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On Change.org’s “End Human Trafficking” blog, Amanda Kloer argues that invoking the phrase “the oldest profession in the world” to refer to prostitution hurts women and girls. “I can’t even say it’s just lazy, since this goes a step beyond lazy. It’s quite simply, bullshit,” she writes. “The ‘oldest profession’ argument esentially says, we know that prostitution exists and is harmful to women and girls, but we’re not going to do anything about it, because we don’t think we can.”
Given the history of prostitution, is “the oldest profession” even accurate? A profession, Wikipedia tells me, is marked by autonomy, status, prestige, and power. These are attributes that some prostitutes, pimps, and madams have. They’re also attributes that some prostitutes have historically lacked—-especially way back at the origins of the practice.
Wikipedians also submit that professions are often marked by “gender inequality”—-an attribute which prostitution would probably satisfy. For the most part, though, I think that using the term “profession” to describe the origins of prostitution often washes sex work of the violence, slavery, and coersion that has marked its past (and continue today).
So, was the “oldest profession” a true profession back when it began?
* Sumerian prostitution lacked payment:
One of the first forms 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.
* Roman prostitution lacked autonomy:
In ancient Rome, there were some commonalities with the Greek system; but as the Empire grew, prostitutes were often foreign slaves, captured, purchased, or raised for that purpose, sometimes by large-scale “prostitute farmers” who took abandoned children. Indeed, abandoned children were almost always raised as prostitutes
* Prostitution in the Middle Ages lacked status:
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.
* Indian prostitution lacked power:
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”.
* Israeli prostitution lacked gender inequality!:
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 hypothesesinclude Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and the Etruscans.
Photo by David Sifrey