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The Oxford Dictionary describes "Prostitution" as

the practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment


It is often referred to as "the oldest profession", e.g.

when you search for "Oldest Profession " on Wikipedia it redirects to "Prostitution"


My Question:
Is the "oldest profession" claim just a meme or is it based on truth?

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I fear this question is going to stumble over definitions (leading to a discussion about the English language, rather than any empirical answer.) In particular, looking at Wikipedia, under the modern definition of professional, prostitution in general wouldn't count (although some forms of sex-work might). Under the original definition of profession, there was only divinity, medicine and law. –  Oddthinking Mar 3 '12 at 12:40
    
To the anwerers: please do not juggle definitions, I think the OP wants to know whether the claim is evidence based or what is its origin otherwise. All based on fact. Thanks :-) –  Sklivvz Mar 3 '12 at 13:10
    
Note that if you accept a wide enough definition prostitution is not limited to humans, which makes it reasonable to assume a very early onset. –  dmckee Mar 3 '12 at 21:01
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First, kudos to Sklivvz for a great answer. But ultimately you are not only have to ask whether the 'harloty' referred to in Gilgamesh is prostitution, but also whether activities 'farmer', 'warrior' or 'trader' count as professions. –  DJClayworth Mar 3 '12 at 22:52
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Someone could argue that both hunter and gatherer are professions at least as old as prostitution. –  Martin Scharrer Mar 15 '12 at 10:54
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3 Answers 3

Given that prostitution is also observed in animals - including some very closely related to humans - it seems likely that proto-humans were willing to exchange sexual favours for valuables. Whether this counts as prostitution is a matter of definition.

I think it might be possible to say that prostitution is the oldest living profession in the Western World, but a full analysis of that proposition is hard, as it depends on 1) What counts as a profession (early hunters?) and did they pre-date prostitution (who knows?!).

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This is clearly the other possible approach to the problem (+1). I would also point out that observing prostitution in animals does not really prove the point. For example, praying mantis female kill the male after copulation, does this "prove" that killing your male partner is old (or natural, or istinctual) for humans? –  Sklivvz Mar 5 '12 at 14:26
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The animal comparison was to show that high levels of brain development are not necessary to engage in prostitution. If we need a functioning economy first, than clearly other professions must emerge earlier. Also, chimpanzees are fairly closely related to humans, and probably give a better indication of how proto-humans behaved than praying mantises. –  Arkady Mar 5 '12 at 14:42
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Summary

It depends on the meaning you give to the word "prostitution"

There's clear historical evidence that "sacred prostitution" was practiced from the beginning of time.

If you consider those acts true prostitution™, then there's evidence that prostitution is the oldest profession.

If you do not consider those acts true prostitution™, then they still serve as an explanation to where such a saying comes from.

Exposition

A known example of a temple prostitute is Šamhat.

Šamhatsource

The epic of Gilgameš is

an epic poem from Mesopotamia, is amongst the earliest surviving works of literature.

according to Wikipedia. In particular the

"Old Babylonian" version of the epic dates to the 18th century BC and is titled Shūtur eli sharrī ("Surpassing All Other Kings").

In the slightly later Akkadian version you can find, in Tablet I:

The trapper's father spoke to him saying:
"My son, there lives in Uruk a certain Gilgamesh.
There is no one stronger than he,
he is as strong as the meteorite(?) of Anu.
Go, set off to Uruk,
tell Gilgamesh of this Man of Might.
He will give you the harlot Shamhat, take her with you.
The woman will overcome the fellow (?) as if she were strong.

When the animals are drinking at the watering place
have her take off her robe and expose her sex.
When he sees her he will draw near to her,
and his animals, who grew up in his wilderness, will be alien to him."

So it seems that it's certainly an ancient profession.

More in general, it is clear that in multiple cultures there was a huge overlap among the concepts of fertility cults and rites and prostitution. The above is just an example of a temple prostitute:

Sacred prostitution, temple prostitution, or religious prostitution is a practice of worship that includes hieros gamos or sacred marriage performed as a fertility rite and part of sacred sexual ritual.

According to the same source it was practiced in:

  • Ancient Mesopotamia
  • Old Buddhism
  • Biblical times

Still, according to the well-referenced article on Wikipedia, there is some controversy on whether this was true prostitution™ or simple devotional sex. In any case, the traditional view is to call these acts prostitution.

Whether they were prostitutes or not, is a meaningless game of semantics and definitions. It is up to the reader to decide!


Further reading:

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The passage you cite is equally good evidence that trapping is the world's oldest profession. –  Nate Eldredge Mar 3 '12 at 15:14
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@NateEldredge I am only trying to prove that the origin is ancient. Whether it's literally the oldest profession is something I am not entertaining in the least. –  Sklivvz Mar 3 '12 at 15:23
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If it is sacred prostitution that is old, doesn't that mean that religion is older (thereby making priest the oldest profession)? –  matt_black Mar 4 '12 at 20:56
    
@matt_black unless the first priestesses were also prostitutes (or that some other form of sex commerce was even older) –  Sklivvz Mar 4 '12 at 21:10
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I am pretty sure at the beginning of time no one was paying the interstellar dust to copulate for pleasure. But it would seem to predate written history. I saw somewhere that some ancient babloynian tokens that were believed to be traded to prostitutes for service are the oldest coins known to exist. –  Chad Mar 5 '12 at 15:21
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Rather than get caught up in different definitions of the word 'prostitution', let's look at the definition for profession:

a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic preparation

Since academia didn't exist at the onset of human culture, we can reduce the definition to "a calling requiring specialized knowledge".

Even allowing for prostitution requiring specialized knowledge it would seem that hunting or perhaps farming is the worlds oldest profession.

The earliest evidence for prostitution we have under any definition is 18th Century BC, according to Wikipedia (expanded on in Sklivvz's answer). By contrast, humans were hunting using specialized knowledge starting from some 80,000 to 70,000 years ago. To quote from Wikipedia:

Starting at the transition between the Middle to Upper Paleolithic period, some 80,000 to 70,000 years ago, some hunter-gatherers bands began to specialize, concentrating on hunting a smaller selection of (often larger than had previously been hunted) game and gathering a smaller selection of food. This specialization of work also involved creating specialized tools like fishing nets and hooks and bone harpoons.

Hunting meets the definition of a profession as it is being used in this context and pre-dates prostitution as a profession by some 50,000 years, at least.

Hunting may not be the oldest profession, but it is far older than prostitution.

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I agree with Sonny. From my point of view, prostitution is a kind of service. As most of other services it is trade for some products (for food, or later for money as general equivalent of the goods). Somebody should produce (collect) some products to make the prostitution offer avaliable (profitable). Thus, some other professions have emerged before prostitution, while the lag between rise of any productive profession and prostitution could be mere minutes. The same reasoning is valid for "service for service" situation, like prostitution for protection. Someone should have trained guard skil –  user6405 Mar 16 '12 at 8:49
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