The Evolution of Sex Work: A Journey from Babylon to Switzerland

The Evolution of Sex Work: A Journey from Babylon to Switzerland

by Choice - June 17, 2024
The Evolution of Sex Work: A Journey from Babylon to Switzerland

Throughout history, sex work has remained an integral yet controversial aspect of human society. Its origins can be traced back to 2400 BC in Babylon, where sacred prostitution was practiced in temples, offering sexual services in exchange for goods that would afterwards belong to a deity. Whether or not this institution existed and with which motive it was reported remains debated among scholars. At the center of this debate is the report from Herodotus that Babylonian culture required every women to prostitute herself at least once in a lifetime. This early form of sex work was deeply intertwined with religious practices and societal norms and dynamics, embodying a nuanced perception of sex work that differs significantly from modern views (Budin, 2008).

During the period of migration, urbanization, and industrialization, sex work began to take on new forms. It was largely affected by socioeconomic changes that led to increased movement of people, urban growth, and the evolution of capitalist economies. Supply and demand shifted from rural areas to urban centers with higher concentration of travelers (e.g. people working on boats, business people, migrants). These factors contributed to the increase in numbers and visibility of sex workers, which led to shifts in societal attitudes towards sex work. It started being seen as a social ill, and a symbol of moral decay (Hubbard, 1998).

The criminalization or partial criminalization of sex work, an approach intended to protect sex workers, unfortunately led to the deterioration of their living and working conditions. Many scholars have pointed out the adverse effects of such policies, leading to increased vulnerability, exploitation, violence, and stigmatization (Benoit et al., 2018). It pushed sex work into the shadows, creating a hazardous environment for workers.

Fast forward to the 20th century, Switzerland legalized sex work in 1942, one of the few countries to do so. This legislation was aimed at improving the conditions of sex workers and to control the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (Musto, 2009). Despite initial resistance, sex work has gradually become more accepted in Swiss society over the past decades. However, it’s important to note that while legalization provided some safeguards, it did not eliminate all the challenges faced by sex workers especially around day-to-day safety, stigmatization and health as well as protection for sex workers without a residence permit.

The digital era brought significant changes to the industry. With the advent of apps such as Grindr in 2009, Tinder in 2012, and platforms like OnlyFans in 2016, sex work has found a new home online. Technology has facilitated a more open dialogue about sex and sex work in a new industry called sextech, offering a space where the workers have more control over their conditions, can maintain anonymity, and access a broader customer base (Sanders, Brents, & Wakefield, 2020). There are also some adverse effects from the technical developments such as automated moderation on social media to flag and remove sexual content, public shaming and online trolling.

The COVID-19 crisis, however, exposed the vulnerabilities within the industry. Many sex workers, often lacking social insurance, were severely impacted by government-induced temporary bans on sex work. The inability to work, coupled with little or no access to financial safety nets, left many in dire circumstances. (Platt et al., 2020). The financial pressure, especially with sex workers who support relatives or their children, led them to accept clients they would have rejected under normal conditions. According to a recent study conducted in Zurich this also led to a higher level of violence against sex workers (Brüesch et al., 2021).

As we reflect on the historical journey of sex work from Babylon to the alpine country of Switzerland, it’s crucial to consider how shifting societal perspectives and evolving regulations have shaped the industry. Embracing the discourse that technology has facilitated and providing the sex work community with a voice in the debate can perhaps lead to a better understanding and further reduce the stigma for better living and working conditions worldwide.


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