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Prostitutes today are not generally viewed with respect - certainly many (most?) people would be rather offended if someone suggested they become a prostitute, or if their children choose to become prostitutes.

Has there ever been a society in which this was the reverse? That is, a society which viewed prostitutes with the respect a doctor might be given today?

The obvious place to search for an answer is Wikipedia's page on the History of Prostitution. Much of it is irrelevant to this question, but occasionally it touches on the topic of prestige. However it seems prostitutes were never very prestigious even if the profession was socially accepted. For example in Ancient Rome:

Prostitutes played a role in several Roman religious observances, mainly in the month of April, over which the love and fertility goddess Venus presided. While prostitution was so widely accepted, prostitutes were often considered shameful. Most were slaves or former slaves, or if free by birth relegated to the infames, people lacking in social standing and deprived of the protections that most citizens under Roman law received.

More recently:

Prostitution in the American West was a growth industry that attracted sex workers from around the globe where they were pulled in by the money, despite the harsh and dangerous working conditions and low prestige.

An alternative approach is to consider what could possibly cause prostitution to be viewed as prestigious. Since barriers to entry are low, if it ever were prestigious, everyone would be a prostitute and it'd cease to be prestigious. This implies that there needs to be some kind of barrier that separates the very desirable job from the common one, even if they do the same thing. This suggests sacred prostitutes might be an answer. However from Wikipedia's article it doesn't seem so, in fact in some societies people had to be forced to become sacred prostitutes. In Ancient Greece:

In the temple of Apollo at Bulla Regia, a woman was found buried with an inscription reading: "Adulteress. Prostitute. Seize (me), because I fled from Bulla Regia." It has been speculated she might be a woman forced into sacred prostitution as a punishment for adultery.

More recently:

In Southern India and the eastern Indian state of Odisha, devadasi is the practice of hierodulic prostitution, with similar customary forms such as basavi, and involves dedicating pre-pubescent and young adolescent girls from villages in a ritual marriage to a deity or a temple, who then work in the temple and function as spiritual guides, dancers, and prostitutes servicing male devotees in the temple. Human Rights Watch reports claim that devadasis are forced into this service and, at least in some cases, to practice prostitution for upper-caste members.

The last section of the article, "Modern Views", does claim that the sacred prostitute "was seen as a powerful person", but it doesn't seem to match the description in the rest of the article.

I'm looking for cases where society considers the entire profession as prestigious - not individual prostitutes such as Julia Bulette.

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    So doesn't the section on the Hittites (for example) provide an answer? Nov 13, 2019 at 1:19
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    In Ancient Greece, only Hetaira might be considered prestigious, certainly not the Pornai. The OP has clearly stated the entire profession so that rules out Ancient Greece. Nov 13, 2019 at 4:34
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    With males, that mostly falls under pederasty. The philosopher Phaedo of Elis (as in Plato's dialogue Phaedo), a companion of Socrates, was a notable victim who clearly wanted out, so no prestige for him at least. There were also gigolos but I don't know much about them. Nov 13, 2019 at 5:59
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    This seems a bit like a No True Scottsman question. There's always been a wide range of arrangements. So technically (as Lars pointed out) you could consider both the sacred Hetaera at the Temple of Aphrodite and the enslaved street pornai "prostitutes", and thus claim it wasn't respected in ancient Greece despite the very high status of the former.
    – T.E.D.
    Nov 13, 2019 at 14:17
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    Just a broader point - until recently modern times, status in most societies could be described as the patron-client relationship - if I pay you to dig my field, cook my dinner, or paint my portrait, then your status will be lower than mine. Into late Victorian Britain, even doctors and clergy were generally not considered the equal of the landed gentry. So being paid for sexual services would, presumably, immediately affect the status of the sex worker in a similar way.
    – TheHonRose
    Nov 2, 2021 at 19:11

2 Answers 2

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Question: Has there ever been a society that viewed prostitution as a prestigious vocation?

I'm thinking of 16th century Renaissance Venice. Famous for their courtesans. There were two types of prostitutes. The "cortigiana onesta", the intellectual courtesan, and the "cortigiana di lume". The former, the so called intellectual courtesan were classically educated in the arts, sciences and latin. Such education was rare for most men of the age; exceptionally rare for women. These women were received at the highest levels of society in Venice.

I'm thinking specifically of Veronica Franco. A courtesan who achieved some fame as a poet beyond her primary vocation. She became the hero of the city when she successfully helped solicit the aid of the King of France, Henri III against the threat from the Ottoman Empire. Veronica Franco was a poet, lead a charity for children, and was a celebrated hero of the city for a time. She even had the political clout to withstand the attentions of the Counter-Reformation.

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    I'm accepting this answer because while it's not ideal, the sources linked touch enough on the prestige of the cortigiana onesta profession to, I think, answer the question.
    – Allure
    Nov 20, 2019 at 0:37
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In Japanese culture during the middle-late periods there was a specific type of courtesan called an oiran which held a middling social class, definitely not stigmatized though. Oiran were accorded special places in processions and parades apart from regular prostitutes and only socialized with the nobility. Also I seem to recall (but dont have a source) that some Oiran were daughters of minor nobility that had fallen onto hard times during the upheaval of the Tokugawa shogunate.

"Within the pleasure quarters, yūjo (遊女, "[women] of pleasure") – a term used to refer to prostitutes as a whole – were classified and licensed, the upper echelons of which were referred to as "oiran", a category with its own internal ranks, the highest of which being the tayū.

Though women in the lower ranks of yūjo did not provide as much artistic entertainment as they did sexual, oiran, whilst still prostitutes, also included the traditional arts as a key aspect of their entertainment, their practice of which differed considerably from those of geisha. As oiran were considered to be low-ranking members of the nobility, the instruments they played and the songs they sang were often confined to those considered "respectable" enough for the upper classes. Some were renowned poets and calligraphers as well; the development of the cultural arts of the pleasure quarters led to the rise in oiran being considered to be the celebrities of their day." link

"So the oiran were kind of the celebrities of their day, popular not just inside the yuukaku, but also outside. If a merchant wanted to spend time with an oiran it would set them back a year’s salary. Also, the higher the class the more say she had in who she saw. So, of course, it was the very upper classes who could afford them. They were even sometimes called keisei, castle topplers, because they were so intelligent and clever and charming that they could steal the hearts of upper class men and basically get them to do whatever they wanted." link

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