IV. Brief History of Prostitution
The history of prostitution is intimately linked with the patterns of tolerance and prohibition leveled against prostitution as a society adapts appropriate policies to address the activity. The notion that prostitution is the oldest profession has some credence, as ancient societies viewed prostitution as an accepted component of religious, social, and cultural life. For example, as early as 2400 BC, documents of prostitution are found in temple services in Mesopotamia (Lerner, 1986). There are also early documents that showed that prostitution was viewed as a legitimate economic activity. In 600 BC, Chinese emperors recognized commercial brothels as a means of increasing state income (Bullough et al., 1987), and a couple of centuries later, Greek and Roman heads of state also established specific mechanisms that detail the economic and social roles of prostitutes (Bullough et al., 1987; Vivante, 1999).
Not until the Middle Ages were there considerable records of prohibition against the practice of prostitution. In 534 AD, Justinian the Great banished brothel keepers from his capital and granted freedom to slaves sold into prostitution (Ringdal, 2004). The Visigoths of Spain also strictly prohibited prostitution in the early Middle Ages, viewing the practice as morally reprehensible and punishable by flogging and banishment (Roberts & Mizuta, 1994). Throughout the centuries, prohibition of prostitution continued at varying intensities, although also interspersed with periods of tolerance and minimal regulation. Prohibition appeared particularly pronounced during times of widespread diseases, such as in the spread of syphilis in the late 1400s (Bullough et al., 1987), especially when it was recognized that the disease was sexually related. In the period from the 15th to the 20th century, the moralistic approach to prostitution resulted in conflicting social policies. In Europe, while religious institutions were vigorously opposed to prostitution, the elite male-dominated social classes discreetly supported its existence. As a consequence, women involved in prostitution were stigmatized and criminalized, yet their customers were not.
The moralistic view held sway throughout most of the 20th century as well. However, with the birth of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, this view was challenged and the alternative view that prostitution is a legitimate form of work was proposed. As mentioned earlier, groups like COYOTE, Friends and Lovers of Prostitutes (FLOPS), Hooking Is Real Employment (HIRE), and Prostitutes Union of Massachusetts (PUMA) campaigned to dissociate prostitution from sin, crime, and illicit sex (Jenness, 1990). These groups also fought for the protection of the rights of the sex workers, and the World Whore Congress that was held in 1985 in Amsterdam articulated many of the groups’ positions (Ringdal, 2004). Largely through these campaigns, some governments decriminalized prostitution, offered services to sex workers, and ensured a safer working atmosphere for those involved.
However, with the advent of globalization, prostitution is caught in the nexus of sex tourism and human trafficking. There is a growing recognition that as an industry, prostitution had been economically and systematically exploited (Leheny, 1995). Young girls and boys from poor rural areas of developing countries are also systematically deceived with offers of jobs and other opportunities, only to end up as prostitutes for local and international customers in the big cities (Flowers, 2001; Lazaridis, 2001). As mentioned earlier, more radical feminists have thus articulated that prostitution is a modern form of sex slavery and it should be viewed as violence against women and a violation of human rights (Farley et al., 1998; Farley & Kelly, 2000; Raymond, 1998).