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New Worlds: The Oldest Profession

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Swinging over to the far end of the spectrum from the pure chastity of a virgin . . . it’s time to talk about prostitution.

Proverbially, this is “the oldest profession in the world.” That is, of course, an unprovable claim, and the phrase actually didn’t refer to prostitution until a Kipling story in the late nineteenth century; it was previously applied to everything from farmers to soldiers to priests, and our earliest attestation for it actually referred to tailors. But the practice of trading sex for remuneration of some kind certainly is an old one — that much is not in question.

One thing up front: the vast majority of prostitution has always been oriented toward female professionals serving male clients. Male prostitutes do exist (and other genders), but because women have often had relatively little freedom to seek sexual gratification outside of marriage — especially with someone who could impregnate them — most male prostitutes will be serving other men. As for women serving women, the lack of freedom for the clients again applies, coupled with the widespread heterosexual assumption that somebody has to have a penis for sex to occur. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll largely be talking here about that primary pattern, women serving men. (And for my sanity’s sake, I’ll speak of everyone involved as if they’re adults . . . but, horrifyingly, that isn’t always true.)

The vast majority of prostitution has also been conducted by women from the lower classes. The occasional historical or legendary exception notwithstanding — and I’ll talk about high-end courtesans in another essay later this month — this is not a line of work often chosen by people with a lot of alternatives. In the most common configurations, it tends to be exhausting, degrading, and hazardous to both health and physical safety. Nor is everyone engaged in it young; older women might fetch a lower price, but they’ll still get custom from men who care less about appearance than about getting off on the cheap. Where slavery is a part of society (legally or otherwise) you may have an entire stratum of enslaved prostitutes, and even those who are free have often turned to prostitution as a way of staving off eviction, starvation, and other perils associated with living below the poverty line. It’s certainly possible to worldbuild a society where that isn’t true, but we should start by acknowledging what reality has frequently looked like.

Part of the reason that reality has so routinely been sordid has to do with where prostitution fits into society. When women don’t have many rights and most prostitutes are women, you’re unlikely to wind up with a positive dynamic. Nor have most cultures valued sex work as a social service or a performing art, even though you can certainly construct logical arguments to support both of those framings. Instead, prostitution is often simultaneously exiled to the fringes of society, and pervasive throughout it.

This is true regardless of whether it’s legal or illegal. Even where it’s legal, it may be frowned upon by the authorities, and even where it’s illegal, it may be openly acknowledged and permitted to continue. The arguments for illegality are manifold: if sex is supposed to be confined to marriage, then allowing it to occur outside the bonds of matrimony degrades public morals. Public health, too; there are many sexually transmitted diseases, and those can wind up infecting not only the prostitutes and their clients, but also innocent spouses at home, who may in turn pass on negative consequences to their unborn children. Prostitution is further blamed for tempting men to stray (as if they don’t do that regardless), and for them frittering away time and money they’re supposed to give in support of their families. Outlawing the practice aims to protect women as well as men — and there’s some real truth to this, as prostitutes are often extremely vulnerable to robbery and physical abuse, in addition to the moral and health concerns mentioned previously.

But the arguments for legal prostitution have counters for many of those points. Morality is more of an “eye of the beholder” situation, as those who promote a more sex-positive mentality are coming from an entirely different starting point than their opponents, but other aspects are more straightforward. Worried about public health? Licensed prostitutes can be required to undergo regular health checks — admittedly this one works better when there are actual treatments to cure STDs, since a woman who loses her license for being infected with an incurable disease may just keep working illegally. She’s also safer if her job has official approval, since now she can go to the police if she’s assaulted or robbed, without fearing she’ll be arrested while her assailant is let off scot-free. On top of that, legalization means you can tax it: the thirteenth-century Dominican canonist Saint Raymond of Penyafort argued that it was all right for the state to profit off prostitution, since remission of taxes would be a sign of favor and approval.

Of course, all these things may also make buying sexual services more expensive. If a prostitute has to pay for taxes, health inspections, and licensing fees, she’s got to make enough off her work to cover those things and still make a living. Even in a world where there are no laws against such activity, you would still probably have an underground market in the unlicensed version — just as I mentioned in Year Seven for services like taxi rides. And like any underground market, that one’s going to be more dangerous and unreliable, drawing the desperate and subjecting them to more abuse.

But we have that regardless. If there’s one thing the history of prostitution shows, it’s that this will always be with us: outlawing it doesn’t actually make it go away. Achieving a society in which either there is no clientele for paid sex work or its suppression has fully succeeded requires going pretty far down the utopian or dystopian path. Which is not, mind you, the same as me insisting that every story needs to bring up the topic — of course not! And science fiction and fantasy have a long history of building worlds in which prostitution occupies a different, more well-respected role. People who study this kind of thing can have long, vehement arguments about how realistic that is and whether it’s a good idea (is sex work inherently traumatizing, such that it can never be made into a routine service?); I’m not going to weigh in on that, as I recognize I’m not qualified to answer the question. I do, however, think there’s merit in imagining better alternatives.

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9 thoughts on “New Worlds: The Oldest Profession”

  1. From the few documentaries and news articles I’ve observed, in modern U.S. the only person who profits from prostitution is the pimp. Supposedly he, or she, recruits clients and protects his “stable” (yes that is demeaning to consider the women no better than horses to be exploited). Unfortunately the pimp collects the money and doles out a small percentage to the women actually doing the work.

    1. “in modern U.S. the only person who profits from prostitution is the pimp.”

      I’m pretty sure that contradicts the testimony of lots of sex workers. One of whom said “i’ve been in sex work for ten years and have met hundreds of other sex workers, but have never met anyone that to my knowledge has a pimp” and “trafficked and groomed? no. Economic desperation? Most.”

      This also matches surveys I’ve seen from Australia and New Zealand, where legality makes things more transparent. For most workers, it was largely a job done for money, neither “happy hooker” nor involving coercion or drug use (less true for streetwalkers vs. other forms, but they’re a minority). Hardly a perfect job but $200/hour pay with flexible has a lot of appeal, even if the billable hours are unpredictable.

      There’s a lot of anti-sex work advocacy where claims don’t match sex worker experience, or even basic plausibility.

  2. Howard Brazee

    The opening line of “Point of Honor”, by Madeleine E. Robins is:

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom.”

    The protagonist, Sarah Tolerance is a detective in Victorian England, and she interacts with the people in a high-class whorehouse.

    1. Marie Brennan

      Usually there’s a slide, though. The woman doesn’t walk right out the door of her family’s estate and into the brothel; she goes through stages that reduce her to the point of needing to prostitute herself to survive.

  3. I think chimps have been observed trading meat for sex, which makes a case for the ‘profession’ being older than the human species…

  4. In many times and societies the largest number of women engaging in prostitution were enslaved.

    Our contemporary vast human trafficking networks are engaged in doing the same thing slave dealers and markets did openly and legally.

    Or, perhaps, in many times and societies, the largest number of women engaging in prostitution did so periodically / part-time. Particularly in the societies in which the condition of a woman in service in a tavern and many other jobs, including within the homes of the privileged, connected and idle, were seen as providing sexual service on demand as the prerogative of any man.

    1. Marie Brennan

      I’ve got a comment in the next essay about “casual” prostitution, but I forgot to say anything about service jobs like at inns — thanks! I’ll add that in.

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