Episode 11: Sex Work Through History

Sex work: Mankind’s oldest profession, right?

Today we continue our series on sex work by looking at sex work (and some of the common myths and misperceptions about sex work) throughout recorded history.

The history of sex as a profession is complex, and many of the things you might believe about it turn out not to have much of a historical basis. (It doesn’t help, of course, that much of the language around sex, even in ancient times, is full of innuendo and nudge-nudge-wink-wink humor intended for an audience familiar with understated references, which doesn’t age well.)

We also suggest that sex work may in fact be older than homo sapiens as a species, and meander into historical accounts of adulterous Popes and people being thrown through windows.

Transcript Below:

Franklin: Hello! Welcome to a new episode of Skeptical Perverts, the podcast where we look at human sexuality through an evidence-based, skeptical lens! I’m your host, part-time mad scientist, and token cishet guy, Franklin!

Joreth: Hi! I’m your co-host and Renaissance cat, Joreth! I’m kinky, solo polyamorous, on the ace spectrum, chicana, feminist, my gender identity is “tomboy”, and my pronouns are she/her but I use masculine titles.

Eunice: And I’m Eunice, your friendly neighbourhood queer, kinky, demisexual, grey-ace cis woman, bringing my genteel East Asian British viewpoint and a good strong pot of tea. For the next two episodes in our sex work mini-series, we’re discussing the history of sex work!

Franklin: And I don’t have any tea. First, let me say we aren’t historians or scholars, so this overview will necessarily be fast and high-level. If we get anything wrong, please drop us a line.

Eunice: I should also mention here that we three hosts do not read most of the languages of the world, which means that the various things people in many many countries have written throughout history about sex work are either going to be things we’ve only read through translation, haven’t even come across, or will be struggling painfully through via the help of friends or Google Translate. So we’re relying on mainly English texts, yes including Wikipedia, for the most part, and that necessarily limits the amount of information from non-English-speaking areas of the world that we can include. If you have any good resources that we might find useful however, please do throw them our way!

Joreth: The definition of sex work has changed over time, and throughout different cultures, and we’ll be covering different cultural attitudes about sex work in another episode. Superficially, though, sex work is generally considered to be “the world’s oldest profession”. That may or may not be true, but recorded history does include some form of sex work from pretty early on. Just not, as we discovered, quite the way we *thought* it did.

Franklin: This will probably not be a surprise, but sex work has a very long history. References to sex work run deep in historical and religious texts from all over the world. Wikipedia has this to say:

Sumerian records dating back to ca. 2400 BCE are the earliest recorded mention of prostitution as an occupation. These describe a temple-brothel operated by Sumerian priests in the city of Uruk. This kakum or temple was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar and was the home to three grades of women. The first grade of women were only permitted to perform sexual rituals in the temple, the second group had access to the grounds and catered to visitors, and the third and lowest class lived on the temple grounds. The third class was also free to find customers in the streets. […]

In later years sacred prostitution and similar classifications for females were known to have existed in Greece, Rome, India, China, and Japan. Such practices came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the 320’s AD destroyed the goddess temples and replaced the religious practices with Christianity.

Eunice: So a question that came to mind when we started researching is whether the earliest forms of sex work was actually that tightly bound to religious worship, or whether it was fairly ubiquitous throughout society but the only place it happened to be noted and written about was in the religious context. As it turns out…that wasn’t even the right question to be asking. 

Franklin: The common mythology is that early recordings of sex work tend to be coupled with religion…but it turns out that maybe isn’t quite true. The idea of ‘sacred sexuality’ and temple sex work has deep roots in the public consciousness, but the reality is a lot more messy and complicated, and a lot of the writings on the subject are perhaps not saying what people originally said they said.

So let’s dive in, and along the way, we’ll talk about the reasons this idea of temple prostitution became so entrenched in the modern cultural narrative, and why a lot of historians are now saying that it probably didn’t happen the way we thought it happened.

Joreth: We had a lot of misconceptions going into this episode that we just totally took for granted as true. Like, we just assumed that “sacred prostitution” was a thing. It’s such an embedded part of our cultural zeitgeist that, of course there was prostitution in ancient times and of course most of that was in the context of pagan religious rites. Like, everyone knows that, right? I don’t know where I learned that from, but I must have learned it in school, because we all just know this to be true. Was that a common idea that y’all had?

Franklin: It definitely was for me. And I can’t even tell you exactly where I got it from. Cultural osmosis, I suppose. It seems like one of those things that people just sort of know without knowing how they know, you know? So where did these cultural ideas about sacred sexuality come from, anyway?

Eunice: So, we dug through a bunch of books to figure out this exact question, and there were some fascinating bits of information that came out! One book I took a look at, “The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity” by Stephanie Lynn Budin, had quite a lot to say about the origin of the term “sacred prostitution”. As it turns out, the short answer seems to be that “sacred prostitution” was basically a mistranslation that just kept getting replicated throughout time. She writes:

[M]any of the words identified as “sacred prostitute” in the ancient Near Eastern languages (Sumerian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Hebrew) are actually of uncertain definition. Thus, the study of sacred prostitution in these areas mainly boils down to a study of terminology. […] There are no words for “sacred prostitute” in the ancient Near Eastern vocabularies, thus removing any indigenous evidence for this practice from the Near East. p. 5, The Myth Of Sacred Prostitution In Antiquity

Franklin: Even modern-day language is tricky this way. People love to play with language. Contemporary English speakers will recognize the difference between “bless me, Father, for I have sinned” and “forgive me, Daddy, I’ve been naughty,” but anthropologists and linguists two thousand years from now might have a rough time of it.

Joreth: And then, just by coincidence while we were researching this episode, I happen to find a meme shared online that says “The gulf of meaning between the terms “horse play” and “pony play” illustrates why expecting your culture’s translation of another’s ancient texts to be 100% true to their original intent is dangerous and probably not a good idea.” The earliest online source we could find of that quote was a Facebook share on December 26, 2021 by Matt Norris.

Franklin: Matt, if that was you: well said, sir, well said.

Eunice: And then there’s the difference between “butt dial” and “booty call,”, which I never ever want to have to explain to my mother ever again. Or there’s “cottage in the forest” vs “cabin in the woods,” (take note, people who live in horror movies, don’t mix up the two!) or, well, “water sports” and “water sports.” I’m not even going to touch that one. If you understood it, you understood it, I’m not explaining further.

Joreth: The same book, Myth of Sacred Prostitution, points out that a lot of the translators really just looked at any word that referred to “profit”, particularly the word “quaestus”, and if it was attached to a woman making money, they just assumed she earned it on her back. 

Franklin: According to the book, Bible scholars and early anthropologists struggled to understand the idea that women could have a role in a religious body that didn’t involve being sexually available, so they tended to translate the texts they found in ways that played up the sex-cult interpretation. Which, I mean, hey, if that’s your jam, you do you, but it’s maybe not historically supportable.

The book flat-out disputes the “sacred prostitution” interpretation favored by Biblical scholars.

Joreth: The book also goes on at great length to explain that, at least since the Akkadian Empire, which was more than 2,000 years BCE, there was a word “Entu” that was probably “high priestess” and reserved for only the highest levels of society, like the king’s sister or daughter, and anyone having any kind of sex with the king’s sister was considered a sin of the highest order, in the same category as assault and murder. Her role was completely chaste. The idea is that this role, male or female, was “married” to their deity, so no mere mortal could profane the deity by fucking their spouse. It’s the ancient cult version of the Catholic Nun, even having a marriage ceremony with their god. 

Eunice: Prostitution, as we think of the concept now, just didn’t seem to exist. All the terms that were translated to “prostitute” in a religious setting seem to mean other things if you look closer at the context — companion, female religious leader, entertainer, even woman who owns her own business and has financial independence. For example, one term that got mistranslated early on is “harimtu”, which we now think referred to any single woman not under the authority of a father. As you can imagine, this led to all sorts of issues later. This hasn’t really changed, of course—just think about our assumptions around the term “working girl”, which used to mean what we now use the term “business woman” to mean. Plus in some documented cases, it seems to have been a word used to describe women who just wanted to have lots of sex with men that either weren’t their husbands or weren’t considered the ‘appropriate’ social class for them. Which means your likelihood of being labeled with the term was significantly influenced by political ideology, class, wealth, or social expectations, naturally. The more things stay the same, right?

Franklin: None of this is to say that prostitution didn’t exist in the ancient world. Far from it—there’s a reason it’s called ‘the oldest profession,’ though I’d argue it’s more likely the second oldest profession, after clergyman. But I digress.

Eunice: I’d dispute that — depending on your definition of ‘profession’, I’d suggest ‘gatherer’, as in people who collected food, as an earlier profession. Hard to trade food for sex if you have nothing to trade with!

Joreth: Well, I mean, chimps will trade fruit for sex, although surprisingly oranges, pineapples and maize are among the most sought after crops, with bananas proving far less popular! So perhaps prostitution is older even than homo sapiens!

Eunice: Well, bonobos will trade anything for sex.

Joreth: I think bonobos will trade sex for sex, so…

Franklin: Anyway, there is documentation of sex work in antiquity, but it’s not quite as clear-cut as people think.

Some of the earliest work about ancient Athenian statesman Solon regards the creation of state-sanction brothels, populated by slaves, in the sixth-century BCE. This is documented in the book Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean, 800 BCE-200 CE by Allison Glazebrook and Madeleine Henry, which is a fascinating read.

The women provided for this purpose in Solon’s days were slaves, not working women; they didn’t have a choice to be there, and in fact the book says Solon differentiated between “women who could be prostituted and women who could not be.”

This book defines prostitution as sex work done by people “slave or freed, but they must work for pay (that they either keep for themselves or that is given either to a pimp or slave owner) rather than for their own pleasure.”

Joreth: Another book, Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity by Sarah Pomeroy, discusses the “whorearchy” that still exists today, with former slaves and free non-citizens being registered and paying a special tax, and some of them being higher on the social ladder with intellectual training and artistic talents and being called “hetairai” or “companions” to men.

One such famous hetairai was named Lais. She was a young girl living in a Sicilian city when Athenians ransacked it, kidnapped her, and sold her into slavery. She started out as a lowly prostitute but eventually worked her way up to the class of “hetairai” and became one of the most famous sex workers of the ancient world. She was able to challenge the famous playwright, Euripides, to a battle of wits (no Iocane powder was used, as far as I know), and she was apparently a near-constant companion to the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene (please excuse my terrible accent, I am very American). 

There are some fragments of writing that are attributed to Lais, but it’s now thought that she didn’t write them, someone else just used her name. Which means that she was both famous enough and well-respected enough that somebody thought “hey, if I use her name, people will want to read what I wrote!” So here’s an interesting example of upward mobility within the “whorearchy”, from slave to lowly prostitute, to “companion”.

Franklin: Sex work in ancient Greece still isn’t all that well understood. In Greek traditions, sex work in purpose-built brothels seemed to be rare; while Roman cities had dedicated brothel spaces, and one well-preserved example exists in Pompeii, the cities from ancient Greece don’t seem to, which suggests that the history of sex work was likely complex and those employed or enslaved as sex workers likely did other jobs as well.

Eunice: Pompeii is really interesting, because it was a fairly wealthy town, but not really at the level of like Rome, or Carthage, right? It’s not a capital city. So probably whatever is happening in Pompeii is going to be pretty typical of other Roman settlements. And what they had…was graffiti on the walls of brothels. Some of it, as you can imagine, was the male clients giving reviews about the pornai they had just visited—a real Yelp of its day, you might say—but some of it, and I’m really loving this, was reviews by the prostitutes about the men who came to visit them! This guy was bad at sex, that guy doesn’t pay well, don’t bother with that guy he’s a bit of a dick…sounds like some of the info shared by sex workers nowadays. Some things never change. 

Joreth: Yeah, I love some of the graffiti that was found: “Here many girls poked”, “Lucky guy, you fuck well”, “Mola is a fucktress”.

Franklin: “Fucktress.” Now that is a lovely word. That word needs to make a comeback. It just sounds so…direct. “Excuse me, miss, your eyes are like the moon over still water, so I just have to ask: Will you be my fucktress?”

Joreth: Are we going to see that word in one of your books?

Eunice: I’m trying very, very hard to find a way to squeeze that in somehow—maybe we’ll put it in the sex worker witches coven urban fantasy novels we’re planning. A fucktress sounds like the sex magic equivalent of an enchantress to me!

Joreth: Yes, definitely! That’s exactly what I was thinking! In one particular brothel in Pompeii, there is graffiti that reads, Fortunata fellat (or “Fortunata sucks”) Scholars think that this graffiti was actually written by a woman as she describes the active position of sucking, because it *doesn’t* use the word irrumare, which translates to “to mouth-fuck.” That’s the word that would have been used by male clients to refer to the activity of being fellated.

Eunice: I’m really sad that I didn’t get to see this graffiti in person, but since I went as part of a school visit…I’m pretty sure our teachers just didn’t want to have to explain brothels and prostitution to us. Hah, jokes on them, we could probably have told them more than they told us—kids always know more about sex than you think!

Joreth: And, as usual, early scholars let their morals get in the way of rigorous study of the ancient city. The late 19th century historian, Wolfgang Helbig, said “an analysis of individual paintings [from the brothel] is unnecessary and inadmissible.” It was not until the 20th century that scholars began taking excavations of ancient brothels seriously. 

Franklin: Meanwhile, back in Ancient Greece… Even when dealing with surviving formal writing like law, there’s a tendency amongst historians to assume things are about sex and sex work when perhaps maybe they aren’t. Like historian A. J. Graham saying Athenian regulations on windows facing out onto the street was intended to prevent sex workers from hanging out the windows advertising their wares, but the book Greek Prostitutes in the Ancient Mediterranean points out:

He uses these Thasian regulations on prostitutes and brothels to suggest that an Athenian restriction on windows opening onto roads was intended “to prevent the use of windows for purposes of prostitution” and not to bar “outward-opening window-shutters, which if not secured, might fall down into the street” But without a direct reference to a brothel, as in the Thasian inscription, and given the immediate context of building, balcony, and canal restrictions designed to ensure the safety, cleanliness, and the width of the road, Peter Rhodes’s conclusion is the more convincing one: the regulation is simply about windows and their shutters.

What is it with classical historians seeing sex and sex work everywhere, even in legal regulations about windows and shutters?

Eunice: Perhaps they just didn’t get much of it? Or at least, not as much as they presumably thought they deserve for their super braininess. 

Joreth: Back in the Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves book, the author goes on to talk about how prostitutes in Ancient Athens were not necessarily the lowest rung on the ladder, more like … to the side. A man could have a long-term relationship with a concubine, for instance, that was functionally treated the same as a wife, except for some legal distinctions like her children would not be considered citizens. 

He then talks about prostitutes as being “mercenary” because they were the only women who had independent control over their money, which was then used in extraordinary ways. The author talks about one possibly discredited story of funding the building of a pyramid with prostitution money, but even if this isn’t true, it’s not surprising. 

A lot of the American Old West was funded and run by prostitutes and their money. There were a lot of brothels! But we’ll get a little bit into relatively “modern times” in the second part of this … part?

Eunice: Yeah, brothels and more…formalised structures for prostitution seemed to have been more typical in the more modern era — and by ‘modern’, I am of course referring to ‘the last two thousand years’, which I suspect most people would not consider modern! Certainly not my two American co-hosts over there. So, according to Thomas Mcginn in “Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World”:

As far as I am able to discover, a policy aiming at the segregation of venal sex from respectable elements of the population has every appearance of being a phenomenon that postdated the rise of Christianity.

Joreth: Hold up just a minute here, are you telling me that it was only after Christianity came along that we now think of sex as dirty and keep it segregated from “polite society”?! That can’t be right! I’m shocked, shocked I tell you!

Franklin: No you aren’t. That is not your shocked face.

Eunice: Oh for the naivety to still be shocked by this. Is there anybody that could be shocked by this?

Joreth: Christianity does some weird shit when it comes to sex, which we’re going to cover in a little more depth in part 2 of the History of Sex Work, after the Christian church is formed and starts sticking its nose in everyone’s business. Basically, the takeaway here is, sex work is way more complicated than most folks think it is, it has always been more complicated and more diverse than people think it is, and that complexity tends to get buried beneath easy, simplistic cultural notions of sex and sex work.

Eunice: Though I do wonder why Jesus refers to prostitutes and tax collectors in the same breath—as in, dining with both. I bet there’s something Freudian going on there! 

Franklin: The early church was freaky. I mean like Twilight Zone freaky. One of the early famous Christian preachers, dude named John Chrysostom, was kidnapped, taken to Constantinople, and forcibly consecrated against his will as archbishop. 

Eunice: Wait, hang on, what do you mean kidnapped and forcibly consecrated as an archbishop? How can you make someone an archbishop if they don’t want to be? How often did this sort of thing happen? 

Franklin: Seriously. He was an early champion of the fire-and-brimstone school—one of his early famous sermons said:

“Long after the theater is closed and everyone is gone away, those images of “shameful women” still float before your soul, their words, their conduct, their glances, their walk, their positions, their excitation, their unchaste limbs […] And there within you she kindles the Babylonian furnace in which the peace of your home, the purity of your heart, the happiness of your marriage will be burnt up!”

Not gonna lie, he had me at “unchaste limbs.”

Eunice: Um, he seems to be rather obsessed with the topic. Those limbs are clearly on his mind rather a lot…

Franklin: And which Pope was it who died of a stroke while committing adultery in a specially designed sex chair? Though apparently according to the Internet there’s some historical debate about what happened, with the official account being he died of a stroke but some contemporaneous accounts saying the husband of the woman he was shagging caught him and threw him through a window, which is what killed him.

Eunice: OK, firstly, the fact that there are multiple popes I can think of that this story could apply to says a lot about that era of popes. And secondly, whether he died of a stroke, a heart attack, defenestration, or by getting his head lopped off by the guy he was cuckolding, the stories all seem to agree that he really was doing the not-popely activities, right? 

Franklin: I love that English has a word for “thrown out of a window.”

Joreth: So, speaking of defenestration (from the Latin, meaning literally “down from window”) … apparently there were 3 separate and official Defenestrations of Prague that all have to do with conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, the first and third of which started major wars, and the second one … brokered 30 years of peace?

Eunice: Well, technically there’s a bit of a debate about whether that counts as two or three official Defenestrations of Prague. I mean, if it doesn’t kick off a war are you even trying, right?

Joreth: But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. There’s still some history between the Ancient World and the weird and arbitrary schisms of the cult of Jesus, in addition to the WHOLE WEIRDNESS that is prostitution in Christianity in the modern world itself.

Franklin: Next month, we’ll look at sex work in the “modern era”, and follow that up with a peek at historical sex work in non-Western cultures, because we haven’t even scratched the surface of the kind of diversity that exists in sex work worldwide.

We’d love to hear from you! Send comments or suggestions for future episodes to contact@skepticalpervert.com. If you know someone else who might enjoy this podcast, why not share the love, by giving us a review on iTunes or Spotify or wherever it is you listen to us. You can find our Web site at www.skepticalpervert.com, where you’ll find show notes and transcripts. And don’t forget to join our Patreon, which is linked to on the website! Patreon subscribers will eventually be able to hear our extensive outtakes about defenestration.

Eunice:  And speaking of Patreon, a big thank you to DM Spektor, our first Patron on Patreon!

Joreth:  And remember, if you don’t yeet your pervertism through a window, it’s not a proper skeptifenestration!

Eunice: Wait, how do you yeet a pervertism? I can see yeeting a pervert—with consent, please, we’re not advocating non-consensual yeeting here—but can you even yeet a concept? A lifestyle? A personality trait? I’m not even quite sure what to call it here…

Joreth:  But isn’t skepticism all about yeeting concepts?

Eunice: Ok, good point, well made. Yeet away!