What is Prostitution?

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series A Fresh Look at the Oldest Profession
Prostitution is a big deal.

It’s been around for centuries, affecting billions of lives and raking in trillions of dollars. But how much do we really know about this often taboo subject?

This post will serve as an overview of prostitution, covering definitions, history, numbers, and profits. In later posts, I will be addressing the more controversial questions surrounding prostitution.

Defining the Issue

When I started conducting preliminary research on prostitution, I immediately ran into a problem. How do you define such a broad, widely misunderstood concept? Every article I read seemed to reiterate this question.

We generally think of the transfer of money as the element that makes prostitution a crime (although money plays a subtle part in all sorts of sexual relationships). Yet in a number of states, as well as in Webster’s newest dictionary, the definition of prostitution includes not only the exchange of money but also the rather vague concept of promiscuity… for example, forbid[ding] both getting paid for sex and ‘the offering of the body for indiscriminate sexual intercourse without hire.’ But what is ‘indiscriminate’? St. Jerome decried women who had known ‘many men,’ and monks argued over the number that would warrant condemnation; one said 40, another 23,000.

TIME Magazine in the 1971 article ‘Reflections on the Sad Profession’

Prostitution is linked with promiscuity, but what constitutes promiscuity? If a woman becomes a prostitute after having sex with a certain number of men, regardless of money, then what is the number? If it’s 40, prostitution is more widespread than we thought. If it’s 23,000, maybe it’s not that big of a problem. If it’s a matter of money, then a single episode of sex with compensation would make a woman a prostitute. If it’s the degree of sexual contact, are erotic masseurs prostitutes?

Honestly, I think these questions are beside the point. If we allow ourselves to get hung up on the definition of prostitution, we’ve given up before we’ve begun. That’s why, for the purpose of this post, I’m defining prostitution as sexual intercourse for money. To broaden this definition, I would define sex work as the exchange of direct or indirect sexual favors for money. So yes, prostitutes, strippers, and porn actors are all sex workers. Personally, I believe the implications of all kinds of sex work are the same, but in the interest of representing the facts, this post is about prostitution.

The Oldest Profession

The history of prostitution is a long one. In the 18th Century B.C., the Code Of Hammurabi included provisions to protect the inheritance rights of prostitutes. Prostitutes and widows were the only women in ancient Mesopotamia without male providers, and the code stated that these women had the right to leave their inheritances to whomever they pleased.

Greek society had three classes of prostitutes:

Pornai, or slave prostitutes; freeborn street prostitutes; and hetaera, educated prostitute-entertainers who enjoyed a level of social influence that was denied to nearly all non-prostitute women.

Tom Head

In Christian Europe, prostitution was often tolerated. In 1161, King Henry II ordered weekly inspections of London’s infamous brothels to discourage other illegal activity. In 1358, The Great Council of Venice declared prostitution to be “absolutely indispensable to the world.”

Following the French Revolution, the new government established a Bureau of Morals to regulate prostitution, first in Paris and then the rest of the country. The Bureau was in charge of monitoring brothels to ensure they did not become hubs of illegal activity. The agency operated for more than a century before being disbanded.

The Numbers

It’s difficult to estimate the number of prostitutes in the world, especially in countries where prostitution is illegal or the stigma is especially high. Governments base their estimates on the amount of women arrested for solicitation, although most prostitutes and their pimps are never caught. Women move in and out of the sex trade depending on their financial situation and many only use sex work as a supplemental form of income.

Figures in the United States vary greatly, with estimates ranging from 1 million to 2 million women working as prostitutes in America.

It is difficult to estimate the number of persons who currently work, or have ever worked as prostitutes for many reasons including the various definitions of prostitution. National arrest figures range over 100,000. The National Task Force on Prostitution suggests that over one million people in the US have worked as prostitutes in the United States, or about 1% of American women.

Prostitutes’ Education Network

Worldwide, the numbers vary between country and geographic area. Most estimates on international prostitution focus on the urban sex trade. Prostitution in rural areas is often overlooked.

In 2001, the number of prostitutes in the world is estimated at 40 millions, 75 % of them aged between 13 and 25. Every year, about four million new women and children fall victim to the world trafficking for the purpose of prostitution.

Èlaine Audet

Estimating the Profits

Communism was just a red herring. Like all members of the oldest profession, I’m a capitalist.

Ms. Scarlet in the 1985 movie ‘Clue’

There’s certainly money to be made in the sex trade, just not as much as their used to be. Back in 1911, a high-end escort made around $430,000 a year. In 2007, she made only $200,000. Although the demand for sex hasn’t changed, society has. In 1911, the opportunities for unmarried men to obtain sex were limited, whereas in today’s world, premarital sex is easy to find. In the early 20th century, women turned to the sex trade because there were no other employment opportunities and these workers were payed substantially because the stigma of sex work was so great.

Today, the price for a trick ranges from $15 to $1,000. Street prostitution is hardly profitable, a mere $18,000 a year, and the dangers are immense, but the internet makes it easier for women to make money without streetwalking. Women who advertise online can find clients and negotiate prices without getting caught by the police, and online prostitutes feel safer than their street-corner counterparts. Despite these precautions, the majority of prostitutes experience violence at the hands of a john or pimp.

In the sex trade, pimping is the business to be in. In Atlanta, some pimps brought in $33,000 a week, according to a study by the Urban Institute. An article by The Economist reports:

Pimps, who are often women, tend to follow a business plan. They impose rules, such as “no drugs” or “no young clients” (who are more likely than older men to be violent). They are flexible with pricing, offering special deals for loyal customers and swiftly adapting to economic downturns. A third of pimps delegate management, training and even recruitment to an experienced employee called a “bottom girl”.

‘Sex, Lies, and Statistics: Laying Bare Supply and Demand in the Oldest Profession’

Despite changes in the demand and sale of sex, the sex trade remains extremely profitable. As previously mentioned, the sex trade is not limited to prostitution, but includes a wide range of sexual services. Of all these industries however, prostitution and pornography are considered the most profitable.

It is not easy to find data regarding the scale of the prostitution market, but estimations from Havocscope indicated that prostitution revenue can be estimated around $186.00 billion worldwide. In Germany, the trade union Ver.di estimates it is worth €14.5 billion per year nationally, in the Netherlands the numbers range between €400 and €600 million, and in Spain around €18 billion per year.

European Parliament

In Conclusion

Now that we’ve covered the basics of prostitution, we can begin to consider the more controversial aspects of the issue. In coming posts, I will cover the impact prostitution has on gender relations, ask whether prostitution is a choice, consider both sides of the legalization debate, and how we as Christians should respond to the moral and social implications of the oldest profession.

What are your thoughts on prostitution? Did this post teach you anything new, or was it all old news? Is there anything I missed? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below.
Read MoreIs Prostitution a Women’s Issue? >>

Author Details

Bryanna Lindberg

Today, billions of people are living in slavery. Some are trapped in physical slavery—sold as prostitutes, laborers, or soldiers. Others are trapped in psychological slavery—controlled by ignorance, fear, or pride. Too many are trapped in spiritual slavery—trying to please a god who demands nothing less than perfection. As Christians, we've been set free from the law of sin and death, but how many of us are living free? Pursuing freedom is a fight, but the victory means living a better calling, telling a better story, and leaving a better testimony. Will you join me in the fight for better?

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