Yassmine Hussein: Sex work, a Trade as Old as Time

In order to investigate the trend of sex work in Cairo Egypt, it seemed necessary to begin by understanding how sex work has developed globally and then more precisely in the region of North Africa and the Middle East.

A carving in the temple of Ishtar where sex work was encouraged and expected

Surprisingly enough, sex work as a trade dates all the way back to 2400 B.C in ancient Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq. Sex work was first recorded in a brothel temple in the ancient city of Uruk, the temple was dedicated to Ishtar, the ancient goddess of love, war, and fertility. Not only has sex work been a form of labor as early as human began organizing and centralizing around a shared civilization, but it also began in one of the first civilizations which originated in the MENA region. Sex work seemed to follow humans from ancient times to modern ones, being known as the “world’s oldest profession”, however, society’s social and legal tolerance to sex work has not always remained static. While sex work was accepted by some societies as a form of worship and religious performance in the ancient times and then evolved to be accepted as a form of labor, it was also shunned and muffled by a number of states and societies. In fact, as of 2023, sex work is only legal in 21 countries, partially legal in 63 countries and illegal in 72.

Sex work is illegal in the majority of countries in the MENA Region

When we take a closer look at the regions of North Africa and the Middle East, sex work is predominantly illegal, however across history sex work seems to have shifted between states of illegality and legality depending on a number of external and internal factors. These factors include religious extremism, colonialism, the structure of the state and the regime. Moving forward I would like to more closely examine the history of Egypt and sex work, in order to better understand how and why sex work is currently situated within the Egyptian society.