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History of Prostitution


Contrary to the old cliché, prostitution is almost certainly not the world's oldest profession--that would be hunting and gathering, perhaps followed by subsistence farming--but it has been found in nearly every civilization on Earth stretching back throughout all recorded human history. We can say with some confidence that wherever there have been money, goods, or services to be bartered, somebody has bartered them for sex.

18th Century BCE: Code of Hammurabi Refers to Prostitution

The Code of Hammurabi
Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
The Code of Hammurabi includes provisions to protect the inheritance rights of prostitutes, the only category of women (except for widows) who had no male providers:
  • If a "devoted woman" or a prostitute to whom her father has given a dowry and a deed therefor ... then her father die, then her brothers shall hold her field and garden, and give her corn, oil, and milk according to her portion ...

    If a "sister of a god," or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases ... then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases.
To the extent that we have records of the ancient world, prostitution appears to have been more or less ubiquitous.

6th Century BCE: Solon Establishes State-Funded Brothels

Jean-Léon Gérôme, "Phryne before the Areopagus" (1861)
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.
Greek literature refers to three classes of prostitutes: pornai, or slave prostitutes; freeborn street prostitutes; and hetaera, educated prostitute-entertainers who enjoyed a level of social influence that was denied to nearly all non-prostitute women. Pornai and street prostitutes, appealing to a male clientele, could be either female or male. Hetaera were always female.

According to tradition, Solon established government-supported brothels in high-traffic urban areas of Greece--brothels staffed with inexpensive pornai that all men, regardless of income level, could afford to hire.

Prostitution would remain legal throughout the Greek and Roman periods, though later, Christian Roman emperors strongly discouraged it.

AD 590 (ca.): Reccared Bans Prostitution

Muñoz Degrain, "Conversion of Reccared I" (1888).
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The newly-converted Reccared I, Visigoth King of Spain, banned prostitution as part of an effort to bring his country into alignment with Christian ideology. There was no punishment for men who hired or exploited prostitutes, but women found guilty of selling sexual favors were whipped 300 times and exiled, which in most cases would have been tantamount to a death sentence.

1161: King Henry II Regulates But Does Not Ban Prostitution

Illustration of Medieval Brothel
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
By the medieval era, prostitution was accepted as a fact of life in major cities. King Henry II discouraged but permitted it, though he mandated that prostitutes must be single and ordered weekly inspections of London's infamous brothels to ensure that other laws were not being broken.

1358: Italy Embraces Prostitution

Nikolaus Knüpfer, "Brothel Scene" (1630).
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.
The Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be "absolutely indispensable to the world" in 1358, and government-funded brothels were established in major Italian cities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

1586: Pope Sixtus V Mandates Death Penalty for Prostitution

Portrait of Pope Sixtus V
Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Penalties for prostitution--ranging from maiming to execution--were technically in place in many European states, but generally went unenforced. The newly-elected Pope Sixtus V grew frustrated and decided on a more direct approach, ordering that all women who participate in prostitution should be put to death. There is no evidence that his order was actually carried out on any large scale by Catholic nations of the period.

Although Sixtus reigned for only five years, this was not his only claim to fame. He is also noted as the first Pope to declare that abortion is homicide regardless of the stage of pregnancy; before he became Pope, the church taught that fetuses did not become human persons until quickening (about 20 weeks).

1802: France Establishes Bureau of Morals

Gustave Caillebotte, "Paris Street" (1877).
Public domain. Image courtesy of the Art Renewal Center.
Following the French Revolution, the government replaced the traditional bans on prostitution with a new Bureau of Morals (Bureau des Moeurs)--first in Paris, and then throughout the country. The new agency was essentially a police force responsible for monitoring houses of prostitution in order to ensure that they complied with the law, and did not become centers of criminal activity (as has historically been the tendency with respect to brothels). The agency operated continuously for over a century before it was abolished.

1932: Forced Prostitution in Japan

WWII British Officer Interrogates Japanese Child Prostitute
Photo: Public domain. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
"The women cried out," Japanese WWII veteran Yasuji Kaneko would later recall, "but it didn't matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor's soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance."

During World War II, the Japanese government abducted between 80,000 and 300,000 women and girls from Japanese-occupied territories and forced them to serve in "comfort battalions," militarized brothels that were created to serve Japanese soldiers.

To this day, the Japanese government has denied responsibility and refused to issue an official apology or pay restitution.

1956: India Almost Bans Sex Trafficking

Photo: © 2008 John Hurd. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Although the Immoral Traffic Suppression Act (SITA) theoretically banned commercialized sex trade in 1956, Indian anti-prostitution laws are generally enforced, and have traditionally been enforced, as public order statutes. As long as prostitution is restricted to certain areas, it is generally tolerated.

Subsequently, India is home today to Asia's largest red-light district--Mumbai's infamous Kamathipura, which originated as a massive brothel for British occupiers and shifted to a local clientele following Indian independence.

1971: Nevada Permits Brothels

Moonlite Bunny Ranch, Nevada
Photo: © 2006 Joseph Conrad. Licensed under Creative Commons (ShareAlike 2.0).
Nevada is not the most liberal region of the United States--that would be Berkeley, California, which regularly rejects legalization of prostitution by an overwhelming margin--but it is among the most libertarian. State politicians have consistently held the position that they personally oppose legalized prostitution, but do not believe that it should be banned at the state level. Subsequently, some counties ban brothels and some allow them to operate legally.

1999: Sweden Takes a Feminist Approach

Photo: © 2006 jimg944 (Flickr user). Licensed under Creative Commons.
Although anti-prostitution laws have historically focused on the arrest and punishment of prostitutes themselves, the Swedish government attempted a new approach in 1999. Classifying prostitution as a form of violence against women, Sweden offered a general amnesty to prostitutes and initiated new programs designed to help them transition into other lines of work.

But the new legislation did not decriminalize prostitution as such--while it became legal under the Swedish model to sell sex, it remained illegal to buy sex or to pander prostitutes. Evidence of the new system's efficacy is inconclusive, but early indications suggest that it may be working.

2007: South Africa Confronts Sex Trafficking

South African Shack
Photo: © 2007 Frames-of-Mind (Flickr user). Licensed under Creative Commons.
A semi-industrialized nation with a growing economy surrounded by poorer nations, South Africa is a natural haven for international sex traffickers eager to export their prey from poorer nations. And to make matters worse, South Africa has a serious domestic prostitution problem of its own--in a nation where an estimated 25 percent of prostitutes are children.

But the South African government is cracking down. Criminal Law Amendment Act 32 of 2007 targets human trafficking, and a team of legal scholars has been commissioned by the government to draft new regulations governing prostitution. South Africa's legislative successes and failures will create templates that can be used in other nations.
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