Contrary to the old cliché, prostitution is almost certainly not the world’s oldest profession – that would be hunting and gathering, perhaps followed by subsistence farming – but it has been found in nearly every civilization on Earth stretching back throughout all recorded human history. We can say with some confidence that wherever there have been money, goods, or services to be bartered, somebody has bartered them for sex.
18th Century BCE: Hammurabi refers to prostitution
The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi includes provisions to protect the inheritance rights of prostitutes, the only category of women (except for widows) who had no male providers:
‘If a devoted woman or a prostitute to whom her father has given a dowry and a deed therefore […] then her father die, then her brothers shall hold her field and garden, and give her corn, oil, and milk according to her portion […].’
‘If a sister of a god, or a prostitute, receive a gift from her father, and a deed in which it has been explicitly stated that she may dispose of it as she pleases […] then she may leave her property to whomsoever she pleases.’
6th Century BCE: Solon establishes state-funded brothels
Woman refusing money offered by a gentleman who has assumed she is a prostitute
Greek literature refers to three classes of prostitutes: pornai, or slave prostitutes; freeborn street prostitutes; and hetaera, educated prostitute-entertainers who enjoyed a level of social influence that was denied to nearly all non-prostitute women. Pornai and street prostitutes, appealing to a male clientele, could be either female or male. Hetaera were always female.
According to tradition, the Athenian statesman Solon established government-supported brothels in high-traffic urban areas of Greece – brothels staffed with inexpensive pornai that all men, regardless of income level, could afford to hire.
Prostitution would remain legal throughout the Greek and Roman periods, though later, Christian Roman emperors strongly discouraged it.
Circa 590: Reccared I bans prostitution
The newly-converted Reccared I, Visigoth King of Spain, banned prostitution as part of an effort to bring his country into alignment with Christian ideology. There was no punishment for men who hired or exploited prostitutes, but women found guilty of selling sexual favors were whipped 300 times and exiled, which in many cases would have been tantamount to a death sentence.
1161: King Henry II regulates but does not ban prostitution
In the medieval era, prostitution was accepted as a fact of life in most major cities. King Henry II discouraged yet permitted it, though he mandated that prostitutes must be single and ordered weekly inspections of London’s infamous brothels to ensure that other laws were not being broken.
1358: Italy embraces prostitution
In 1358, the Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be:
‘Absolutely indispensable to the world.’
Furthermore, government-funded brothels were established in major Italian cities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.
1586: Pope Sixtus V mandates death penalty for prostitution
German prostitute, Berlin
Penalties for prostitution (ranging from maiming to execution) were technically in place in many European states, but generally went unenforced. The newly-elected Pope Sixtus V grew frustrated and decided on a more direct approach, ordering that all women who participate in prostitution should be put to death. There is no evidence that his order was actually carried out on any large scale by Catholic nations of the period.
1802: France establishes bureau of morals
Following the French Revolution, the government replaced the traditional bans on prostitution with a new Bureau of Morals – first in Paris, and then throughout the country. The new agency was essentially a police force responsible for monitoring houses of prostitution in order to ensure that they complied with the law, and did not become centers of criminal activity. The agency operated continuously for over a century before it was abolished.
1932: Forced prostitution in Japan
“The women cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.”
– Yasuji Kaneko, Japanese WWII veteran
During World War II, the Japanese government abducted between 80,000 and 300,000 women and girls from Japanese-occupied territories and forced them to serve in so-called comfort battalions, militarized brothels that were created to serve Japanese soldiers.
To this day, the Japanese government has denied responsibility and refused to issue an official apology or pay restitution.
1956: India almost bans sex trafficking
Although the Immoral Traffic Suppression Act (SITA) theoretically banned commercialized sex trade in 1956, Indian anti-prostitution laws are generally enforced, and have traditionally been enforced, as public order statutes. As long as prostitution is restricted to certain areas however, it is generally tolerated.
1971: Nevada permits brothels
However Nevada State politicians have consistently held the position that they personally oppose legalized prostitution, they do not believe that it should be banned at the state level. Subsequently, some counties ban brothels and some allow them to operate legally. At the time of writing, it is the only US state where prostitution is legal.
1999: Sweden takes a feminist approach
Although anti-prostitution laws have historically focused on the arrest and punishment of prostitutes themselves, the Swedish government attempted a new approach in 1999. Classifying prostitution as a form of violence against women, Sweden offered a general amnesty to prostitutes and initiated new programs designed to help them transition into other lines of work.