Brief history of prostitution
Note by the author This document owes a lot to Max Chaleil’s work. His book, ‘Le corps prostitué : le sexe dévorant’ is the main reference of this file. This historical summary will mainly concern France, even though there are a few comparisons with the situation of prostitution in other countries. 1. The Beginnings : Sexual hospitality and sacred prostitution It is not so sure that prostitution is the oldest trade in the world; the Europeans admitted to it during the colonial years. In some European societies, prostitution was associated with the notion of hospitality – various women of the house were offered to guests passing through. This custom used to exist in Chaldea, in India, in Egypt and throughout the Orient. Such sexual hospitality sometimes even implied a religious aspect that was organized by the priests of certain gods and from which they benefited. Sacred prostitutes were not at all considered in the same way and some of them had specific tasks decided by the high priests. However prostitution was soon reduced to a sexual ritual, revealing its true colours during the Saturnalia and other so-called religious orgies. Thus prostitution became a social phenomenon and started losing its sacred side, even though the rite survived. In addition to sacred prostitution, there were great courtesans in the Orient, not only in India but also in Burma and Korea and above all in Japan. In China, prostitutes originally resembled the Greek Hetaeras but soon after, prostitution became a trade. Amongst Hebrews and Muslims, prostitution was always considered with revulsion and was only practiced by foreigners or slaves. 2. The Birth of Modern Society, The Birth of Prostitution The evolution of society, from a magical religion to a spiritual one and the desanctification of the sexual act coincided with the replacement of sacred prostitution with profane prostitution. In ancient Asia, the sovereigns became aware of the various possible forms of prostitution and their potential benefits; consequently they established a legal prostitution through the opening of state establishments intended to protect public order and generate public revenues. 2..1 Greece The Greek Republic developed a national economy that led to a strict separation of social relations as well as to a curtailment of women’s freedom. Athens invented a system of exchanging sexual relations for certain financial privileges; the spouses’ role was reduced to that of child bearing and raising. Prostitution became more modern as the State, marriage and the family became institutions at the same time as the development of social hierarchy. If sacred prostitution co-existed with the profane one in Greece, the former soon disappeared as it was no longer in keeping with the newly emerging society. In this patriarchal society, in which only men were allowed to go out in the streets and forums, prostitutes were used as ‘safety valves’ to maintain public order. As prostitution was spreading, Solon decided to regulate it. Lower class state establishments, called the dicterions were founded in Athens and the Priaieus harbour; the prostitutes were imprisoned there. Taxation employees, the pornotropoi were in charge of fixing the tax, controlling the price and watching over the establishments. Besides the classic prostitutes, the Pallaques the Auletrides showed particular erotic qualities enhanced by flute music and dancing while the Hetaeras were courtesans with higher claims. © The Scelles Foundation – 2004 These documents are available for use with mention of copyright.
2004 Translated by M.-C. Verniengeal
2..2 Rome In contrast with the situation in Greece, sacred prostitution never existed in Rome. Very early on, marriage was established as a foundation of society. Even though a period of austerity did occur from 753 to 200 BC, the Empire was soon overcome by debauchery. That is why in 180 BC, Marcus decided to register prostitutes for...
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