In the Ancient Near East along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers there were many shrines and temples or “houses of heaven” dedicated to various deities documented by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories where sacred prostitution was a common practice. It came to an end when the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD destroyed the goddess temples and replaced them with Christianity.
As early as the 18th century BC, ancient Mesopotamia recognized the need to protect women’s property rights. In the Code of Hammurabi, provisions were found that addressed inheritance rights of women, including female prostitutes.
Ancient hebrew culture
According to Zohar and the Alphabet of Ben Sira, there were four angels of sacred prostitution, who mated with archangel Samael. They were the queens of the demons Lilith, Naamah, Agrat Bat Mahlat and Eisheth Zenunim.
Both women and boys engaged in prostitution in ancient Greece. Female prostitutes could be independent and sometimes influential women. They were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the Greek hetaera, the Japanese oiran, and also the Indian tawaif. Some prostitutes in ancient Greece, such as Lais were as famous for their company as their beauty, and some of these women charged extraordinary sums for their services.
Prostitution in ancient Rome was legal, public, and widespread. A registered prostitute was called a meretrix while the unregistered one fell under the broad category prostibulae. There were some commonalities with the Greek system, but as the Empire grew, prostitutes were often foreign slaves, captured, purchased, or raised for that purpose, sometimes by large-scale “prostitute farmers” who took abandoned children. Indeed, abandoned children were almost always raised as prostitutes. Enslavement into prostitution was sometimes used as a legal punishment against criminal free women. Buyers were allowed to inspect naked men and women for sale in private and there was no stigma attached to the purchase of males by a male aristocrat.
According to Shia Muslims, the prophet Muhammad sanctioned fixed-term marriage – muta’a in Iraq and sigheh in Iran — which has instead been used as a legitimizing cover for sex workers, in a culture where prostitution is otherwise forbidden. Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of Muslims worldwide, believe the practice of fixed-term marriage was abrogated and ultimately forbidden by either Muhammad, or one of his successors, Umar. Like the Shia, Sunnis regard prostitution as sinful and forbidden.
Köçek troupe at a fair. Recruited from the ranks of colonized ethnic groups, köçeks were entertainers and sex workers in theOttoman Empire.
French prostitutes being taken to the police station.
In the early 17th century, there was widespread male and female prostitution throughout the cities of Kyoto, Edo, and Osaka, Japan. Oiran were courtesans in Japan during the Edo period. The oiran were considered a type ofyūjo (遊女?) “woman of pleasure” or prostitute. Among the oiran, the tayū (太夫?) was considered the highest rank of courtesan available only to the wealthiest and highest ranking men. To entertain their clients, oiran practiced the arts of dance, music, poetry, and calligraphy as well as sexual services, and an educated wit was considered essential for sophisticated conversation. Many became celebrities of their times outside the pleasure districts. Their art and fashions often set trends among wealthy women. The last recorded oiran was in 1761. Although illegal in modern Japan, the definition of prostitution does not extend to a “private agreement” reached between a woman and a man in a brothel. Yoshiwara has a large number of soaplands that began when explicit prostitution in Japan became illegal, where women washed men’s bodies. They were originally known as toruko-buro, meaning Turkish bath.
A tawaif was a courtesan who catered to the nobility of South Asia, particularly during the era of the Mughal Empire. These courtesans danced, sang, recited poetry and entertained their suitors at mehfils. Like the geishatradition in Japan, their main purpose was to professionally entertain their guests, and while sex was often incidental, it was not assured contractually. High-class or the most popular tawaifs could often pick and choose between the best of their suitors. They contributed to music, dance, theatre, film, and the Urdu literary tradition.