The History of Prostitution

The Rake's Progress
The Tavern Scene from Plate 3 of 'The Rake's Progress', a series of paintings by William Hogarth, circa 1735. Engraved by W. H. Worthington after the original by Hogarth.

 Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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.

18th Century BCE: The Code of Hammurabi Refers to Prostitution

The Code of Hammurabi was compiled at the start of the reign of the Babylonian king Hammurabi from 792 to 750 BCE. It includes provisions to protect the inheritance rights of prostitutes. Except for widows, this was the only category of women who had no male providers. The Code reads in part: 

If a "devoted woman" or a prostitute to whom her father has given a dowry and a deed therefore ... 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

Greek literature refers to three classes of prostitutes:

  • Pornai or enslaved prostitutes 
  • Freeborn street prostitutes
  • Hetaera or educated prostitute-entertainers who enjoyed a level of social influence that was denied to nearly all non-prostitute women

Pornai and street prostitutes appealed to a male clientele and could be either female or male. Hetaera were always female. According to tradition, Solon, an ancient Greek politician, established government-supported brothels in high-traffic urban areas of Greece. These brothels were staffed with inexpensive pornai that all men could afford to hire, regardless of income level. Prostitution remained legal throughout the Greek and Roman periods, although Christian Roman emperors strongly discouraged it later.

c. 590 CE: Reccared Bans Prostitution

The newly-converted Reccared I, Visigoth King of Spain in the early first century, 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. In most cases, this would have been tantamount to a death sentence.

1161: King Henry II Regulates but Does Not Ban Prostitution

By the medieval era, prostitution was accepted as a fact of life in major cities. King Henry II discouraged but permitted it, although 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

The Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be "absolutely indispensable to the world" in 1358. Government-funded brothels were established in major Italian cities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.

1586: Pope Sixtus V Mandates the Death Penalty for Prostitution

Penalties for prostitution ranging from maiming to execution were technically in place in many European states by the 1500s, but they 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 at about 20 weeks gestation. 

1802: France Establishes Bureau of Morals

The government replaced traditional bans on prostitution with a new Bureau of Morals or Bureau des Moeurs following the French Revolution, first in Paris then throughout the country. The new agency was essentially a police force responsible for monitoring houses of prostitution to ensure that they complied with the law and did not become centers of criminal activity as had historically been the tendency. The agency operated continuously for over a century before it was abolished.

1932: Forced Prostitution in Japan

"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 and enslaved 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. The Japanese government has denied responsibility for this to this day and has refused to issue an official apology or pay restitution.

1956: India Almost Bans Sex Trafficking

Although the Immoral Traffic Suppression Act (SITA) theoretically banned the commercial 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.

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

1971: Nevada Permits Brothels

Nevada is not the most liberal region of the U.S., but it might be among the most libertarian. State politicians have consistently taken the position that they personally oppose legalized prostitution, but they don't believe 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

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 general amnesty to prostitutes and initiated new programs designed to help them transition into other lines of work.

This new legislation did not decriminalize prostitution as such. Although it became legal under the Swedish model to sell sex, it remained illegal to buy sex or to pander prostitutes. 

2007: South Africa Confronts Sex Trafficking

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. To make matters worse, South Africa has a serious domestic prostitution problem of its own—an estimated 25 percent of its prostitutes are children.

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

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Head, Tom. "The History of Prostitution." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Head, Tom. (2021, February 16). The History of Prostitution. Retrieved from Head, Tom. "The History of Prostitution." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 14, 2021).