In general terms, the term “prostitution” can be explained as the practice of engaging in sexual relations in exchange for money. Extending to all early and modern cultures, the sex for sale business has been in described as “the world’s oldest profession”.
One of the first forms of prostitution is sacred prostitution, supposedly practiced among the Sumerians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of sacred prostitution, starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once in their lives, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodite or Nana/Anahita) and there have sex with a foreigner as a sign of hospitality for a symbolic price. Prostitution was common in ancient Israel, despite being tacitly forbidden by Jewish Law. Within the religion of Canaan, a significant portion of temple prostitutes were male. In Asia, in the early 17th century, there was widespread male and female prostitution throughout the cities of Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka, Japan. Mesoamerica, Greece and Ancient Rome too had prostitution as a practice, popular and widespread.
In ancient India, there was a practice of the rich asking Nagarvadhu to Sing and dance, noted in history as “brides of the town”. Famous examples include Amrapali, state courtesan and Buddhist disciple, a character in the classic Sanskrit story of Mricchakatika, written in the 2nd century BC by Sudraka.
Prostitution occurs in a variety of forms. History is replete with various forms of sex workers spread in different parts of the world.
In ancient Greece, hetairai were not simple prostitutes. What is distinctive, is that these independent and influential women used to pay taxes just like ordinary citizens. Mostly ex-slaves from other cities, these courtesans were renowned for their achievements in dance and music, as well as for their physical and intellectual talents. Unlike most other women in Greek society at the time, hetairai were educated and actively took part in the symposia, where their opinion was welcomed and respected by men. While ‘pornai’ were found at the bottom end of the scale which determined the status of prostitute, Hetaire clung to the top spot. So great was their elegance and beauty that they have been frequently made the mistresses of the most powerful of people. hetaira have been compared to the earlier Babylonian nadītu, the Japanese oiran, and the Korean kisaeng.
Geisha are traditional Japanese female entertainers who act as hostesses and whose skills include performing various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance and games. Japanese History mentions female entertainers called ‘sabaruko’ who were mostly family-less girls. Some gave sexual services while others who were educated made a living by entertaining at high-class social gatherings. This led to the development of a beauty-obsessed elite class in turn giving rise to the Japanese Geisha culture. Earlier the geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the Oiran. But eventually, the fall of Oiran led to the establishment of the more ‘chic’ Geisha culture. There is controversy over whether geisha are prostitutes. While both sides in the controversy acknowledge that until the 1950s, geisha routinely performed one initial act of paid sex, there has been a sharp dispute over whether this act should be considered an act of prostitution.
3. Sacred Prostitution
A sexual ritual consisting of sexual intercourse or any other sexual activity in context of religious worship may be termed as sacred prostitution. Some scholars prefer the term “sacred sex” to sacred prostitution, in cases where payment for services was not involved. The Hebrew Bible uses two different words for prostitute, zonah and kedeshah (or qedesha). In Southern India, devadasi was the practice of hierodulic prostitution which involved dedicating pre-pubescent and young adolescent girls from villages in a ritual marriage to a deity or a temple, who then worked in the temple and functioned as spiritual guides, dancers, and prostitutes servicing male devotees in the temple.
In the Ottoman Empire, a very young and handsome male who could dance well used to crossdress in feminine attire and entertain people, they were called the “köçek”. A köçek would begin training around the age of seven or eight and would be considered accomplished after about six years of study and practice. A dancer’s career would last as long as he was beardless and retained his youthful appearance. They were basically non-Muslims. They were said to be “sensuous, attractive, effeminate”, and their dancing “sexually provocative”.The köçeks were available sexually, often to the highest bidder, in the passive role.
5. Comfort women
The time before and during The World War II saw numerous girls being dragged into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army. Many were abducted from home or lured with promises of work in factories and restaurants. The majority of the women were from Korea and China. The first comfort stations were established at Shanghai in 1932. Approximately three-quarters of comfort women died, and most survivors were left infertile due to sexual trauma or sexually transmitted diseases. Beatings and physical torture were said to be common.
The tradition of keeping a Nagarvadhu or “bride of the city” was popular in some parts of ancient India. Though respected as a queen, she was basically a courtesan (ruler’s mistress in some sense) who could be seen dancing and singing. Women used to compete for this title and the participants were extremely beautiful. A Nagarvadhu’s price for a single night dance used to be very high, and she was only within the reach of the very rich – the king, the princes, and the lords.
They were the courtesans who catered to the nobility, especially during the Mughal period of India. They had a major contribution in the field of music, dance, theatre, film and Urdu literary tradition. Sixteenth-century Lucknow was full of talented girls having sound knowledge of such arts because many girls were taken at a young age and trained. These courtesans would dance, sing(mainly ghazals), recite poetry (shairi) and entertain their suitors at mehfils. It is also said that young Nawabs were sent to these Tawaifs to teach them “tehzeeb” or certain etiquettes and the ability to distinguish and appreciate good music and literature. Umrao Jaan Ada and Gauhar Jaan are some of the famous tawaifs.
In ancient India, we see elite courtesans in the form of Ganikas. These were desirable women, desired both for their beauty as well as their refinement and intellect. In contrast to ordinary prostitutes who lived in crowded brothels, the successful, wealthy ganikas lived in large,well-furnished houses. As a connoisseur of refined pleasure and culture, the ganika was the feminine counterpart of the nagaraka and therefore was a key figure. They were well-versed in singing, dancing, playing musical instruments, painting etc.
9. Nikāḥ al-Mutʿah
A form of temporary marriage practice in Islam where a male and female get into this relationship on a contractual basis for a fixed period of time before the full-fledged marriage of any of the two individual takes place. The contract contains some pre-requisites such as the amount of dowry, kind of physical contact they will be involved in etc. Mutah is practiced under the Twelver Shia jurisprudence. The bride must not be married. She must be Muslim and chaste and not be addicted to fornication. Sometimes this relationship is under the watchful eyes of parents of both the parties while their’s also a possibility of this marriage lasting for a few hours with payment being made to the woman.A form of prostitution, cleverly hidden in the religious façade, is strongly opposed by the Sunni-Muslims.
10. Tanka Prostitution
Elizabeth Wheeler Andrew (1845–1917) and Katharine Caroline Bushnell (5 February 1856 January 26, 1946), have written extensively about the Tanka inhabitants of Hong Kong and their position in the prostitution industry. Being descendants of the natives didn’t use to marry the Chinese. They supplied their women as prostitutes to British sailors and assisted the British in their military actions around Hong Kong. The Tanka in Hong Kong were considered “outcasts” categorized low class. Ordinary Chinese prostitutes were hesitant on getting involved with the Westerners since they looked strange to them while the Tanka women mingled freely with them. The profession of prostitution among the Tanka women led to them being hated by the Chinese both because they had sex with westerners and them being racially Tanka.