History of prostitution
Prostitution has been practised in all ancient and modern cultures. Prostitution has been described euphemistically as "the world's oldest profession," and despite consistent attempts at regulation, it continues nearly unabated.
Ancient Near East
The Ancient Near East was home to many shrines, temples or "houses of heaven," which were dedicated to various deities. These shrines and temples were documented by the Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories where sacred prostitution was a common practice. The earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation appears in Sumerian records dated back to ca. 2400 BCE, which describes a temple-bordello operated by Sumerian priests in the city of Uruk. This 'kakum' or temple was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and housed three grades of women: the first grade of women were only permitted to perform sex-rites in the temple, the second group had access to the grounds and catered to visitors, while the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds, but were also free to seek out customers in the streets.
Within the region of Canaan, a significant portion of temple prostitutes were male, which was also widely practiced in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honor of the goddess ‘Ashtart. Presumably under the influence of the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, such as Erice (Sicily), Locri Epizephiri, Croton, Rossano Vaglio, and Sicca Veneria. Other hypotheses include Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and the Etruscans.
In later years, sacred prostitution and similar classifications of females were known to have existed in Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. Such practices came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD destroyed the goddess temples and replaced those religious practices by converting to Christianity.
Prostitution was commonplace in ancient Israel and there are a number of references to prostitution in the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38:14-26) provides a depiction of prostitution being practiced in that time period. In this story, the prostitute plies her trade at the side of a highway where she waits for travellers. She covers her face marking herself as a prostitute. Instead of being paid in money she asks for a kid (goat). This would have been a rather high price in a herding society, which shows that only the wealthy owner of numerous herds could have afforded to pay for a single sexual encounter. Under this system if the traveller does not have his cattle with him, he must give some valuables as a deposit, until a kid (goat) is delivered to the woman. The woman in the story was not a legitimate prostitute but rather Judah's widowed daughter-in-law, who sought to trick Judah and become impregnated by him. However, considering that she succeeded in impersonating a prostitute, her conduct can be assumed to accurately represent the behaviour of a prostitute in society of that time period.
In another later Biblical story, found in the Book of Joshua, a prostitute in Jericho named Rahab assisted Israelite spies by providing them with information regarding the current socio-cultural and military situation. Rahab was knowledgeable in these matters because of her popularity with the high-ranking nobles of the time. The Israelite spies, in return for this information, promised to save her and her family during the planned military invasion, once she kept the details of her contact with them a secret. She then left a sign on her residence that indicated to the advancing soldiers not to attack the people within. When the people of Israel conquered Canaan, she converted to Judaism and married a prominent member of the people.
In the Book of Revelation, the Whore of Babylon is named "Babylon the Great, the Mother of Prostitutes and Abominations of the Earth." However the word "whore" could also be translated as "Idolatress". The first Babylonian Prostitution was in a place called Hinchinopolises, which arose from the appraised Hinchin family. At the time, Hinchinapolis was the center of attraction for all travelers, who came to rest in the company of the families women, which perfected with each generation the art of satisfaction. Some ancient scrolls could tell us that the meaning of "Hinchin" came from the Hebrew "Hinam", meaning "free", because the males of the family would offer themselves for free.
Aztecs and Incas
Among the Aztecs, the Cihuacalli was the name given to those controlled buildings where prostitution was permitted by political and religious authorities. "Cihuacalli" is a Nahuatl word which means "House of Women". The Cihuacalli was a closed compound with rooms, all of which were looking to a central patio. At the center of the patio was a statue of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of purification, steam bath, midwives, filth, and a patroness of adulterers. Religious authorities believed women should work as prostitutes, if they wish, only at such premises guarded by Tlazolteotl. It was believed Tlazolteotl had the power to incite sexual activity, and at the same time do spiritual cleansing of such acts. Sodomy cactus was virtually universal among the Aztecs. Bernal Díaz described numerous male prostitutes among the Aztecs, as well as unmarried temple priests engaging in sodomy.
In ancient Greece, both women and boys engaged in prostitution. The Greek word for prostitute is porne (Gr: πόρνη), derived from the verb pernemi (to sell). The English word pornography, and its corollaries in other languages, are directly derivative of the Greek word pornē (Gr: πόρνη). Female prostitutes could be independent and sometimes influential women. They were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the Greek hetaera and the Japanese oiran, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitution and courtisanerie. (See also the Indian tawaif.) Some prostitutes in ancient cactus Greece, such as Lais were as famous for their company as their beauty, and some of these women charged extraordinary sums for their services.
Solon instituted the first of Athens' brothels (oik'iskoi) in the 6th century BC, and with the earnings of this business he built a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Pandemos, goddess of sexual pleasure. Procuring, however, was severely forbidden. In Cyprus (Paphus) and in Corinth, a type of religious prostitution was practiced where the temple counted more than a thousand prostitutes (hierodules, Gr: ιερόδουλες), according to Strabo.
Each specialized category had its proper name, so there were the chamaitypa'i, working outdoor (lie-down), the perepatetikes who met their customers while walking (and then worked in their houses), the gephyrides, who worked near the bridges. In the 5th century, Ateneo informs us that the price was of 1 obole, a sixth of a drachma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker's day salary. The rare pictures describe that sex was performed on beds with covers and pillows, while triclinia usually didn't have these accessories.
Male prostitution was also common in Greece. Adolescent boys usually practiced it, a reflection of the pederastic custom of the time. Slave cactus boys worked the male brothels in Athens, while free boys who sold their favours risked losing their political rights as adults.
Prostitution in ancient Rome was legal, public, and widespread. Even Roman men of the highest social status were free to engage prostitutes of either sex without incurring moral disapproval, as long as they demonstrated self-control and moderation in the frequency and enjoyment of sex. Latin literature refers often to prostitutes. Real-world practices are documented by provisions of Roman law that regulate prostitution, and by inscriptions, especially graffiti from Pompeii. Some large brothels in the 4th century, when Rome was becoming officially Christianized, seem to have been counted as tourist attractions and were possibly even state-owned. Prostitutes played a role in several Roman religious observances, mainly in the month of April, over which the love and fertility goddess Venus presided. At the same time, prostitutes were considered shameful: most were either slaves or former slaves, or if free by birth relegated to the infames, people utterly lacking in social standing and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law. Prostitution thus reflects the ambivalent attitudes of Romans toward pleasure and sexuality.
A registered prostitute was called a meretrix while the unregistered one fell under the broad category prostibulae. There were some commonalities with the Greek system, but as the Empire grew, prostitutes were often foreign slaves, captured, purchased, or raised for that purpose, sometimes by large-scale "prostitute farmers" who took abandoned children. Indeed, abandoned children were almost always raised as prostitutes. Enslavement into prostitution was sometimes used as a legal punishment against criminal free women. Buyers were allowed to inspect naked men and women for sale in private and there was no stigma attached to the purchase of males by a male aristocrat.
In the 7th century, the prophet Muhammad declared that prostitution is forbidden on all grounds. In Islam, prostitution is considered a sin, and Abu Mas'ud Al-Ansari is attributed with the saying: "Allah's Apostle forbade taking the price of a dog, money earned by prostitution and the earnings of a soothsayer". (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:34:439) However, sexual slavery was not considered prostitution and was very common during the Arab slave trade throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, when women and girls from the Caucasus, Africa, Central Asia and Europe were captured and served as concubines in the harems of the Arab World. Ibn Battuta tells us several times that he was given or purchased female slaves.
According to Shia Muslims, the prophet Muhammad sanctioned fixed-term marriage – muta'a in Iraq and sigheh in Iran — which has instead been used as a legitimizing cover for sex workers, in a culture where prostitution is otherwise forbidden. Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Muslims worldwide, believe the practice of fixed-term marriage was abrogated and ultimately forbidden by either Muhammad, or one of his successors, Umar. Like the Shia, Sunnis regard prostitution as sinful and forbidden.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese visitors and their South Asian (and sometimes African) crew members often engaged in slavery in Japan, where they brought or captured young Japanese women and girls, who were either used as sexual slaves on their ships or taken to Macau and other Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia, the Americas, and India. For example, in Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, there was a community of Japanese slaves and traders during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Later European East India companies, including those of the Dutch and British, also engaged in prostitution in Japan.
From the 15th century, Chinese, Korean and other Far Eastern visitors began frequenting brothels in Japan. This practice continued among visitors from the "Western Regions", mainly European traders (beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century) who often came with their South Asian lascar crew (in addition to African crewmembers in some cases). In the 16th century, the local Japanese people initially assumed that the Portuguese were from Tenjiku ("Heavenly Abode"), the Japanese name for the Indian subcontinent (due to its importance as the birthplace of Buddhism), and that Christianity was a new "Indian faith". These mistaken assumptions were due to the Indian city of Goa being a central base for the Portuguese East India Company and also due to a significant portion of the crew on Portuguese ships being Indian Christians.
In the early 17th century, there was widespread male and female prostitution throughout the cities of Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka, Japan. Oiran were courtesans in Japan during the Edo period. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo (遊女) "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫) was considered the highest rank of courtesan available only to the wealthiest and highest ranking men. To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry, and calligraphy as well as sexual services, and an educated wit was considered essential for sophisticated conversation. Many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among wealthy women. The last recorded oiran was in 1761.
A tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. These courtesans would dance, sing, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.
The term devadasi originally described a Hindu religious practice in which girls were "married" and dedicated to a deity (deva or devi). In addition to taking care of the temple, and performing rituals they learned and practiced Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian arts traditions, and enjoyed a high social status. The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around the 10th and 11th centuries. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Due to the destruction of temples by West Asian invaders, the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty and prostitution.
During the British East India Company's rule in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was initially fairly common for British soldiers to engage in inter-ethnic prostitution in India, where they would frequently visit local Indian nautch dancers. As British females began arriving in British India in large numbers from the early to mid-19th century, it became increasingly uncommon for British soldiers to visit Indian prostitutes, and miscegenation was despised altogether after the events of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
During the Middle Ages, prostitution was commonly found in urban contexts. Although all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage were regarded as sinful by the Roman Catholic Church, prostitution was tolerated because it was held to prevent the greater evils of rape, sodomy, and masturbation (McCall, 1979). Augustine of Hippo held that: "If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts". The general tolerance of prostitution was for the most part reluctant, and many canonists urged prostitutes to reform.
After the decline of organised prostitution of the Roman empire, many prostitutes were slaves. However, religious campaigns against slavery, and the growing marketisation of the economy, turned prostitution back into a business. By the High Middle Ages it is common to find town governments ruling that prostitutes were not to ply their trade within the town walls, but they were tolerated outside if only because these areas were beyond the jurisdiction of the authorities. In many areas of France and Germany town governments came to set aside certain streets as areas where prostitution could be tolerated. In London the brothels of Southwark were owned by the Bishop of Winchester. (MCCall) Still later it became common in the major towns and cities of Southern Europe to establish civic brothels, whilst outlawing any prostitution taking place outside these brothels. In much of Northern Europe a more tolerant attitude tended to be found. Prostitutes also found a fruitful market in the Crusades.
By the end of the 15th century attitudes seemed to have begun to harden against prostitution. An outbreak of syphilis in Naples 1494 which later swept across Europe, and which may have originated from the Colombian Exchange, and the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases from the earlier 16th century may have been causes of this change in attitude. By the early 16th century the association between prostitutes, plague, and contagion emerged, causing brothels and prostitution to be outlawed by secular authority. Furthermore, outlawing brothel-keeping and prostitution was also used to “strengthen the criminal law” system of the sixteenth century secular rulers. Canon law defined a prostitute as “a promiscuous woman, regardless of financial elements.” The prostitute was considered a “whore … who [was] available for the lust of many men,” and was most closely associated with promiscuity.
The Church’s stance on prostitution was three-fold: “acceptance of prostitution as an inevitable social fact, condemnation of those profiting from this commerce, and encouragement for the prostitute to repent.” The Church was forced to recognize its inability to remove prostitution from the worldly society, and in the fourteenth century “began to tolerate prostitution as a lesser evil.” However, prostitutes were to be excluded from the Church as long as they practiced. Around the twelfth century, the idea of prostitute saints took hold, with Mary Magdalene being one of the most popular saints of the era. The Church used Mary Magdalene’s biblical history of being a reformed harlot to encourage prostitutes to repent and mend their ways. Simultaneously, religious houses were established with the purpose of providing asylum and encouraging the reformation of prostitution. ‘Magdalene Homes’ were particularly popular and peaked especially in the early fourteenth century. Over the course of the Middle Ages, popes and religious communities made various attempts to remove prostitution or reform prostitutes, with varying success.
With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, numbers of Southern German towns closed their brothels in an attempt to eradicate prostitution. In some periods prostitutes had to distinguish themselves by particular signs, sometimes wearing very short hair or no hair at all, or wearing veils in societies where other women did not wear them. Ancient codes regulated in this case the crime of a prostitute that dissimulated her profession. In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public or act in theatrical performances.
According to Dervish Ismail Agha, in the Dellâkname-i Dilküşâ, the Ottoman archives, in the Turkish baths, the masseurs were traditionally young men, who helped wash clients by soaping and scrubbing their bodies. They also worked as sex workers. The Ottoman texts describe who they were, their prices, how many times they could bring their customers to orgasm, and the details of their sexual practices.
In 1875 the Page Act of 1875 was passed by the US Congress that forbid any importation of women for the purpose of prostitution. Many of the women who posed in 19th and early 20th century vintage erotica were prostitutes. The most famous were the New Orleans women who posed for E. J. Bellocq. In the 19th century, legalized prostitution became a public controversy as France and then the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation mandating pelvic examinations for suspected prostitutes. This legislation applied not only to the United Kingdom and France, but also to their overseas colonies. Many early feminists fought for repeal of these laws, either on the grounds that prostitution should be illegal and therefore not government regulated or because it forced degrading medical examinations upon women. A similar situation did in fact exist in the Russian Empire; prostitutes operating out of government-sanctioned brothels were given yellow internal passports signifying their status and were subjected to weekly physical exams. Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection describes legal prostitution in 19th-century Russia.
While in the 19th century the British in India began to adopt the policy of social segregation, they still kept their brothels full of Indian women. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a network of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes being trafficked across Asia, in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and British India, in what was then known as the "Yellow Slave Traffic". There was also a network of European prostitutes being trafficked to India, Ceylon, Singapore, China and Japan at around the same time, in what was then known as the "White Slave Traffic". The most common destination for European prostitutes in Asia were the British colonies of India and Ceylon, where hundreds of women and girls from continental Europe as well as Japan serviced British soldiers.
World-famous were the houses of prostitution found in every mining camp worldwide, especially in the 19th century when long distance imports of prostitutes became common. Entrepreneurs set up shops and businesses to cater to the miners. Prostitution in the American West was a growth industry attracting sex workers from around the globe, pulled in by the money, despite the harsh and dangerous working conditions and low prestige. Chinese women were frequently sold by their families and taken to the camps as prostitutes; they had to send their earnings back to the family in China. In Virginia City, Nevada, a prostitute, Julia Bulette, was one of the few who achieved "respectable" status. She nursed victims of an influenza epidemic; this gave her acceptance in the community and the support of the sheriff. The townspeople were shocked when she was murdered in 1867; they honoured her with a lavish funeral and a speedy hanging of her assailant.
Until the 1890s, madams predominately ran the businesses, after which male pimps took over, and the treatment of the women generally declined. It was not uncommon for bordellos in Western towns to operate openly, without the stigma of East Coast cities. Gambling and prostitution were central to life in these western towns, and only later―as the female population increased, reformers moved in, and other civilizing influences arrived―did prostitution become less blatant and less common. After a decade or so the mining towns attracted respectable women who ran boarding houses, organized church societies, worked as laundresses and seamstresses, and strove for independent status.
Australia mining camps had a well-developed system of prostitution. City fathers sometimes tried to confine it to red light districts. The precise role prostitution played in various camps depended on sex ratios in specific population groups of colonial society as well as racial attitudes toward non-whites. In the early 19th century British authorities decided it was best to have lower-class white, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Aboriginal women service the prisoners and thereby keep peace while maintaining strong class lines that isolated British gentlemen and ladies from the lower elements. Prostitution was so profitable that it was easy to circumvent the legal boundaries. When Australians took control by 1900 they wanted a "white Australia" and tried to exclude or expel non-white women who might become prostitutes. However, feminist activists fought against Australia's discriminatory laws that led to varying levels of rights for women, races, and classes. By 1939 new attitudes toward racial harmony, inspired white Australians to rethink their racist policies and adopt more liberal residency laws that did not focus on sexual or racial issues.
Latin American mining camps likewise had well-developed systems of prostitution. In Mexico the government tried to protect and idealize middle class women, but made little effort to protect prostitutes in the mining camps.
During World War I, in colonial Philippines, U.S. armed forces developed a prostitute management program called American Plan which enable the military to arrest any women within five miles of a military cantonment. If found infected, a women could be sentenced to a hospital or a farm colony until cured.
In 1921 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children was signed. In this Convention some nations declared reservations.
The leading theorists of Communism opposed prostitution. Karl Marx thought of it as "only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer," and considered its abolition to be necessary to overcome capitalism. Friedrich Engels considered even marriage a form of prostitution, and Vladimir Lenin found sex work distasteful. Communist governments often took wide-ranging steps to repress prostitution immediately after obtaining power, although the practice always persisted. In the countries that remained nominally Communist after the end of the Cold War, notably China, prostitution remains illegal but is nonetheless common. In many current or former Communist countries, the economic depression brought about by the collapse of the Soviet union led to an increase in prostitution.
During World War II, Japanese soldiers engaged in forced prostitution during their invasions across East Asia and Southeast Asia. The term "comfort women" became an euphemism for the estimated 200,000, mostly Korean and Chinese, women who were forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels during the war.
Sex tourism emerged in the late 20th century as a controversial aspect of Western tourism and globalization. Sex tourism is typically undertaken internationally by tourists from wealthier countries. Author Nils Ringdal alleged that three out of four men between the ages of 20 and 50 who have visited Asia or Africa have paid for sex.
A new legal approach to prostitution emerged at the end of the 20th century — the prohibition of the buying, but not the selling, of sexual services, with only the client committing a crime, not the prostitute. Such laws were enacted in Sweden (1999), Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), and are also being considered in other jurisdictions. These laws are an attempt to protect the worker and to embrace the fallout of the sexual revolution - that sex will happen, and for it to happen safely and respectfully, there must be "free-form" regulation.
Since the break up of the Soviet Union, thousands of eastern European women have ended up as prostitutes in China, Western Europe, Israel, and Turkey every year. There are tens of thousands of women from eastern Europe and Asia working as prostitutes in Dubai. Men from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates form a large proportion of the customers.
In 1956, the United Kingdom introduced the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which would partly be repealed, and altered, by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. While this law did not criminalise the act of prostitution itself, it did prohibit such activities as running a brothel, and soliciting.
Concerns were voiced over white British adolescent girls being used as prostitutes by Pakistani immigrants in the 1960s. These girls were 'wanted' by several police departments in the early 1960s and were described as: "good-looking and attractive, not of common appearance ... will almost certainly earn her living by prostitution and with Pakistanis".
In the United States, prostitution was originally widely legal. Prostitution was made illegal in almost all states between 1910 and 1915 largely due to the influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which was influential in the banning of drug use and was a major force in the prohibition of alcohol. In 1917 the legally defined prostitution district Storyville in New Orleans was closed down by the Federal government over local objections. In Deadwood, SD, prostitution, while technically illegal, was tolerated by local residents and officials for decades until the last madam was brought down by state and federal authorities for tax evasion in 1980. Prostitution remained legal in Alaska until 1953, and is still legal in some rural counties of Nevada, including areas outside of Las Vegas (see Prostitution in Nevada).
Beginning in the late 1980s, many states increased the penalties for prostitution in cases where the prostitute is knowingly HIV-positive. These laws, often known as felony prostitution laws, require anyone arrested for prostitution to be tested for HIV, and if the test comes back positive, the suspect is then informed that any future arrest for prostitution will be a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Penalties for felony prostitution vary in the states that have such laws, with maximum sentences of typically 10 to 15 years in prison. An episode of COPS which aired in the early 1990s detailed the impact of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes; this episode contributed to HIV/AIDS awareness.
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- Extra Volume E-Text. Tufts Digital Library. Retrieved 2013-09-30.