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prostitution, act of granting sexual access for payment. Although most commonly conducted by females for males, it may be performed by females or males for either females or males.

Early History

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.

Attempts at Control

In Europe

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 Having failed to control the diseases, the acts were repealed in 1886.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.


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.

Movement toward Regulation

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, Germany, and New Zealand, 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

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).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.


  1. (common usage) a practice involving sexual services for payment or other reward.
  2. (legalistic usage) a sex-specific offence; although in England and Wales prostitution has technically been regarded as behaviour open to both women and men, in practice only women have been legally defined as common prostitutes and only women are prosecuted for the offences of loitering and soliciting related to prostitution. Legalistic definitions of prostitution, however, are culturally and historically relative. Prostitution is not always subject to criminalization and in some cultures the practice may be regarded as a sacred rite. In those societies where prostitution and related behaviours are criminalized it is typically the prostitute rather than the client whose behaviour is regulated, reflecting double standards of sexual morality
  3. (extralegal usage) an economic contract intrinsically equal to the practice of a man and woman contracting marriage primarily for economic reasons (see ENGELS, 1884). Such attempts to go beyond the legal definitions of prostitution have been influential in feminist theory. Marx drew parallels between the economic prostitution of the worker and that of the prostitute. In doing so he neglected to consider the specific sexual exploitation and oppression experienced by women. Feminist theorists have also likened prostitution to marriage. Millet (1970) maintains that prostitution should be defined as the granting of sexual access on a relatively indiscriminate basis for payment. These approaches, however, fail to account for the particular stigmatization encountered by those women who work as prostitutes.
Traditionally, the sociological study of prostitution has taken place within the context of the sociology of crime and deviance (see CRIMINOLOGY and DEVIANCE). Thus sociologists have often uncritically accepted that prostitution should be regarded as primarily an example of rule-breaking behaviour or female deviancy. More recently, the impact of feminism has led to prostitution being examined within the context of wider gender relations and the socioeconomic position of women, particularly working-class and minority women. Sociologists have increasingly acknowledged accounts of prostitution given by prostitutes themselves, particularly those which present prostitution as part of the sex trade or sex industry. Arguably, it may therefore, be as useful to examine prostitution in the context of the SOCIOLOGY OF WORK and occupations rather than in the context of deviant behaviour.

The rise of the prostitutes’ rights movement since the late 1970s and the contradictory relationship with feminism and the women's movement has led to a shift in the contexts in which prostitution is studied and enters the public imagination (Scwambler and Scwambler, 1995). Aided by feminists, the discourse on prostitution has moved out of a legal/deviance framework and into a feminist framework which focused initially upon pornography and violence and latterly upon health issues in the AIDS era and prostitution as work (see V. Jennes, 1993). The prostitutes’ rights movement emphasizes the profession of prostitute, and the rights, needs and civil liberties of adult women working in the sex industry including the need for grassroots movements organized and managed by prostitutes and supported by ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a type of socially deviant behavior. Prostitution is a historically conditioned social phenomenon that arose in antagonistic class society and is organically inherent in it. It is known to have existed in slaveholding states as early as the third and second centuries B.C. It was widespread in ancient Greece and Rome, and brothels (lupanaria) were numerous. It also existed in the feudal period. Prostitution is widespread in the modern bourgeois states, despite formal measures to restrict it.

In the USSR, the Great October Socialist Revolution eliminated the fundamental causes of prostitution. In the very first years of its existence, the Soviet state initiated a purposeful program of educational, medical, and legal measures designed to provide social assistance for women who had previously engaged in prostitution and to eliminate the circumstances that led to prostitution. In late 1919 the Commission to Combat Prostitution was created under the People’s Commissariat of Public Health. Later the Interdepartmental Commission to Combat Prostitution was established under the People’s Commissariat of Social Security, with branches in the provinces. In the 1930’s prostitution as a widespread social phenomenon was liquidated. Individual instances of prostitution are of a local character and are regarded as a form of parasitism. Soviet legislation establishes criminal responsibility for drawing minors into prostitution, procuring, maintaining dens of vice, and spreading venereal disease.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


comely girl becomes prostitute to support herself. [Ital. Lit.: The Woman of Rome]
Brattle, Carrie
returns home reconciled after life in gutter. [Br. Lit: The Vicar of Bullhampton]
old, evil procuress hired as go-between. [Span. Lit.: Celestina]
Dolores and Faustine
provide Swinburne with masochistic pleasure. [Br. Poetry: Poems and Ballads in Magill IV, 704]
Harlot’s Progress, The
Hogarth engravings tracing a prostitute’s miserable career to its degraded end. [Br. Art: EB (1963) XI, 624]
Hill, Fanny
frankly erotic heroine of frankly erotic novel. [Br. Lit.: Memoirs of Fanny Hill.]
La Douce, Irma
leading French prostitute on Pigalle. [Am. Cinema: Halliwell, 460]
keeper of two others on her earnings. [Aust. Opera: Berg, Lulu, Westerman, 484]
innocent girl, corrupted by slum environment, becomes a prostitute. [Am. Lit.: Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Hart, 514]
Mary Magdalene
repentant prostitute who anointed Jesus’s feet. [N.T.: Luke 7:36–50]
beautiful lady who thrived on a troop of men. [Fr. Lit.: Nana, Magill I, 638–640]
Overdone, Mistress
“a bawd of eleven years’ continuance.” [Br. Lit.: Measure for Measure]
harlot of Jericho who protected Joshua’s two spies. [O.T.: Joshua 2]
Tearsheet, Doll
violent-tempered prostitute, an acquaintance of Falstaff. [Br. Lit.: Shakespeare II Henry IV]
notorious harlot in Malebolge, Hell’s eighth circle. [Ital. Lit.: Inferno]
Toast, Joan
a most saintly whore. [Am. Lit.: The Sot-Weed Factor]
Warren, Mrs.
raises daughter in comfort and refinement on her bedside earnings. [Br. Lit.: Mrs. Warren’s Profession in Plays Unpleasant]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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