The brothel must be the oldest public institution if prostitution is the oldest vocation. Those in Middle England who are concerned that the woman next door may start doing some work from home may find the government's idea to legalize brothels, even if they are only small ones with a maximum of two prostitutes and a receptionist, audacious. However, the argument over whether it is preferable to keep prostitutes in brothels or let them roam the streets is not a recent one.
Of course, the claim that it is the "oldest profession" is probably certainly false. Not simply because, as some feminists have noted, being a midwife definitely qualifies one for the title.
According to anthropologists, prostitution did not appear to be present at all in what was once referred to as primitive communities. Before the arrival of the white man, there was no sex trade among the Australian Aborigines. In societies ranging from the prehistoric Cymri people of Wales to recently found tribes in the jungles of Burma, brothels don't appear to have existed either. It appears that prostitution has something to do with what we consider to be civilized.
Women seem to have first sold themselves for sex in temples rather than brothels, according to historical records. Those who had sex as part of a religious ceremony rather than for financial gain were considered prostitutes in Sumeria, Babylonia, and among the Phoenicians. Sex in the temple was thought to bestow both men and women with particular blessings. However, that was very distinct from simply doing it for the money.
There are many examples of that in the Bible, though prostitutes in Jewish scriptures appeared to work from home, as with Rahab, the Jericho prostitute who helped Joshua's spies and marked her home with a scarlet rope, which some belief is the origin of the "red light" (though that may, more prosaically, come from the red lanterns carried by railroad workers left outside brothels while they were inside).
The earliest known brothels appear to have existed in ancient Egypt. According to some historians, prostitution did not become widespread until Greek and Mesopotamian travelers began to have an impact. However, throughout the reign of the later pharaohs, males were lured into brothels by dancing ladies and musicians. According to Herodotus, a Greek prostitute by the name of Rhopopis was so prosperous in Egypt that she used her earnings to erect a pyramid.
However, it is undeniable that the Greeks were the ones to initially give the brothel an official status. In the fifth century BC, the eminent Athenian legislator and lyric poet Solon established state brothels and levied taxes on prostitutes' earnings. They had hetaerae (companions) working for them, ranging from slaves and other low-class women to those in higher positions. One obole, or one-sixth of a drachma, or the equivalent of a typical worker's day wage was the price of a sexual encounter. You had sex in exchange for that, but it wasn't oral, which Greek women disliked, despite the fact that hetaerae were frequently punished for declining.
Romans were big on having sex. Few languages are more pornographically rich than Latin, which has numerous names for prostitutes and other forms of sex. In pubs, waitresses typically offered sexual services. Under the arches, prostitutes set up shop at the circus (fornices - hence fornication). Police registered and controlled the activity of official prostitutes. For a decent man, renting from a brothel was an acceptable source of money.
It wasn't the same in every brothel. The brothels in the Peace ward were lavishly furnished, in contrast to the filthy ones in the Second District of the city. Hairstylists were on hand to restore the damage caused by passionate fights. The "water lads," also known as aquarioli, waited outside the door with bidets for ablution. The elite prostitutes had a significant impact on Roman jewelry, clothing, and hairstyles.
As one ancient historian gently described it, the dwellings had an emblem of Priapus in wood or stone over the door that was "often painted to more precisely reflect nature."
A number of these advertising standards were discovered in the remains of Pompeii, where a sizable brothel known as the Lupanar was discovered. Lupae (she-wolves), a special type of sex worker famed for being talented with their tongues, were a particular kind of sex worker.
Among the fossilized ruins were what our careful historian called "tools employed in fulfilling unnatural lusts"; it should be noted, however, that it took some study and consideration to unlock the secret of how to utilize a few of these instruments properly, which is a testament to modern morals.
Even in medieval times, there was still ambivalence concerning brothels—a desire to both license and regulate. Because prostitution was believed to be a lesser evil than rape and sodomy, it was accepted. No less than St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas made the case that prostitution was a necessary evil: just as a well-run city required good sewers, so did it require brothels. The state, city, or prince controlled the brothels in medieval times.
Rules had been established. The location of brothels was in particular streets. Men who were married and clergymen were not permitted to visit. Prostitutes were permitted to operate only outside the town walls but not inside, and they had to wear distinguishing clothing. For penitent prostitutes, particular homes were constructed.
Public brothels were constructed in a variety of locations, including Sandwich, and foreign communities including Hamburg, Vienna, and Augsburg. Such systems of control persisted for three centuries in many areas, but these official medieval brothels were eventually shut down when a severe syphilis pandemic swept over Europe in the 16th century.
By the time of Elizabeth, there were more types of sex for sale. Southwark was the red-light district in London. Since brothels were originally steam bath buildings, they were typically whitewashed and referred to as "stews." But there were prostitutes present in the theatres. Famous theatrical producers and performers, like Philip Henslowe and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn, ran a successful brothel.
In 1546, Henry VIII attempted to shut down the brothels, but he had little success because some of them were moated and had high walls to fend off attackers. A young man could have to pay 40 shillings or more in a brothel for "a bottle or two of wine, the hug of a painted strumpet, and the French welcome [syphilis]," according to a 1584 account of the Tudor whorehouse.
But by the end of the 17th century, the French in Paris were requiring prostitutes to undergo medical examinations, wear distinctive clothing with badges, and live in authorized brothels. Many agreed. The encouragement of public whoring, according to Dutch physician Bernard Mandeville, who wrote a defense of the practice in London in 1724, "will not only prevent most of the vice's mischievous effects but even lessen the quantity of whoring in general and reduce it to the narrowest bounds which it can possibly be contained in."
But some were against it. Empress Maria Theresa forbade prostitution in Vienna in 1751 and enforced penalties for violators including fines, incarceration, flogging, and even torture. She even prohibited all women from wearing short dresses and restricted female maids from working in taverns.
There have always been a lot of people who wanted to prohibit trade. In 1254, Louis IX of France issued an order for all courtesans to be expelled from the nation and stripped of their possessions, money, and — this one is a little dubious — even their clothing.
He burned all brothels before leaving for the Crusades, which led to a greater-than-ever mingling of prostitutes and the general populace.
Soon after Marie Therese's purge, Czarina Elizaveta Petrovna of Russia launched a "search and catch" operation to round up all prostitutes, domestic and foreign. Additionally, Tsar Paul I, her successor, commanded the banishment to Siberia of all those found in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
The Mayor of Portsmouth tried the same thing in 1860 by forcing all the prostitutes out onto the streets, but after three days the situation had gotten so bad that he decided to let them return to their previous location. In 1891, identical occurrences essentially occurred again in Pittsburgh and New York.
Between 1910 and 1915, practically all states outlawed prostitution, which had previously been allowed in the United States. This was largely thanks to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, which also played a significant role in the prohibition of alcohol and other drugs. However, whoring continued to thrive alongside drinking, with brothels opening and shutting frequently and women rotating between being chorus girls and prostitutes in the New York brothels that lined West 39th and 40th streets.
The succeeding years have only confirmed this narrative, with many nations alternating between periods in which the sex industry was permitted and those in which it was criminalized. In 1885, prostitution and venereal disease were more prevalent in Rotterdam—a city with regulations—than in Amsterdam, an unregulated metropolis. Denmark gave up regulation in 1906. It was adopted in Amsterdam in 1911. In the 1920s, prostitution was outlawed in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Italy. After two centuries, Paris finally closed its brothels in 1949.
Both the permissive and prohibitive approaches fail because the issues they attempt to address—preserving public morals, eliminating the sex-slave trade, controlling sexually transmitted diseases, and enhancing prostitutes' health and working conditions—are not amenable to straightforward fixes.
What benefits one diminishes another. We keep trying, altering policy here and there. It would appear that the only real lesson of history is that we can never learn anything from it.