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Most prostitutes are women offering their services to men (known as johns), but male prostitutes offering their services to male customers also exist and are called hustlers or rent boys. Male prostitutes offering services to female customers are comparatively rare and are known as gigolos.
Prostitutes are stigmatized in most societies and religions; their customers are typically stigmatized to a lesser degree.
The term prostitution is sometimes used in the more general meaning of having sex in order to achieve a certain goal different from procreation or pleasure. This includes forms of religious prostitution, in which sex is practiced in compliance with religious precepts. Prostitution in this broader sense is also commonly used in espionage.
Another generalization is using the term or an equivalent for earning well in an unscrupulous degrading manner, see e.g. quote whore.
Prostitution today occurs in various quite different settings.
In many rich countries, illegal immigrants work in prostitution, often against their will. The term used for forcing people into prostitution is "sexual slavery". In addition to the first world, this also takes place in countries of South Asia such as India and Thailand, where young girls are sometimes sold to brothel owners. In modern day Thailand this is becoming much rarer. While in both of these societies visiting prostitutes is a common and almost normal behavior, Thailand is also a destination of sex tourists, travellers from rich countries in search of cheap sexual services. Other popular sex tourism destinations are Brazil, the Caribbean, and former eastern bloc countries.
Female prostitutes, especially street prostitutes, are commonly associated with a pimp, a man who lives off the proceeds of several prostitutes and may offer some protection in return. The relationship between pimp and prostitute is often abusive.
Female managers of brothels or escort services are known as madams.
There are other commercial sexual activities that are generally not classified as prostitution. These include acting and modeling for pornographic materials, even if this involves engaging in sexual intercourse; exotic dancing, which is naked, sexually provocative acting (sometimes involving masturbation) without physical contact with the customer; lap dancing[?], where the dancer may come into contact with the customer in sexually provocative but strictly limited ways; and the services of professional dominants.
The unadorned act of exchanging money for sex among adults is legal in most countries; the United States (except for most Nevada counties), Muslim and various Communist countries being notable exceptions. At one end of the spectrum, prostitution carries the death penalty in several Muslim countries; at the other end, prostitutes are tax paying and unionized professionals in the Netherlands and brothels are legal and advertising businesses there. In most countries, it is however almost impossible to engage in most forms of prostitution legally because several surrounding activities, such as advertising, solicitation, pimping, owning, operating or working in a brothel are illegal.
Law enforcement is typically concentrated against establishments engaged in sexual slavery or owned by organized crime, and against forms of prostitution that generate citizen complaints. In most countries where prostitution is illegal, at least some forms of it are tolerated. It has often been alleged that this situation allows the police to extort money or services from prostitutes in exchange for "looking the other way".
In some jurisdictions, such as Nevada (see: prostitution in Nevada), Switzerland and several Australian states, prostitution is legal but heavily regulated. Such approaches are taken with the recognition that prostitution is impossible to eliminate in an open society, and thus these societies have chosen to regulate it in ways that reduce the more undesirable aspects of the practice. Goals of such regulations include controlling sexually transmitted disease, reducing sexual slavery, controlling where brothels may operate, as well as other reasons that vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
Several western countries have recently enacted laws punishing citizens who, as sex-tourists, engage in sex with minors in other countries. These laws are rarely enforced.
There are a number of typical responses to this problem:
Some think that the first two measures can be counter-productive. Banning prostitution tends to drive it underground, making treatment and monitoring more difficult. Registering prostitutes makes the state complicit in prostitution, effectively making the state into a pimp, and still does not address the behavior of unregistered prostitutes.
Both of the last two measures can be viewed as harm reduction policies.
Many countries have sex worker advocacy groups which lobby against criminalization and discrimination of prostitutes. These groups generally oppose Nevada-style regulation and oversight, stating that prostitution should be treated like other professions.
Other groups, often with religious backgrounds, focus on offering women a way out of the world of prostitution while not taking a position on the legal question.
The feminist position towards prostitution is divided: while some feminists theorize prostitution as an act of sexual self-determination, decry discrimination and demand destigmatization and decriminalization, others, exemplified by the American radical feminist and ex-prostitute Andrea Dworkin, consider it to be sexual abuse or even rape. The former group pushed a law reform in Germany, resulting in January 2002 in the recognition of prostitution as a regular profession, making it possible for prostitutes to join the social security and health care system and to form trade unions. The latter faction of feminists was able to implement a remarkable law in Sweden in 1999, when buying sexual favors was outlawed there but selling them was not.
Prostitution is often called "the oldest profession in the world".
One of the first forms is sacred prostitution, supposedly practiced among Sumerians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of sacred prostitution, starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once a year, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodites[?] or Nana/Anahita), and there have sex with a foreigner, as a sign of hospitality, for a symbolic price.
A similar type of prostitution was practiced in Cyprus (Paphus) and in Corinth, where the temple counted more than a thousand prostitutes (hierodules), according to Strabo. It was widely in use in Sardinia and in some of the Phoenician cultures, usually in honour of the goddess Astarte (or Ishtar). Presumedly by the Phoenicians, this practice was developed in other ports of the Mediterranean Sea, like in Erice (Sicily), in Locri Epizephiri, Croton, Rossano Vaglio, Sicca Veneria and other towns. Other hypothesis regard Asia Minor, Lydia, Syria and Etruscans.
It was common in Israel too, but some prophets, like Hosea and Ezekiel strongly fought it; it is assumed that it was part of the cults of Canaan, where a significant proportion of prostitutes were male.
In ancient Rome, the priestesses of goddess Vesta had the two duties of always maintaining lit the goddess' fire, and to initiate young boys to sex at the moment of tonsura. The famous Rea Silvia, mother of Romulus and Remus, was one of these. The use of maintaining an always lit fire has been recorded in many coastal temples, and has been ideally connected with the preference (or exclusive licence) granted to sailors to use these services. It has been supposed that these fires should indicate the route to sailors, exactly like modern lighthouses.
In ancient Greek and Roman societies, common prostitutes were independent and sometimes influential women who were required to wear distinctive dresses and had to pay taxes. Some similarities have been found between the greek Hetaera[?] and the japanese Geisha, complex figures that are perhaps in an intermediate position between prostitution and courtisanerie[?].
In Greece, Solon instituted the first of Athens' brothels (oik`iskoi) in the 6th century BC, and with the earnings of this business he built a temple dedicated to Aprodites Pandemo (or Qedesh), patron goddess of this commerce. The greek word for prostitute is porne, derived from the verb pernemi (to sell), with the evident modern evolution. The procuring was however severely forbidden.
Each specialised category had its proper name, so there were the chamaitypa`i, working outdoor (lie-down), the perepatetikes who met their customers while walking (and then worked in their houses), the gephyrides, who worked near the bridges. In the 5th century, Ateneo informs us that the price was of 1 obole, a sixth of a dracma and the equivalent of an ordinary worker's day salary. The rare pictures describe that sex was performed on beds with covers and pillows, while triclinia usually didn't have these accessories.
In the Bible there are many stories about common prostitution, with also a case (Tamar) of a false prostitute that commits incest with her father-in-law (Judah). In Jericho, a prostitute named Rahab assisted the Israelite spies. In Jewish legend, she was rewarded for this by later marrying Joshua.
Throughout the Middle Ages, prostitution flourished in Europe and brothels were often operated by municipalities. The outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases in the 16th century and the Reformation led to stricter controls.
In some periods prostitutes had to distinguish themselves by particular signs, sometimes wearing very short hair or no hair at all. Ancient codes regulated in this case the crime of a prostitute that dissimulated her profession. In some cultures, prostitutes were the sole women allowed to sing in public.
In the United States, prostitution was made illegal in almost all states between 1910 and 1915. In 1917 the legally defined prostitution district Storyville in New Orleans was closed down by the Federal government over local objections.
Communist countries have often claimed that prostitution does not exist within their borders.
In 1949, the United Nations adopted a convention stating that prostitution is incompatible with human dignity, requiring all signing parties to punish pimps and brothel owners and operators, and to abolish all special treatment or registration of prostitutes. The convention was ratified by 89 countries with the notable exception of Germany, the Netherlands and the United States.