Note: This is not a post about the agency of sex workers, which for me is a given. The right to sell sex is a fundamental human right for everyone—provided it is a free and conscious choice. I see no difference between selling one’s body for sex, selling one’s body for physical labour, or selling one’s mind for intellectual work. For a pro-agency post, please read The real crime of Jennifer Thompson.
“Prostitution is the oldest profession.” Despite its obvious fallacy—football clearly came first—the aphorism retains currency. But is it true? When did prostitution actually emerge? It’s generally agreed that the earliest definitive record of prostitution is the legal Code of Hammurabi (c. 1800 BC). But I’d like to focus on the forces that created prostitution. For it did not emerge by accident. It arose as an adaptation—in the Darwinian sense of the word—because it gave someone somewhere an advantage in their struggle for life.
In his ground-breaking enquiry into the origins of social and sexual violence, Saharasia, geographer James DeMeo studied a database of 1200 ancient cultures. He classified them according to the presence or absence of patriarchal or matriarchal customs, beliefs and institutions. DeMeo then charted where and when older, more egalitarian societies gave way to the earliest patriarchies—city-states like Babylon, where King Hammurabi ruled from 1792 to 1750 BC.
DeMeo documents how the rise of patriarchy followed a period of climate change around 4000 BC. The savannah-like conditions of what he terms Saharasia—the Sahara, Arabia and Central Asia—turned into the deserts we know today. This loss of habitat turned the region’s previously peaceful occupants into rapacious clans bent on survival at all costs. Stratified cultures where the warrior class was exalted emerged. Warrior societies withheld colostrum from new-born males to make them more aggressive. This also made them anti-female.
To protect the warrior bloodline, the sexuality of the women of the ruling class was tightly controlled. Sex—outside of narrow, proscribed limits—was both shameful and dangerous. This fear and shame was internalised as sexual repression and unconsciously passed down the generations. By King Hammurabi’s time patriarchy was entrenched across Saharasia. Examining these radically altered social conditions, DeMeo identified three preconditions for prostitution in these ancient societies:
- “Strict female virginity taboos which block sexual access to females by young men”
- Women who are “economically dependent upon men”
- “Older men with surplus wealth”
The earliest patriarchal societies ticked all the boxes. The virginity of women of the ruling class became a commodity, meeting the first of DeMeo’s preconditions. Compliance was also ensured through their economic disempowerment, satisfying the second condition. Older ruling males controlled the wealth, meeting the third precondition. With these structural drivers in place, commodified sex soon emerged as temple prostitution.
From the classical world to the modern
By the time of the classical world (ancient Greece and Rome, 500 BC – 500 AD) prostitution had assumed its modern form with women in particular exchanging sex for money. The battle between the right to sell sex and the legislation of prostitution has raged ever since.
DeMeo’s research shows that prostitution arose as an inevitable product of patriarchy. Its sex-shaming structure created a sex-deficit society. Prostitution naturally emerged as a mechanism for reducing that deficit: sexually deprived men and economically deprived women made natural bedfellows.
The preconditions identified by DeMeo have significantly weakened over the last 4,000 years. Virginity taboos have relaxed—despite the best efforts of American virginity cults—and most women (in the West at least) are economically independent. Older men with surplus wealth remain a major client base for today’s sex workers.
Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, modification and adaptation tells us that as the social, economic and sexual landscape of the 21st century changes, so will prostitution.