The saying “Prostitution is the oldest profession in the world” is not just an aphorism. Although there’s some truth to that, it is a bit of a misconception. This phrase was coined in 1898 by Victorian writer Rudyard Kipling.
In truth, there is no evidence of sex work amongst primitive societies, and it didn’t exist in many places in the world, especially those who historically didn’t hold concepts of sexual shame and infidelity. While prostitution has been around for quite some time, it may not be as old as many believe it to be.
Sex work comes with a whole lot of controversy, debate, and misinformation. But the truth is it’s been a valid form of work for quite some time, if not one of the first jobs that humans created. Prostitution has allowed people to fulfill vital human needs like connection, intimacy, and pleasure, as well as created jobs and forms of income for sex workers.
It’s an honest job. One that has a whole lot of history and background. Ready to amp up your knowledge of sex work and prostitution, and its rich history? Well, you came to the right place.
More Than Sex
A common misconception is that prostitution is all about sex work, but there’s so much more to it than that. Sure, prostitutes may offer a wide array of sexual activities for their clients to choose from, but they also help to fill a void in many people’s lives, whether that be sexual, emotional, companionship, or all of the above.
Some clients may never want to engage in sex when they go to a prostitute. They may just want someone to cuddle with, talk to, or find some temporary companionship with. Sex workers also offer people a chance to explore parts of their sexuality or kinks they may not want to with a partner. Another service sex workers can offer is another way for people with disabilities to have sex if they can’t or don’t want to with a partner.
Prostitution has been a vital part of human history and sexual evolution. But how and where did it get started?
When and Where Did Prostitution Start?
Let’s start with the basics – what exactly is prostitution? According to Brittanica, prostitution is “When someone engages in an indiscriminate sexual act with someone who isn’t a spouse, friend, or partner in exchange for immediate payment or exchange in valuables.” Historically most prostitutes have been cis-women while their clients have been cis-men, but any gender can be a prostitute or a client.
One of the first historical mentions of prostitution dates back to 3000 B.C. in Uruk, which is modern Iraq. The bible mentions the term “whore of Babylon” when the text vilifies sexual acts in the Roman Empire like sodomy and sex outside of marriage.
Women with Power and Influence
While prostitution is often frowned upon in many modern societies, that hasn’t always been the case. A common theme across many periods and places are that prostitutes were some of the most cultured women around and were able to articulately hold conversations about politics and society. Hold philosophical questions, discuss poetry, and help influence politics. Maintain power and influence without the confines of marriage.
Italian courtesans during the renaissance period could study freely, unlike the majority of women during this time who had to be sent to a convent to study. They were also able to obtain the same stability and security as married women while maintaining their autonomy.
In Japan’s Edo period (the early 1600s through mid-1800s) they had a ranking system for prostitutes, with “Oiran” being the highest ranked ones. These women entertained nobles and were incredibly articulate and well-spoken.
Much like in Japan, India also historically held a tiered system for sex workers, which reflected their caste system. Those in lower tiers faced discrimination and ostracization from their families and societies, while on the other end of the spectrum, the highest tiered prostitutes called “Ganika” were well educated and able to engage in high society.
One society that typically comes to mind when you think of the history of prostitution is Greece. Their long history of prostitution also had a tier-based system where the highest-ranked ones often practiced high-class entertainment skills like dancing, singing, gymnastics, and fencing.
In the 15th century Ottoman Empire Turkish bathhouses you would see young boys called “tellaks” who would help to bathe their clients, and often serve them sexually. This may raise some ethical questions, and understandably so, but these boys were well compensated and were able to keep all the money they earned.
The Dark Side of Prostitution
Prostitution hasn’t always been about hanging out with nobles, escaping the restrictions of marriage, and being well educated. Sex workers have faced discrimination, criminalization, and punishment in many areas of the world throughout time. Although Amsterdam is now one of the most well-known places for legal prostitution, at one time women who were caught would be buried alive or lose an ear – there’s a case of this happening in 1650.
Outside of legal concerns, there is also the issue of physical and sexual health. Since prostitution has historically gone hand in hand with gambling, drinking, prostitutes have been subjected to violence from their patrons and others who criticized their work. They also were more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection, which were often deadly without the use of modern medicine, like in the case of syphilis.
Present Day Prostitution
In modern times, the legality of prostitution varies depending on the country and region. Even though it may not be legal everywhere, you can find prostitution no matter where you go.
The benefits of prostitution being legalized or decriminalized can be a matter between life and death. In places where prostitution is legal, governments and employers are able to offer vital safety protections for sex workers. They are also able to enact protocols and benefits like routine STI testing, workers’ rights, and benefits.
Prostitution has been around for quite some time, and it’s most likely, never going anywhere. Like anything having to do with sexuality, conversations help to break down stigmas, increase education, and create a safer environment for everyone involved.