Prostitution is the act of engaging in sexual activity with someone in exchange for money or similar benefits. It is one of the most common professions found throughout different parts of the world. Its history can be traced back to thousands of years. Generally speaking, through the course of human history, prostitution has been seen as a taboo. As human societies started to become more civilized and education was increasingly seen as a necessity for individuals, this approach towards seeing prostitution as an immoral element of society was intensified in some places and diminished in others.
In many so-called civilized societies, where ideas of freedom and liberalism were spread and appreciated, prostitution has, nonetheless, been considered an abominable profession at some point. However, in modern times, many countries have made laws to legalize it. It is ubiquitous and is often called the oldest profession in the world. It is worthy to note that even though most cultural practices in the past, and also in the present, tended to regulate prostitution as much as possible, the actual rate of prostitution remained unaffected. In different parts of the world, depending on the dominant social factors such as religious beliefs and literacy rates, acts of prostitution continued to emerge in some form or another.
Even though the history of prostitution is extensive, no one had called it the oldest profession until the late 19th century. The first person to make such a remark in popular culture was the renowned English writer and Nobel Prize winner, Rudyard Kipling. He made this remark through his literary work. In his fictional story, titled ‘On the City Wall,’ published in 1888, Kipling brought the attention of the public to this idea by narrating the life of a prostitute.
Later, as this outlook grew and attracted public attention, several other writers also popularized this idea through their writings. The articles ‘The Oldest Profession in the World: Prostitution,’ by physician William Josephus Robinson, in 1929, and ‘The Story of the World’s Oldest Profession’ by Joseph McCabe, in 1932, were among the major ones to promote this view. Similarly, among various non-English speaking societies, having different cultural backgrounds, the same view started to spread and make its place into people’s minds.
There is no doubt that prostitution has been here since ancient times. When we study history, we find that nearly every civilization has kept the practice of prostitution active in one way or another. Since the beginning of the Barter system, sexual services have been provided in the market. One of the earliest references to prostitution can be seen in the Code of Hammurabi, one of the first law codes in history. This charter, which dates back to 1754 B.C., has references to the inheritance rights of women, including prostitutes.
However, the argument that prostitution is the oldest profession is debatable. The answer actually depends upon various factors. First of all, we might want to look at the definition of the term ‘profession.’ According to the English Oxford dictionary, ‘profession’ is defined as a paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. But this definition itself is subject to unending debates. Prostitution could only have begun after human beings started to live as a society. If a prostitute had to be paid, there must have been something to pay them with. Since other needs such as getting food and ensuring survival came before the outright desire for sexual pleasure, it is logical to assume that hunting and gathering food should have been prioritized profession. Also, there have been artworks discovered from pre-historic eras depicting several social practices, and no evidence of prostitution has been found from such artworks.
Interestingly, the fact that prostitution is also seen among animals hints at the probability that it is very old and predates even human beings. Some chimpanzees have been observed to offer sex in exchange for food. Similar observations have been made among penguins.
So, there can be no definite conclusion to whether or not prostitution is the oldest paid-for activity. But as far as humans and our social lives are concerned, it is probable that we would prefer some other simple activity such as hunting, cooking, teaching, or medicine over prostitution.