Prostitution I. Introduction Prostitution, performance of sexual acts solely for the purpose of material gain. Persons prostitute themselves when they grant sexual favors to others in exchange for money, gifts, or other payment and in so doing use their bodies as commodities. In legal terms, the word prostitute refers only to those who engage overtly in such sexual-economic transactions, usually for a specified sum of money. Prostitutes may be of either sex, but throughout history the majority have been women, who have usually entered prostitution through coercion or under economic stress.
II. Preindustrial Societies Prostitution was widespread in preindustrial societies. In the ancient Middle East and India, sexual intercourse with prostitutes was believed to facilitate communion with the gods. In ancient Greece, prostitution flourished on all levels of society. In ancient Rome, prostitution also was common, despite severe legal restrictions. In the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century), the Christian church, which valued chastity, attempted to convert or rehabilitate individual prostitutes but did not attack the institution itself. By the late Middle Ages, licensed brothels flourished throughout Europe, yielding enormous revenues to government officials and corrupt clergy members. During the 16th century prostitution declined sharply in Europe, largely as a result of stern reprisals by Protestants and Roman Catholics.
They condemned its immorality but were also motivated by a connection between prostitution and an outbreak of syphilis, a disease that is often transmitted through sexual contact. III. Industrial Societies In the 18th century most continental European governments controlled prostitution through a system of compulsory registration, licensed brothels, and medical inspection of prostitutes. In Britain and the United States, prostitution flourished openly in urban so-called red-light districts. In time the corruption of licensed prostitution stirred protests throughout Europe. Many governments sought to check prostitution by trying to stop the international traffic in women and children.
IV. Prostitution in the United States Prostitution in the United States today takes various forms. Some prostitutes, so-called call girls, operate out of their own apartments and maintain a list of regular customers. Some follow convention circuits or work in certain resort areas. The majority are so-called streetwalkers, who find their customers on city streets. Increasing numbers are young runaways to the city who turn to the streets for survival.
Many prostitutes are managed by men known as pimps, who usually take much of the money earned by the women. V. Current U.S. Attitudes The United States remains one of the few countries with laws against prostitution. It is legal only in the state of Nevada.
The rationale for its continued illegal status in the United States rests on three assumptions: prostitution is linked to organized crime, prostitution leads to increased crime in general, and prostitution is the cause of an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. These assumptions are now in question, as some experts have pointed out that prostitution is no longer an attractive investment for organized crime, and as public-health officials indicate that prostitutes account for only a small percentage of the country’s sexually transmitted disease cases. Polls have shown that approximately half of the U.S. population would favor decriminalization of prostitution throughout the country. Decriminalization would free the courts and police to spend more time dealing with what are seen as more serious and violent crimes.
The constitutionality of laws against prostitution is also in question, since they penalize prostitutes but not their customers.