Many news stories and plenty of ensuing comments about geishas have people making a strong point that geishas are not prostitutes.
However, the wikipedia article makes a meal out of the topic and makes various claims.
From the past:
- The highest yūjo class was the Geisha's predecessor, called "Oiran", a combination of actress and prostitute
- The geisha who worked within the pleasure quarters were essentially imprisoned and strictly forbidden to sell sex in order to protect the business of the Oiran. While licensed courtesans existed to meet men's sexual needs, machi geisha carved out a separate niche as artists and erudite female companions
- Some women would have sex with their male customers, whereas others would entertain strictly with their art forms
- Before the war, a maiko's virginity would be auctioned (the original "mizuage") this was outlawed in 1959, but has been reported as relatively normal in the 1990s, and happening "on a limited basis" in 2001 (this doesn't sound like it died out to me)
- At the opposite end of the spectrum are the hot-spring geisha. These geisha work in the spa resorts and are viewed by most Japanese as no better than a common prostitute. They normally cater to far less exclusive patrons, and are much less expensive. If their income is supplemented by selling sex, they remain distinct from regular prostitutes; like all geisha, they are trained in the art of Japanese dance and music. (are they still considered geisha?)
- There remains some confusion about the nature of the geisha profession. Geisha are regarded as prostitutes by many non-Japanese. However, legitimate geisha do not engage in paid sex with clients.