Everyone has heard that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, but what exactly does this mean? Evidence of prostitution dates back to ancient civilizations across the globe.
It is safe to say that wherever there have been people living together, people have been making a living from sex. Go on us on a journey through the history of escorting and prostitution from its ancient origins to how exists today in Melbourne.
The Ancient History of Prostitution
There is historical evidence of escorting as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, that’s over 4000 years ago! Sumerian records describe how the role was intertwined with religious practices in the form of a temple-bordello run by Sumerian priests.
The temple was dedicated to Ishtar, the goddess of beauty, love, fertility, war, and power. The women, who were separated into three different ranks, were to use the “sacred” power of their bodies to encourage men to offer money to their temples.
In Ancient Greece, escorts and prostitutes were known as auletrides, and these women had a diverse role as entertainers.
They were trained musicians, acrobats, and dancers, and sexual encounters were only a part of their profession. These women were heavily involved in religious ceremonies and were also hired for private parties and events. There were even sexual schools in the Greek city states, where girls were trained.
Prostitution was similar in the Roman Empire, where most prostitutes were skilled in the arts and therefore considered coveted party guests. In fact, actors, dancers, and other members of the entertainment class were seen as sex workers as well, as these individuals were very lowly ranked in society.
Aztec societies in Mesoamerica had buildings where prostitution was permitted called cihuacalli, or houses of women. There were closed compounds centered around a statue of Tlazolteotl, the goddess of purification, steam baths, midwives, and filth, and a patroness of adulterers.
In India, escorts were traditionally part of a hierarchy which consisted of nine tiers. The Ganika, or elite tier, were trained in other performing arts and were sometimes the subjects of poetry written in royal courts.
Prostitutes had a status within the Hindu religious practice, where Devadasis were girls who were symbolically married to a deity and cared for the temple. With the arrival of West Asian invaders, the practice became increasingly limited to a means of income. The system of “religious dedication” was finally outlawed in 1988.
In Japan’s Edo period, from 1600 to 1868, courtesans who were also entertainers were known as oiran. These women were ranked according to their artistic skill, beauty, and education, and paved the way for the geisha, who did not sell sex, only artistic entertainment like poetry, music, and dance. Contrary to popular notion, it is a grave offense to attempt to purchase sex from a geisha.
With the rise of Christendom, sexual activity outside of marriage was increasingly seen as sinful. Even so, prostitution remained common especially in urban areas and supposedly prevented more deviant sexual behaviors. Some brothels even came to be owned and frequented by religious authorities.
Over time, prostitution became more regulated. Especially with the expansion of European maritime empires, legislation became stricter.
Common views of prostitutes and escorts over time
The stigma sex workers and escorts endure in the modern age was not, as we have explored above, always the case.
In ancient civilizations, prostitution was often considered a sacred profession. In literary works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, prostitutes are portrayed not only as sex workers but as sex educators and forces of civilization. They teach about matters of love and care of the body.
Whereas prostitutes in civilizations such as Rome and Greece, as well as medieval Europe were often slaves or low-class entertainers, and considered to be of the lowest rank in society, their customers did not tend to suffer any consequences to their reputation.
Throughout modern history, activists have worked hard to change the status of sex workers to offer them fair and equal rights, care, and protection.
The sex worker’s rights movement
The sex worker’s rights movement has made significant steps toward improving the working conditions, increasing benefits, and eliminating discrimination towards sex workers worldwide in the last five decades. Activism flourished in the 1970’s, following the feminist movements of the late 1960’s.
Many obstacles had to be overcome at first due to social stigma and government policy. This was especially evident from events such as the unsuccessful Conference on Prostitution in December of 1971 in New York, and an unsuccessful protest by sex workers and escorts against turning the red-light districts of Cologne, Germany into a large, commercially owned brothel in 1972.
In the summer of 1972, sex workers in Lyon, France, protesting against police oppression and for safer working conditions were mocked by the media. The protest resulted in even more oppressive prosecution by authorities.
Not long after this time groups like the Swedish Posing Girls and Trade Models' Union and the Italian Party for the Protection of Sex Workers began to form. Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (COYOTE), a civil rights organization calling for the decriminalization of prostitution, held the first annual Hooker’s Ball in San Francisco in 1974.
Such organizations and events, which did tremendous work worldwide throughout the 70’s and 80’s, significantly changed public opinion and policy with regards to sex work over time.
The Scarlett Alliance was formed in Australia in 1989 with the aim to promote the civil rights of sex workers both in attitude and legislation.
Legalization of sex work and escorting in Melbourne, Australia and beyond
The Netherlands and New Zealand are considered global leaders for the legislation of sex work in terms of the equal benefits and working conditions they provide. Germany and Australia follow closely behind.
Sex work in Australia is governed by state and territory laws, which differ.
In Victoria, Queensland, and New South Wales, sex work is legal and regulated. In the remaining territories, it is legal, but brothels remain illegal and prostitution is unregulated. The issue remains deeply divisive in all jurisdictions, resulting in the continual review of potential liberalization and decriminalization.