SWORD you a question!"

She started by enacting a very strict code of conduct for her pirates to follow: No stealing from villagers, no deserting, and although her pirates could still take female captives as brides, they had to remain faithful. Failure to follow these rules resulted in death, by way of your head being removed from your body ... because you can’t be a badass pirate boss without decapitating a few douchebags.

Eventually, she was able to retire from pirating, something few pirates actually get to do. After thwarting multiple attacks by several countries looking to take her down, she negotiated a truce and even saw to it that the vast majority of her crew were spared. She even ran a gambling house in Canton until she died in 1844 at the ripe old age of 69. Nice.

Ninon De l’Enclos Was A French Intellectual Who Taught Men About Gender Equality

When most people think of the French enlightenment movement, they probably think about names like Voltaire and Molière. They’re also total nerds if they spend their free time musing on the French enlightenment movement. But no conversation about 17th century French culture is complete without mentioning Ninon de l’Enclos.

After her father was exiled for killing a man, her mother forced her into prostitution at a young age. Eventually, she ended up becoming a highly prominent courtesan, taking on many prominent lovers and creating a respected reputation for herself. She soon became a fixture at local salons where she would teach men and women about various subjects, including the concept of love ... which isn't exactly a remedial subject. One of her most recognized pieces of advice was, “Talk to your woman continually about herself and seldom about yourself.” While controversial at the time, we can probably all agree that this is still true today. It boils down to, "Don't be a self-centered douche."

"You're so interesting that I have to stop talking to you forever."

However, she offered more than relationship advice. She opened a salon where people from painters to musical composers could discuss intellectual and philosophical pursuits. She was an early proponent of gender equality, and taught men to empathize with women instead of only viewing them as conquests. That's a tough concept to get across, even in 2018, so imagine how radical that would have been in the 1600s.

l’Enclos also indirectly helped launch the careers of Voltaire and Molière. After her death, she left a large fortune to the son of Francois Arouet, her accountant, who would grow up to become Voltaire. And without those funds in place, it’s possible high schoolers would never have had to read Candide, ou l'Optimisme. She also read Molière’s famous work, Tartuffe, in her salon, boosting his notoriety.

In other words, she was the foundation of some of the most respected philosophers of the Age of Enlightenment.

Brooke Magnanti Worked As A Prostitute To Get Her PhD, Went On To Study Childhood Cancer

What’s more badass than trying to cure cancer? Subjectively, there are probably some more badass things you could rattle off, but not many. Regardless, that’s precisely what Brooke Magnanti has devoted her life to, contributing to numerous scientific papers about the subject. That includes one paper on how Chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide, can lead to neurodevelopmental deficiencies. And the only way to get to this point was by prostituting herself in order to afford her PhD.

Surely, plenty of college students have had similar thoughts to pay off student loans. But whereas most people just sign their financial soul away, Magnanti earned money through sex work from 2003 to 2004. During this time, she maintained a blog following her exploits, which caught on in a big way with the European public. In 2009, she revealed herself as the famous Belle de Jour, and the scientific community still welcomed her with open arms.

"That's DOCTOR Belle de Jour to you."

She has contributed much to the scientific community, but she hasn’t forgotten her roots. She has remained a vocal supporter of decriminalizing sex work. She has appeared in front of Parliament, encouraging them to decriminalize the practice so that sex workers will be more likely to come to authorities when they experience abuse. For the first time in decades, members of Parliament seriously listened to concerns, and while much work is still to be done, the campaign looks bright with powerful advocates like Magnanti leading the fight.

Julia Bulette Donated A Ton Of Her Earnings To The Union Army And Firefighters

Julia Bulette didn’t use the money she earned as a prostitute to buy a sweet pair of rollerblades and a fanny pack. Instead, she helped her fellow citizens. She got into the trade when she lived in California but continued it in Virginia City, Nevada, and she quickly earned favor with the local miners. That’s “miners” and not “minors,” sicko.

She did quite a bit during her life to better the city. For example, mining isn’t necessarily the safest occupation, and when a bunch of the miners became sick after drinking tainted water, Bulette converted her brothel, known as Julia’s Palace, into a hospital. She even offered her skills as a nurse to assist the ailing.

Bulette raised large sums of money to donate to Lincoln’s Sanitary Commission, which was a relief agency meant to support wounded and sick Union soldiers during the Civil War. She also donated freely to the town’s fire department, and her contributions were not limited to the financial. Reports indicate she would sometimes join the firemen in their vehicles, and she would stay behind to operate the brakes of the firemen’s handcart engines.

"You're FIRED! Hahaha! Just a little joke we have around here. We kid."

Sadly, she was murdered on January 20, 1867. The town came together to give her a funeral fit for royalty. Thousands of people marched in procession to honor her, including the firemen she worked alongside and the Nevada militia. Her killer, John Millain, was found over a year later, and when he was set to hang, businesses shut down so the entire town could pay homage to their beloved philanthropist.

Like this article? Check out "The 5 Most Badass Women In Spy History" and "The Top 10 Greatest Rogues In Hollywood History".

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