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As early as the 18th century BC, the ancient society of Mesopotamia recognized the need to protect women's property rights. In the Code of Hammurabi, provisions were found that addressed inheritance rights of women, including female prostitutes. For example, if a dowry was established by the father for his unwedded daughter, upon his death, her brothers (if she had any) would act on her behalf as her trustee. However, if the woman received the property as a gift from her father, she owned the property outright and could leave the property to whomever she pleased.
One of the first forms of prostitution is sacred prostitution, supposedly practiced among the Sumerians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of sacred prostitution, starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once in their lives, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodite or Nana/Anahita) and there have sex with a foreigner as a sign of hospitality for a symbolic price.
Prostitution was common in ancient Israel, despite being tacitly forbidden by Jewish Law. Within the religion of Canaan, a significant portion of temple prostitutes were male. It was widely used in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess ‘Ashtart. Presumably under the influence of the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, such as Erice (Sicily), Locri Epizephiri, Croton, Rossano Vaglio, and Sicca Veneria. Other hypotheses include Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and the Etruscans.
The Biblical story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38) provides a depiction of prostitution as practiced in the society of the time. The prostitute plies her trade at the side of a highway, waiting for travellers. She covers her face; which marks her as a prostitute. She gets paid in kind, asking for a kid as her fee; a rather high price in a herding society, in which only the wealthy owner of numerous herds could afford to pay for a single sexual encounter. If the traveller does not have his cattle with him, he must give some valuables as a deposit, until the kid is delivered to the woman.
Though in this story the woman was not a real prostitute but Judah's widowed daughter-in-law, who had good reasons of seeking to trick Judah and become pregnant by him, she succeeds in impersonating a prostitute and her conduct can be assumed to be the real conduct expected of a prostitute in the society of the time.
A later Biblical story, in the Book of Joshua, a prostitute in Jericho named Rahab assisted Israelite spies with her knowledge of the current socio-cultural and military situation due to her popularity with the high-ranking nobles she serviced, among others. The spies, in return for the information, promised to save her and her family during the planned military invasion as long as she fulfilled her part of the deal by keeping the details of the contact with them secret and leaving a sign on her residence that would be a marker for the advancing soldiers to avoid. When the people of Israel conquered Canaan, she left prostitution, converted to Judaism and married a prominent member of the people.
Among the Aztecs, the Cihuacalli was the name given to those controlled buildings where prostitution was permitted by political and religious authorities. "Cihuacalli" is a Nahuatl word which means "House of Women".
The Cihuacalli was a closed compound with rooms, all of which were looking to a central patio. At the center of the patio was a statue of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of "filth". Religious authorities believed women should work as prostitutes, if they wish, only at such premises guarded by Tlazolteotl. It was believed Tlazolteotl had the power to incite sexual activity, and at the same time do spiritual cleansing of such acts.
There are stories that also refer to certain places, either inside the Cihuacalli or outside, where women would perform erotic dance in front of men. The poet Tlaltecatzin of Tenochtitlan noted that special "Joyful Women" would perform erotic dances at certain homes outside of the compound.
In ancient Greek society, prostitution was engaged in by both women and boys. The Greek word for prostitute is porne (Gr: πόρνη), derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. Female prostitutes could be independent and sometimes influential women. They were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the Greek hetaera and the Japanese oiran, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitution and courtisanerie. (See also the Indian tawaif.) Some prostitutes in ancient Greece, such as Lais were as famous for their company as their beauty, and some of these women charged extraordinary sums for their services.
Solon instituted the first of Athens' brothels (oik'iskoi) in the 6th century BC, and with the earnings of this business he built a temple dedicated to Aphrodite Pandemos (or Qedesh), patron goddess of this commerce. 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 (hierodules, Gr: ιερόδουλες), according to Strabo.
Each specialised category had its proper name, so there were the chamaitypa'i, working outdoor (lie-down), the perepatetikes who met their customers while walking (and then worked in their houses), the gephyrides, who worked near the bridges. In the 5th century, Ateneo informs us that the price was of 1 obole, a sixth of a drachma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker's day salary. The rare pictures describe that sex was performed on beds with covers and pillows, while triclinia usually didn't have these accessories.
Male prostitution was also common in Greece. It was usually practiced by adolescent boys, 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.
Prostitution in ancient Rome was legal, public, and widespread. Even Roman men of the highest social status were free to engage prostitutes of either sex without incurring moral disapproval, as long as they demonstrated self-control and moderation in the frequency and enjoyment of sex. Latin literature refers often to prostitutes. Real-world practices are documented by provisions of Roman law that regulate prostitution, and by inscriptions, especially graffiti from Pompeii. Some large brothels in the 4th century, when Rome was becoming officially Christianized, seem to have been counted as tourist attractions and were possibly even state-owned. Prostitutes played a role in several Roman religious observances, mainly in the month of April, over which the love and fertility goddess Venus presided. At the same time, prostitutes were considered shameful: most were either slaves or former slaves, or if free by birth relegated to the infames, people utterly lacking in social standing and deprived of most protections accorded to citizens under Roman law. Prostitution thus reflects the ambivalent attitudes of Romans toward pleasure and sexuality.
In the early 17th century, there was widespread male and female prostitution throughout the cities of Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka, Japan. Oiran were courtesans in Japan during the Edo period. The oiran were considered a type of yūjo (遊女) "woman of pleasure" or prostitute. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫 or 大夫?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan available only to the wealthiest and highest ranking men. To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry, and calligraphy as well as sexual services, and an educated wit was considered essential for sophisticated conversation. Many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among wealthy women. The last recorded oiran was in 1761. Although illegal in modern Japan, the definition of prostitution does not extend to a "private agreement" reached between a woman and a man in a brothel. Yoshiwara has a large number of soaplands that began when explicit prostitution in Japan became illegal, where women washed men's bodies. They were originally known as toruko-buro, meaning Turkish bath.
A tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. These courtesans would dance, sing, recite poetry and entertain their suitors at mehfils. Like the geisha tradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.
During the Middle Ages, prostitution was commonly found in urban contexts. Although all forms of sexual activity outside of marriage were regarded as sinful by the Roman Catholic Church, prostitution was tolerated because it was held to prevent the greater evils of rape, sodomy, and masturbation (McCall, 1979). Augustine of Hippo held that: "If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts". The general tolerance of prostitution was for the most part reluctant, and many canonists urged prostitutes to reform.
After the decline of organised prostitution of the Roman empire, many prostitutes were slaves. However, religious campaigns against slavery, and the growing marketisation of the economy, turned prostitution back into a business. By the High Middle Ages it is common to find town governments ruling that prostitutes were not to ply their trade within the town walls, but they were tolerated outside if only because these areas were beyond the jurisdiction of the authorities. In many areas of France and Germany town governments came to set aside certain streets as areas where prostitution could be tolerated. In London the brothels of Southwark were owned by the Bishop of Winchester. (MCCall) Still later it became common in the major towns and cities of Southern Europe to establish civic brothels, whilst outlawing any prostitution taking place outside these brothels. In much of Northern Europe a more laissez faire attitude tended to be found. Prostitutes also found a fruitful market in the Crusades.
In the 7th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad declared that prostitution is forbidden on all grounds. In Islam, prostitution is considered a sin, as referenced here: "Allah's Apostle forbade taking the price of a dog, money earned by prostitution and the earnings of a soothsayer", attributed to Abu Mas'ud Al-Ansari (Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:34:439). Despite this, sexual slavery was very common during the Arab slave trade throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period, when women and girls from the Caucasus, Africa, Central Asia and Europe were captured and served as concubines in the harems of the Arab World. Ibn Battuta tells us several times that he was given or purchased female slaves.
The term devadasi originally described a Hindu religious practice in which girls were "married" and dedicated to a deity (deva or devi). In addition to taking care of the temple, and performing rituals they learned and practiced Bharatanatyam and other classical Indian arts traditions, and enjoyed a high social status. The popularity of devadasis seems to have reached its pinnacle around the 10th and 11th centuries. The rise and fall in the status of devadasis can be seen to be running parallel to the rise and fall of Hindu temples. Due to the destruction of temples by West Asian invaders, the status of the temples fell very quickly in North India and slowly in South India. As the temples became poorer and lost their patron kings, and in some cases were destroyed, the devadasis were forced into a life of poverty, misery and prostitution.
By the end of the 15th century attitudes seemed to have begun to harden against prostitution. An outbreak of syphilis in Naples 1494 which later swept across Europe, and which may have originated from the Columbian Exchange, and the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases from the earlier 16th century may have been causes of this change in attitude. With the advent of the Protestant Reformation, numbers of Southern German towns closed their brothels in an attempt to eradicate prostitution. In some periods prostitutes had to distinguish themselves by particular signs, sometimes wearing very short hair or no hair at all, or wearing veils in societies where other women did not wear them. Ancient codes regulated in this case the crime of a prostitute that dissimulated her profession. In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public or act in theatrical performances.
From the 15th century, Chinese, Korean and other Far Eastern visitors began frequenting brothels in Japan. This practice continued among visitors from the "Western Regions", mainly European traders (beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century) who often came with their South Asian lascar crew (in addition to African crewmembers in some cases). In the 16th century, the local Japanese people initially assumed that the Portuguese were from Tenjiku ("Heavenly Abode"), the Japanese name for the Indian subcontinent (due to its importance as the birthplace of Buddhism), and that Christianity was a new "Indian faith". These mistaken assumptions were due to the Indian city of Goa being a central base for the Portuguese East India Company and also due to a significant portion of the crew on Portuguese ships being Indian Christians.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Portuguese visitors and their South Asian (and sometimes African) crewmembers often engaged in slavery in Japan, where they brought or captured young Japanese women and girls, who were either used as sexual slaves on their ships or taken to Macau and other Portuguese colonies in Southeast Asia, the Americas, and India. For example, in Goa, a Portuguese colony in India, there was a community of Japanese slaves and traders during the late 16th and 17th centuries. Later European East India companies, including those of the Dutch and British, also engaged in prostitution in Japan.
During the British East India Company's rule in India in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it was initially fairly common for British soldiers to engage in inter-ethnic prostitution in India, where they would frequently visit local Indian nautch dancers. As British females began arriving in British India in large numbers from the early to mid-19th century, it became increasingly uncommon for British soldiers to visit Indian prostitutes, and miscegenation was despised altogether after the events of the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Many of the women who posed in 19th and early 20th century vintage erotica were prostitutes. The most famous were the New Orleans women who posed for E. J. Bellocq. In the 19th century, legalized prostitution became a public controversy as France and then the United Kingdom passed the Contagious Diseases Acts, legislation mandating pelvic examinations for suspected prostitutes. This legislation applied not only to the United Kingdom and France, but also to their overseas colonies. Many early feminists fought for repeal of these laws, either on the grounds that prostitution should be illegal and therefore not government regulated or because it forced degrading medical examinations upon women. A similar situation did in fact exist in the Russian Empire; prostitutes operating out of government-sanctioned brothels were given yellow internal passports signifying their status and were subjected to weekly physical exams. Leo Tolstoy's novel Resurrection describes legal prostitution in 19th-century Russia.
While in the 19th century the British in India began to adopt the policy of social segregation, they still kept their brothels full of Indian women. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a network of Chinese and Japanese prostitutes being trafficked across Asia, in countries such as China, Japan, Korea, Singapore and British India, in what was then known as the "Yellow Slave Traffic". There was also a network of European prostitutes being trafficked to India, Ceylon, Singapore, China and Japan at around the same time, in what was then known as the "White Slave Traffic". The most common destination for European prostitutes in Asia were the British colonies of India and Ceylon, where hundreds of women and girls from continental Europe as well as Japan serviced British soldiers.
Both World Wars saw the development of working and middle class women coming into major cities to take on war jobs. At the same time, there were many male soldiers assigned to these same towns. Thus, prostitution became a normal practice for many of these war working women in order to supplement their income. The term, 'g-Girl', meaning a 'government girl", remains a matter of derision among the few survivors of that group, as they equate it to, 'whore'. Housing was very tight in London in both World Wars, so most of the part-time hookers took to standing sex in doorways in dark alleyways. It seems to have worked, from the veterans whose accounts survive. In any event, there were a large number of women who made themselves available to the soldiers in London and Washington and who did not charge a lot for their services. As one famous one later said, "honey, I took care of the boys who were going overseas. I might have been the last happy moment they had on this earth." The same situation occurred, at least, in Berlin and Rome, and possibly in Moscow and Rome.
The leading theorists of Communism opposed prostitution. Karl Marx thought of it as "only a specific expression of the general prostitution of the laborer," and considered its abolition to be necessary to overcome capitalism. Friedrich Engels considered even marriage a form of prostitution, and Vladimir Lenin found sex work distasteful. Communist governments often took wide-ranging steps to repress prostitution immediately after obtaining power, although the practice always persisted. In the countries that remained nominally Communist after the end of the Cold War, notably China, prostitution remains illegal but is nonetheless common. In many current or former Communist countries, the economic depression brought about by the collapse of the Soviet union led to an increase in prostitution.
Sex tourism emerged in the late 20th century as a controversial aspect of Western tourism and globalization. Sex tourism is typically undertaken internationally by tourists from wealthier countries. Author Nils Ringdal alleged that three out of four men between the ages of 20 and 50 who have visited Asia or Africa have paid for sex.
A new legal approach to prostitution emerged at the end of the 20th century — the prohibition of the buying, but not the selling, of sexual services: only the client commits a crime, not the prostitute. Such laws were enacted in Sweden (1999), Norway (2009), Iceland (2009), and are also considered in other jurisdictions.
During World War II, Japanese soldiers engaged in forced prostitution during their invasions across East Asia and Southeast Asia. The term "comfort women" is a euphemism for the estimated 200,000, mostly Korean and Chinese, women who were forced into prostitution in Japanese military brothels during World War II.
In 1956, the United Kingdom introduced the Sexual Offences Act 1956, which would partly be repealed, and altered, by the Sexual Offences Act 2003. While this law did not criminalise the act of prostitution itself, it did prohibit such activities as running a brothel, and soliciting.
Concerns were voiced over white British adolescent girls being used as prostitutes by Pakistani immigrants in the 1960s. These girls were 'wanted' by several police departments in the early 1960s and were described as: "good-looking and attractive, not of common appearance ... will almost certainly earn her living by prostitution and with Pakistanis".
In the United States, prostitution was originally widely legal. Prostitution was made illegal in almost all states between 1910 and 1915 largely due to the influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which was influential in the banning of drug use and was a major force in the prohibition of alcohol. In 1917 the legally defined prostitution district Storyville in New Orleans was closed down by the Federal government over local objections. In Deadwood, SD, prostitution, while technically illegal, was tolerated by local residents and officials for decades until the last madam was brought down by state and federal authorities for tax evasion in 1980. Prostitution remained legal in Alaska until 1953 (though not yet a US state), and is still legal in some rural counties of Nevada (see Prostitution in Nevada).
Beginning in the late 1980s, many states increased the penalties for prostitution in cases where the prostitute is knowingly HIV-positive. These laws, often known as felony prostitution laws, require anyone arrested for prostitution to be tested for HIV, and if the test comes back positive, the suspect is then informed that any future arrest for prostitution will be a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Penalties for felony prostitution vary in the states that have such laws, with maximum sentences of typically 10 to 15 years in prison. An episode of COPS which aired in the early 1990s detailed the impact of HIV/AIDS among prostitutes; this episode contributed to HIV/AIDS awareness.