10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History

Larry Holzwarth - April 13, 2018

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
The Lupanar of Pompei was a brothel with its walls covered with erotic frescoes. It has revealed much information regarding Roman sexual practices. Brooklyn Museum

Prostitution in the ancient world

The Greek word porne, which is the root of the word pornography, means prostitute and in ancient Greece, a pederastic society, both women and young boys practiced prostitution. Greek society regulated prostitution, requiring women prostitutes to wear distinctive garb and to pay taxes for the privilege of practicing prostitution. Some women prostitutes occupied influential positions in Greek society and charged enormous sums for their services while others became legendary for their beauty and sexual prowess. There were specialized categories of prostitutes including streetwalkers, those who worked outdoors in public areas, and those who worked under bridges.

Ancient Rome allowed prostitution in the city and throughout the empire. Moral disapproval of the practice was non-existent before the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire. The ruins of Pompeii depict prostitution services advertised on walls of the city. In Rome itself several large brothels were owned and operated by the government. The month of April contained several religious rites in the name of the goddess Venus, and prostitutes were involved in these events. Most prostitutes in Rome were slaves, those who entered into it of their own free will were denied their rights as Roman citizens.

In the Roman world abandoned and sometimes orphaned children were often raised to be sold into slavery as prostitutes. Some “orphanages” were little more than farms for the raising of children into prostitution, a practiced sanctioned by the Roman government. Free women found guilty of some crimes were sometimes sentenced into slavery as prostitutes. Purchasers of these slaves were often Roman citizens of high social or political standing, and their engaging in the purchase and sale of sexual slaves had little impact on public perceptions of their character and morals.

Ancient Israel was another area where prostitution flourished, as reported in the Bible and other ancient texts. Biblical references to prostitution occur in both the Old and New Testaments, though recent translations have changed considerably from the texts in Hebrew and Greek. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, there is a story of the widowed Tamar, who attempts to trick Judah into making her pregnant by imitating a prostitute. She is described as waiting beside a road with her face covered, indicating that she is a prostitute, giving an idea of how prostitutes worked in the ancient days of the Holy Land.

In Mesoamerica both the Incan and Aztec civilizations practiced prostitution, and both separated prostitutes from the main population. In the Aztec world prostitutes were housed in buildings guarded by soldiers. They were called Houses of Women although male prostitutes were among them. Incan prostitutes were segregated and also guarded by soldiers. Access to the prostitutes in both of the civilizations was through the government, and the prostitutes were not slaves, though they could not leave their controlled environment unless they desired to quit working as prostitutes.

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
In this French editorial cartoon, a doctor talks to a diseased prostitute. By the early 18th century prostitution was irretrievably linked to disease in the minds of the public. Wikimedia

Prostitution and the spread of disease

As the Western Roman Empire collapsed, the prostitutes as slaves system established by the Romans collapsed with it, and the authority of the Catholic Church rose. Although the Church decried prostitution on moral grounds, and many priests urged prostitutes to reform, there was at first little secular action against prostitutes. The ebbing of the Empire returned prostitution to a business conducted largely independently, and practiced for the most part in the cities and larger towns of Europe. Some Church leaders and influential theologians supported prostitution as a necessary evil to control the sin of lust.

After the syphilis epidemic which swept much of Europe in the early 16th century attitudes towards prostitution changed among leaders outside of the church. Prostitution became linked in the public mind with disease. Brothels and streetwalkers were banned by many communities and the Church became more vocal in condemning the activity. Prostitutes were banned from the Church, though not excommunicated, and were to be welcomed back once reformed. It was around this time that the Catholic Church established Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute saved by the intervention of Christ, and the Church offered the same salvation to others.

At the time the Church and many lay leaders of communities considered a prostitute to be a woman who was promiscuous, not simply one who exchanged sexual services for remuneration. It was in this period that the first asylums for reformed prostitutes began to appear in Europe, and it wasn’t long before they were being used by the wealthy to rid themselves of no longer wanted mistresses and wives. Known brothels formerly operated by local governments began to be closed, and various means were established to shame prostitutes into reforming, such as the shaving of their heads, or the requirement to wear distinctive clothing.

Despite the efforts of Church and state, in virtually every society of the world prostitution proved impossible to eradicate. As the colonies in the New World began to grow all of them soon developed prostitution, along the seaports where visiting ships brought supplies and new settlers, and in the frontier, where isolated roadside inns and taverns offered travelers a meal, a bed, and frequently other services. In the Americas, the return of the slave prostitute began in the form of captured Indians offered to the guests of innkeepers for their enjoyment. Runaway indentured servants fled to other towns, and often earned their meagre living as prostitutes.

By the 1700s prostitution was considered to be immoral by most community leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, at least when speaking in their official capacity. In actual fact, nearly all of the world’s larger cities and towns featured an increasing number of prostitutes working the streets and in brothels, and in the world’s largest cities, London and Paris for example, the slums teemed with them. The moral authority of the Churches was openly scorned. Prostitution flourished for the simple reason that there was a steadily increasing demand for it and efforts to control its spread could not check that demand.

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
The Stockholm Exposition in Sweden in 1897 led to government efforts to rid the streets of prostitutes with limited success. Library of Congress

The Swedish Model

The first law which officially made prostitution in Sweden illegal was enacted in 1734, and specified punishment for the offense by whipping, forced labor, and imprisonment. For the next two and one half centuries Sweden wrestled with the prostitution within its borders which no law and no threat of punishment seemed capable of eliminating. In the late 1830s the government of Sweden established brothels in Stockholm in the hope of the state gaining control of prostitution but by 1841 the experiment was recognized as a failure and abandoned. The Swedish government continued to outlaw the practice officially, but tolerated its presence.

In Swedish cities areas were set aside where there was a tacit agreement that prostitutes would not be harassed by the police and local authorities. Brothels remained illegal and there existence was winked at as long as they were located in acceptable areas and were not otherwise troublesome. Throughout the twentieth century a series of commissions and studies began to shift the focus on prostitution from the prostitutes to their clients. Several committees reported that the men who solicited prostitutes were a danger to society, since they had uncontrollable desires which led them to break the law. These attitudes led to the development of what is now called the Swedish Model.

When the Swedish government arrived at the conclusion that the real cause of prostitution was not feminine immorality but was instead masculine demand they changed the laws regarding prostitution. The Swedes made the selling of one’s body for sexual services legal. Therefore the prostitute commits no crime when solicited for sex with another person, if the choice is made of their own free will. However the purchasing of sexual services from another was made illegal, shifting the criminal act to the person requesting the service for money.

The law was created to be compatible with Sweden’s gender neutral policy towards all its laws and society in general. Theoretically the role of purchaser could be of either gender as could be the role of seller. In practice the law places the burden of committing a crime on males soliciting prostitutes, a reversal of the patriarchal laws affecting prostitution in most other countries. The law was reinforced by increases in police budgets to help enforce it and the police use of undercover officers to initiate early court cases. Convictions were hard to come by and although the police and other officials reported a visible downturn in open prostitution, many opined that the practice had simply gone underground.

The Swedish Model was marketed aggressively by the Swedish activists who helped create it in the other Scandinavian countries and in France, The Netherlands, and other European countries. Although several countries adapted the model to meet their own circumstances, there is little concrete evidence the Swedish Model reduced either prostitution or the violence sometimes associated with it in Sweden or any other country. Whether the law has been successful or not depends on the person making the report. Defending the decision to make the purchaser guilty of a crime was explained by the Swedish government as the seller of the service, “…is the weaker party who is exploited by others who want to satisfy their own sexual desires.”

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
The arrival of the First Fleet at Botany Bay in 1788 brought prostitution to Australia in the form of convicts from British Courts. Wikimedia

Prostitution in Australia

Australia was born out of a prison colony and some of the deportees who arrived in 1788 with the First Fleet were there because of conviction for prostitution. In 1817 the British legal system and the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies wanted an investigation to determine the effectiveness of transportation as a deterrent and penal measure. John Bigge was sent to the New South Wales colony to conduct this investigation and in his report he mentioned the existence of brothels in the colony, although they were largely prostitutes working individually out of their homes.

During Australia’s colonial period brothels did appear, as in the United States, near mining and lumber camps, railroad construction camps, and other areas where large groups of men were gathered without their wives and families. The colonial administration established laws which were aimed at the control of sexually transmitted diseases. These required women suspected of engaging in prostitution to submit to medical examination and while not specifically making prostitution illegal, they did give the authorities power to place women who were infected in locked down medical facilities until they were cured. The laws were mainly to protect members of the military from infection.

When Australia became federated the laws regarding what was and what was not criminal activity were left to the states. Not until 1910 were laws regarding prostitution enacted and enforced. These again did not make prostitution itself a crime, but soliciting for prostitution was criminalized as was operating a brothel. Most of the laws regarding prostitution had to do with soliciting minors and the use of accommodations for the sole purpose of prostitution. Enforcement of laws against prostitution was lax, with the exception of those regarding minors throughout most of the twentieth century.

Beginning in the 1970s Australia’s Capital Territory’s already liberal attitudes towards prostitution began to become even more liberal, as studies showed laws against the practice to be inefficient and enforcement did little to eliminate or control the practice. Australia in the 1970s banned soliciting in the same place on a consistent basis. It also prohibited using prostitution as one’s primary source of income. Brothels were not allowed. The police and the courts found the law unenforceable and it was not enforced. In 1992 the Capital Territory passed the Prostitution Act 1992, which allowed for the establishment of brothels and required “sex workers” to register with the government.

Prostitution is legal across all of Australia today, though each state has its own regulations and limitations. New South Wales is the most liberal of the Australian states as regards prostitution, allowing brothels, and by law someone living on the earnings of a prostitute – in American lexicon a pimp – is a criminal. In other areas of Australia streetwalking is illegal, but prostitution through an escort service is legal. The state of Victoria had over 90 legal brothels around the turn of the 21st century. Throughout the Australian continent assault of a sex worker is a crime separate from ordinary assault, and most locales require sex with a sex worker be protected with a prophylactic.

10 Things That Prove Prostitution Has a Very Intriguing History
One of Justine Paris’s regular clients was the Marquis de Sade, who published the violently pornographic novel Justine years after her death, possibly using some of her tales as inspiration. Wikimedia

Marguerite Gourdan and Justine Paris

Marguerite Gourdan was the wife of a French soldier who with her husband’s permission prostituted herself with a wealthy nobleman. She delivered a daughter following this liaison and either through blackmail or the good wishes of the nobleman she obtained a monthly stipend from him, which continued until his death. The stipend enabled Marguerite to establish a series of brothels in and around Paris. By 1765 her husband had had enough of her activities and left her. Marguerite used agents to find prostitutes to employ in her brothels, and she divided her charges into four categories.

The first were the women who worked and lived in her brothels. The second were prostitutes in her employ who lived in their own homes and entertained their clients either there or in the client’s home. Third were artists, singers, actors, and musicians who supplemented their income through prostitution, dispatched to the client on a call basis. Finally were the wives of wealthy merchants and noblemen who wanted to obtain their own source of income, or merely enjoyed the work. Marguerite also rented rooms in her brothels to partners involved in illicit affairs, ensuring them a place to meet in privacy.

Justine Paris opened her first brothel in Paris around 1730 and after running several brothels in the city opened one at the Hotel du Roule which rapidly became one of the best known brothels in a city which held hundreds of them. Because the Hotel du Roule was located outside of the city limits it could be reached comfortably only by coach or horseback, which ensured that her customers were well heeled and discreet. Casanova described the Hotel du Roule in his memoirs in elaborate detail, indicating that he was a frequent and favored guest.

Justine too offered private rooms for the accommodation of couples who sought privacy away from prying eyes and gossiping tongues. Casanova reported that Justine charged her clients by the hour, both for the rooms and for the services of her women. She changed her staff twice a year and maintained a diverse collection of women of differing sizes, shapes, and coloring. Justine allowed her clients who were so motivated to purchase one of her prostitutes as a kept woman, and retained her in the house with the rest of her staff. While prostitution was illegal at the time, French authorities allowed her to operate as long as she kept them informed of the doings of certain of her clients.

In 1772 Marguerite Gourdan and Justine Paris met each other and began the planning of another brothel, to be operated by them as partners. This brothel was opened in 1773 and would become one of the most famous in all of Paris. However, the partnership did not last very long. Gourdan and Paris met in a Paris hospital where they were both undergoing treatment for syphilis. Although she lived long enough to see the brothel opened, Justine Paris died in September 1773. Her partner carried on without her in the brothel, which featured a main entrance and a secret entrance through a neighboring art dealer’s shop, offering unobserved entry to the brothel.

Marguerite Gourdan soon found herself in difficulty with the authorities and facing arrest fled from Paris in 1776. She had not returned a noblemen’s wife too her home after a shift at the brothel. The brothel was left without capable management and was soon forced to close its doors. Meanwhile Marguerite used her influence with some of her better connected former clients, and likely her records of their use of her services, to get them to lobby on her behalf. After some effort, charges against her were dropped and she returned to Paris and the brothel, which by then was near bankruptcy. It closed for good in 1778 and Marguerite Gourdan returned to one of her earlier brothels to live out her years. She died of complications of syphilis in 1783.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Devil’s Perch: Prostitution from suite to cellar in Butte, Montana”, by Ellen Baumler, Montana Historical Society

“Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church”, by Vern L. Bullough, 1982

“Prostitution in Victorian England”, by Judith Flanders, The British Library, online

“Disorderly women in eighteenth-century London”, by Tony Henderson, 1999

“Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies”, by H. Ranger, 1786 edition, online

“The economy of prostitution in the Roman World”, by Thomas A. McGinn, 2004

“Behind the happy face of the Swedish anti-prostitution law”, by Dr. Laura Agustin, April 7, 2010, online

“Why sex workers are disappearing from our streets”, by Megan Palin, news.com.au. August 20, 2017

“Casanova: Actor, Lover, Priest, Spy”, by Ian Kelly, 2011