The History of Prostitution

Since Mesopotamian times, attitudes surrounding prostitution have evolved and changed many times from a celebrated necessity to a cultural evil. The United States and  Victorian era (1840-1900) experienced the same evolution of thoughts as their prostitutes experienced empathy in the beginning of the century then utter rejection towards the end. The twentieth century on through to the twenty-first has kept the ideals of the latter Victorians. American society’s outlook towards prostitution has not changed in over a century and a half because the societal views and the debate over a solution remain the same. In the twenty-first century (1980-2001), women are prostitutes for many different reasons and these roots of prostitution are similar to the reasons women became prostitutes in the Victorian age. Some women move into prostitution due to economic needs like slavery,poverty, emotional neediness and susceptibility to pressure from friends. Some prostitutes’ explanation for becoming involved in prostitution include having a history of sexual abuse, having grown up without love from the significant adults in their lives, being enticed by a male of female friend or by peer pressure from a group of friends, and needing money. Those who used drugs prior to their involvement in prostitution activities mention their addiction as a major reason for trading sex for money or drugs. These are some of the views that are still the same now and dating back to the 1800’s. 

In a society where women were subordinate to men, " class" became a function of the gender system, a reflection of the status of the male on whom a woman was dependent or from whom she inherited or was given economic independence. without a connection to a male, a woman discovered that her socially structured powerlessness almost invariably left her in the lower part of the socioeconomic order. Although the America dream promised that class was not a hard and fast designation, upward mobility and economic success were more often bright dreams than achieved realities during this era. And yet, in an environment where feminine and class identities were some what fluid, as they were in America City's (New york) at this time, there were more promising possibilities for women. Ironically, some of the possibilities offered by prostitution were the results of the profession's dubious socio-legal status. Prostitution's position at the fringes of the law and outside the realm of the respectability allowed women a freedom from many of the restrictions and conventions that circumscribed the activities and opportunities of other females. A successful prostitute gained a degree of economic and social independence from the constraints of a male controlled structure, even though she worked in an occupation that was dependent on male clientele. This, in spite of the limitations dictated by the nineteenth century America's socio-legal system, some prostitute were able to manipulate the oppressions and dependence's inherent in the system more effectively than many other working or male supported women, and they succeeded in creating  opportunities for improving their lives and the lives of those they

Prostitution is a very old and universal phenomenon; also universal is condemnation of the prostitute but relative indifference toward the client. Prostitutes are often set apart in some way. In ancient Rome they were required to wear distinctive dress; under Hebrew law only foreign women could be prostitutes; in prewar Japan they were required to live in special sections of the city. In medieval Europe prostitution was licensed and regulated by law, but by the 16th century an epidemic of venereal disease and post-Reformation morality led to the closure of brothels. International cooperation to end the traffic in women for the purpose of prostitution began in 1899. In 1921 the League of Nations established the Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children, and in 1949 the UN General Assembly adopted a convention for the suppression of prostitution. In the U.S. prostitution was first curtailed by the Mann Act (1910), and by 1915 most states had banned brothels (Nevada being a notable exception). Prostitution is nevertheless tolerated in most U.S. and European cities. In The Netherlands many prostitutes have become members of a professional service union, and in Scandinavia government regulations emphasize hygienic aspects, requiring frequent medical examination and providing free mandatory hospitalization for anyone found to be infected with venereal disease. Prostitutes are very often poor and lack skills to support themselves; in many traditional societies there are few other available money-earning occupations for women without family support. In developing African and Asian countries, prostitution has been largely responsible for the spread of AIDS and the orphaning of hundreds of thousands of children.Social tolerance for prostitution has varied widely; some cultures and times have accepted it as a natural part of life, regulating it to prevent the spread of disease or illness, and to prevent the abuse of women. Other cultures and times have turned a blind eye, criminalizing it but not enforcing the law. Still others, notably Victorian England and contemporary America, have actively worked to eliminate the practice altogether through raids, undercover police work, moral exhortation, and prosecution. While prostitution necessarily involves two people, elimination efforts have focused on the prostitutes themselves, and not their customers.

International feminist coalitions are working to eliminate prostitution on the grounds that sex work is an extreme manifestation of patriarchally-enforced gender roles, whereby women's social position is necessarily one of subservience to men, and women's work is often connected to the sexual or domestic servicing of men in order to achieve financial and social support. Further, prostitution helps to maintain the old dichotomy of the good girl/bad girl; women are either asexual, moral creatures, above reproach, or they are the sexual and dirty things that men go to for the relief of unbearable urges. These feminists argue that the elimination of prostitution would allow women to renegotiate gender roles and sexual experience because they would have a valuable bargaining chip.

Whores' rights activists cite the same problem ‘the virgin/whore dichotomy’ but argue that legitimizing sex work undermines the distinction by highlighting the ways in which women's gender roles are based upon sex as a valuable commodity. They also argue that sex work provides a valuable service that should be granted more respect. Groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) are interested in changing the moral value of sex, and thus the moral value of prostitution as well, while at the same time undermining the idea that consenting adults are any more exploited than they would be in another industry.

While activists and politicians today disagree about whether sex work between consenting adults is legitimate, there is little question on the official level that child prostitution and forced prostitution should be eradicated.


SourcesClass text bookInternetBullough, Vern and Bonnie Bullough. Women and Prostitution, A Social History. New York: Prometheus Books, 1987