Much of what we believe are modern attitudes towards ‘the oldest business in the world’ are rooted in events much older than we suppose.
Not too long ago, the Sunday Leader published an article on prostitution in Sri Lanka. It was so absurd and poorly written that the Queen, had she seen that English in print, would have clawed her eyes out. In response to the outcry, and presumably to save whatever is left of the UK, the Sunday Leader mercifully took it down. My friend Senashia wrote an excellent critique on it while the rest of us were hooting at the writing.
But the purpose of this article is not (just) to slander that article. Prostitution is literally an ancient and complex social issue – for starters, it’s certainly older than journalism. Much of what we believe are modern attitudes towards ‘the oldest business in the world’ are rooted in events much older than we suppose.
I believe that to better understand prostitution, in any context, it’s important to understand how we came it view it the way we do today.
Note: You can, in your head, refer to prostitutes as “sex workers” or “R2D2” or “Starship Enterprise” if it makes you feel more comfortable: the actual word is irrelevant as long as we’re referring to the same thing.
In ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization, there was a city called Babylon. From Babylon comes an ancient document known as the Code of Hammurabi. Lawyers might know of this one: over 1700 years before the birth of Christ, the sixth king of Babylon set down 282 laws and just punishments for violating them. It’s one of the oldest known documents of law in the world.
It’s also a big fucking rock, seven-and-a-half feet tall, but don’t let that stop you. Somewhere on it is a list of rights of prostitutes.
Legal docs in 10-point font!
Here is a translation for those of us who don’t speak Ancient Rock. Note number 179: 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, and give her complete disposition thereof: if then her father die, then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases. Her brothers can raise no claim thereto.
Now, people don’t go about carving stuff for the sake of it: if they had to lay down laws regarding the rights of prostitutes, we can make a reasonable case that prostitution was a thing in old Babylon, and they approached it in the same way we approach vehicle taxes or property rights: legalize it, regulate the ins and outs and watch it prosper. Herodotus, writing in ~450s BC, talks about prostitution as a religious ritual, with many “houses of heaven” along the banks of the river.
Babylon was not alone in this behavior. Ancient Greece was famously sexually liberal, every by today’s standards. Both men and women engaged in prostitution – in fact, the Greek word for prostitution is porne, which is where we get the word pornography.
Before Pornhub. Back when you had to carve stuff before streaming it.
Female prostitutes in Greece had, as far as I can make out, two distinct classes. The hetairai were independent and sometimes influential courtesans, well educated who were required to wear distinctive dresses and paid taxes -not sort of like the Oiran of Japan (we’ll get to them in a later century).
Τhe hetairai were also the only women participated in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men, and also the only women who had independent control over lots of money. Then there were the pornai , who sold sex by the act and worked on the streets or out of brothels.
Then, of course, we have Rome. Rome celebrated practically everything about life; they integrated prostitution into everything, including religion. Roman prostitutes of the highest ranks often held significant financial and political clout – a lot like, say, a modern-day politician.
Yeap, Rome put it on coins.
And some parts of ancient India had a tradition of Nagarvadhu, or “bride of the city”: women competed to win the title of a Nagarvadhu, and only the most beautiful was chosen. A Nagarvadhu was respected like a queen or Goddess, and her price for a single night’s “dance” was very high; only kings and princes were said to be able to afford her. It’s basically Miss Universe crossed with good business.
I can’t statistically prove that prostitution is the oldest job in the world, but we do know that since the earliest days of civilization, what started out as a primal exchange became both religion and big business. In short, we definitely had a lot of fucking going on, and some of it was definitely paid for.
FROM CHRIST TO 1600 AD
All of this changes when Abrahamic religions began their meteoric rise to popularity. Jewish law has always been no-no on prostitution, but it’s not until Christianity took over Rome that the Word of God really began to matter on the subject. In Rome, in about the 4th century AD, the emperor Constantine destroyed quite a lot of those sites of holy prostitution that we talked about in the name of Christianity.
Not this guy, but close
Religious pressure steadily increased. A little bit later down the line, the Prophet Muhammed outlawed prostitution on all grounds. Suddenly, you had the Holy Roman Empire saying prostitution was sinful; you also had the Muslims saying the same.
Even so, prostitution was tolerated, because people – get this – held that it would prevent rape, torture and murder. I quote Augustine of Hippo (aka Saint Augustine): “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts”. That’s a very modern outlook – or rather, our modern outlooks may actually be pretty old outlooks.
In fact, prostitution was so tied to socio-economics that the Church accepted it as a lesser evil, and even the idea of prostitute saints took hold – Mary Magdelene was quite popular as a Saint of her own right in the 12th century, and was promoted heavily by the Church 1200 years after Constantine went ham.
What of the rest of the world? Certain countries in Europe had streets where prostitution was permissible. Even in the Arab world, prostitution – of a kind – existed. Has anyone heard of the harem? Despite the word meaning a sacred, inviolable space where women were (in Muslim households), a different type of harem is recorded – for instance, Sultan Ibrahim the Mad, who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1640 to 1648, is said to have drowned 280 concubines from one of his harems – this implies he had a lot more. King Kashyapa, our own guy from Sigiriya, ruled somewhere in the late 400 BC and reportedly had as many as 500 women in a harem-equivalent; it was considered an honour to be a “lady of the king’s harem” in those times.
1600 AD – PRESENT
All of this changed in the 16th and 17th centuries. The outbreak of disease, combined with an increase in the power of the Roman Catholic Church, eventually turned prostitution from something religious and / or sacred, to something permissible, and finally something to be ashamed of and cast out. Protestant reformation and pressure from various popes and other cults built up, and eventually even Europe caved in.
Carl Spitzweg, 1863., Germany. Prostitute receiving disapproving glances.
The interesting thing is that economics came into play here and people began to obtain what they could not get in Europe from Asia and poor countries, especially Japan, which was now joining the world after centuries of isolation. A slave trade grew around Asia. Ironically, that’s very similar to the situation today: prostitution is illegal in many countries, and lots of people from around the world go to Asian countries to get sex.
As Britain, Spain and Portugal and other countries began colonizing and spreading their beliefs, this Christian ethos towards prostitution became the standard for most countries. Consider this anti-prostitution poster from World War II:
Do you see a similarity here?
Our attitudes towards prostitution – especially if you’re in a country that was colonized by a bunch of religious white dudes, like America, Sri Lanka or India – are strikingly similar to the 16th and 17th century morals of the Church and associated organs. We view prostitutes either as foul predators, plague carriers or poor creatures to be pitied (the Sunday Leader, of course, manages to fit both of these viewpoints into the same paragraph).
Japan alone resisted, with the government-sanctioned Yoshiwara brothel district operating from 1617 to 1958. In fact, there were three major brothel districts: Shimabara for Kyōto, Shinmachi for Ōsaka and Yoshiwara for Edo. They were home to the Oiran, a sort of proto-geisha: incredibly talented and trained courtesans – very beautiful, trained in multiple arts of song, dance, calligraphy, and possessing a fine knowledge of both Japanese and Chinese literature.
In an age and social structure where women were mostly just furniture, the Oiran were quite likely some of the best educated people in the land.
Depictions of these courtesans by Kitao Masanobu (1761–1816, aka Santō Kyōden) emphasize the women’s academic training and intellectual lives of women in the Yoshiwara district.
Now this is by no means a complete history of prostitution, nor does it completely map the cause-and-effect chain; I’d need a lot more than a couple of thousand words to do that. However, here are a few interesting points to consider:
- Our attitudes towards this prostitution have survived almost unchanged from the views that permeated the world in the 16th century. Almost everywhere in the world, prostitution is illegal, and even when publicly accepted (as in Thailand), it is still viewed as morally and religiously repulsive.
- Attitudes that we consider liberal today are surprisingly old; Saint Augustine lived and died around the 4th Century AD, and his view that prostitution would lower the rate of crimes born of lust is an argument very much in use today.
- Regardless of actual legalities or moral codes, economics still continues to govern the human race in this matter: there is demand, and there was always supply.
The players on this stage are a subset of human beings. I feel this point is important, especially in light of articles like that in the Sunday Leader. Some of the most charming, best-educated, most intelligent people were, and are, prostitutes.
In this subset that we call prostitutes you will find people, mostly women, who are doing this out of choice; who were forced into it; who like it; who hate it; who do it discreetly; who flaunt it. To repeat: they are human, and the least we can extend them is empathy and half-decent grammar. And at some point we have to get our heads out of our asses and realise that prostitution is not going to go away.
Brothel scene, 1537; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
Brothel scene, 2015; Thailand