When we define selling one’s body as the world’s oldest profession, we mean that it is an enduring practice, stemming from males’ primary physiological appetites. Despite this conventional belief, the sex trade actually features an ever-changing history, for it expands and shrinks over time under the influence of multiple factors. It grew in the Middle Ages with the development of cities and the economy and the institutionalization of brothels. It was less widespread in Protestant countries and whenever syphilis struck. It flourished along with the expansion of armies and the great urbanization of the industrial age, reaching its peak at the end of the 19th century. It then declined dramatically over the last century. In an extraordinary and vivid depiction spanning eight centuries of history, the author effectively uses the sex market to illustrate the evolution of sexual mores reflected in behaviour, laws, moral and religious debates, and society as a whole.
Marzio Barbagli is professor emeritus of Sociology at the University of Bologna.