An Intriguing But Controversial Issue: History Of Prostitution

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Contrary to the old cliché, prostitution is almost certainly not the world's oldest profession. That would probably be hunting and gathering, followed perhaps by subsistence farming. Prostitution has existed in nearly every civilization on earth, however, stretching back throughout all of recorded human history. Whenever there have been money, goods or services available for barter, somebody most likely bartered them for sex. But how it became an issue of morality and legality? This is to know through history.

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 of the time gave birth to the prostitution trade.

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.

Briefly, the prostitute at the time, 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. 

The Ancient Near East was home to many shrines, temples or "houses of heaven," which were dedicated to various deities.

Ancient Greece: Solon establishes first state-funded brothels.

Solon instituted the first of Athens' brothels 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.

Male prostitution was also common in Greece. Adolescent boys usually practiced it, a reflection of the pederastic custom of the time. Slave boys worked the male brothels in Athens, while free boys who sold their favours risked losing their political rights as adults.

From Sacred to Cursed

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. 

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.

There are a number of references to prostitution in the Hebrew Bible. The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar provides a depiction of prostitution being practiced in that time period.

The first account of prostitution in the Bible is found in Genesis.

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. Through prostitution, Tamar proved that it was her husbands who failed in conception.

Quite dramatic isn't it?

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.

One of the Semitic peoples’ most impervious enemies was a lecherous woman: the foreign Queen Jezebel, married to King Ahab, 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.

Semitic prophets utilized this image of the prostitute in their thunderous proclamations and condemnations.

With the rise of Catholic Europe, all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage were regarded as sinful.

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.

In a world where we cannot, for the most part, attribute to prostitution a religious significance, according to some, 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.

Sources: 1, 2

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