A Note of Terminology: Prostitutes or Sex Workers?

By Adrina Schulz, 01/05/2020

The word Prostitution in German is anachronistic: it does not appear in the medieval or early modern Zurich sources, although Peter Schuster did find it in a Nurnberg source in the sixteenth century (Schuster 1992, p. 19). The words used instead were numerous, context-dependent, and variable. In fact, almost any word meaning woman could be used to denote a prostitute when combined with certain adjectives. For example, in the case of Kaspar Bleuler from 1566, the term weib or woman was used to discuss prostitutes – “gmein wyber” –and to speak sympathetically of a wife – “wyb unnd kindt” (STaZH A 8.1, Nr. 93). Furthermore, words that today are strongly associated with prostitution, such as Dirne, could be used for different kinds of women, from a maid to a prostitute to a woman in general. Thus, there is a terminology problem. Some scholars have stuck with modern terms such as prostitute (Schuster 1992, among others). Others have used contemporary terms such as the German Dirne or the English whore to highlight these ambiguities (Schuster 1995; Karras 1996). This project will examine the various source words using historical semantics in order to differentiate them and track their changes over time, but will use the word prostitution as an umbrella term in order not to blur these differences.

The modern, self-chosen term for a prostitute is sex-worker (see for instance the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, among many others). However, even the concept of prostitution or sex work cannot be applied one-to-one to the medieval and early modern periods, as contemporary theologians and law-makers focused far more on a woman’s promiscuity – how many men she had sex with – than whether she was paid. Thus, since the word sex worker emphasizes aspects of labor and money, it does not fit with these conceptions of prostitution, as well as the women’s legal status: they were punished for adultery or fornication, as there was no specific charge of prostitution. Thus, this project will continue to use prostitute and prostitution for now, although I am of course open for comments and suggestions.


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