A Brief History of Prostitution

Historic facts about prostitution, the “oldest” profession

Prostitution, in some cultures, was an honorable profession

In Prostitution, British author, Lucy Moore, writes that far from being morally questionable or sleazy, the profession was honored and elevated. The oldest recorded record of prostitution is from ancient Samaria (now Iraq) where temple maidens pleased the Gods and ensured fertility of the land by offering sexual favors for temple donations.

The Greeks transformed the profession from a sacrament to a business. In ancient Athens, prostitution offered women an opportunity to gain power and status unmatched in the known world. Moore discovered evidence of many ancient brothels in Pompeii. Although most prostitutes lived lives of poverty and degradation, extraordinary tales of proliferating brothels include stories of Messalina, the sexually voracious Empress who became a whore. The prostitute Theodora became an Empress.

The following is an excerpted timeline outlining the history of prostitution in Ancient History from our friends at procon.org. In this article, we do not address the heinous crime of child prostitution and pornography. There is no reference to the majority of prostitutes who suffer extreme poverty, abuse, and death in this post. That topic, as well as the case for legalizing prostitution, will be addressed in a separate article.

In this day and age much has changed in the world of prostitution.  For example, instead of cruising dark alleys the ladies use the internet to advertise and offer their services such as at the fine London Escorts.



2400 B.C.E.

Sumerian Records

“The Sumerian word for female prostitute, kar.kid, occurs in the earliest lists of professions dating back to ca. 2400 B.C. Since it appears right after nam.lukur… one can assume its connection with temple service. It is of interest that the term kur-garru, a male prostitute or transvestite entertainer, appears on the same list but together with entertainers. This linkage results from a practice connected with the cult of Ishtar, in which transvestites performed acts using knives. On the same list we find the following female occupations: lady doctor, scribe, barber, cook. Obviously, prostitution, while it is a very old profession, is not the oldest.”  Gerda Lerner, “The Origin of Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia,” Signs, Winter 1986

1780 B.C.E.

Hammurabi’s Code

Six of Hammurabi’s 282 codes [ (PDF) 38KB] specifically mentioned the rights of a prostitute or child of a prostitute. [Codes 178-80, 187, 192, 193]  L.W. King, The Code of Hammurabi (1910)

1075 B.C.E.

The Code of Assura

Assyrian law distinguished prostitutes from other women by dress in the Code of Assura. “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.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook, The Code of the Assura (1988)

600s B.C.E.

Legal Brothels/China

“According to Chinese tradition, commercial brothels were started in the seventh century B.C. by the stateman-philosopher Kuang Chung [b.710-d.645] as a means for increasing the state’s income. Though there is some doubt as to whether Kuang Chung actually established the principle of licensing prostitutes, prostitution very early was set apart in special areas of the town.”  Vern and Bullough, Prostitution:  An Illustrated History (1978)

594 B.C.E.

Legal Brothels/

Ancient Greece

“The celebrated Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet Solon founded state brothels and taxed prostitutes on their earnings in the 5th century BC…. The cost of sex was one obole, a sixth of a drachma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker’s day salary.” Paul Vallely, “A Brief History of Brothels,” The London Independent (Jan. 21, 2006)

5th Century B.C.E.

Hetairai/Ancient Greece

“[He]taira…a ‘female companion’…was the term normally used for courtesans in Classical Athens…They were generally more cultivated than citizen women; they were trained (usually by older hetairai) to be entertaining and interesting rather than to be thrifty managers of households…Some hetairai functioned as entrenched mistresses or even common-law wives, but others less fortunate were essentially prostitutes.”  Sarah B. Pomeroy,  Ancient Greece A Political, Social, and Cultural History(1999)”Apasia, was a hetaira, one of the highly educated women from eastern Greece who entertained and accompanied men in many of their festivals, often including sex. As the mistress of Perikles, a principal ruler of Athens in the mid-fifth century B.C.E., Aspasia’s influence on the Athenian leader was reputedly enormous; at various times his policies and speeches were ascribed to her.”  Bella Vivante, Women’s Roles in Ancient Civilizations: A Reference Guide (1999)

180 B.C.E.

Roman Regulations

“Rent from a brothel was a legitimate source of income…. Procuration also, had to be notified before the aedile [government regulators], whose special business it was to see that no Roman matron became a prostitute…. [I]n the year 180 BCE Caligula inaugurated a tax upon prostitutes (vectigal ex capturis)…When an applicant registered with the aedile, she gave her correct name, her age, place of birth, and the pseudonym under which she intended practicing her calling. (Plautus, Poen.)  If the girl was young and apparently respectable, the official sought to influence her to change her mind; failing in this, he issued her a license (licentia stupri), ascertained the price she intended exacting for her favors, and entered her name in his roll. Once entered there, the name could never be removed, but must remain for all time an insurmountable bar to repentance and respectability. Failure to register was severely punished upon conviction, and this applied not only to the girl but to the pandar [sic] as well. The penalty was scourging, and frequently fine and exile. Notwithstanding this, however, the number of clandestine prostitutes at Rome was probably equal to that of the registered harlots.”  W.C. Firebaugh, Notes in his translation of The Satyricon, Complete (1922) by Petronius Arbiter

438 A.C.E.

Codex Theodosianus

“…[T]he Code issues by Christian [Byzantine] Emperor Theodosius [II]… deprived fathers and mothers of their legal right to compel their daughters or slaves to prostitute themselves. The code also took steps to abolish the prostitution tax, thus giving the state less of a financial interest in prostitution…”  Vern and Bonnie Bullough, Prostitution: An Illustrated Social History (1978)
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Posted by on August 16, 2011. Filed under Commentary,Social Issues. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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11 Responses to A Brief History of Prostitution

  1. Holte Ender Reply

    August 16, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    Along with the mercenary soldier for hire, the ladies of night (and day) have marched arm-in-arm through the centuries with the one probably relieving the other of his paycheck for services rendered.

  2. lazersedge Reply

    August 16, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I have long been an advocate on behalf of legalizing prostitution in this country. It is one of the mala prohibita offenses, bad only because because society chooses to say its bad. It is, like many other personal choices, a morality issue. Many years ago while serving on a panel with Chief Ed Davis of the Los Angeles Police Department he and I had a heated debate on the prostitution issue. He was convinced, and forcibly argued that prostitutes attracted criminals and drug dealers and contributed to running down neighborhoods. I pointed out that prostitutes were forced to conduct their business in crime ridden areas because of its illegality and police and societal pressure. If it wasn’t illegal and accepted as a legitimate business I was sure that the ladies would much prefer to conduct their business in better part of town.

    • Dorothy Anderson Reply

      August 16, 2011 at 7:16 pm

      I, too, am a strong advocate of legalizing prostitution. I’m trying to work on a post about it, but it’s a complicated issue. That is, complicated because of the hypocritical “morality” of those who won’t mind their own business.

      Many women who suffer physical abuse, and even murder, due to illegal prostitution. In my world, they would have a safe place to go and get good health care.

      States that legalize prostitution would gain significant tax revenues and some of that money could be used to ensure the health and safety of those in the sex trade. I am also pro-drug legalization: not just marijuana, all of them.

      What better way to provide our community police officers more opportunity to deal with violent crime and not waste their time?

      I don’t need to write that to you, do I? Would you mind sending your email address to my Bro Mike so I can send you an email?

      The world is smaller than I realize sometimes.

      • lazersedge Reply

        August 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm

        Mike has my e mail address. I taught him all of the good things he knows. However, he was beyond repair on a lot of things.

      • lazersedge Reply

        August 16, 2011 at 11:46 pm

        Is is really strange Dorothy that in many of the police departments I have worked with as a consultant or on a research project the officers do not necessarily like carry to be carrying out vice duties.

    • samimgmike Reply

      August 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm

      You got it and Ed Davis didn’t. Those hookers are breaking laws…yeah right since their basic existence means breaking a law what the heck do you expect.

  3. samimgmike Reply

    August 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    A lot of the negative stuff on prostitution comes from it being illegal in most parts of America. I can’t help but think that making it legal could not make it worse for the people (men and women both doing the actual work) involved…But I bet in most cases here i am preaching to the choir.

    But I can’t help but think that trading sex for materiel things (starting with maybe food goodness knows how long ago) has to be one of the earliest “trades” or professions. Might predate the trade of religious leader or shaman. Might be wrong but I’d also guess (unrelated I know) the first drone or useless drag on society was the “religious leader”…promising an “in” and special knowledge of the gods…and producing nothing. At least in the beginning chiefs had to hunt and produce like the other men…

    Even today “girlfriends” still trade sex for money. Not to mention names but I’ve known a couple of women that when they were younger they “dated” older men that picked up their apartment rent…a car…an allowance and a few had gone through a couple of older boyfriends until they finished school, found a real boyfriend or?? I’ve read of many cases of older gay men having younger friends so I assume that there isn’t much difference between the gay and straight and of course there is some truth in some older rich women having younger friends…quick with a lighter as “friends” and no job and no job and no trust fund.

    But you know what rolls down hill and the mistresses seem to get no criminal legal trouble…high price call girls next to nothing and of course it gets worse until you get to the low level street walkers. So really the problem is just the lower level sex trade. Making it legal could not hurt. After all we have been trying variations on the prohibition method of stopping it for years with what result?

    I will say that having had a bit of contact with a group trying to help women leave the “life” years ago in LA it seemed that a lot of the lowest level of streetwalkers needed help in many ways…starting with mental and working on up past dental. Damaged people before they were in the business and the legal status of it just made it worse for them. But some of them really had no skills (including such things as showing up on time for a job) that would have let them do much except walking the street. A real pity.

    • lazersedge Reply

      August 16, 2011 at 11:42 pm

      SH a major problem in this and other countries has always been the morality issue which has been translated into a legal issue. Because it has become such a taboo among the majority of religions, especially those affiliated with the “one true God”, Allah, Jesus, or whatever one calls Him the ladies are driven from the mainstream into the dark recesses of the world of real criminals and illegal drugs. Many of those who have been “rescued” from the streets have been runaways who have been forced into sexual slavery by pimps who control them and generally get them hooked on drugs, or they are already addicted to drugs and are being abused to feed their habit. Those who work at their trade in legalized areas rarely, if ever, need rescuing or need mental health counseling. For example, interviews with several who have worked at “The Bunny Ranch in Nevada are treated well, often do very well financially and are free to leave at any time.
      While this may not be the proper time for this I think it should be said that the extreme repressive nature toward sexuality in American society may be a major cause of violence in this country. At the core of every serial killer, for example, is extreme sexual repression acting out.

      • samimgmike Reply

        August 17, 2011 at 2:59 am

        Been over 20 years when I met some of the people involved with trying to get the lowest level street walkers in LA off the streets… the group was not really pushing religion and I think this was important…the workers had to go to them saying they wanted out…they didn’t go around trying to just randomly get women off the street. But the number that in non-technical terms “had a few lights missing in the marquee” was depressing…horrible childhoods was a common factor among other things.

        But when I was flying out of Reno for a while I visited a few of the houses near Carson City (not to play…I was a commuter pilot on a budget and I couldn’t afford it!) and talked to the ladies. One place seemed to be a nice place to work. None of them said that they had been street walkers, call girls and working at other legal houses. One place the ladies really claimed it was the best and were quick to tell me why it was the best place to work.

        The ladies were not restricted to the house, they could go into town for a few hours and things like that. Paid and treated well. The ladies I talked to (over a few drinks…that I could afford and they didn’t mind chatting on a slow night) cheerfully admitted that the money was great and you had to be careful not to blow it rather than save for their dreams, usually a small business of some sort. Most of them seemed intelligent, somewhat goal orientated and pretty happy with their work. Happiness while working seems to be a tricky thing to define. I flew for years…airlines of different sorts and while we were aware that our jobs were dream jobs for a lot of people…we still bitched and whined. But like all jobs there were good things and bad things (last job I was gone 16 to 22 days out of a calender month and that was GONE and in a a block…no back home for a couple of days you were frequently out of the county for those days…I missed birthdays, school events, medical emergencies and all sorts of things. Christmas was when I was home…not always on the 25th. But the point is…even a dream job has bad points and people still complain. I have a friend that is working retail in a supermarket/department store place and she enjoys it but I couldn’t do it and at times I think the company makes a profit after their best efforts not to make a profit and to make good workers into bad workers…and yes the employees complain but most are pretty happy…for being at work.

        So the point of all that was that the ladies working at the houses I visited seemed to at least as happy with their jobs as most the people I have worked with or known. They were paid a lot better too!

        I think America is extremely schizophrenic about sex and that causes us major problems in many areas…also like some other things that really don’t seem to be working America is very busy trying to export our sick attitudes about sex to any place stupid enough to listen.

  4. Morgan Reply

    June 20, 2018 at 11:48 pm

    Great article with important historical info! Quick note regarding the first paragraph: The oldest known record of prostitution as a profession is found in the Sumerian Records of Sumer, the ancient civilization located in the southern region of Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), not Samaria (which was the Biblical name for the central region of ancient Palestine).

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