HISTORY OF PROSTITUTION THROUGH THE RENAISSANCE
Prostitution is frequently called the world's oldest profession. Actually the profession of "shaman" predates it by thousands of years. This inaccuracy reflects many of western society's traditional attitudes about women, e.g. women are property, women are sinful, women's purpose is to serve the needs of men. Because these attitudes are so ingrained, it is impossible to think of a time when they were not truisms. Prostitution is very ancient, however, and is documented in humankind's earliest written records. The question of its origins has nearly as many answers as it has authors addressing the subject.
The various theories break down into four basic categories. The first is that prostitution is inevitable because nature determines certain roles for men and women, and one of women's roles is to serve the sexual needs of men. This theory is shared by both traditional anthropologists and by some modern theorists. The socialist/Marxist view is that prostitution is an inevitable result of capitalism. A third view, widely held by some anthropologists, is that prostitution is a holdover from early matriarchal societies where it was practiced without the negative social stigma that is attached to it today. The final, and in my mind the most reasonable, theory is that prostitution is a function of a patriarchal and male-dominated society. This view is held by some traditional anthropologists, who believe that patriarchy is a superior form of social structure, and by most modern feminists.
the origins and causes of prostitution, it has been a social institution
throughout the recorded history of humankind. Yet there are many misconceptions
concerning prostitutes. In general, it has always been a temporary job where any
choice was involved. Most prostitutes left the profession to marry or simply
found work of another type. For many it was a sideline, practiced to supplement
their income from other sources. Prostitution is linked to other women's issues,
such as the social status of women, birth control, and employment opportunities.
One of the most important of these issues is economic status.
of the Streets
Secular prostitution in the streets
also existed in the ancient world. In Babylonia at the time of Hammurabi, the harimate
had a notorious reputation, and men were warned not to marry them under any
circumstances. In ancient Palestine, women sat
along side the roadways to attract customers.
Greek street walkers worked the taverns, but shared status and name, pornoi
("whore"), with the slaves
in the brothels.
The Romans considered street prostitutes to be sexually insatiable, vicious, and
likely to corrupt children.
The lives of these women were circumscribed in many ways. In Rome, the street
prostitute's movements were controlled as well as her mode of dress,
and the Assyrians had severe penalties for those who wore veils in an attempt to
pass as "respectable women."
Women of the ancient middle east turned to prostitution because they were
widows, orphans, outcasts, or the daughters of prostitutes. There was no other
place for those who did not have men to protect and support them.
By the Renaissance, regulation of prostitution existed throughout Europe. Wages, rents, hours, and health examinations were all controlled by the various governments. Fear of syphilis, at that time as deadly a disease as AIDS is today, led to the closing of the stews and the removal of most prostitutes to brothels. Unfortunately, those women who were evicted from the brothels due to disease were left with no choice but to ply their trade in the streets. In some areas, prostitution was outlawed entirely, but strict regulation and some efforts at reforming prostitutes were the norm. None of these measures succeeded in reducing prostitution, and in 1490 the official register recorded 7000 prostitutes in Rome and over 11,000 in Venice. Since street prostitutes were not registered, these numbers represent a minimum.
Women in Brothels
By far the most common form of
prostitution throughout history was in a brothel. A brothel was an
establishment where a number of prostitutes gathered to work, and
sometimes live. The Babylonians referred to the women who worked in
brothels and ale-houses as senhate,
and the ancient Hebrews called them zonah, which means
In Greece the middle-class prostitutes worked in inns, sat in windows of
houses, or worked as musicians and dancers. This class of women were
called aultrides, which means "flute players."
Women of this class were generally not
slaves, and though they probably came to the profession for reasons of
economic hardship, they were able to turn beauty or talent to advantage.
In Rome, the prostitutes of this class sometimes worked in brothels, but
were more likely to be found in inns, working the circuses, or sitting
in the windows of their houses--thus the word prostitute, which means
"to set forth." 
prostitutes in the Byzantine Empire were usually entertainers and
theater women. Tradition has it that Empress Theodora was once a
prostitute of this type who rose through the ranks and eventually
seduced the Emperor into marriage.
In Europe, women plied the trade in taverns and inns, and as cities
grew, actual brothels were established. Some prostitutes established
guilds in the same way as the other professions. Female troubadours
also sometimes practiced prostitution. Many of the prostitutes of this
class had other employment which was inadequate to meet their needs.
Courtesans are the elite of prostitutes. Their lives have been lauded by writers of many times and places. In societies where wives were not allowed to interact socially with men, courtesans have been used to fill the gap. They are the only prostitutes to leave their names in histories, and at times they have had a profound effect on politics and the arts. Courtesans have inspired entire genres of poetry and set styles of fashion. Some rose from the ranks of middle-class prostitutes through talent and education, and some were trained virtually from birth. Many of them came from the middle and upper-classes and chose the profession because it was the only way to achieve wealth and prestige in a world dominated by men.
courtesans of Babylonia were the kizrete and were highly prized
The Epic of Gilgamesh includes the story of how a courtesan
defeated the wild man Enkidu through the arts of love.
In ancient Egypt tales of famous courtesans were written as popular
stories. The concubines of the Hebrew patriarchs also came from this
class, but no where was the courtesan more highly prized than in
courtesans' role in Islamic countries was similar to that in
Greece. They were usually entertainers, and frequently of foreign
birth. Men made contact with them through procuresses, and hired
them to provide diversions as well as sexual services. The love
poetry of the Islamic Middle East, which later strongly influenced
medieval European poetry, was written to courtesans.
The courtesans of India fostered the arts and education, and were
even hired to tutor the daughters of the wealthy. The devadises
were courtesans devoted to temples, a role that existed into the
In China, courtesans were part of the elegant life. They were
extremely accomplished in the arts and served the same social
function as the Greek hetairai. They worked in tea houses
in a district known as the "green bower" from the color
of the lacquer work on the houses.
In Japan, courtesans were known as geishas, and they
populated "the floating world."
Courtesans were the privileged class of prostitutes. Their lives were comfortable and their work well paid. Yet, even the hetairai of ancient Greece strove to achieve respectability through marriage. As prostitutes, they were still stigmatized, and recognized as women of lower status. Like all prostitutes, they catered to men's sexual needs, and were considered inferior as a result.
 Bullough, 107.
This refers to a
lack of belief in the Hebrew god rather than having anything to do with
fidelity. The word may have derived from an ancient type of marriage where the
"metronymic" wife remained in the home of her parents and exerted
far more independence than the traditional Hebrew wife. Id., 29.
 Id., 49-51.
 Anderson, Vol. I, 366.
 Tong, Women, Sex and the Law, 54 (1984).
Anderson & J. Zinsser, A History of Their Own vol. I (1988)
Anderson & J. Zinsser, A History of Their Own vol. II (1988)
and Bonnie Bullough, Women and Prostitution:
A Social History (1987)
Prostitution: A Feminist
Analysis, 11 Women's Rights L. Rep. 98 (1989)
Prostitutes: Victims of Men's
Exploitation and Abuse, 2 Law & Inequality 609 (1984)
Contractarians and Feminists Debate Prostitution, 28 Rev. of Leg. &
Soc. Change 103 (1991)
Prostitution and the Law (1977)
Sex in History (1982)