Beyond The Bedroom: The Surprising History Of Prostitution Around The World

Published December 7, 2015
Updated November 7, 2023

The complex history of prostitution around the world reveals where and when prostitutes offered way more than sex. Perhaps the United States could learn a thing or two from these countries.

In the eyes of most, the modern sex worker is often reduced to being merely a victim of circumstance or a product of poor lifestyle choices. Yet these preconceived notions ignore the varied, complex history of prostitution around the world.

Across the centuries and the globe, there have been many places and times in which both prostitutes themselves and their relationship to society differ sharply from the typical modern, American perspective…

History Of Prostitution: Renaissance Italy

Italian courtesans knew freedom like no other prostitutes of the Renaissance period. While most women during this time were only truly able to educate themselves if they were sent to a convent, courtesans were able to study freely.

Furthermore, courtesans were able to obtain the same security and stability as married women, and, unlike married women, they were actually able to embrace their sexuality.

Widely considered the best educated and most cultured women of their time, these women were able to hold philosophical conversations and discuss poetry with their clients, in addition to providing sex services. Their influence became so great that they were actually able to affect politics by sharing their views with the politicians among their clientele.

Edo-Period Japan

Contrary to popular belief, Japanese geishas were not actually solicited for sex (instead, they were entertainers and hostesses). To mistake a geisha for a prostitute was thought to be an incredibly shameful and dishonorable transgression. On the other hand, oiran, or “play women,” were in fact sex workers.

Oiran were the highest ranked prostitutes during Japan’s Edo period (early 1600s-mid 1800s)—during which time prostitution was allowed. Considered skilled enough to entertain nobles, oiran often used extremely formal language and utilized elaborate costuming for their entertainment.

Since they were able to escape the heavy patriarchal hand that often affected married women, these prostitutes were able to maintain their own power and influence without any hindrance.

Katie Serena
A former staff writer at All That's Interesting, Katie Serena has also published work in Salon.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.