Everyone knows that prostitution is “the world’s oldest profession” — or at least one of them. But where does this expression come from? What is the true origin story of the sex trade? And how did sex work become the stigmatized vocation it is today?
The history of sex work is long and complicated. Too often though do we as a society try to oversimplify it. Like everything, it has a dark side. But it also has a light side. For the large faction of victims from the sex trade, there exists a subset of sex workers who remain deeply misunderstood. Their narratives are ones of empowerment, social advancement, unconventional love sagas, and memoir-worthy adventures.
By channelling our inner-anthropologist, we aim to gain a 360 degree view of the world’s oldest profession – one that encompasses the good, the bad, and everything in between. We’re not here to glamorise nor morally condemn the world’s oldest profession. We’re just here to explore its rich history, sift through long-standing biases, and develop a better understanding of how sex work came to be what it is today. As they say, knowledge is power and by educating ourselves on the past, we can become better equipped to change the world for the better.
Where Does the Phrase “World’s Oldest Profession” Come From?
In 1888, Rudyard Kipling, an English writer best known for penning The Jungle Book, wrote a short story called On the City Wall. It was about a prostitute in India and opened as follows:
“Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world. Lilith was her very-great-grandmamma, and that was before the days of Eve as everyone knows. In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that Morality may be preserved. In the East where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice; and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.”
As Kipling’s excerpt alludes, prostitution in the western world was a hot button topic during the late 19th and early 20th century. Church-going conservatives viewed it as a blight on society and launched social campaigns to brand sex workers as STD-ridden street urchins. Progressives, meanwhile, regarded the war on prostitution as fruitless. “Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession” – a misquote of Kipler’s original line – became their battle cry. Having sexual desires is human nature and therefore not worth fighting against, they argued.
By the late 1920s, the figure of speech had become so ingrained into the lexicon that academics began referencing it in their work. In 1929, physician William Robinson’s wrote a social and medical assessment titled The Oldest Profession in the World: Prostitution, and in 1932, author Joseph McCabe wrote a history book called The Story of the World’s Oldest Profession. Today, the expression is commonly used as a euphemism or punchline.
What is the Origin Story of the Sex Trade?
While it’s difficult to come up with an exact timestamp, temple records dating back to 2400 B.C. make mention of the word kar.kid, which is Sumerian for “female prostitute.” Text from The Code of Hammurabi (ca.1754 B.C) further corroborates the existence of a sex trade in Ancient Mesopotamia, with one of its laws reading as follows:
“If a man’s wife does not bear him a child but a prostitute (kar.kid) from the street does bear him a child, he shall provide grain, oil, and clothing rations for the prostitute, and the child whom the prostitute bore to him shall be his heir; as long as his wife is alive, the prostitute will not reside in the house with his first-ranking wife.”
Let’s take a minute to unpack that. For starters, can we talk about how pro-sex work the sentiment of this is, even by modern standards? Of course, if the dude’s wife does have a kid, then his unwed baby mama is out of luck, which isn’t chill. But even just the wording of the line, “as long as his first wife is alive, the prostitute will not reside in the house of his first-ranking wife,” begs an interesting question: what is a prostitute’s place in society? Because from what it sounds like, a woman being paid to have sex isn’t just being written off as some inferior human being deserving of exploitation – she’s valued enough to have her baby taken care of AND live with the guy who paid to have sex with her, as long as his obligation to his primary partner doesn’t come in the way of doing so.
Through a 21st century lens, that sounds a hell of a lot more like two people involved in an extramarital affair. Whether there’s an emotional connection or it’s purely physical is irrelevant. The point is that the woman being referred to as a prostitute here doesn’t appear to be nearly as marginalized as prostitutes of later times. Sure, she is deemed a second tier citizen for engaging in sex out wedlock, but she doesn’t quite fit that underclass-wanton-woman-unworthy-of-marriage archetype the modern media would likely try to portray her as. She is not cast into the shadows but rather (along with her unborn child) granted legal rights and integrated into society. That’s certainly more than we can say for most impregnated prostitutes we know of – real or fictional; historical or modern.
Of course this isn’t to say that the sex trade at large wasn’t hugely problematic from the get-go. The lucky ones, like the kard.kids and ganikadhyaskas – ancient Indian sex workers and ‘superintendents of courtesans’ who received salaries and paid taxes – were protected and granted status within their communities. But many others were enslaved through war or domestic servitude. Some would argue that marriage itself was a form of prostitution and that women have been getting sexually assaulted (in a totally legal way) by their husbands for millennia. With modern ideologies about civil rights yet to take hold, exploitation ran rampant. Even women who engaged in the world’s oldest profession in a fully autonomous way often did so (and continue to do so) due to a lack of opportunities.
Did You Know Sacred Prostitution Was a Thing?
Let’s circle back for a hot sec. Remember how we said the word “kar.kid” was found in temple records. At first glance, this seems a little weird. We rarely associate prostitutes with religious institutions after all – unless the angle is about a sex worker who finds salvation and changes her wayward ways in the name of the good lord. But there’s substantial evidence indicating that throughout much of the ancient world, where paganism reigned supreme, prostitution was not only socially accepted but considered sacred.
Reports from Herodotus, a Greek historian (who we feel obligated to mention is not regarded by contemporary historians as the most reliable source), state that Babylonian women “had to attend the temple of Ishtar/Inanna [the goddess of fertility] and agree to sex with any male that asked her. Once she performed this ritual, the male visitor gave her money to donate to the temple.” Through a modern lens it’s easy to write this off as super cringe. Women being objectified for the sake of male pleasure does not seem chill, which is why we have to put it into context. For thousands of years, sacred prostitution and sacred marriage rituals were performed in ancient Mesopotamia as rites of devotion or prayer to the goddess of fertility – one that would ensure a woman’s own fertility. Rather than perceiving such acts as male domination over women’s bodies, willing participants viewed these exchanges as a release of divine fertile energy.
Has Sex Work Always Been Stigmatized?
While sex workers have consistently been “othered,” the degree to which they have been so has varied greatly throughout time based on location, class, and culture. Ancient attitudes towards sex and sex work between eastern and western cultures were far more homogenized than they are today. Reports of China’s first commercial brothels opening in 7th century B.C as a means for increasing the state’s income mirrored records of Greece establishing state brothels in 5th century B.C Athens. The cost of sex at these Athenian brothels was equal to an ordinary worker’s day salary and prostitutes were expected to pay taxes – an exemplification of their status as contributing members of society.
Then came the rise of Christianity. Whereas eastern religions encouraged people to accept the light and dark or yin and yang within themselves and others, western religions were more interested in labelling people and their behaviours as good or bad, moral or immoral. Such a polarised dichotomy was bound to vilify anyone deemed as “different” or “impure” – particularly women. The world’s oldest profession was in for a rude awakening.
By the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation had ushered in a strict moral code that fostered sexual repression. This marked the beginning of the not-so-good old witch trial days, when women who expressed their sexual desires were demonized, and virtually any woman could be branded, beaten, hanged or burned at the stake for no other reason than pissing off the wrong guy. In 1546, King Henry VIII – the one who beheaded two of his wives just for fun – made a declaration ending England’s toleration for prostitutes, whom he described as “dissolute and miserable persons.” In 1560 King Charles IX of France abolished brothels, and in 1586 Pope Sixtus V announced a death penalty decree for anyone engaging in prostitution.
The world’s oldest profession, once considered sacred, had officially been rebranded as a “sin against nature.” When the late 19th century rolled around, the civil rights movement was having a moment, but it was far from intersectional. Progressives who were part of the feminist movement felt that being pro-sex work was not in the best interest of women, citing that “male libertinism (w)as a threat to women’s status and physical health.” Such morally righteous viewpoints overlapped with the temperance movement, which dictated that cavorting with harlots and overindulging in booze, sex and gambling were not considered acceptable activities for “good” Christian folk. A dramatic uptick in STDs around this time was the cherry on top of the “sexuality and by extension sex work are blasphemous” argument.
Flash forward to present day and Victorian prudery still remains prevalent throughout much of the world. There’s the whole “no sex before marriage” sentiment, the slut shaming of women who have numerous sexual partners or who exchange sexual services for money, and the more subtle but equally insidious viewpoint of: “It’s not that I judge you for having sex with tons of dudes, I just pity you because only insecure women seeking validation from men do that.” Because women’s sexuality only exists in relation to men’s needs and wants, not in its own right…right?
Wrong! Thankfully, things are starting to change. A new generation of liberated women are taking their power back, one dick at a time. The female pursuit of sexual pleasure and exploration have become increasingly normalized across progressive societies, and various movements to decriminalize sex work have arisen. After millennia of the Judeo-Christian patriarchy shaming and marginalising sex workers and women alike, the world’s oldest profession is having a much needed revival – one where sex workers are acknowledged as actual human beings and granted basic rights.
Britannica ProCon: https://prostitution.procon.org/historical-timeline/
Harlots, Whores & Hackabouts: A History of Sex for Sale: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Harlots-Whores-Hackabouts-History-Sale/dp/0500252440
History on the Net: https://www.historyonthenet.com/sacred-marriage-and-sacred-prostitution-in-ancient-mesopotamia
Kipling Society: https://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/tale/on-the-city-wall.htm
Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/rudyard-kipling
Rudyard Kipling: Poetry Foundation
Brothel by Joachim Beuckelaer: Britannica
Tavern Scene aka The Orgy by William Hogarth: Yale Historical Review