A History of Sex Work
More than a century after writer Rudyard Kipling called prostitution "the world's most ancient profession," the title still gets bandied around when discussing sex work.
For the record, though, sex work—or the exchange of sexual services for goods or money—is likely not the oldest profession in the world. While reviewing the customs of 250 prehistoric tribes, Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock found no evidence of the vocation.
Still, sex work is definitely ancient, though exactly how ancient is up for debate.
"This is the kind of subject that didn't get studied very much until fairly recently," explained Aven McMaster, Ph.D., a classicist in Ontario, Canada, and co-host of the history podcast "The Endless Knot."
Sex work in antiquity
It was once trendy to cite ancient Sumerian texts as the earliest records of sex work. The word "karkid," translated to mean prostitute, was discovered in cuneiform texts dating back to 2400 B.C. However, modern scholars have called this translation into question, asserting that this term was probably used to describe a certain social class of women.
We can, however, trace prostitution as far back as ancient Greece and Rome. In both ancient societies, prostitution was a recognized form of economic activity that was legal and usually taxed, according to McMaster. Prostitution was not considered adultery, so it was viewed as an acceptable method of self-control.
"Going to a sex worker was a way of exercising self-control by getting rid of your sexual urges in a sanctioned way," McMaster said.
The majority of ancient Greek and Roman prostitutes were enslaved, with their owners making money from their services. While the majority of the enslaved prostitutes, or pornai, were women, there definitely were male sex workers, too, McMasters noted.
Slightly higher than pornai in terms of status were hetaira, or female companions. These were often formerly enslaved people and foreigners or noncitizens.
"In literature, we get the idea that people would compete for the affections of a hetaira," McMaster said. "They are usually presented as being enjoyable companions as well as sex objects."
Sex work in the Middle Ages
To sum up medieval attitudes toward sex work, historians are fond of quoting St. Augustine: "Remove prostitution from human affairs and you will destroy everything with lust." In other words, legalizing and regulating prostitution was better than letting it proliferate unchecked. The thinking was that if prostitutes weren't available, young men would endanger "respectable" women or turn to sodomy.
For towns in medieval Europe, municipality-owned or taxed sex work was an important source of revenue. Each city regulated sex work differently, often by building brothels, designating red-light districts or establishing publicly owned sex work venues.
Sex workers, while considered essential, were also marginalized in medieval society. As historian Ruth Mazo Karras writes, "Though [medieval theologians] argued that prostitution was necessary because of men's natural, if sinful, sex drive, this did not lead to respect for the prostitute herself. The church considered her one of the worst of sinners: Lust was considered the woman's sin par excellence, and the prostitute epitomized it."
As Karras noted, medieval women might have been forced into prostitution as a substitution for marriage as a means of financial support, because opportunities for women in the labor market were limited.
Sex work in the 19th and 20th centuries
Fast-forward to the 19th century, when women's options for self-support outside of sex work remained scarce.
"Many women turned to the sex trade out of economic desperation," said Anya Jabour, Ph.D., a regents professor of history at the University of Montana. "Sex work paid much better than other occupations available to working-class women."
In the 1830s, the average sex worker could earn as much in an hour as a seamstress earned in a day, she said. A very successful sex worker could earn as much per client as a seamstress could earn in a week or a domestic servant could earn in a month, she added.
It was around the mid-1800s that prostitution became a social problem and focal point for a wide variety of reformers, including evangelical Christians, feminists and medical experts.
In the United Kingdom, prostitution was branded "the Great Social Evil." In 1864, the region passed the Contagious Diseases Act, which required women who were suspected of prostitution to register with law enforcement and undergo an invasive medical exam. If a woman was discovered to be infected with a sexually transmitted infection (STI), she would be confined to a hospital until she was "clean."
Meanwhile, across the pond in the United States, "abolitionists" fired up media and public support by posing the problem as one of "white slavery." Even though the majority of sex workers were nonwhite, reformers tended to overlook people of color's role in the sex trade or dismiss their circumstances as being due to their moral failings, according to Jabour.
There were several reasons behind the crackdown against prostitution in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, according to Jabour.
"One is that prostitution had become much more visible as urban areas grew and size of cities increased," Jabour said.
City officials were concerned about highly visible prostitution and wanted to "clean up the city."
"Another reason is that in the first couple decades of the 20th century, there was increased awareness and, therefore, concern about sexually transmitted infections, specifically gonorrhea and syphilis," Jabour said.
"There was a prevailing belief among many public health officials that prostitutes were vectors for sexually transmitted diseases," she said. "So they believed that if they put restrictions on the sex trade, this would prevent the transmission and spread of sexually transmitted inflections."
In addition, the media's sensationalization of "white slavery" led to the conflation of prostitution with sex trafficking in the eyes of the public and lawmakers. With prostitution no longer seen as "work," the hype over the white slave trade contributed to the misconception that all sex workers were unwilling participants in the sex industry, eager to get out.
Sex work today
Today, sex work is legal and regulated in several European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece and Austria. In the United Kingdom, prostitution is partially decriminalized, but many of the activities surrounding prostitution—such as managing a brothel or soliciting sex in a public place—are criminalized.
The U.S. adheres to more or less the same firm stance against sex work that it has held for the past 150-plus years. In all states except Nevada, prostitution remains illegal and criminalized.
Jabour said examining the history of sex work is essential to understanding why decriminalizing prostitution in the U.S. has been a long, uphill battle.
"Part of the reason it's difficult [to decriminalize sex work] is that [anti-prostitution] policies are so entrenched," she said. "They're not just about sex workers. These policies are about regulating women's sexual lives and women's bodily autonomy."