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The History of Brothels

Brothels are often demonised by the media as exploitative, hubs for trafficking, drugs and violence, but many full service sex workers will tell you they would rather work in a brothel - where their job is known and understood by the owner, and they can work in relative safety with other girls nearby - than out of their home, on the street, or in a hotel they could get kicked out of at any moment.

In the UK, currently escorting is not a crime, but working in a brothel is. Anti-brothel laws in the UK make it illegal for girls to work in groups or even pairs for their own safety. By reducing the spaces in which sex workers can safely advertise and provide their services, more and more vulnerable workers are forced to agree to unsafe, underpaid bookings, in order to pay their bills and feed their families.

Brothels are often seen as dirty and seedy, however they have existed in many forms for centuries, providing working girls safety in numbers.

The first official brothel is thought to be found in 5th Century BC in Ancient Greece. The cost was one Obole (equivalent to a days wages at the time) for which you would get sex but not oral, which Greek women had a distaste for. Sex was popular in Ancient Rome as well, waitresses in taverns often sold sexual services, and full service workers would advertise to clients with a stone emblem hung above their door. Examples of these stone signs have even been found in the ruins of Pompeii! Official full service workers had to register with the Roman government and abide by its regulations. This level of tolerance continued well into Medieval times. Prostitution was tolerated for the most part because it was seen to 'prevent the greater evils of rape and sodomy', Much like in Roman times, sex work was still heavily regulated by the government, and the rules were very strict. Brothels were situated on special streets, and married men were not allowed to visit, sex workers had to wear distinctive dress and were not allowed to work within the town walls. This stayed largely consistent for hundreds of years. Such systems of regulation spread spread across the world and brothels could be found in cities like Hamburg, Vienna and Augsburg. This accepting but strictly regulated attitude to sex work remained until the 16th Century, when a giant Syphilis epidemic swept across Europe, leading governments to close all official Medieval brothels across mainland Europe.

In Elizabethan England, sex was still very much for sale. Southwark, London was the red-light district of the time, brothels were called 'stews' because of their origins as bathhouses. Sex workers were not only active in brothels but also on the streets and in bars and theatres. An account from 1584 suggests that a man may have to part with 40 shillings or more "for a bottle or two of wine, the embracement of a painted strumpet and the French welcome (Syphilis)". In Paris, by the end of the 17th Century sex workers were forced to routinely undergo medical examinations, wear distinctive clothing and badges, and could only live in licensed brothels. In 1751, Vienna's leader outlawed sex work completely, imposing fines, imprisonment, whipping, and torture as punishment for any violations. She even banned female servants from taverns and forbade all women from wearing short dresses.

Upon the founding of the United States, sex work was originally legal. It went on to be outlawed in almost all US states between 1910 and 1915 largely due to the influence of the Christian church, namely the Woman's Christian Temperance Union which was also a major force in the alcohol prohibition and the banning of drugs. But much as alcohol survived the prohibition, sex work survived the ban. Brothels would open and close quickly across different towns and women would have to switch between the relative safety of brothel work, and working on the streets with essentially no notice.

Across history, opinions on the sex industry have varied hugely - there have been times it has been widely accepted and there are times where it has been almost completely banned worldwide. Many countries going back and forth on their official stance many times in the 1800-1900's. In the present day brothels are still legal in many countries, and sex work has been fully decriminalised in a couple of countries such as New Zealand and Belgium!


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