“Remove prostitutes from human affairs and you will destroy everything with lust.” 

This ambiguous statement could easily have been a controversial line from a pro–sex work rally or Tucker Carlson’s newest declaration. What one may not expect is that the source is none other than his holiness himself, Saint Augustine of Hippo in 4th century AD. 

Prostitution is quoted as the oldest occupation, but historically, the demand for the service mostly skyrocketed during eras with strong Catholic influences. It may or may not come as a surprise that the brothels themselves were owned and operated by churches and local governments. After all, regulating sex and sexuality was viewed by positions of power as a form of control. The 15th century Holy Roman Empire was no exception.

Yet any of the god–fearing civil servants would tell you their intentions were nothing but pure. Unmarried men could not corrupt a single, pious woman, so they had to expel their demons elsewhere. The priests believed that if their urges were not expressed through the means of a female prostitute, they would commit the most sinful of acts—sodomy. Any woman involved in a form of “whoredom” could be shipped to a brothel by authorities and used as a regulator of their city's unhinged lust. 

But to best understand the consequences of this government program, you may have to go somewhere you’ve never been before: in the shoes of a medieval prostitute. 

Nördlingen, Germany, 1471. 

Along the outskirts of town, you start your day alongside 12 to 13 of your coworkers whenever you’re called to duty. It's important to dress to impress. If you’re favored by a regular, you may sometimes be gifted exquisite jewels. One morning, you choose to don one of his necklaces—only to find out that jewelry is prohibited; it would make you seem like too much of a real lady. 

You follow a routine made not by your husband, but by your master. 

You pray your clients are kind. You pray your boss didn’t have a bad day. You pray your “monthlies” come. Praying and pleading are all you can do, because as a woman, once you enter the brothel, there is no escaping. 

One might assume prostitutes would have been more respected as a backbone of a lascivious Germanic society. They needed these women to satisfy their pleasures—to keep men and therefore society in control. But alas, sex workers were not seen as women. They were ”necessary evils.”

Someone had to be the poison seeping into a perfect little Christian town, and it certainly wasn’t going to be the government that owned the brothels or the priests that utilized them. When the government tells people what they should or shouldn’t do with their own bodies, it usually doesn't come from a place of moral obligation. 

In 2019, when Washington's leaders debated the decriminalization of abortion, neither the politicians, faith coalitions, or even the National Organization for Women would heed the warnings of sex workers themselves that their criminalization would only create more violence. Rejecting sex workers only leaves them subject to more abuse at the hands of authorities and less likely to report crimes; it is not a moral issue. Political leaders argue that every life is worth saving, but then stay silent and contribute to the coerced sterilization at the U.S.–Mexico border; it is not a moral issue. In Nördlingen, Germany, a young Els von Eystett was forced into the church’s prostitution circuit and slipped an aborticide by an institution that claimed to be pro–life; it was not a moral issue. 

Society pushes boundaries through decisions reminiscent of 2022's Dobbs v. Jackson, which fought against the 14th amendment's words to "protect against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy."  This concept of a “right to privacy”—that is no longer guaranteed—goes beyond abortion. It means that the government can now interfere in private matters, such as same–sex or interracial marriage and reproductive health. 

The issues of a 15th century prostitute may seem very obscure to us: These problems occurred almost 600 years ago. They happened to a sex worker, a woman, a poor woman. It’s easy not to care about issues when they seem so distant to us, but they all come down to a lack of bodily autonomy.

You may never be a medieval prostitute, but you do live under a system that forces us to constantly question how far their reach goes. Don't be afraid to push back.