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Prostitution throughout the Ages & across the Animal Kingdom!

Advertising on the move: in ancient Greece, prostitutes wore sandals that imprinted "Follow me" onto the dirt as they walked.

Though highly controversial, stigmatized and in constant threat of physical and verbal abuse, Prostitution as a profession, irrespective of one's opinions on it, does root itself firmly in our human history.

Prostitution is the oldest profession in history; au contraire.

For a large part of human history, we have survived without money. The earliest reference of exchanges on the basis of bartering goods, rather than money, dates back to 9000 BC.

For prostitution to flourish, a monetary system must be established. Without money and commerce, there needn't be a reason for someone to sell sex.

An economist, Keith Chen proved the causal effect of sex exchanges occurring in an established commerce by introducing capuchin monkeys to the use of currency. The females quickly began trading sex for tokens, which they'd use to buy grapes, jelly and apples.

In fact, sex trade is quite common within the animal kingdom. Long-tailed male macaques used t

heir time spent as a currency: more the available females, less would be their time spent, and if there are lesser available females, the more they'd pay for sex.

What's more, female Adélie penguins on Ross island, Antarctica, have been documented to trade sex for rocks: penguins use rocks to build a platform for their eggs, thus keeping them off the ice. Rocks are a rare commodity in Antarctica, so she identifies a male she's interested in, engages in a mating dance and then leaves with his rocks the next morning. All the while, her mate is completely unaware of her nightly transactions. 😉

Dr. Fiona Hunter. Penguin Prostitution on Ross island, Antarctica.1998

So, its safe to assume that sex trade is universal: it exists throughout the ages and across the animal kingdom. However, the stigma associated with this profession remains unparalleled.

Before the Europeans arrived on the shore of Maori, carrying syphilis and their flags with them, there existed no evidence of sex being sold by the natives. Additionally, the Victorians were shocked to hear that the Dyaks of Borneo had no word that meant vice. In fact, in 1832, when the Christian missionary, Lorrin Andrews, was tasked with translating the Bible to Hawaiian, he had to invent words to teach the islanders concepts of sexual shame and infidelity. There is also no evidence of sex trade among Native Americans before the Europeans set out to civilize them.

In 1529, Spanish conquerors translated the Aztec Náhuatl word ahuienime as prostitute or whore, when in actuality, the word translates as the bringer of joy.

(c.484-425 BC) The earliest account of sacred sex work in literature comes from a Greek historian, Herodotus' work wherein he references the 6th century neo-Babylonian traditions.

The foulest Babylonian custom is that which compels every woman of the land to sit in the temple of Aphrodite and have intercourse with some stranger at least once in her life...Once a woman has taken her place, she doesn't return home until some stranger casts a bag of coins on her lap. If he says, "I invite you in the name of Mylitta", she will proceed to have intercourse with the man outside the temple.

Edwin Long. The Babylonian marriage market.1875

It does not matter what sum was cast onto her lap, for the woman would never refuse as that would be a sin. The money cast in this fashion is a sacred act and so she has to do her duty, and thus rejects none. She is free to depart the temple once she acts upon her sacred duty. It is easier for the fair and tall to fulfill the law, for some remain here, at Aphrodite's temple, for 3-4 years.

Prostitution wasn't always criminalized. Back in the 2nd and 3rd century AD, Arthashastra, an Indian text on politics, economic and military strategies, laid down guidelines a state needs to follow in order to provide legal protection to sex workers.

From duties of a ganikadhyaksha (the State officer in charge of activities and earnings of ganikas) to salaries owed to sex workers and taxes paid per month, the Arthashastra, laid down guidelines in order to have sex work regulated by the state.

Ganika, appointed by the state, to attend to the king, received a salary of 1000 panas every year, an additional 500 was set aside for her deputy. Independent prostitutes weren't given grants but still had to pay a tax of one-sixth their income. The courtesans were expected to have had state-sanctioned and funded training in singing, playing musical instruments, conversing, reciting, dancing, acting, writing, painting, mind-reading, concocting perfumes, designing garlands, shampooing and, of course, the art of lovemaking.

1923 French magazine advertising the Ganikas' (Courtesans') expertise in concocting Sandalwood perfumes. Translation: Ganika, the perfume with a hint of Sandalwood that could conjure up the eroticism of India

Furthermore, prostitution in India was deeply layered, with ganikas at the court, bandhakis at the brothels, pumscali, a concubine on the streets, rupjivas, women who lived by their beauties and the devadasis, servants of God (mode of sacred prostitution).

The rigid world views brought by the British, when they colonized India, resulted in the dismantling of the devadasi institution, stigmatizing women and causing them to be socially shunned.

Outlawed in the 1988, attitudes towards sex trade is often in flux. Women's sexuality is often censured, controlled by patriarchal institutions and repressed. Instead of marginalizing sex work, perhaps the world needs to respect the profession. After 75 years of independence, India's Supreme Court finally decreed sex work as a profession, thus legalizing it.

  1. Chen, Keith and Lakshminarayanan, Venkat and Santos, Laurie, "The Evolution of Our Preferences: Evidence from Capuchin Monkey Trading Behavior", Journal of Political Economy, 114.3 (June 2005). p. 517-37.

  2. George P. Murdock “Anthropology and Its Contribution to Public Health”, American Journal of Public Health, 42.1 (1952), 7-11.

  3. Gordon Morris Bakken and Brenda Farrington, "Encyclopedia of Women in the American West", Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage (2003), p. 236.

  4. Gumert, Michael David. “Payment for sex in a macaque mating market.” Animal Behaviour, 74 (2007): 1655-1667.

  5. Sally Engle Merry, "Colonizing Hawaii: The Cultural Power of Law", Princeton: Princeton University Press (2000), p. 249.

  6. William W. Sanger, "The History of Prostitution", New York: Harper & Brothers (1858), p. 414.


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