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: Code of Hammurabi Refers to Prostitution
The 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 therefor ... 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.
To the extent that we have records of the ancient world, prostitution appears to have been more or less ubiquitous.
6th Century BCE: Solon Establishes State-Funded Brothels
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, 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
AD 590 (ca.): Reccared 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
By the medieval era, prostitution was accepted as a fact of life in major cities. King Henry II discouraged but 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
The Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be "absolutely indispensable to the world" in 1358, and government-funded brothels were established in major Italian cities throughout the 14th and 15th centuries.
1586: Pope Sixtus V Mandates Death Penalty for Prostitution
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.
Although Sixtus reigned for only five years, this was not his only claim to fame. He is also noted as the first Pope to declare that abortion is homicide regardless of the stage of pregnancy; before he became Pope, the church taught that fetuses did not become human persons until quickening (about 20 weeks).
1802: France Establishes Bureau of Morals
Following the French Revolution, the government replaced the traditional bans on prostitution with a new Bureau of Morals (Bureau des Moeurs)--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 (as has historically been the tendency with respect to brothels). The agency operated continuously for over a century before it was abolished.
Should prostitution be legal?
The US and many countries around the world are examining how to deal with prostitution. Although there are tens of thousands of arrests in the US each year for prostitution and related crimes, in 11 Nevada counties prostitution is legal. Because this polarizing issue is debated in universities, legislatures, newspapers, and elsewhere, and given its public policy implications, we thought the issue was ripe for our nonpartisan pro-con examination.
PRO Legal Prostitution
PRO: Proponents believe legalization would reduce crime, improve public health, increase tax revenue, and allow for individuals to make their own choices. They argue that the legalization of prostitution is a necessary step in sexual liberation, helps people out of poverty, and gets prostitutes off the street.
CON Legal Prostitution
CON: Opponents believe legalization would lead to increases in crime, illegal prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS, and human trafficking. They argue that prostitution is inherently immoral, empowers the criminal underworld, and promotes the repression of women by men.