An opaque photograph of three Indian women in colonial India, standing in front of a rented home.

A Brief Overview of the History of Prostitution and Its Prohibitions

Once the most respected profession thousands of years ago, it has been dubbed a shameful one: prostitution. The sex workers in the Bangladesh brothel village, Dualatdia, are a prime example of the hardships faced by those in the profession.

Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and yet, is also one of the most aggressively punished crimes.

Males, females and other genders engage themselves in sexual acts for a living. Some by choice and others forced through coercion, blackmail and sex trafficking. Many find it difficult to distinguish between sex workers and victims.

The life of a sex worker is hard to leave behind and takes pure determination and will. However, they didn’t always live an abused and shunned life compared to today’s perceptions. They weren’t trafficked by force or coercion.

There was a time when sex workers, prostitutes, were among the most respected professions and praised by their clients for their company.

The History of Prostitution and its Prohibitions

An Ancient Rome art piece depicting two prostitutes in bed in a room with two men, ready for their encounter.
image source:

The perception of prostitution depends on different societies’ views and culturally determined values.

In some, members view prostitution as a perceived profession.

In others, they shun and criticize the practice. Sex workers are punished with stoning, imprisonment and death. Some of these societies extend punishments to clients. Nonetheless, the majority let clients suffer less to no legal punishments.

The earliest account recorded is in a list of professions in Sumerian Records that dates to 2,400 BCE. Sex workers may have been associated with temple service work. They engaged in sexual intercourse as a religious ritual, not for a goal, and blessed both men and women. It’s likely they may have been seen as a legitimate profession.

In the Hammurabi Code, recorded a century later in Babylon, there was the legal rights of sex workers.

Prostitution had a promising start, but women in the profession soon faced its regulations.

Around 1075 BCE, in the Code of Assura, there was a legal requirement for all women to wear veils, which also prohibited sex workers from wearing them to differentiate women.

During the late 500s, prostitution received its first prohibition status. The Visigoth King of Spain criminalized the profession for being disagreeable with Catholic values. Any girl or woman found guilty received the equivalent of a death sentence: being flogged and exiled.

However, the purchase and engagement in sexual acts weren’t unlawful. Therefore, male clients were unpunished.

With the rise of these prohibitions, the negative views on sex workers grew and evolved into the typical perceptions of modern times.

At the same time, across the globe and through the centuries, sex workers and their relationship with society differed greatly.

Renaissance Italy

Between the 15th and 16th century Italy, courtesans had freedom, unlike any other sex workers.

Truly educated women were part of a convent.

Courtesans, on the other hand, were able to study freely. They obtained the same security and stability as married women. The difference was that, unlike married women, sex workers could embrace their sexuality.

The public considered sex workers the most educated and cultured women of the time. In addition to providing sexual services, they held philosophical conversations and discussed poetry with their clients. They could affect politics when they shared their views with their politician clientele.

Edo-Period Japan

There is a vast difference between a geisha and sex worker.

Geishas weren’t sex workers and, therefore, no solicited for sex. They were hostesses and entertainers. To assume one was a sex worker was shameful and dishonourable.

There were two types of sex workers: the oiran (‘play woman’) and the yūjo (‘woman of pleasure’).

Between the 1600s and 1800s, Japan allowed prostitution. The highest ranked sex workers were the oiran. Noblemen considered them skilled enough to entertain them. A yūjo was a woman who provided sexual services to men at the sex worker’s quarters or posting station.

These sex workers escaped the hand of patriarchy that affected married women. They maintained their own power and influenced without a problem.

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire provided examples of how prostitution wasn’t exclusively a women-dominated profession.

During the 1600s, in Turkish bathhouses, there were tellaks, young boys who helped male clients bathe and gave them massages. In certain situations, male clients requested sexual services from the boys.

Although certain sexual acts were illegal, tellaks found other ways to please their customers and formed close relationships with them. The bathhouses allowed them to keep the money earned and kept them well-compensated for any provided services.

Pre-Colonial India

The history of prostitution in India is complex.

There were different tiers of sex workers. At the bottom were the devadasis. Said to be from the ‘untouchable’ caste, they were unwillingly sold by their parents at ages as young as four. They are forever pledged to the goddess of fertility, Yellamma, or a temple.

Between the 500s and 1200s, they held high social rank because dance and music were essential. They were protectors of the arts and expected to live lives of celibacy. However, there were exceptions to the rule. They couldn’t marry mortal men and worked until they were no longer young and attractive.

With British rule, British kings became ‘clients’ of the temples. As a result, the temples lost their significance in terms of art. Additionally, the devadasis became associated with temple prostitution.

The ganika were the highest ranked professional sex workers. They were known for their manners and etiquette and were divided into two classes: those that lived in a brothel and those placed in private homes, either their own or rented.

They had their own servants and stood as women of beauty, skill and refined intellect. Moreover, they earned the respect that allowed them to attend public functions.

Ancient Greece

The highest ranked sex workers in ancient Greece were the auletides. Just like in ancient Rome, the state taxed their services.

In addition to being skilled beyond sexual pleasures, they were accomplished singers, dancers, gymnasts and fencers. They earned the equivalent of several thousand dollars for a single evening’s work, such as private parties and meetings.

Within their culture, they found a respectable place and featured in works of art and literature.

The Line Between Prostitution and Sex Trafficking

An anti-human trafficking ad, where a girl is shown tied to a post and gagged with two men exchanging money.
Anti-human trafficking awareness. image source:

A sex worker exchanges sexual acts for money or other compensations and a sex trafficked victim is forced or coerced to perform sexual acts, sometimes sold and never paid.

Since the 1800s, countries established lawful agreements to prevent the spread of sex trafficking.

The African Slave Trade

The African Slave Trade made its mark as the first international flow of human trafficking. American and European countries were the buyers and sellers in the legal trade. They sold Africans of different groups, who were also middlemen.

The British made its first law against slavery in 1807 and America followed in 1820.

This was a starting point against white slavery.

White Slavery

In the early 20th century, sex trafficking became an important issue with slavery. White women and girls were coerced, taken and forced into prostitution. It became a widespread concern in America.

The federal opposition who forced prostitution sparked the concern. It led to the Immigration Act of 1907,

which banned female immigrants from entry into America for ‘immoral purposes’’. Additionally, an established commission investigated the connections between immigration and prostitution.

Since then, governments passed Acts to prevent the spread of sex trafficking in their countries.

In 1904, kings and queens of Europe signed an agreement: the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic. They agreed to combat the traffic of women and girls in their countries and colonies.

The main purpose of the agreement was to ensure the return of the victims. The US Congress passed the Mann Act in 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act. It became a federal offence for knowingly transporting women and girls across state or federal borders for prostitution or any other immoral purposes. This included coercing women and girls into immoral acts.

The criminalization of sex slavery didn’t come until 1910 when 13 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade.

World War I (WWI)

After WWI, Allied forces in Africa and the Middle East brought attention to the human trafficking of all women and children, male and female.

At the League of Nations internal conference, 33 countries signed the International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic of Women and Children.

World War II (WWII)

In 1949, the UN adopted a new international agreement: The Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitations of the Prostitution of Others. In the same year, they adopted the document on human rights.

50 years later, organ harvesting and labour trafficking came to light.

In 2000, the UN adopted the United Nationals Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Nothing was this the first agreement to acknowledge modern-day slavery, but to also see men as victims of sex trafficking.

Human trafficking through the years has shown its many forms. So far, there are over 500 forms of trafficking.

Prostitution in Bangladesh

An image of a sex works at age 17, 14, and eight, who are sex workers in the red-light district of Bangladesh.
Sex worker sisters Shetu, 17, left, Nodi, 14, right, and their cousin, Sume, 8. Image source:

Prostitution is legal and regulated in Bangladesh. Sex workers register themselves through a process overseen by the government, police and religious institutions. In the affidavits, they state they’re over 18 years old and entering prostitution of their free will because they are unable to find any other work.

Bangladesh is one of the first Muslim countries where the purchase and sale of sex are legal if the brothel is licensed.

However, sex workers are still socially degraded and live in poor social conditions.

The laws prohibit child prostitution, forced prostitution, solicitation and unlicensed brothels, but those aren’t enough to stop child prostitution and sex trafficking.

Bangladesh is a source, passage and destination for women and children subjected to sex trafficking. Most are unwed mothers, orphans and others outside of a normal family system.

The Rohingya refugees at the country’s borders are stateless and unable to find work. They’re vulnerable targets of human trafficking. Women and girls are recruited for domestic work but instead are forced into sex trafficking.

If women and girls are abducted and/or under 18 years old, ‘pimps’ pay off local law enforcement to carry out the registration process. The younger the children, the higher the bribe.

Child Sex Workers in Bangladesh

Prostituted children are based in brothels in Bangladesh. Only a small number are exploited outside brothels, such as in hotels or at railways and bus stations.

Many girls involved in child labour are raped or sexually exploited. Some flee, but many find that survival sex is their only option. Once they become sex workers, they’re more marginalized.

More than 20,000 children are born and live in the red-light districts of Bangladesh. Boys grow up to be ‘pimps’ and girls continue with their mothers’ profession. Most start at 12 years old. Often, families sell their daughters to brothels for two or three years of bonded sex work.

Maternal Mortality

Female sex workers and victims face unmet sexual and reproductive health needs regularly. They are often neglected and don’t receive family planning, sexual health, maternal health and abortion services. Therefore, they have a higher risk of contracting HIV-related diseases and a maternal mortality rate.

Due to unprotected sexual encounters earn more, brothels breed sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies. Pregnant women suffer from inadequate and unsafe abortion methods and care. Eventually, the inadequacy and lack of safety takes a toll on their lives.

Many choose to keep their children but still face problems with their pregnancies.

Their ‘pimps’ reject pre-natal care. Some sex workers don’t realize they’re pregnant and, therefore, don’t receive pre-natal care. Underage sex workers are at a higher risk of complications.

Additionally, even in their pregnant condition, sex workers are forced to work. Many clients prefer their sex encounters with pregnant women and are willing to pay more for it.

Moreover, it’s hard for sex workers to exercise their rights and have access to crucial healthcare resources. Culturally and religiously, shame surrounds their field work. Healthcare workers disrespect sex workers and victims. Doctors don’t treat pregnant women well, resulting in them not going for pre-natal check-ups.


A young girl smokes a cigarette while waiting for customers at the entrance door.
A sex worker waiting for her customer to exit the room. image source:

Dualatdia is one of the world’s largest brothels. Its large size often has it referred to as a ‘brothel village’, the largest in Asia.

There are between 1,300 to 2,000 sex workers and victims in the brothel village, who service more than 3,000 men a day.

The legal age in Bangladesh is 18 years old and over. However, the average age of new sex workers is 14 years, some starting as young as ten. Many were sold through human trafficking.

Additionally, the workers and victims are obligated to pay the pimps and older women (the ‘madams’).

In 2020, due to COVID-19 restrictions, government officials ordered Dualatdia and other brothels to close on March 20th. On March 23rd, sex workers appealed to the government for funding.

An example of life in Dualatdia is Nodi’s.

At 14 years old, she was married and had a child. She left home to search for her husband, who often gambles in eastern Bangladesh. A driver offered to help her and took her to eastern Bangladesh. What Nodi didn’t know was that the driver was a broker who sold her to a ‘pimp’ in Dualatdia. Her husband and family refused to rescue her because of the shame surrounding the brothel village.

Eleven years later, she remains in Dualatdia. She faced hunger due to COVID-19 restrictions, and now, works again.

The Past, Present and Future of Prostitution

An opaque photograph of three Indian women in colonial India, standing in front of a rented home.
Sex workers in Colonial India. Image source:

According to anthropologists, prostitution didn’t exist in ‘primitive societies’. For example, there wasn’t selling sex amongst the Aborigines of Australia until the British arrived. Brothers didn’t exist before ancient Cymric in Wales to the discovered tribes in the forest of Burma.

Therefore, prostitution began when civilization did.

Sex workers face stigmatization and are shamed and shunned for the life they have no choice but to live. Many want prostitution legalized so the workers have a union, benefits and even healthcare. However, many speculate that if it was legalized, it could bring further chaos in terms of human trafficking and forced prostitution.

In the last five years, over five million women and children have been rescued from human trafficking rings. More are rescued and, subsequently, more are taken. The continuing advancements in the world, travel and technology, aid in human trafficking’s progression.

Law officials are making it their task, through their designated departments, to put an end to this never-ending battle.

“Remember that every person on the streets, in a club, on the internet, in a hotel room, WHEREVER they may be, have families and loved ones and hearts just as you do, and that they are worthy and enough. When you see us, could you just offer a small smile? Extend a small bit of compassion even though you may not personally understand? Small, simple actions have the potential to make a large impact, and now is the time more than ever before.”

-Melissa Diehl, a human trafficking survivor.

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