Lost in Pompeii: Italy's OG red light district?
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
"You may notice the phalluses around every corner..."
Me the typical starry-eyed, naive tourist: 😃"Say what?"
"Penises, there are penises everywhere you look."
‘80% of the artwork recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum is sexually explicit.’
The very first building I visited in Pompeii was a spa right beside Porta Marina. The first thing I noticed were the walls decorated in graphic images of women (and sometimes beasts) performing sexual acts. In the video below of the spa locker room, the tour guide tells me that the client can refer to a number for the act they wish to partake in.
He likened it to a Japanese take-out, when you don’t understand/can not pronounce the word but you recognize the image to make an order.
This moment gave me flashbacks to my time at the Redlight district in Amsterdam in the summer of 2018.
As soon as I entered the door a worker asked me what I wanted to pay for. There was no menu to point at. Me, a 'timid' 23 year old responded: “Well a dance I guess. I don’t know, what do you think?”
An awkward, 23-year-old me only hours before.
It was about 40 minutes of her bouncing around the room to EDM music before she randomly decided to turn on an Afrobeat song as an icebreaker, all while telling me that her daytime job was not paying her enough.
Feeling totally guilty and empathetic I immediately gave her the last 100 euro note for what she told me would be a 50 euro dance.
She opened her purse, casually filled with 10 other 100 euro notes, and told me she didn’t have any change. Every woman to her own.
Pompeii attracts over 2.5 million visitors annually. This UNESCO site flaunts a rich yet infamous history, known to be a town inundated with phalluses… wealthy individuals, orgies and quick, commercialized sex.
Upon entering the public buildings of Pompeii visitors are captivated by paintings of naked women dressed in gold and expensive jewelry in very relaxed and “feminine” artistic positions. I imagined this to be the equivalent to heaven on earth. I believed when viewing these images that this was a place, where elites both male and female had come to explore their sexual fantasies freely. I had visions of a glamourous, utilitarian utopia of consensual and amicable sexual exploration.
In reality, most of the individuals in the images are full-time sex workers and were slaves. In fact, 30 percent of the population in Pompeii were slaves. Sex work provided a strong economy to Pompeii, the continued presence of merchants allowed this economy of Pompeii to prosper.
There are brothels around every corner of the town, the phallic symbols direct individuals to where the available sex is. Upon entering the brothels, the reality of the lives of these workers is evident right away.
Sex workers rarely left their cubicles ‘Confined to the premises by (usually) male pimps who provided them with only their most basic needs, the women were essentially cut off from the outside world.’
The treatment of these workers was normalized and uncontested, as they were viewed as property under the law. Rape of a slave was only punishable if it "damaged the goods," since a slave had no legal standing as a person. ‘The penalty was aimed at providing the owner compensation for the "damage" of his property.’
Hairdressers were kept on standby to repair the damages of amorous conflicts, while water boys stood by the door to clean up after acts.
The prices for each act ranged from 2 to 23 asses (Roman currency) per client, 2 asses was the equivalent of the price of a loaf of bread.
I thought a lot about how undervalued and underpaid workers were and the stark differences from where we are today. Pompeii is casually likened to the Red light district in Amsterdam however the dichotomy between voluntarily owning and selling your body under your own terms vs widespread forced prostitution of enslaved individuals could not leave my mind*.
Later on in the tour, we encountered a body of pregnant woman frozen in time from the ‘Fiorelli process.’ The status individuals had in society and the expression of these individuals at the exact moment of death is preserved in this process. The belt on the woman’s body allows us to identify her as a slave. I could not help but wonder whether this woman had been employed as a sex worker. She is petrified in this video, you can feel the overwhelming emotions of fear and sorrow.
Religious scripture of the 79 AD volcanic eruption liken the destruction to a religious apocalyptic event.
Was this her moment to be truly free in the kingdom of Heaven?
Or was this simply wrong day, wrong time, wrong era?
*Although there is still forced prostitution and trafficking across the world.