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Prostitution: the world’s oldest profession?

Many people have heard prostitution being referred to as the oldest profession in the world and it may well be one of them. It was first referred to as such by author Rudyard Kipling in back in 1888, however, the trade of money or goods in exchange for sex goes back way before then.

The earliest mention of prostitution occurs in records dating back to 2400 BCE. Karkid, the Sumerian word for female prostitute appears in lists of professions from that period. The ancient Mesopotamian religious practices seem to have effectively given birth to the sex trade. The Sumerians worshipped Ishtar, the goddess of love, fertility, and war, born anew as a virgin each morning, only to give way to desire each evening. It is probable that the women in service to this deity would accept gifts of money donated to the temple in exchange for the use of the “sacred powers” of their bodies. One of the earliest surviving codes of law, The Code of Hummarabi, dating from 1780 BCE specifically mentions the rights of prostitutes and their offspring, regarding inheritance, and financial support. (The link to the Code of Laws is posted below, see laws 178-80, 187, 192, 193)

By 1075 BCE under Assyrian law, prostitutes were required to distinguish themselves from other women by abiding by a dress code. “If the wives of a man, or the daughters of a man go out into the street, their heads are to be veiled. The prostitute is not to be veiled. Maidservants are not to veil themselves. Veiled harlots and maidservants shall have their garments seized and 50 blows inflicted on them and bitumen [asphalt or tar like substance] poured on their heads.” It may seem unlikely after reading that last statement but it is to be noted that in ancient times being a sacred prostitute was no shameful thing; these women were highly respected, and thought of as being close to the particular god or goddess they served. The Aztecs had controlled buildings called the Cihuacalli, which means “The House of Women”, where the ladies could ply their trade, watched over and protected by a statue of the goddess Tlazolteotl placed in the central patio in view of all the separate rooms.

In ancient Greece there were both male and female prostitutes. Again the women were expected to dress in a distinctive way, but they could be quite independent and had to pay taxes. In the 6th century BCE the first brothels were built by Solon, an Athenian statesman. Male prostitutes were usually teenage boys, owing to the pederastic relationship custom practised by Greek men at the time. Most male prostitutes were slaves, as any free male caught selling himself would be risking his social and political standing as an adult. With the slow introduction of Christianity crept in the gradual change in opinion of those who sold their bodies. Accepting money or goods in exchange for sex started to be seen as a shameful occupation. In Rome, most prostitutes were either slaves or former slaves, a registered prostitute was called a Meretrix and an unregistered one a Prostibulae. Abandoned children and captured foreigners were sold into the sex trade, and enslavement into prostitution was even a legal punishment for a free woman who’d broken the law.

As the Catholic Church gained power, sex outside of marriage became sinful, although prostitution was tolerated, simply because the fear of so much unfulfilled lustful tension would spell trouble. Most medieval towns in Europe sanctioned specific places where the workers were allowed to ply their trade. Any prostitution outside of these brothels, streets or areas was forbidden. Some towns forbade the trade inside their walls at all. Ironically many of the major brothels in places such as Southwark in London, were owned by Bishops, and frequented by friars, and other church officials. In the 1490’s, a Syphilis epidemic began, and swept across Europe for almost a century, bringing with it the turning tide against prostitution. In 1560, France abolished brothels, four years earlier Henry VIII had issued a royal proclamation ending England’s tolerance of the “dissolute and miserable persons” known as prostitutes. In 1586, Pope Sixtus V declared the death penalty would be imposed for the “sins against nature” that was prostitution, and expected his wishes to be carried out all over the Catholic world. There were not many death sentences carried out, but public branding and mutilations were common place for any sex worker found openly selling themselves, as well as public humiliation in the stocks.

Prostitution continued of course, but from the 16th century onwards it became an “underground” trade. Today there are estimated to be around 42 million prostitutes in the world.
Oldest trade in the world? With over 4000 years under its belt, maybe….. but certainly one of the most enduring!