In ancient times and in some primitive societies, prostitution often had religious connotations—sexual intercourse with temple maidens was an act of worship to the temple deity. In Greece the hetaerae [Gr.,=companions or associates] were often women of high social status, but in Rome the meretrices were on a low social level and were forced to wear wigs and special garments signifying their trade. In the Middle Ages prostitution flourished, and licensed brothels were a source of revenue to municipalities.
As a result of the epidemic of sexually transmitted disease in Europe in the 16th cent., efforts were begun to control prostitution. Brothels were closed throughout Western and Central Europe during parts of the 16th cent., and stricter punishment was meted out to those engaged in the trade. When these measures proved unsuccessful in stopping prostitution, many cities instituted even stricter controls. Berlin required medical inspection in 1700; Paris began to register its prostitutes in 1785. In Great Britain legislation to control the spread of sexually transmitted disease was embodied in a series of Contagious Diseases Prevention Acts (1864, 1866, and 1869) requiring periodic medical examination of all prostitutes in military and naval districts and the detention of all those found to be infected. Having failed to control the diseases, the acts were repealed in 1886. In 1898 the Vagrancy Act prohibited males from living on the earnings of prostitutes.Internationally
During late 19th cent. efforts were made to control the international traffic in women for the purpose of prostitution. Cooperation on an international scale to stamp out such traffic began in 1899 with a congress in London. This was followed by other conferences in Amsterdam (1901), London (1902), and Paris (1904), which resulted in an international agreement providing for a specific agency in each nation to cooperate in the suppression of the international traffic in women for the purpose of prostitution. In 1919 the League of Nations appointed an official body to gather all facts pertaining to the trafficking of prostitutes, and in 1921 a conference held at Geneva and attended by 34 countries established the Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children (the work of the committee was assumed by the United Nations in 1946). In 1949 a convention for the suppression of prostitution was adopted by the UN General Assembly.In the United States
In the United States, where prostitution was widespread, it was thought to be closely connected with other crimes. No major effort to stamp out prostitution appeared until about the end of the 19th cent. In 1910 the Mann Act, or White Slave Traffic Act, was passed through the efforts of James Robert Mann; it forbade under severe penalty the interstate and international transportation of women for immoral purposes. By 1915 nearly all the states had passed laws regarding the keeping of brothels or profiting in other ways from the earnings of prostitutes. Nevertheless, during World War I there was a great increase in prostitution, accompanied by an increase in sexually transmitted disease. In 1941 Congress, spurred by reports of widespread prostitution near military bases and a rise in sexually transmitted disease, passed the May Act; the law made it a federal offense to practice prostitution in areas designated by the secretaries of the army and the navy. On a local basis all states except Nevada now have legislation that makes it a crime to operate a house of prostitution. Most states have laws against all forms of prostitution, although they often exempt from prosecution the customers of prostitution. Among the many agencies in the United States and elsewhere that have worked for the suppression of prostitution are the Society for the Prevention of Crime, organized in 1877; the Committee of Fourteen (1905); the National Vigilance Association; and the American Social Hygiene Association.
Current legislation both in the United States and elsewhere concerning prostitution has tended to concern itself less with the suppression of the practice of prostitution than with the removal of crimes thought to be connected with it, although in recent years the rise in incidence of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases has revived discussion in the United States of the regulation of prostitutes.
Outstanding in this field of legislation is a British parliamentary act of 1959 (based on the Wolfenden Report) that treats the entire problem of prostitution and other forms of sexual conduct between consenting adults. It forbids open solicitation by prostitutes, but it permits prostitutes to practice their trade in their own homes. For those wishing to give up prostitution, the teaching of commercial or technical skills at rehabilitation centers is provided. The act also removes voluntary sexual acts between adults from the category of a punishable crime.
Other countries, e.g., the Netherlands and Germany, have emphasized the hygienic aspect in their legislation by rigidly enforcing periodic medical examination of prostitutes and by providing free compulsory hospitalization for those found infected. This emphasis on regulation rather than suppression has resulted in a marked decline in the incidence of sexually transmitted disease and has removed an important cause of the bribery of law enforcement officers.
Prostitution in Asia has been a serious problem for many years, mainly due to economic factors (i.e., poverty and unemployment) and custom. In countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, the problem is largely confined to urban areas. In India and Japan prostitution is fairly widespread in rural areas as well. In recent years most of these countries have made efforts to control prostitution by enacting legislative measures. Prostitution has been legally abolished in the People's Republic of China since 1949; however, it has had a resurgence in the special economic zones.
See F. Henriques, Prostitution and Society (3 vol., 1962-68); G. R. Scott, Ladies of Vice (rev. ed. 1968); A. Snitow, ed., Powers of Desire (1983); C. Stansell, City of Women (1986); T. Gilfoyle, City of Eros (1987).
Practice of engaging in sexual activity, usually with individuals other than a spouse or friend, in exchange for immediate payment in money or other valuables. Prostitutes may be of either sex and may engage in either heterosexual or homosexual activity, but historically most prostitution has been by females with males as clients. Prostitution is a very old and universal phenomenon; also universal is condemnation of the prostitute but relative indifference toward the client. Prostitutes are often set apart in some way. In ancient Rome they were required to wear distinctive dress; under Hebrew law only foreign women could be prostitutes; in prewar Japan they were required to live in special sections of the city. In medieval Europe prostitution was licensed and regulated by law, but by the 16th century an epidemic of venereal disease and post-Reformation morality led to the closure of brothels. International cooperation to end the traffic in women for the purpose of prostitution began in 1899. In 1921 the League of Nations established the Committee on the Traffic in Women and Children, and in 1949 the UN General Assembly adopted a convention for the suppression of prostitution. In the U.S. prostitution was first curtailed by the Mann Act (1910), and by 1915 most states had banned brothels (Nevada being a notable exception). Prostitution is nevertheless tolerated in most U.S. and European cities. In The Netherlands many prostitutes have become members of a professional service union, and in Scandinavia government regulations emphasize hygienic aspects, requiring frequent medical examination and providing free mandatory hospitalization for anyone found to be infected with venereal disease. Prostitutes are very often poor and lack skills to support themselves; in many traditional societies there are few other available money-earning occupations for women without family support. In developing African and Asian countries, prostitution has been largely responsible for the spread of AIDS and the orphaning of hundreds of thousands of children.
Learn more about prostitution with a free trial on Britannica.com.