Sex work has long been regarded as “The Oldest Profession in the World.”
This idea of the inevitability of sex work in society–itself enabled by this phrase in particular–has continually reinforced the idea that sex work is a natural part of human nature, rather than a product of patriarchal capitalism. Is sex work actually “the oldest profession”? No. That’s pretty much BS.
If a sex worker were to trade sex for food, wouldn’t hunter, fisher, or gatherer be the first profession? How in the hell could a woman selling sex be the first profession? What would she sell sex for?
The concept of selling sex could have only existed after the concept of “selling” was developed. The concept of trading (for a specific good that the giver had in surplus) has always existed, but selling (for currency that can be used to acquire goods or services) only existed after currency was invented (which was likely around emergence of the earliest civilizations–around 5,000 years ago). In fact, none of the evidence for prostitution extends further back than then, largely because that is when writing was developed and people would actually record what happened.
So let’s take a step back. What is the evidence of prostitution in the past and how far back does it extend?
The very earliest written records of prostitution come from ancient Sumer, around 2,500 BC. In these records, there are details/provisions for “male” (AMAB) sex workers to serve in the religious temple. However, in contemporary records, under the list of female occupations, prostitution is never mentioned.
The next historical mention of prostitution comes from Hammurabi’s code from Ancient Babylon, around 1750 BC (Codes 178-80, 187, 192, 193). Here, only female (and child) sex workers are mentioned; while they are definitely considered 2nd class citizens in the code, they are protected by the law in numerous ways. Chinese tradition has held that legal brothels were established in the 1st millennium BC, but the records from this time might not be reliable.
During the first millennium BC into the mid-first millennium AD, both ancient Greece and Rome had legal brothels, which, particularly in the Roman Empire, were well regulated and protected by law. An archaeological study of Pompeii found brothels scattered throughout the city, in both poor and rich neighborhoods. Different types of sex workers existed, not unlike how they do now, though they could possibly be more "out".
Around this time, (while the tradition may have begun much earlier), the Ancient Kama Sutra details Hijra (Trans AMAB third gender still in India) sex workers. The Old Testament of the Bible is also littered with mentions of sex workers.
At and after this point, civilizations in both the old and the new world began to spread rapidly. In the New World, we have very few written records, though the records we do have from Mayan civilization have been interpreted to indicate the presence of a sex worker profesion, potentially homosexual AMAB religious leaders. As Ancient Rome became Catholic, prostitution was slowly shamed and banned. Over time in Europe, Christianity took hold; as different regions fractured into states, they each handled prostitution differently. Over time, almost every European country legalized and then illegalized prostitution numerous times.
When prostitution was allowed and protected, sometimes it was for important social and economic reasons; sometimes because that country had a horny leader. When it was disallowed and criminalized, it was almost always for “religious” reasons–see also: misogynistic patriarchal rules created to limit women’s access to labor and independence.
In the US, prostitution has been legal (or at least decriminalized) at least one point in time almost everywhere (though there are some exceptions to this, like Utah). In many places, prostitution, brothels, and red-light districts were protected and regulated well into the 20th century. In fact, Jazz as we know it was created/developed in New Orleans’ infamous legal red light district, Storyville.
Now in 2016, sex work is largely illegal in the US, though other forms of sex work (like porn) are allowed. Many sex workers work under the radar and are forced into dangerous situations in order to survive.
With the exception of the Pompeii study, all of the knowledge and evidence about prostitution in the past presented here comes from written documents, or “history.” History can only tell us about the past 5,000 years, but homo sapiens have existed for around 200,000 years, and the genus homo has existed for around 2,500,000 years. We have an entirely biased and incomplete recorded information (which is often presented as fact) for the last 2.5% of the human past.
Around 12,000 years ago (10,000 BC; nothing like that terrible movie), the earth warmed, agriculture was developed, and human societies began to grow and changed quite suddenly, often violently. Our recorded info doesn’t even reach halfway back to the beginning of the Holocene (the current geologic epoch which sparked this change) or to the beginning of the Neolithic revolution (when agriculture was developed). We need to be extremely careful trying to use written documents to explain the whole of human past and nature.
Until the Neolithic (and much later in parts of the world), almost everyone lived in small, kin-linked, largely-egalitarian, hunter-gatherer groups. In such societies, individuals don't break off to specialize in a craft (in this case, sex work); that would’ve meant giving up the search for food themselves. Craft specialization in this sense didn't develop until the increase of political complexity within the human race. It is likely that political leaders and central organization may have allowed a surplus of food so it became possible for not everyone to hunt, gather, or farm. People could spend time doing other things, like trading (and selling) things for food/goods. In almost any case, the richest people (often the most politically powerful leaders) would’ve been the first to buy the crafts made/sold by specialists.
In all likelihood, the first prostitute, sugar baby, concubine, etc. was hired by a chief/king. The highest of political leaders most likely invented prostitution.
Political leaders and patriarchy significantly contributed to the creation and maintenance of sex work; they're also the ones who are responsible for the criminalization and mistreatment of the workers who take this path. In the vast majority of historical cases throughout the world, prostitution was performed by women and AMAB transfeminine people. However, writing prostitution into laws, and enforcing them, was done almost entirely by men. And when it would again be banned and shamed, those laws were written by men.
Prostitution was created and criminalized by men. Sex workers have gone into sex work and been punished for being sex workers largely because of men.
Patriarchy (or at least many men with socio-political influence) and our economic system have created a niche profession, which is largely filled by those with fewer opportunities to pursue more societally sanctioned careers. Outside of capitalism, other forms of sex work/slavery definitely exist, such as when a 9 year old girl is forced to marry a 69 year old man. However, prostitution as we think of it cannot exist without some central currency to trade.
Yes: sex work may be inevitable given the social and economic system we live in. However, given human nature alone, sex work is absolutely not an inherent eventuality. Insisting on sex work as "the oldest profession" is an appeal to precedence that overshadows the necessity of women being allowed to apply their labor to survive, filling an economic/social niche that has likely existed since men first began to rise to power 5 to 10 thousand years ago.