views updated


The term kept describes a woman or man who receives financial compensation such as living expenses, stipends, and lavish gifts in return for sex. Unlike prostitutes who are compensated on a temporary basis for performing sexual acts, kept men and women occupy a more permanent place in the lives of their patrons. Often labeled fancy girls, sporting women, mistresses, courtesans, ladies of pleasure, or concubines, kept women are typically supported by married men and rarely advance to the role of wife. These wealthy patrons are colloquially termed sugar daddies or sugar mommas, typically older than their lovers and sometimes married. Homosexual males also play the role of sugar daddies to young males or sugar babies, offering their lovers money, status, and security. Although same sex relationships with this dynamic also occur in lesbian communities, the trend is more prevalent amongst gay males.

A history of the kept woman begins in ancient Rome where biblical accounts of concubines and mistresses reveal a preoccupation with producing male heirs rather than a proclivity for extramarital sex. In ancient China kept women in harems were provided living quarters and financial stability as compensation for sexual favors and highly coveted male offspring. Harems in the premodern Islamic world included concubines as well as legitimate wives, and singing slave girls combined erotic appeal with skill in music and poetry. In early-nineteenth-century Japan, the geisha emerged as a cultural icon; highly skilled in dance, vocal performance, and clever conversation, she established sexual relationships with wealthy men and survived on their patronage. Courtesans were kept women during the fourteenth and fifteenth-century European Renaissance. Their prominent status as escorts of wealthy and powerful men allowed courtesans many educational and societal freedoms unavailable to women of the times. During the slave era in the United States, the fancy girl market was offered to exceptionally wealthy white males. During fancy girl auctions, light-skinned black women would be purchased at prices ranging from 2,000 to 5,000 dollars. Lavished with the most expensive clothes and fineries, fancy girls were acquired solely for sexual services. Inevitably the history of the kept woman has shifted from empowered to exploited, according to societal mores and cultural traditions.

The male equivalent of the kept woman is the gigolo. Although typically supported by an older woman, kept men are also patronized by homosexual males in exchange for sex. Unlike the historical records of concubines and courtesans, details of kept men or gigolos are less accessible. A larger history devoted to male prostitutes or hustlers provides insights into male sex workers, but fails to account for enduring sexual relationships both heterosexual and homosexual. The disparity in these records illustrates widespread cultural apprehension to those sexual relationships on the fringes of a heteronormative system.

The character Paul, played by George Peppard, in the film Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) is a popular representation of the kept heterosexual man who survives solely on the monetary gifts of a wealthy older woman. In 2005 cable television channel VH1 launched a new reality show titled Kept in which Jerry Hall challenged twelve men to vie for her affections and her millions. The twelve contestants were asked to perfect their dancing, write poetry, learn polo, and exude sex appeal as Hall groomed the ideal gigolo.

Famous kept women include Hagar (concubine of biblical patriarch Abraham), Madame de Montespan (mistress of French monarch Louis XIV), Sally Hemings (slave of American president Thomas Jefferson), Marion Davies (mistress of American publisher William Randolph Hearst), Eva Braun (mistress of the German dictator Adolph Hitler), La Belle Otero (Spanish courtesan), and Pamela Digby Harriman (U.S. ambassador to France and wife of British politician Randolph Churchill, Hollywood producer Leland Hayward, and U.S. politician Averell Harriman, as well as lover of, among others, Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, Prince Aly Khan, and journalist Edward R. Murrow).

see also Gigolo; Prostitution.


Abbott, Elizabeth. 2003. A History of Mistresses. Toronto: HarperCollins.

Griffin, Victoria. 1999. The Mistress: Histories, Myths and Interpretations of the 'Other Woman'. New York: Bloomsbury.

Salamon, Edna. 1984. The Kept Woman: Mistresses in the '80s. London: Orbis.

                                              Melissa Fore