The Asylum for Specially-Trained Concubines
December 27, 2011 6:00 PM   Subscribe

Schools or asylums that trained young girls in some sort of speciality skill only to later sell them off to rich men: did they really exist? Do they still?

Emilie Autumn's The Asylum of Wayward Victorian Girls has one of the main characters be sold to a Victorian-era music conservatory to be intensely trained as a (so-claimed) professional classical musician; however, to the girls' horror, they are actually bound to be sold off to rich men for their "amusement" (performance as well as sexual slavery). The movie Sucker Punch has something similar, in that the lead character is (or imagines herself to be) in a mental asylum that is a front for a gentleman's club/brothel, and the inmates receive intense dance training.

Did such places actually exist in history? Particularly those that trained girls (maybe boys?) in some speciality skill for later purposes as a uniquely-talented concubine? Do they still now, whether more consenting (perhaps as a fetish/kink thing) or as coercive as in the above stories? I have read accounts of sex workers in the past who were trained in similar erotic and creative arts - usually of some religious nature - but they seemed to be more aware of what they were getting into and had considerably more agency than the protagonists of these stories.

I've also read stories of young people being individually trained by mentors (also often in the Victorian era) to later satisfy some bet or settle some score of the mentor's, rather than for the protege's own future benefit. What was it about the Victorian era that inspires such tropes, and do they exist now?
posted by divabat to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

Google for concubine programs in both China and the Middle East
posted by infini at 6:20 PM on December 27, 2011

The Magdalene Asylums poportedly attempted to "rescue" sex workers.

The Fille du roi were alleged by some to be prostitutes (the truth is undoubtably somewhere in the middle).

There was also the Victorian fascination with Japan and its Geishas, as I am sure you are aware, Victorians viewed female performers as prostitutes - even Sarah Bernhart was slurred.
posted by saucysault at 6:23 PM on December 27, 2011

But the Magadalene's weren't selling their charges off the rich debauched gents. If anything, the institutions made sure these women were as downtrodden and non-sensual as possible. LIkewise, the King's Daughters weren't trained for anything--the state paid their passage and a dowry.

I'd say, in Europe at least, these "whore academies" were fiction.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:51 PM on December 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Magdalene Asylums poportedly attempted to "rescue" sex workers.

I thought of the Magdalene Laundries, too, but they don't really fit what the OP is asking. Laundry is not a speciality skill, even in the same way concubines can be construed as having specialist skills. Additionally, the women were not sold off (or paid); they were instead effectively incarcerated in the laundries. (And in point of fact, they were no more sex workers than they were rescued.) I wonder if the historical setting of Rules for Virgins is more what divabat is asking about.

What was it about the Victorian era that inspires such tropes, and do they exist now?

If you're referring to for example, The Night Circus, it was the overwhelming availability of children from orphanages and poorhouses in the era before even the most rudimentary social welfare systems.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:54 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: saucysalt: interesting you bring up Victorian performers - when I read Pin-Up Grrrls I was struck by how much more freedom the performers of the time had, compared to their conventional counterparts, a lot more freedom of movement and speech. maybe it's my modern day bias, but it seemed like they had the better deal!
posted by divabat at 8:16 PM on December 27, 2011

Best answer: This is happening very much right now, in 2011.

One major example is North Korea. Military leaders routinely enter school classes, search for the attractive, poised, smart girls, and take them to "serve" military officers. The girls have to go through an exhaustive "interview" process, and many are rejected. And ... many of these rejected girls are incredibly sad, because it's viewed as a step up & an honor to serve the rulers in such a way.
posted by Kruger5 at 8:17 PM on December 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In pre-Alexander II Russia, when serfdom was legal, landowners would occasionally set up serf ballet or opera companies on their territories, and take the actresses/ballerinas as their mistresses as the whim struck them. The most famous of these women is probably opera singer Praskovya Zhemchugova, whose patron actually fell in love with and married her. There are a number of books, both about Praskovya and about serfdom in imperial Russia, which would have more information on this.
posted by posadnitsa at 8:17 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Kruger5: Did the North Korean women continue to be specially educated in return for sexual service? "I'll pay for your education if you become part of my harem"?

(I'd also ask that people refrain from whorephobia in their answers - none that I'm seeing now, but it's a possibility with a topic like this.)
posted by divabat at 8:41 PM on December 27, 2011

Response by poster: DarlingBri: Rules for Virgins is pretty much the sort of thing I was after, though it seems the difference here is that the women know they're about to be sold off as concubines.
posted by divabat at 8:47 PM on December 27, 2011

Divabat - Absolutely. They were 1st trained prior to joining, and then fully educated as part of the deal. That's why choosing girls who were smart was a non-negotiable criteria.
posted by Kruger5 at 9:00 PM on December 27, 2011

It sounds like something that would have existed for Venetian courtesans, though to be honest I don't know exactly how your average courtesan was trained. I'm not sure they had "academies" as such. Though I know music schools for girls existed in Renaissance Italy.

I'm also pretty sure that the women who became courtesans knew what they were getting into and had as much agency as your average pre-20th century unmarried woman would have had in major life decisions.
posted by Sara C. at 9:47 PM on December 27, 2011

This is another novel, so not really an answer to your question, but you might also be interested in The Virgin Cure. (I haven't read it.)
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:08 PM on December 27, 2011

La Pieta in Venice was a non-sexual example; as far as I know, it was pretty famous. I can imagine schools like that inspiring the trope.
posted by snorkmaiden at 10:15 PM on December 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Omigod, snorkmaiden, that's exactly what I was trying to remember when I wrote my comment. Googled and googled, even came upon Vivaldi, but could NOT find the name of the school.

I would guess that a good percentage of well-born Venetian courtesans got their early musical training there.

Though, again, it wasn't a sexual institution, nor was it involved in trafficking women against their wills (I mean, aside from the fact that girls at that time would have had little or no agency on matters like that, anyway).
posted by Sara C. at 10:34 PM on December 27, 2011

Best answer: Are you also thinking of the oiran class of women? The classification is for the highest level of prostitute in feudal Japan. The skill set expected of oiran included music, poetry, conversation, tea ceremony, etc. These skills were learned at a young age and part of the long term investment of an establishment.

Also, from a pop culture reference, were you thinking of a film like Gigi where the titular character is being trained to be courtesan from her family of courtesans?
posted by jadepearl at 11:36 PM on December 27, 2011

Best answer: Perhaps Plaçage? The women involved were of mixed race and were trained in the "feminine arts" (music, literature, dancing, etc.) and then "placed" with rich men as "left-handed wives". The Quadroon Balls were a big part of this.
posted by deborah at 12:35 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I rather doubt there were schools for this purpose specifically, although I could certainly be proved wrong. But it seems to me there's a natural overlap here: in many times and places it was considered essential for a young, well-born woman to have the skill set to entertain the family as well as decorate the house (see, for example, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett's convo in Pride and Predjudice about what it takes to be an "accomplished woman"). Singing, dancing, painting, playing music --- all of those would have been pretty standard. Inasmuch as there were schools for gentlewoman, they would have taught such things. On the other side, in as much as there were courtesans or other prostitutes on the higher end of the pay scale in a society, people customers would expect to be able to carry on a conversation with as well as fuck, then I think there would be a natural overlap in what a madam would want her girls to know. So while I rather doubt there were schools for such thing in the manner portrayed in modern steam punk/gothy Victorian novels, depending on what the likely path was to becoming an expensive prostitute in a given society, I'd bet it likely that one would pick up such skills along the way, quite possibly the same way straight laced "gentlewomen" did -- through dancing-masters and so forth.
posted by Diablevert at 5:13 AM on December 28, 2011

Response by poster: it seems historically these women had more foreknowledge of what they were being trained for - did they get to enter the trade of their own volition? choice and agency seem to be absent in related fiction.
posted by divabat at 5:45 AM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: I knew my examples were not exactly what you were thinking of but I was not as eloquent as Diablevert in pointing out that historically women have had two choices to be able to feed and house themselves. Marriage (and the importance of a good stable husband as explored by Jane Austen) or education that leads to some kind of career (laundress, teacher/governess, nunnery). And since sex has always been a major preoccupation of must cultures (and normally okay'ed within marriage) it is a short leap from "St Vitus' School of Dancing" to "St Nicholas' School of Dancing Horizontally". The whole nunnery/brothel trope is something else to unpack from the anti-papist hysteria.

Are you referring to contemporary fiction about women/girls being unknowingly trained in the "arts" of being a sex workers? Because I think that is part of a larger trend in fiction where women have little agency (and thus are not REALLY responsible for the socially unacceptable but nice-feeling things they do) and are passive pretty things watching as the events of their world happen to them and they merely react.

I have known several sex workers, all with different motivations but none that were forced into it or deceived that being an escort only meant dinner. From what I have read of primary sources (women writing diaries in the 1800s/early 1900s) women that chose prostitution did so for a lucrative job that was relatively easy or out of financial desperation (and were rarely full time sex workers, usually it was just one of many part time jobs they juggled). But I haven't come across formal schools except in fiction (albeit, most of my reading has been in English Canada, French Canada with it's longer history may have something different as will other parts of the former commonwealth).

It is a very interesting topic. Considering the number of sex-positve spaces that offer courses nowadays I wonder if there could be a business plan in offering a formal education like the books depict, minus the selling into sexual slavery bit.

I do know of local Female Doms that offer such "academies" to male clients, although some are merely in name only. Have you explored the FetLife community? They may have some useful contributions.
posted by saucysault at 6:22 AM on December 28, 2011

I am sure you are aware the "educated prostitute" (often with a heart of gold) have a long history in Western Culture back to the Heteara of Ancient Greece. The Victorians had a fascination with other culture's values and morals, comparing their own to other cultures that were different (and yet still functioned!) was paradigm-shifting for them. Just as it is for our culture as the non binary gender/sexuality becomes more widely accepted.
posted by saucysault at 6:46 AM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: I have known several men (in developing countries, not the US) who were paying for the schooling and clothes and so on for multiple young girls, openly cultivating them as future mistresses. (This is a super common thing, and yes, just as exploitative and nasty as it sounds.) There's very little stretch from this to a much richer and more powerful person in a more feudal situation centralizing and expanding this, as in the Russian example above, or to an entrepreneurial person taking on the hassle of finding the young people and raising them, saving the patrons the bother of cultivating them and their families individually.

If you're referring to for example, The Night Circus, it was the overwhelming availability of children from orphanages and poorhouses in the era before even the most rudimentary social welfare systems.

This is key; in the individual examples I have seen it was endemic poverty, lack of employment and education options for single mothers, and a lack of any welfare system that made this kind of cultivation possible and attractive.
posted by Forktine at 6:49 AM on December 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Diablevert has my answer, but I'll add that these are referred to as "finishing schools"
posted by jander03 at 7:01 AM on December 28, 2011

Yeah, actually as I think of it, the catalogue of "Famous mistresses/demimondanes/cortesans of history" has a lot of people who were on the knife edge of respectability in youth --- enough to have received a typical gentelwoman's education or something close to it --- who then b/c of a father or huband's abandonment had to live on their wits and their beauty. Mme. De Pompadour is believed to have been the illegitimate child of a high ranking official, Cora Pearl went to a convent school and had a musician father. Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair would be the Ur-fictional example -- she's a day girl at a posh boarding school with a drunkard father, smart as hell, who marries for money and when that doesn't work out ends up a gambler (and, the book implies, more). So yeah. Or take the plot of something like The Age of Innocence --- the Countess Olenska, who left a brute of a husband and is now out on her own with no support, is eyed as a possible mistress candidate by several characters. Thinking about it, I shouldn't wonder if there weren't such schools because there wasn't a need for them. You don't have to find lower-class young girls and train them up specially for this kind of life when there's a plentiful supply of upper-class and/or bohemian young women one bad marriage or ill-considered hookup away from disgrace and destitution, and therefore quite willing to become a kept woman.
posted by Diablevert at 8:11 AM on December 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I can sort of confirm the North Korean training. There is a NK official restaurant in Phnom Penh, and I managed a few times to talk to the young women working there. They are selected fairly young, intensively trained and then sent to work at embassies and businesses overseas in duty to the state. Their schedule was to wake up early, practise their musical skill, dance and then language lessons, then to the restaurant to work as waitress/hostess/entertainers. They were very talented, fairly tall, beautiful and quietly terrified of the restaurant boss overseeing them. They go back to NK in their mid to late twenties when they are married to someone chosen for them, and it is a huge privilege for them to have worked overseas as essentially unpaid prisoners.

I don't think something like this would exist now really because the sex work trade depends more on novelty and price than on a marketing of an experience with someone talented and trained. That's high-end, which tends to be independent contractors. You might reframe this as a question about pornstars, where certainly there's training and talent searches - the whole "art filming, very tasteful art nudity" scams that get aspiring actress/models to strip, might be closer.

There are definitely highly trained and talented sex workers out there, but they are individuals, not products of a school AFAIK. There's the brutal kind of training when you beat, torture and rape a trafficked child or adult into submission, but I don't think that's what you mean.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:35 AM on December 28, 2011

And Forktine is right - I have also seen this behaviour, both firsthand and widely reported. It's essentially predator grooming, but it's labor intensive. Small stretch to setting it up as a school, but the kind of assholes who pick a kid out of an orphanage and groom them into a personal sex slave are very picky about what kid. They seem to focus on getting someone very specific and innocent exclusive to them. The pimps at bigger brothels mostly focused on what types of clothes the sex workers wear, and enforcing customer service to a particular standard (no turning down violent guys but you can insist on condoms, or whatever that place had as house rules) than training any kind of talent. The commercial houses - bars, brothels, dance clubs etc - depend on a turnover of sex workers for novelty, not having a very special one.

Sorry for the double answer, but this is a fascinating question - sex work romanticised/villified in literature/popular culture and the complicated reality of it is challenging. It's right at the interstice of culture, gender politics, economics and psychology, and there is a huge range of experiences.

India! The Hijra communities may be what you're thinking of in a way. Hijra communities and several other sex worker dominated communities often train young people and sometimes children towards a life in sex work.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:48 AM on December 28, 2011

Best answer: From the Ottoman Empire:

Harem education

The harem women also learned etiquette of the Court as well as general lessons in deportment of self. The harem women were expected to know various crafts such as embroidery or painting. To those who desired, study of foreign languages was included in the curriculum. After completing their education and graduating, Harem girls auditioned before the Valide Sultana for a chance to be chosen for presentation to the Sultan when he needed entertainment.

The fate of a harem girl therefore became either to rise in ranks in the Sultan’s favor, or to wait to be married off to someone else, or to continue to serve within the harem. A girl who managed to sleep with the Sultan became a concubine and graduated to having her own room and servants

The Cariye (graduated novice) or acemi (pupil in training) could rise to become a concubine then to being an ikbal (favorite concubine of the Sultan) to becoming an official wife or Haseki Kadinsultan then to being the Valide Sultana; all as a culmination of having received a harem education.

posted by infini at 9:26 AM on December 28, 2011

Response by poster: saucysault: funny you mention fetlife - I'm on there a fair bit,and this trope hits a few fetish fantasies of mine (minus slavery & Victoriana). the closest I've seen are small courtesan/sacred-sexuality-revivalist groups and tantra training, though that was specifically on sexual skills. I have seen the odd profile that purports to provide a similar.experience but it's hard to tell if they're legit or not.

(I'd be happy to be groomed to be a mistress to a cultured lady, fwiw)
posted by divabat at 5:01 PM on December 28, 2011

Kruger5: This is happening very much right now, in 2011.

One major example is North Korea. Military leaders routinely enter school classes, search for the attractive, poised, smart girls, and take them to "serve" military officers. The girls have to go through an exhaustive "interview" process, and many are rejected. And ... many of these rejected girls are incredibly sad, because it's viewed as a step up & an honor to serve the rulers in such a way.
In a land filled with extreme deprivation, it's hard to argue that a position of security is not a step up. Morals are for people who are not starving.
posted by IAmBroom at 8:14 PM on September 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Help me find a urologist. A nice one, please.   |   Tests good. Works bad. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.