Is Prostitution Really the World’s Oldest Profession?

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March 6 2012 5:57 PM

Is Prostitution Really the World's Oldest Profession?

It is pretty old.

The Procuress painting, 1622
The Procuress, oil on canvas by Dirck van Baburen in 1622

Painting by Dirck van Baburen/CGFA Art Museum

Rush Limbaugh called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “prostitute” and a “slut” on the air last week, enraging liberals and prompting many of his program’s advertisers to pull out. Prostitutes are often said to work in “the world’s oldest profession.” Is prostitution really the world’s oldest profession?

It depends how you define it. Humans have exchanged money and goods for sex for thousands of years, and indeed it seems that any society that begins to develop material wealth soon develops some form of prostitution. The Bible depicts many Israelites as having large numbers of concubines, who could be viewed either as prostitutes or as wives of a lesser status. According to 1 Kings 11:3, King Solomon had “700 wives … and 300 concubines.” In ancient Rome, it seems you could hand over a token at a brothel in return for a specific sexual favor. However, the common image of prostitutes as a special group of outcasts walking the streets may not have arisen until the Victorian era, when health officials blamed them for the spread of venereal diseases. In the 21st century, prostitution occurs across cultures and political systems, even operating in socialist societies.

The originator of the phrase “the world’s oldest profession” was Rudyard Kipling. His 1888 story about a prostitute begins, “Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world.” As progressives debated how to deal with prostitution in the United States in the early 1900s, medical professionals soon began to cite (and misquote) Kipling, and the phrase took on a life of its own. Some wanted to do away with the vice and the many sexually transmitted infections that it spread. Their opponents in turn claimed fighting prostitution was worthless, because it was the world’s most ancient profession, and “you can’t change human nature.” Those who made this claim usually didn’t offer any historical evidence to support it: Christian progressives may have been thinking of the harlots and concubines depicted in some of the most ancient events of the Bible, while for others it was simply a figure of speech. By 1932 authors were naming their books after the idea, including physician William Josephus Robinson’s social and medical assessment The Oldest Profession in the World: Prostitution from 1929 and Joseph McCabe’s history The Story of the World’s Oldest Profession in 1932.

What does and does not constitute prostitution continues to be a subject of debate, but there's evidence that some kinds of animals engage in a form of prostitution. Female chimpanzees living in the Ivory Coast have been observed to trade sex for meat. In one experiment capuchin monkeys were taught to use silver discs as a sort of money (they could be redeemed for grapes), and it wasn’t long before one monkey exchanged one of the tokens for sex. Dr. Fiona Hunter, a researcher at Cambridge University, observed female penguins in Antarctica trading sex for stones and pebbles. Adélie penguins need rocks to build their nests, and some females—though they already had a mating partner—would have sex with a single male while away and then take some of his stones. While the females may have had other motives than gathering pebbles, Hunter noted that “stones are the valuable currency in penguin terms,” and penguins are usually very protective of them. Some penguins engaged in the behavior over and over, but she said, "It's probably only a few percent."

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Explainer thanks Don Kulick of the University of Chicago.

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

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