Prostitution and pornography: A historical view

This article is based on the first presentation at our recent webinar, Porn, Prostitution and Violence against Women. (We also have a recording of the presentation available , if you’d prefer to watch or listen.)

It’s very easy to think that the world we know is normal and is how human beings have always lived. But what if that’s not true? What if the social structures we now live in are an anomaly in the long history of the human race?

That’s what we’re going to explore in this presentation. We’re going to investigate the origins of patriarchy and capitalism, with a focus on the role of prostitution and pornography, drawing on the work of a number of feminist scholars. I’ll provide a full list of these at the end so if you want to find out more, you can look them up later.

One of us was telling an intelligent and educated young man about these ideas and he said that it sounded like an “eccentric theory.” Which raises the question of who gets to describe reality and in whose interests?

We may like to think that we’re free agents, making decisions based on a dispassionate assessment of all the evidence and that we’re not significantly subject to manipulation and bias.

But the reality is that we live in a profoundly unequal society in which an elite control the key institutions, including academia and the mass media, and promote beliefs and narratives that further their own interests – with the result that many people come to accept these views as the truth.

Take for example the notion that feminists hate men. This is used to discredit feminists and to control and frighten women into conforming to the behaviour that’s considered acceptable for them – putting men’s needs before their own and certainly not calling them out for bad behaviour.

As a result, when women describe the epidemic levels of male violence we’re currently witnessing, they’re frequently written off as ‘man-haters’ – meaning no one has to listen to them or consider how to bring about change.

The very idea that feminists are man-haters justifies men attacking women who speak out about male violence because what they’re saying is implicitly framed as ‘hate.’

So now powerful social media corporations routinely ban women for describing male violence while condoning men’s threatened and actual violence against women.

It can be overwhelming when you open your eyes to the reality and extent of male violence. There’s a temptation to say, god I hate men. But let’s be clear. That’s venting frustration. It’s not feminist analysis.

Feminism is essentially a message of hope – that male violence is not inevitable, that it’s socially constructed, and therefore it can be changed.

We do not believe that anyone is born bad. We all started by reaching out for connection with other human beings. We all started full of the potential for love.

But living in this world where we’re exposed to brutality and are coerced into conformity changed us. And that’s what we hate – what our racist patriarchal culture does to men and boys, just as we hate what it does to women and girls.

We believe this culture is not inevitable. We believe that it can change and that people can change their behaviour – and that this would be better for everyone. In fact, it may be the only hope for the world in its current political, economic and environmental crisis.

So, feminism is full of hope – not hatred.

We’re not saying that changing the system is easy, nor that it’s easy to change ourselves to undo all the ways we’ve been messed up. Both require determination and facing some terrible truths.

It’s painful to look the truth straight in the eye. But understanding that we’ve all been played by the system makes it slightly easier to forgive ourselves and each other, and to understand that this battle is not personal – and to work together for systemic change.

Another claim is that prostitution has always existed: it’s the oldest profession. The corollary to something always existing is that it will inevitably continue to exist – so there’s no point trying to change it. This is another piece of propaganda to make us feel helpless – and to dismiss the radical feminist analysis.

It’s important to know that there was a time when prostitution did not exist.

Our first human ancestors appeared between five and seven million years ago, with modern humans arising about 200,000 years ago.

We know something about how these early humans lived by studying the archaeological record and modern tribes who maintained a traditional hunter-gathering way of life into the last century.

Scientists believe that for hundreds of thousands of years these early humans lived in female-centric groups made up of sisters and brothers, the women’s children and their mates. The mother-child bond was the foundation of all kinship.

These early human societies were egalitarian – cooperation was essential for survival – and generosity, patience, and good humour were all valued, while coercion and attempts to dominate others were abhorred. Prestige did not come from your sex or from who your parents were – it had to be earned. And there was no concept of land ownership.

Rock art from many different places – some many millennia old – portray women and sexual activity realistically – with neither partner dominating the other.

Things began to change after people developed horticulture (and later agriculture) and started living in more permanent settlements. They produced surplus food, giving time to develop crafts, and they traded with other groups. They now needed social structures to mediate conflict.

The archaeological records show that many of these early settled communities maintained their egalitarianism. Female figurines indicate that women continued to be held in high regard. Women and men were buried in the same way – suggesting they were considered equals. There’s no evidence of war until about 12,000 BCE.

The more settled way of life, farming, the creation of surplus, all lent themselves to a more stratified society – eventually leading the way for strong men to exert themselves as leaders and take control of the communal resources.

This was the beginning of the patriarchal social structure. It arose at different times in different parts of the world, but followed a similar stage of technological development. In Mesopotamia (now part of modern Iraq) the transition to patriarchy was fairly complete by around 5,000 BCE.

In her book, From Eve to Dawn, Marilyn French defines patriarchy like this:

“Patriarchy means institutionalized male dominance, guaranteed by a set of interlocking structures that perpetuate the power and authority of an elite class of men over other humans and grant all men power and authority over women of their class.”

To achieve this colossal social change, the elite men had to subordinate and control all women and enlist the support of the ordinary men. They had to break the ancient solidarity between the sexes. One way they did this was through new myths and rituals. They invented new all-powerful male gods to justify their control and they denigrated the old goddesses and their symbols.

Much of the Old Testament can be interpreted as a record of this transition to a patriarchal society. The Garden of Eden can be seen as the folk memory of the old egalitarian way of life.

But of course, the older men didn’t want people to understand what was happening, so they rewrote the history, blaming the catastrophe on Eve, claiming she was inherently evil, and justifying all women’s second-class status.

As Helena Kennedy so brilliantly put it, Eve was framed. She was also victim blamed.

Maybe over the earlier millennia, some men were resentful that the community revolved around women and their power to give birth and the close connections they have with their children.

Maybe men felt even more resentful about this once they’d developed animal husbandry and began to understand their own role in reproduction.

Maybe the older men controlled the resources so strictly that there was no possibility of survival without going along with the new regime.


Ultimately the ordinary men conformed and the power they were given over women was used to buy them off. And once they saw their own daughters, mothers and sisters as inferior, they could see other groups as inferior, and they were more easily coerced into fighting wars – for the benefit of the elite.

The entire system required the conformity of the ordinary men just as it required women’s subordination. Without this fracturing of the human community, the elite men may not have succeeded in maintaining control of the common resources.

In From Eve to Dawn, Marilyn French notes that:

“The first mention of prostitution comes from Sumer, where priests prostituted female captives and slaves to draw men and money into the temples. From the first, prostitution was designed to profit men.”

Already there were farmers, weavers, potters, midwives, scribes, priests, bakers and many other professions. So no, prostitution is NOT the oldest profession.

Because if you think about it, how could prostitution exist in an egalitarian society, where resources are shared equitably, and women are key in the gathering, production and sharing of food?

How could the institution of prostitution exist in such a community – given it requires women to have sex with someone she doesn’t desire in exchange for the resources she needs to survive?

In a truly egalitarian society, she already has all that she needs and she has the freedom to please herself sexually. So no, prostitution in such a culture would be inconceivable. It would make no sense.

In her book, The Creation of Patriarchy, Gerda Lerner describes the emergence of patriarchy in Mesopotamia. She refers to the Code of Hammurabi, which is one of the oldest deciphered writings of significant length in the world. It dates from 1754 BCE and is a series of amendments and restatements of laws that were already in force and so gives an indication of how life was organised in the previous centuries.

Gerda Lerner said:

“The Code of Hammurabi marks the beginning of the institutionalisation of the patriarchal family as an aspect of state power. It reflects a class society in which women’s status depended on the male family head’s social status and property.”

In practice this meant that men’s status and power, their social class, was a reflection of the work they did and the property they owned. But women’s status now depended on her husband or father – and on her sexual behaviour. Women but not men were punished for adultery.

For the system to work, for the subjugation of women to be complete, there needed to be a way of distinguishing ‘respectable’ women, who were under the patronage of a named man (their husband or father) from the other women – who being excluded by law from the communal resources required for survival had no option but prostitution, and who were fair game for all men, any men, to rape.

The Code of Hammurabi dictated that ‘respectable’ women had to cover their heads while the other women were not allowed to – so everyone could see which group each woman belonged to. And there were harsh punishments for anyone who didn’t comply.

Women accepted ‘respectability’ to avoid being fair game. And then she had to make sure that she was always taken as a respectable wife so she wouldn’t be mistaken for a prostitute. She had to distance herself from the prostitutes. And so, women were divided, in order that they could more easily be controlled.

Slave women were not allowed to wear the veil. Gerda Lerner shows that slavery (and its implicit racism) also arose at this time and that institutional sexism and racism are deeply inter-twined.

She showed that the sexual regulation of women underlies the formation of social classes and, just like racism, is one of the foundations on which they are based.

And let’s be clear – as much as they tried to justify their ‘divine’ rights, the elite men had no more right to the communal resources than anyone else – they simply stole them. And their success was based on dividing men and women, and reducing women to the equivalence of private property. And the creation of the system of prostitution was a key mechanism they used to achieve this.

Our own culture is directly descended from this.

In her book, The Reign of the Phallus, Eva Keuls shows that the extreme subordination of women continued in Ancient Greece. She says:

“One of the most revealing aspects of Athenian society was the similarity of the positions of women and slaves.”

She identified a considerable body of artwork that depicts men having violent sex with female prostitutes and beating them with objects.

There are no such images among the rock art created by the pre-patriarchal societies. So the images Eva Keuls identified are evidence of the catastrophic change in women’s status. These images functioned both as justification for women’s subordinate status, and as instruction manual for what was acceptable.

If public art shows men beating women, the message is clear that it’s acceptable to beat women. It may even suggest that beating women is a necessary part of being a man.

This was publicly sanctioned because the control of society by the elite depended on the fracturing of the solidarity between men and women, and on women’s complete disempowerment.

I’m going to skip forward now to the development of capitalism in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries. This involved a process that was parallel to the early development of patriarchy. Male elites took control of land and resources that had traditionally been shared, and subdued the common people. Capitalism can therefore be seen as a logical extension to patriarchy.

The development of capitalism was messy and violent as the elite set about transforming the largely self-sufficient peasants into a controllable work force from whose labour they could make a profit. Initially the enclosure of the common land on which the ordinary people depended for survival was vehemently resisted, and in many places, women led the resistance.

Sylvia Federici in her book, Caliban and the Witch, which traces the history of this transition from a feminist point of view, makes the important observation that:

“Sexual hierarchies are always at the service of a project of domination that can sustain itself only by dividing, on a continuously renewed basis, those it intends to rule.”

For the previous centuries, most of the population of Western Europe lived in rural communities and it was largely a subsistence economy – meaning that the ordinary people mostly produced their own food and clothing. Among the common people there was still considerable cooperation between the sexes – because this was necessary for survival.

Work revolved around the home and its environs, so women were able to keep an eye on their children while working on food production and preparation, making and maintaining the family’s clothing and home environment, and so on.

With the move to a wage-based economy, and later in the industrial revolution, work moved out of the home and into the factory and office, which were unsuitable environments for small children.

Men, unencumbered by children, became primary wage earners and the previous equilibrium between men and women was catastrophically disrupted.

During the early stages of this transition the authorities condoned, if not encouraged, violence against poor women as a way of controlling rebellious young men. During this period gang rape became common and the perpetrators had impunity – provided the women were poor. At the same time prostitution was institutionalised throughout Europe.

This was followed by two centuries of brutal witch hunts, accompanied by widespread misogynistic propaganda, the expulsion of women from crafts and the loss of their old knowledge of herbs and healing.

As a result, women lost such independence as they had, their rebellious spirit was broken, and they were driven into economic dependence on men, who had also lost their independence and had become dependent on employers.

Women became reproductive machines turning out new workers on which the capitalist economy depended but their labour, being unpaid, became publicly invisible.

The previous more mutual relationship between men and women was replaced by something harder and more vicious. Men got to have power over their women and children as if in compensation for the loss of their old autonomy.

Although individual men sometimes fought to save their own women from the witch hunts, with one exception (in the Basque region) there is no record of men uniting to resist the persecution of women.

Federici says,

“There is no doubt that years of propaganda and terror sowed among men the seeds of a deep psychological alienation from women, that broke class solidarity and undermined their own collective power. […] Just as today, by repressing women, the ruling classes more effectively repressed the entire proletariat.”

This was taking place in Europe at the same time as the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of its peoples, the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, and subsequent colonialist expansion in Africa and Asia.

Methods of control learnt in the witch hunts were exported to the colonies and methods of control learnt in the brutal suppression of the colonised people were introduced in the control of women and workers at home.

Maria Mies in her book, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, shows that the capitalist system is dependent on the continual patriarchal exploitation and subordination of women and colonised peoples, and the stealing of the communal resources that ordinary people have traditionally shared and relied on. This process of elites hijacking communal resources to build up their own private capital is known in economic theory as primitive accumulation.

In the Preface to the 1998 edition, she says that as she researched and wrote the book, she:

“Began to understand that the exploitation and oppression of women are not just accidental phenomena but are intrinsic parts of a system, which has existed for at least 5,000 years and which has penetrated and structured all cultures of the globe.”

To summarise, both the patriarchal and the capitalist systems were founded on male elites taking into private possession (i.e. stealing) land and other resources that had traditionally been shared communally, and therefore dispossessing the people from their own land and resources, and making them dependent on the new masters for survival.

The elites were able to do this because they successfully divided the common people – not least through the oppression of women – using mass propaganda, and buying men off by giving them power over women.

A similar mechanism was used to colonise, oppress and subordinate black and brown peoples, and this was no less fundamental to the success of the elite power grab.

So now let’s look at what’s happening today through the lens of this understanding.
Neoliberalism, the current incarnation of capitalism, prioritises the unlimited concentration of wealth in the hands of a small global elite. It was unleashed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who were instrumental in dismantling the institutions that had previously held global finance and corporations in check and that had protected ordinary people’s welfare.

Neoliberalism has led to enormous disparities in wealth not just between countries but within countries. Inequality in the UK is now comparable to that seen in Victorian times and is rapidly increasing.

It may be less obvious than when the Tudor barons fenced off the common land, but what is happening on a global scale is just as much a stealing of common resources by an unaccountable elite.

And just as before, the global elite’s success in this project is dependent on the successful division of the population. And once more racism and sexism are the key tools they use to divide the people.

So, it should not surprise us that currently in England and Wales, only just over 1% of men accused of rape reported to the police are prosecuted – and of those only a proportion are convicted – meaning that rape is now effectively decriminalised.

Neither should we be surprised that men’s sexual harassment of women is rife in all public places and online, nor that in spite of the efforts of feminist campaigners, for the most part men have utter impunity.

As we have seen pornography has existed since the time of the Ancient Greeks at least. But now its availability and the fact it depicts real people (rather than artist’s impressions) is unprecedented.

The vast majority of online porn shows sexual degradation, humiliation, and violence against women and girls. This content is never more than a click or two away when you’re connected to the Internet. Research suggests that most children have been exposed to it from the age of about 11, with some encountering it by eight or even younger.

For many children, perhaps most, porn is their sex education – and their indoctrination into the sex class hierarchy – men as humans, and women and girls as sub-human.

In Against the Male Flood, Andrea Dworkin describes pornography like this:

“Pornography is women turned into sub-humans, beaver, pussy, body parts, genitals exposed, buttocks, breasts, mouths opened and throats penetrated, covered in semen, pissed on, shitted on, hung from light fixtures, tortured, maimed, bleeding, disembowelled, killed.”

Porn eroticises and legitimises not only cruelty, but also male supremacy and female subordination so they seem absolutely normal. So, for example, when the police see a video of a man raping a woman, they see it as ordinary sex and can’t identify anything wrong with it. So porn ruins the police response to rape – along with the prosecutors’ and judges’ responses, and the jury’s decision-making.

But it also ruins any hope of collective resistance to the neoliberal assault – because men are bought off by their erotic enjoyment of cruelty towards women and children, and women are caught in the headlights of the continuous threat of assault.

Make no mistake, porn is not some small renegade outfit. It is big business. And it operates with the consent of governments all around the world.

The global porn industry makes about $90 billion a year – about nine times more than the Hollywood film industry.

This is no accident.

It is both propaganda and instruction manual. It incites violence against women and girls. It trains men and boys to be cruel. It teaches women and girls to hate themselves.

It deflects all of our attention away from the global elite’s plundering of the earth’s resources. The resources that have traditionally belonged to us all.

Not only that, but the global sex trade and the reproductive technology industries are using women as commodities on a mass scale.

Now the natural resources of the planet are close to exhaustion, the global capitalists have turned to mining women and girls’ bodies for the primitive accumulation of capital.

No one who cares about the welfare of human beings and the planet itself can condone this.

It is cannibalism.

If you want to find out more, here’s a list of our references.

  • Max Dashu,
  • Marilyn French, From Eve to Dawn
  • Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy
  • Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus
  • Sylvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
  • Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale
  • Andrea Dworkin, Against the Male Flood
  • Helena Kennedy, Eve was framed

7 thoughts on “Prostitution and pornography: A historical view

  1. A good article.
    I note that men and women are buried or their bodies burnt in the same way now but that does not mean they are equal
    In other ways.

    1. My understanding is that the significance of men and women being buried in the same way in pre-patriarchal societies is in comparison to later societies where the graves of men indicated higher status than the graves of women. This is more like comparing the value of deceased men’s estates with deceased women’s estates in the current age, which on average indicate men’s greater wealth – even though there is little difference in the actual burials.

  2. The issue about waving the feminism flag in a male-chauvinist society is that is evoking the masculine competitive side of both men and women resulting as divisive as sexism and racism. Remarking the feminine-masculine duality can end in a dangerous competitiveness when what should be sought is that cooperation mentioned above. Not implying that it was an elite agenda to raise more division but it just evolved that way.
    Besides, the monogamous family turned to be the first fracturing of the human community and not the patriarchal family promoted by a religion. The hoarding of resources began in favor of the tribe, then of the family, leading to hierarchy and then patriarchy. The more a population grows the more divisions arise.
    There is another factor in the rupture of egalitarianism and the proliferation of prostitution that you are missing and its the luxury factor. The definition of luxury is different for everyone and yes it derived from the word ‘lust’ which deserves itself a whole subject. Luxury had been used as a mating strategy since primitive times not only by humans but other species.
    Prostitution is the institutionalization of lust and it evolved in a symbiotic relationship with capitalism. Aristotle said “Money is a guarantee that we may have what we want in the future. Though we need nothing at the moment it insures the possibility of satisfying a new desire when it arises.” so Neoliberalism is but the markets and the lust feeding each other.
    I don’t think a society hierarchies can be defined by the way their people have intercourse. Pornography degrades not only women but all their performers into mere genitals and should be banned the least restricted as well as prostitution. But again trying to restrict the market of the lust is trying to restrict vice itself or trying to systematize courtship. Isn’t the latter a plausible alternative since the current courtship standards seem to perpetuate a patriarchal competitive commercial system and the spoilage of children at the same time.

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