Prostitution, often known as the world’s oldest profession, can be traced throughout recorded history. This cliché is so often repeated it remains completely unexamined. Is prostitution really a natural by-product of human society or does it only appear in circumstances where human sexuality is limited or curtailed?


In this episode we dive deep into the history of prostitution, from ancient Sumeria and its temple prostitutes to Old Testament Israeli sex works, to Ottoman Istanbul, and finally to the red-light districts of Amsterdam. In particular we will look at

  • Herodotus’ account of the Mesopotamian ritual of sacred prostitution in which Babylonian woman had to attend the temple of Ishtar and agree to sex with any male that asked
  • Old Testament prostitutes from Rahab—heroine of Jericho—to Gomer, a harlot whom the prophet Hosea married as an analogy of Israel’s unfaithfulness to Yahweh
  • Civic brothels that existed in every medieval European city
  • Ottoman prostitutes who used Islamic law about widows and temporary marriage to cheat the tax code
  • The 19th century question over whether prostitution should be legalized and regulated to reduce syphilis or made illegal to reduce public immorality


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Mummey, Kevin. “Prostitution: The Moral Economy of Medieval Prostitution,” in A Cultural History of Sexuality in the Middle Ages, ed. Ruth Evans. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sanger, William. The history of prostitution : its extent, causes and effects throughout the world. New York: Medical Publishing Co., 1913.

Sariyannis, Marinos. “Prostitution in Ottoman Istanbul, Late Sixteenth-Early Eighteenth Century.” Turcica 40 (Dec. 2008): 37-65.

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"Prostitution Throughout History: Sumerian Temple Priestesses, Ottoman Brothel Workers, and Call-Girls for the Medieval Clergy" History on the Net
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