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Prostitution was widespread in preindustrial societies. The exchange of wives by their husbands was a practice among many primitive peoples. In the ancient Middle East and India temples maintained large numbers of prostitutes. Sexual intercourse with them was believed to facilitate communion with the gods.

In ancient Greece prostitution flourished on all levels of society. Prostitutes of the lowest level worked in licensed brothels and were required to wear distinctive clothing as a badge of their vocation. Prostitutes of a higher level usually were skilled dancers and singers. Those of the highest level, the hetaerae, kept salons where politicians met, and they often attained power and influence.

In ancient Rome prostitution was common despite severe legal restrictions. Female slaves, captured abroad by the Roman legions, were impressed into urban brothels or exploited by owners in the households they served. The Roman authorities attempted to limit the spread of slave prostitution and often resorted to harsh measures. Brothel inmates, called meretrices, were forced to register with the government for life, to wear garish blond wigs and other distinctive raiment, to forfeit all civil rights, and to pay a heavy tax.

In the Middle Ages the Christian church, which valued chastity, attempted to convert or rehabilitate individual prostitutes but refrained from campaigning against the institution itself. In so doing the church followed the teaching of St. Augustine, who held that the elimination of prostitution would breed even worse forms of immorality and perversion, because men would continue to seek sexual contact outside marriage. By the late Middle Ages, prostitution had reached a high point in Western history. Licensed brothels flourished throughout Europe, yielding enormous revenues to government officials and corrupt churchmen. In Asia, where women were held in low esteem and no religious deterrent existed, prostitution was accepted as natural.

During the 16th century prostitution declined sharply in Europe, largely as the result of stern reprisals by Protestants and Roman Catholics. They condemned the immorality of brothels and their inmates, but they were also motivated by the perception of a connection between prostitution and an outbreak of syphilis, a previously unknown disease. Brothels in many cities were closed by the authorities. Under a typical ordinance, enacted in Paris in 1635, prostitutes were flogged, shaved bald, and exiled for life without formal trial.


These harsh strictures did not, however, eradicate prostitution and sexually transmitted disease. Gradually it became obvious that these ills were increasing, especially in the large, crowded cities that accompanied the industrialization of the West in the 18th and 19th centuries.

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MLA Citation:
"Prostitution." 29 Mar 2017

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Beginning with Prussia in 1700, most continental European governments shifted their tactics from suppression of prostitution and sexually transmitted disease to control through a system of compulsory registration, licensed brothels, and medical inspection of prostitutes. Britain, although it did not license brothels, passed Contagious Disease Prevention acts in the 1860s providing for medical inspection of prostitutes in certain naval and military districts. In Britain and the United States prostitution flourished openly in urban red-light districts. City officials, viewing prostitutes as a “necessary evil,” allowed prostitutes to ply their trade as long as they refrained from annoying any “respectable” person who happened into the area. A lucrative white-slave trade developed, in which women and girls were shipped across international borders for immoral purposes.

In time the ineffectuality and corruption of licensed prostitution stirred protests throughout Europe. Britain repealed the Contagious Disease Prevention acts, which were not proving to be a deterrent to sexually transmitted disease and were, moreover, regarded as a threat to the civil liberties of their subjects. Many governments sought to check prostitution by attacking the international traffic in women and children. Britain passed the Criminal Amendment Act (1885) forbidding such traffic, and 13 major powers signed a treaty (1904) outlawing it and providing for an international exchange of data on the subject

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