A History Of Prostitution: How Old Is The Sex Trade?

Along with weed, some parts of North America have technically legalised prostitution in the last year, but how long has the sex trade really been in operation for?
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Wherever we find evidence of human culture, we find evidence of prostitution. When the earliest known human societies emerged in the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia, the sex trade evolved alongside temples, customs, markets and laws. Beginning in the third millennium B.C, the Sumerians, the first major inhabitants of ancient Mesopotamia, worshiped the goddess Ishtar, a deity that would remain a constant throughout Mesopotamia’s Babylonian and Assyrian empires. Ishtar was the goddess of love and war, symbolized by the planet Venus, and was born anew as a maiden every morning only to become a ‘whore’ every evening – the etymology of the word lying in the Indo-European root meaning ‘desire.’

Ironically, Mesopotamian religious practices gave birth to the prostitution trade, as women in Ishtar’s service would help men who offered money to her temples with the ‘sacred’ powers of their bodies. Achieving a priority of communication with the goddess from their fertility, only women enjoyed this religious position. Thus Ishtar temples became knowledge centers concerning birth, birth control, and sexuality. Priestesses became the nurses and sacred sex therapists of these early societies. Men of all rank could hire these women and, in turn, make an offering to the goddess from whose temple the prostitute came. The king would also take part in certain sacred sex rituals with the high priestesses in conjunction with grain harvests: the fertility of the earth was secured through a ritual that celebrated the fertility of the womb. The king, regent of the earth, and priestess, regent of the goddess, coupled in this highly symbolic manner that celebrates the sexual process that brought both grain and people into being. Thus Ishtar became known as the protector of all prostitutes. Prostitution, or at least the religious prostitution involved in these sacred sex rituals, existed without taboo or prohibition, as evidenced in some of our species’ earliest literary works.

In one such work, The Epic of Gilgamesh, we are introduced to a nameless Harimtu woman – a term used by famed lawgiver Hammurabi which denoted lower-class prostitutes – who lavishes Gilgamesh’s rival Enkidu with many variations of love, from the maternal and mystical to the sexual and orgiastic. The prostitute emerges not just as a purveyor of sex but as a force of civilization: the harlot literally educates the savage in love and care of the body. This is certainly antithetical to the stigma prostitution harbors today, where the trade itself is seen as sexually primitive, an unfortunate remnant of a less civilized and more phallocentric past. The goddess of love was also seen as being connected to the prostitutes – including males – that operated beyond the temples, often under the supervision of a madam. Theologically, all were seen as being in service to the goddess of love, but in Babylonian law there remained legal distinctions between the priestesses and the roadside/inn prostitutes.


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Prostitution also arises in the accounts of Herodotus, who recounted his observation of this originally Sumerian religious sexual practice among the Babylonians thousands of years later in the 5th century B.C. He noted that most young women lost their virginity in the temples of Ishtar to unknown men. Similarly, he tells of Syrian women who offered their bodies for money so that they would be able to take their earnings to their own love goddess, Astarte.

Interestingly, prostitution seems to have been an imported practice in Ancient Egypt, and was practiced apart from their patriarchal religion. The trade persisted in the region through the Hellenic and Roman periods.

So how did the sex trade transition from the scared procession of fertility cults to the most sordid of commercial transactions? In the West at least, this history will involve a traversal through a new period of religious zealousness. The overall distinction here is between the early Semitic nomads, whose economy was more cattle-oriented, and who gave primacy to a single male god, and the pantheistic agricultural societies that worshiped the female fertility that they linked to the fertility of the field.

The first account of prostitution in the Bible is found in Genesis, where Judah – one of Jacob’s twelve sons, descended from Abraham – paid the bride price, in accordance with Israelite custom, for Tamar and gave her to his eldest son. Long story short, she eventually went to the second son, who refused to copulate with her. Through no fault of her own, Tamar was sent back to her relatives in shame as a poor investment, as she produced no children. Determined to prove that the fault lay with Judah’s sons, she approached his tents disguised and exchanged sex with Judah for a goat. Tamar became pregnant, and avoided harsh punishment for being a pregnant widow that shamed Judah and his sons by revealing keepsakes given to the prostitute employed by Judah. Through prostitution, Tamar proved that it was her husbands who failed in conception.

These narratives demonstrate that a bride’s ability to produce offspring, especially of the male variety, was integral to her social value. Rape was thus seen as a violation of property, not of person. The sale of wives and daughters was commonplace, as was informal sex, in Canaan. Since tribal honor was in some measure tied to the fidelity and fertility of the women, only foreign prostitutes were tolerated. Thus the Semitic prostitute had to practice from sufficient distance from her male relatives with clients that were unknown to her brothers and fathers.

The proliferation of foreign gods, temples and priestesses also led to a rise in the sex trade on the Canaanite periphery. Prostitution began to become more pejorative, a sign of immorality, corruption, and foreign deities. One of the Semitic peoples’ most impervious enemies was a lecherous woman: the foreign Queen Jezebel, married to King Ahab, favored the foreign gods Baal and Ashera, and was subsequently depicted as purveying orgiastic cults and being both sexually and commercially covetous. According to the story, she spawned a religious war that ended with her defeat at Elijah’s hands. Prostitution became part of the rhetoric of the religious war between the adherents of Yahweh and those of Ashera and Baal. Prostitutes were accorded more power, Succubus-like in their ability to lure young men astray. Semitic prophets utilized this image of the prostitute in their thunderous proclamations and condemnations.


The women of Ancient Greece were also similarly ensnared in the domestic sphere: even during the period of Athenian democracy, only adult males were considered full citizens. Sexual schools rose in the Greek city states, where girls would be purchased from slave markets and trained to provide revenue by selling sex. Many young slaves prostituted themselves to earn money, which meant that, being women or slaves, prostitutes consisted of those excluded from Athens’ Popular Assembly.

The famed homosexuality of Ancient Greece was not without its own strictures: while it was acceptable to enjoy the sexual company of younger males – often through the insertion of the penis through clenched thighs – it was always feminizing, and thus degrading, to be placed in the position of the woman, in the position where one was penetrated and not penetrating. Thus it was much more taboo for men to ask for money in return for sex.

As in Sumerian and Babylonian societies, there existed a hierarchy of prostitutes. The elitehetaerae – a term always denoting female prostitute entertainers – made substantially more money, and had to be freeborn; this meant that slave prostitutes were motivated to earn enough money so that they could purchase their freedom and thereby increase their income. However, the expenses of this upper class were also greater: they offered symbolic gifts to the gods and had to maintain beautiful bodies and homes. Besides reading, maintaining physical beauty consumed much of their time. The hetaerae also enjoyed a social influence that far exceeded that of the non-prostitute women: some became famous for their clientele, others for their beauty, and they and their interactions were often recorded in some manner. The pornai, on the other hand, could be either male or female and were accessible to all classes of men.

The Roman Republic shared many commonalities with the Hellenes, and prostitution was among them. During the Empire, however, prostitutes were increasingly comprised of the overwhelming slave class. Roman prostitution was also highly categorized, yet legal and licensed. While being a prostitute could indicate your membership in the lowest social, economic and political rank, this same connotation of status did not apply to your patron: those of a higher social status could purchase the service without incurring major consequences. However, men of such status would usually have the economic means to engage the more professional service of a learned courtesan who themselves could become independently wealthy. As we will see in Japan, these sex workers were skilled in the arts and could become coveted party guests. Brothel owners could include those were only renting rooms to prostitutes or those who oversaw the women and their business more strictly. Actors, dancers, and other members of the lower entertainment class were also seen as people from whom sex could be purchased. As with many earlier periods of our history, the moral valence of prostitution was not nearly as strong as it is today.

In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs called buildings where prostitution was permitted by political and religious authority cihuacalli, meaning ‘house of women.’ Centered around the goddess of ‘filth,’ these brothels were closed compounds. As seen throughout most of our history, prostitution is ‘ghettoized,’ relegated to specific spaces and increasingly treated as a (sometimes necessary) vice.

Despite Islam’s strict forbidding of prostitution, sexual slavery persisted and, some would say, persists today. Slaves served as concubines in the harems of the East, while fixed-term marriages – where the length of marriage was outlined at its inception – allowed for a persistence of the sex trade following the proliferation of Islam. During the Ottoman Empire, the famed Turkish baths existed as places where masseurs (often young men) could work as sex workers. We can again see the trend of prostitution being subsumed under another trade to keep it within a contained urban and social space.

Prostitutes also enjoyed a particular status within Hindu religious practice. Devadasis were girls who were symbolically married, and thus pledged, to a deity; their responsibilities included the care and maintenance of the temple. Many also exercised religious prostitution, and this practice proliferated as the arrival of West Asian invaders precipitated the decline of the temple status and the turn towards prostitution as a means of income, as the temples lost their patron kings. This system of religious dedication was outlawed in India in 1988.

In Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868), oiran were courtesans who were also entertainers. Delegated to the city’s outskirts, brothels became quarters that offered a variation of entertainment. Like the Greek hetaerae, these women were elite prostitutes who could achieve significant social status. Artistic skill, along with beauty and education, determined a courtesan’s rank, and only the most highly ranked entertainers were deemed suitable for the daimyo, the military leader of Japan. The oiran gave way to the geisha, who was much more accessible and did not sell sex, only entertainment in the form of dance, poetry and music. It was, and is, a grave and offensive mistake to attempt to purchase sex from a geisha.

With the rise of Catholic Europe, all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage were regarded as sinful. However, prostitution persisted in urban environments and was seen as a lesser evil that prevented other, more deviant, sexual behaviors. The composition of the prostitute class also moved away from slaves and was revived as a business that was relegated to specific areas, whether it be outside the town perimeter, confined to a particular street, or kept within a designated building. Specific districts were allocated for the trade, and some brothels even came to be owned, and of course used, by religious authorities.

Eventually prostitution became a prosecutable offense. As European colonization continuously expanded, legislation increasingly enacted a tighter control of the sex trade. Britain’s Contagious Diseases Act is one such example of the attempt to curb the spread of venereal disease and represented a trend of increasing political regulation over the practice. For example, physical examinations could be compulsory and prostitutes forced to undergo them.

The sex trade persisted, and continues to persist, in the face of moral (and sometimes legal) condemnation. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (the major force of prohibition) contributed to the outlawing of prostitution in almost all of the United States in the early 20thcentury. Countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom would not overtly outlaw prostitution, but would enact legislature that severely restricts the trade and the activities that surround it.

Today the sex trade continues as it always has, with many governments officially maintaining its illegality, while some restrict certain sex trade-related activities and others keep it legal and regulated. In a world where we cannot, for the most part, attribute to prostitution a religious significance, it seems that the answer in dealing with such a trade is to allow it to persist – that is, to allow both men and women to continue to choose their own profession, while also ensuring that such individuals have the full support of the law in earning their living. Awareness (both social and legal) corresponds to safety for those who choose to enter the sex trade. So let’s be aware…that we can pay people to love us!

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