Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

Is Prostitution Really the "Oldest Profession?"

Prostitution -- Just how old a profession is it?

I was interviewed last night by a journalist looking for a new angle on this Spitzer mess. She wanted to know about prostitution in prehistory. I told her there probably were no prostitutes in the Stone Age. How could there be? There was no money and sex was likely far less restricted than it is today, so there would have been little to no demand (you can read her article here).

But then I got to thinking. There were other things that could be used as currency (food, favors, foot massages) and surely there would be men at the bottom of any scale of attractiveness to females, so there must have been some male sexual frustration. Plus, it's common to see male bonobos and chimps in possession of prized food (like sugar-cane) get approached by females who offer a bit of the nasty for a snack. So why not prehistoric prostitution?

It comes down to that word: nasty.

Most men aren't paying prostitutes for just sex; they're paying for no-strings sex. For anonymity. The lack of pre- or post-coital obligations and complications. For low-risk sex. Yes, for men with a lot to lose, whether it be wealth, power, or family stability, sex with a prostitute can rationally be considered much lower-risk than having an affair -- as counter-intuitive as that might seem. Very few prostitutes are going to ruin their careers and reputations by revealing what they do and with whom.

In other words, what makes a market for prostitution is precisely the nastiness we attribute to non-marital sex. And there's no reason to believe sex became nasty and shameful until the historical period began around 10,000 years ago, at the absolute earliest.

If Henry Kissinger was right that power is the greatest aphrodisiac, surely, a governor of New York could have arranged a non-paying visit with any number of attractive women. But those women might have mentioned their afternoon activities to a trusted friend. Does the name Linda Tripp still ring bells? Much safer to hire a pro.

Or so it seemed.

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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