A brief history of brothels

The first bordellos were in the temples of Babylon, while in Ancient Greece they were run by the state. As the Government announces the latest attempt to control prostitution, Paul Vallely romps through the colourful story of the whorehouse

If prostitution is the oldest profession, then the brothel must be the oldest public institution. The Government's plan to make brothels legal - albeit only small ones, with a maximum of two prostitutes and a receptionist - may sound bold to those in Middle England who fear the woman next door may turn to a bit of home working. But the debate on whether prostitutes are best confined to brothels or allowed to walk the streets is hardly a new one.

The "oldest profession" tag is, of course, almost certainly wrong. Not just because, as some feminists have pointed out, it is probably the profession of midwife that qualifies for the label.

Anthropologists suggest prostitution did not actually seem to exist at all in what were once called primitive societies. There was no sex for sale among the Aborigines of Australia before the white man arrived. Nor, apparently, were there brothels in societies ranging from the ancient Cymri people in Wales to recently discovered tribes in the jungles of Burma. Prostitution seems to be something to do with what we call civilisation.

The first recorded instances of women selling themselves for sex seem to be not in brothels but in temples. In Sumaria, Babylonia and among the Phoenicians, prostitutes were those who had sex, not for gain, but as a religious ritual. Sex in the temple was supposed to confer special blessings on men and women alike. But that was very different to just doing it for money.

There's plenty of that in the Bible, though prostitutes in the Jewish scriptures seemed to ply their trade from home, such as Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho who aided the spies of Joshua and identified her house with a scarlet rope - the origin, some say, of the "red light" (though that may, more prosaically, come from the red lanterns carried by railroad workers left outside brothels while they were inside).

The first brothels proper seem to have been in ancient Egypt. Some historians suggest prostitution was not common until the influence of Greek and Mesopotamian travellers took hold. But, in the times of the later Pharaohs, dancing women and musicians were used to recruit men into brothels. Herodotus said a Greek prostitute called Rhopopis was so successful in Egypt she built a pyramid from her takings.

But certainly it was the Greeks who first put the brothel on an official footing. The celebrated Athenian lawmaker and lyric poet Solon founded state brothels and taxed prostitutes on their earnings in the 5th century BC. They were staffed by hetaerae (companions) who ranged from slaves and other lowclass women to those of the upper ranks. The cost of sex was one obole, a sixth of a drachma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker's day salary. For that you got intercourse but nothing oral, which Greek women had a distaste for, although hetaerae were commonly beaten for refusing.

The Romans were keen on sex. There can be few languages richer than Latin in the pornographic, with dozens of terms for prostitutes and different sexual acts. Waitresses in taverns usually sold sexual services. Prostitutes set themselves up at the circus, under the arches (fornices - hence fornication). Official prostitutes were registered by the police and their activities were regulated. Rent from a brothel was a legitimate source of income for a respectable man.

Not all brothels were the same. Those in the Second District of the City were very dirty but the brothels of the Peace ward, were sumptuously fitted. Hairdressers stood by to repair the ravages of amorous combats. Aquarioli, or water boys, waited by the door with bidets for ablution. The superior prostitutes had immense influence on Roman fashions in hair, dress and jewellery.

To attract trade, the houses had an emblem of Priapus in wood or stone above the door "frequently painted to resemble nature more closely" as one ancient historian delicately put it.

Several such advertising standards have been recovered from the ruins of Pompeii where a large brothel was found called the Lupanar - lupae (she-wolves) were a particular kind of sex worker known to be skilled with their tongues.

Among the fossilised ruins were what our delicate historian called "instruments used in gratifying unnatural lusts" which "in praise of our modern standards of morality, it should be said that it required some study and thought to penetrate the secret of the proper use of several of these instruments".

The ambivalence towards the brothel - the simultaneous urge to license and to regulation - continued into medieval times. Prostitution was tolerated because it was held to prevent the greater evils of rape and sodomy. No lesser figures than St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas argued that prostitution was a necessary evil: a well-ordered city needed brothels just as it needed good sewers. The medieval brothels were under the authority of the state, city or prince.

Rules were set in place. Brothels were situated in special streets. Ecclesiastics and married men weren't allowed to visit. Prostitutes, who had to wear distinctive dress, were allowed to ply their trade just outside the town walls but not within. Special houses were built for repenting prostitutes.

Places as varied as the town of Sandwich and foreign municipalities such as Hamburg, Vienna and Augsburg, built public brothels. Such systems of regulation continued in many places for three centuries - until a great epidemic of syphillis swept over Europe in the 16th century and these official medieval brothels were closed.

By Elizabethan times, the sale of sex was more diverse. In London, Southwark was the red-light district. Brothels, usually whitewashed, were called "stews" because of their origins as steambath houses. But prostitutes were active in the theatres. Celebrated theatrical impresarios and actors, such as Philip Henslowe and his son-in-law, Edward Alleyn, owned a profitable brothel.

Henry VIII, in 1546, tried to close the bawdy houses but without much success; some were moated and had high walls to repel attackers. And again the Tudor whorehouse catered for both poor and rich - one 1584 account records that a young man might have to part with 40 shillings or more in a brothel for "a bottle or two of wine, the embracement of a painted strumpet and the French welcome [syphilis]".

But in Paris, the French were, by the end of the 17th century, demanding a medical examination of prostitutes who also had to wear a distinct dress with a badge, and live in a licensed brothel. Many approved. Bernard Mandeville, a Dutch doctor in London in 1724 wrote a defence of public stews, "for the encouraging of public whoring will not only prevent most of the mischievous effects of the vice," he said, "but even lessen the quantity of whoring in general and reduce it to the narrowest bounds which it can possibly be contained in".

But others disapproved. In Vienna in 1751, the Empress Maria Theresa outlawed prostitution and imposed fines, imprisonment, whipping and torture for violations. She even banned female servants from taverns and forbade all women from wearing short dresses.

Throughout the ages, there have been plenty of folk determined to outlaw the trade. In France in 1254, Louis IX ordered all courtesans to be driven out of the country and deprived of their money, goods and - a bit dodgy this one - even their clothes.

When he set out for the Crusades, he destroyed all brothels, with the result that prostitutes mixed more freely than ever with the general population.

In Russia, not long after Marie Therese's purge, the Czarina Elizaveta Petrovna ordered a "find and catch" of all prostitutes both Russian and foreign. And her successor, Tsar Paul I ordered all those caught in Moscow and St. Petersburg to be exiled to Siberia.

In 1860, the Mayor of Portsmouth tried the same thing, turning all the city's prostitutes on to the streets but, at the end of three days, the condition of the place was so bad that he allowed them to return to their former premises. Practically the same episodes were repeated in Pittsburgh and New York in 1891.

Originally legal in the United States, prostitution was outlawed in almost all states between 1910 and 1915 largely due to the influence of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which was influential in the banning of drug use and was a major force in the prohibition of alcohol. But whoring survived just as boozing did, with brothels opening and closing with regularity, and women switching between prostitution and working as chorus girls in the brothels that lined West 39th and 40th streets in New York alone.

The intervening years have only told the same story, with many countries oscillating between phases in which the sex industry was tolerated or cracked down upon. In 1885, Rotterdam, with regulation, had more prostitution and venereal disease than Amsterdam, a city without regulation. In 1906, Denmark abandoned regulation. Amsterdam adopted it in 1911. The brothels of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy were banned in the 1920s. In 1949, Paris abandoned its brothels after two centuries.

Neither the permissive nor the prohibitive approach is successful because the problems they try to address - protecting public morals, controlling sexually transmitted disease, improving health and working conditions for the prostitutes, reducing the exploitation of women and the sex-slave trade are not amenable to common solutions.

What assists the one, detracts from another. Yet still we try, changing policy here, shifting it there. The only true lesson of history, it seems, is that we never learn from history.

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