An Interview with Dr. Melissa Hope Ditmore, Editor of the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work

Putting together a book is tough, but when that book is an encyclopedia, the job has got to be so much tougher. So many words, so many entries, so much fact-checking, so… all encompassing. But Dr. Melissa Hope Ditmore has done just that with her years-in-the-making project two-volume Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work, just published by Greenwood Press. A one-of-a-kind reference work about a subject matter that is often seen through a narrow, cliche ridden vantage point, the encyclopedia delves into and explores sex work and prostitution from a full-view perspective: the historical, political, societal, cultural, activist and more. I interviewed Ditmore about her "mega-project" — how it came about, what’s in the encyclopedia, and who it’s for.

How did this project come about? How long have you been working on it?

The Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work was the brainchild of an editor at Greenwood, the publisher. She grew up in Detroit in the 1970s and witnessed pimp culture, especially souped-up cars. Pimpmobiles really stood out for her and may have been the genesis of the encyclopedia! As an acquisitions editor at Greenwood, she inquired after potential editors for a reference book about prostitution and was referred to me by Priscilla Alexander, the doyenne and ally of the American sex workers’ rights movement. Priscilla co-edited Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry and I had hoped to co-edit this with her, but her other commitments prevented her from taking this on. An encyclopedia is a mega-project. My opportunity was a triumph of experience over hope: no one who had published a book before wanted to edit such a large volume!

Coming up with the list of topics was wonderful fun. The list is exceptionally rich because of the many entries that were suggested by the contributors. Pulling this manuscript together took more than two years of contact with some of the most fascinating writers and subjects you could hope to meet.

Has there ever been an academic reference book about prostitution and sex work?

This is the first reference work devoted to prostitution and sex work, despite the huge variety of academic and mainstream writing on sex work. Sexologists Vern and Bonnie Bullough published History of Prostitution in 1964, and Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History in 1989. These great resources are very different from the encyclopedia. The most obvious difference is that the encyclopedia has content addressing the last twenty years, including sex worker activism. The wide variety of voices in the encyclopedia is just not possible in a smaller book with two authors.

Who is the encyclopedia for?

Everyone should have an opportunity to read it. Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work is meant for a general audience. The writing is clear, there is no jargon, and the topic has universal interest. Most readers will probably be students because reference books are usually library resources. But everyone is a student of human nature and sexual activity!

I wonder how many people will find it not in a public library but in the private collections of their favorite sex professionals. Sex workers proved to be enthusiastic readers of the encyclopedia as soon as it became available. The positive response has been overwhelming, demonstrating the need for this book.

What are some of the entries — entries that would be good examples of what one will find in the encyclopedia?

No matter who you are, something in the 342 entries will interest you! There are people, history, places, health issues and more. Some of the entries that I recently re-read are Hip-Hop, Habsburg Monarchy, the film Midnight Cowboy, and World War I Regulation. The religious entries always engage me, especially the early Christian ascetics the Desert Harlots. Sacred whores indeed!

The entries on people include many familiar names: Paul Cezanne, Emma Goldman, Annie Sprinkle, Victoria Woodhull, and Emile Zola. But the encyclopedia also offers opportunities to learn about fascinating people you may not have heard of, for example, the Renaissance composer Barbara Strozzi, the medieval Chinese martial artist and courtesan Liang Hongyu, convicted madam Regine Riehl, and Network of Sex Work Projects co-founder Paulo Longo.

The 179 writers include the novelist Tracy Quan, who wrote about Opera, and popular music critic John Holmstrom, who wrote about Rock Music. Renowned scholars include Helen J. Self on Britain’s Street Offenses Act, Jo Doezema on Abolitionists, Heather Montgomery on Child Prostitution, Thomas Steinfatt on Trafficking Propaganda, and Stephanie Budin on the Ancient World. Advocates

Greenwood produced this beautifully. Illustrations abound, including Daryl Hannah as the automaton prostitute in Blade Runner, depictions from the Kama Sutra, ukiyo-e prints, and scenes from sex work venues in Amsterdam, Bangkok, New Orleans, and New York.

Are there political issues with a reference work like this? Could you see libraries NOT take the book because of its subject matter?

Yes, this has already come up. One contributor said that her local library, which was a university library, hesitated to order it. It is, after all, the only encyclopedia featured on Fleshbot. The library needed reassurance that Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work is a serious work that belongs in its collection and ordered the encyclopedia after she showed them the press release and excerpts that are on the website.

It’s priced more for the reference/library market, right? It’s more than normal book buyers are used to paying for a book… if someone can’t afford it, how might they go about getting access to the book?

The encyclopedia is an unusual book with an unusual price. Most readers will find it through their libraries. Request that your local library — whether that is a public library, a university library, a school library — get the encyclopedia. You can make it easier for your librarian by bringing a printed copy of the order form, and, if necessary, the excerpts offered to reviewers. They are available from the online press kit.

Any chance you might create an online wiki around this work?

What a great question! The encyclopedia would be an enormous resource for someone creating a wiki about the sex industry. I don’t see myself taking on such a technical project. I would like Greenwood to produce a cd-rom of the work, which would be more affordable and portable. My next book will be smaller!

More information about the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work.