Prostitution through never-ending history

February 22, 2004|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

Love for Sale: A World History of Prostitution, by Nils Johan Ringdal. Grove Press. 464 pages. $26.

When they call prostitution the world's oldest profession, they are wrong, but only by a few months.

The domestication of animals probably came first.

But, my guess is, ancient man used some of what he earned on that first cattle sale to pay for sex.

That's not covered in Love for Sale, but Norwegian historian and author Nils Johan Ringdal covers just about everything else in this historical survey of prostitution: from the Old Testament to today's newspaper headlines.

Ringdal, translated by Richard Daly, writes that, for centuries, prostitution was not only a respected line of work (prostitutes worked in the temples and donated part of their income to the shrines) but also the great stabilizer of the family, a building block of infant civilizations. It was seen as the solution to male promiscuity.

It was only during the Victorian era, with its emphasis on individual morality, that prostitution took on the cloak of sin. Even so, women willing to have sex for money continued to fill pragmatic roles up to the present.

With the advent of birth control and the women's movement, sex is now free for the asking. Prostitution has lost its basic functions as a pastime and a training ground for young men.

But it has not disappeared with the economic gains of women, as early feminists predicted. Nor has its alliance with the labor movement (hora in Greek means "sex worker") improved its status.

Prostitutes, though fewer than at any time in history, are still here to service the fringe trade.

The timing of this book is propitious. First, Americans are preoccupied at the moment with the definition of marriage and family. Ringdal makes the case that prostitution and family can best be defined in contrast to each other.

And also, he includes a chapter on the nature of the relationship between Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene, which has been making scholarly gossip columns anew since the publication of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

But Love for Sale is a missed opportunity. This could have been a delightful read, full of myth, mystery and lively anecdotes from ancient history and newspaper headlines.

Instead, it is choppy and lifeless -- though perhaps that is attributable to the necessity of translation. Even the soap opera nature of some of ancient relationships between men and prostitutes -- such as Samson and Delilah -- fall sadly flat.

And if this was to be a purely scholarly work, attribution and sourcing are inadequate, especially in the early going.

Nevertheless, writing with the healthy detachment of the academic, Ringdal makes the case that no one is entitled to sex -- paid or unpaid. And it is a grave injustice to force it on another.

But, if both parties agree that one will sell sex to the other and if both parties behave decently, then prostitution should be considered a private transaction.

Such progressive thinking, if it took hold, would certainly make history.

Susan Reimer has been The Sun's family life columnist for more than a decade. Her teen-age children are convinced that she can introduce the topic of safe sex into any conversation.

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