The dominant faith in this world is religiously conservative and believes that the only legitimate form of sexual intimacy is between husband and wife, and that homosexuality and extra marital affairs are sinful. However there is an industry that exists in parallel with society and seems to contradict its beliefs: the sex trade. Prostitution is not only accepted, but respectable, and receives strong protection from all participating states, albeit un-aligned with them. Some points about the sex trade in this world:

  1. It functions as an organized guild that operates openly in most countries, and receives a great deal of autonomy from world governments.
  2. The guild sets its own rules and laws, and can accept or reject clients at their leisure.
  3. The guild employs both males and females, and provides services to either sex.
  4. Prostitutes are highly revered and sought after in all social circles. Gaining the services of one is a sign of prestige and power.

Based on these criteria, how can this be made possible in a conservative world?

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    $\begingroup$ look at roman and vatican brothels for inspiration. Both were church owned. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 15, 2018 at 11:34
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    $\begingroup$ "Prostitutes are highly revered and sought after in all social circles": most human societies make a clear distinction between (very expensive) kept women, (expensive) courtesans and (cheap) common whores. This was true in all times and in all places. Something is very weird about a society where common street walkers are "sought after in all social circles". Either the society described in the question has no actual prostitutes (which would be rather strange, historically), or the question is about upmarket courtesans and not really about ordinary prostitutes at all. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 15, 2018 at 11:51
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    $\begingroup$ Note that apart from your point 4 -- "revered" -- this describes many real world societies today: most wink at prostitution -- or perhaps, sneer at it -- as a necessary evil. Few criminalise it to anything like the degree in the US -- even Islamic countries. And point 4 presumably occurred in all the countries that practised sacred prostitution: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_prostitution $\endgroup$
    – Securiger
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ Hey, are you describing companions from Firefly?! Because this sure looks like you are. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Aug 15, 2018 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot The Companions from Firefly were based on real-world prestigious prostitution - see Why did companions have such high social standing? and What canon information exists on the inspiration for the Companions in Firefly? In the US the concept might be best known through Firefly, but something similar actually still exists in Japan (a Japanese FOAF of mine did a student internship as a 'Companion', minus the sex part). $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2018 at 19:55

14 Answers 14


Similar to "Companions" in the Firefly series, the prostitutes are highly skilled members of a professional guild and have a great deal of wealth and autonomy.

A Companion is a skilled, well-educated and well-respected member of a guild of professional courtesans/entertainers, somewhat similar to oiran. While they do frequently engage in a form of state-sanctioned prostitution, they are nonetheless treated with a great deal of respect and deference by nearly everyone,[1] though non-guild prostitutes[2] are generally treated in the reverse, even if they are former Guild members.

Consider also religiously permitted temporary marriages which are accepted by some in the Islamic faith.

According to Twelver Shia jurisprudence, preconditions for mutah are: The bride must not be married, she must be Muslim or belong to Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), she should be chaste, not addicted to fornication and she should not be a young virgin (if her father is absent and cannot give consent).[9][need quotation to verify] At the end of the contract, the marriage ends and the wife must undergo iddah, a period of abstinence from marriage (and thus, sexual intercourse). The iddah is intended to give paternal certainty to any child/ren should the wife become pregnant during the temporary marriage contract.[6][1]

Giving the religion significant power over the relationships will probably help in making them more plausibly acceptable. A self-regulated professional group under religious supervision might work well, similar to doctors, engineers and lawyers under secular governments. Unauthorized persons who dabble in the profession are subject to severe penalties under the law.

  • $\begingroup$ All marriages in Islam are contract between husband and wife with an intention of living with each other for lifetime. Mutah as you explained is almost like a marriage with smaller period of living with each other, but same in other aspects like nikah and divorce and iddah period of about 3 to 4 months. It cannot be compared with prostitution. $\endgroup$
    – imtaar
    Jan 20, 2022 at 9:52
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    $\begingroup$ @imtaar looks like a duck... quacks like a duck. It is a duck. $\endgroup$
    – Questor
    Mar 21 at 14:52

Conservative means wanting nothing to change. Whatever society is, it should stay the same. What that means in practice depends on where you come from, but it is often, and in this case specifically, related to the position of the church.

Make it part of the religion

Consider the historic concept of the nun or monk under Catholicism and invert it. They're no longer wedded to god, they're now wedded to society and sex is a holy act. One makes a donation to the church and the church in return grants one time with a nun or monk, as appropriate, to perform holy rites commensurate to the amount of money you've donated.

This isn't extra-marital sex, it's a form of worship.

It's not a guild, it's a church, and religion is socially powerful.

And those who have the favour of the church are also those who clearly have the favour of god, i.e. the wealthy and powerful of society.

  • 22
    $\begingroup$ "Conservative ... nothing to change." You should perhaps reword this a little more, ahem, conservatively -- as it stands it is both politically loaded and not "literally" true. "Conservative" as a noun falls into the political sphere with a huge range of meanings according to the nuances of your local politics -- some conservative parties want to change a lot. Outside of politics, or as an adjective it literally has about a dozen meanings but all revolve around being cautious about change -- not "wanting nothing to change." (But: "sacred prostitution" is a good take on the question.) $\endgroup$
    – Securiger
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Securiger, round here it means ignoring the fact that the empire fell some decades ago, but I've shifted the wording slightly. $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    Aug 15, 2018 at 12:40
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    $\begingroup$ Came here to say this - sacred prostitution was a rite practiced in several ancient religions. In Babylon, for example, every woman was expected to at least once in her life go to the temple and wait until a man had paid her for sex. $\endgroup$
    – Werrf
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:28
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    $\begingroup$ Deities of lust and pleasure: Derketo (Conan The Barbarian), Sharess (D&D), based in part on Baset (Egyptian pantheon). And when it comes to lustful celebration one must — of course — mention Dionysus / Bacchus (Greek/Roman pantheon). $\endgroup$
    – MichaelK
    Aug 15, 2018 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ Possible Belief: Sex with someone causes your souls to mix. You get some of their soul, they get some of yours. To much widespread sex and your identity gets erased by the mixture of soul bits. But priests and priestesses are channels for God, so sex with them gives you a tiny bit of God's soul in exchange for a bit of your own. $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2018 at 19:35

Temporary marriages. They already exist in this world. It's a private contract for a pre-determined amount of time. Agree the terms, get married, have sex, marriage ends.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikah_mut%27ah is the name given to this practice in the largest sect of Shia Islam.

A Sunni Islam option also exists; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misyar_marriage . It has no fixed time period and involves the man paying the woman.

There is also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikah_%27urfi , which apparently specifically has a reputation of being "a way for people to have sex with each other within what is perceived to be a licit framework." That sounds exactly like what you need.

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    $\begingroup$ This is the best answer I think because it is real. Moschops, I recommend you flesh it out some to get the upvotes. Paste some text from the article or another site that describes how this system works. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 15, 2018 at 15:59
  • $\begingroup$ involves the man paying the woman this not true as per the url given. The husband and wife thus joined renounce several marital rights ... the wife's rights to housing and maintenance money $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2018 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @malhobayyeb I disagree. The url given, link , states clearly: Misyar marriage fits within the general rules of marriage in Salafi law, on condition merely that it fulfill all the requirements of the Shariah marriage contract, i.e.: ... The payment by the husband to his wife of mahr (dower) in the amount that is agreed It clearly states that there is a payment to the woman, in an amount they agree. $\endgroup$
    – Moschops
    Aug 16, 2018 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Moschops You are right. But this payment is also paid in regular marriage. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2018 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ @malhobayyed Why do you say "But"? How's that relevant? This IS a marriage. That's the point of it. It's a marriage. $\endgroup$
    – Moschops
    Aug 16, 2018 at 10:44

Be practical: if you are strong in your statement that only intra-marriage intercourse is legitimate, you have a huge problem.

You have a large mass of single males and females, mostly in their hormone storm age, with no access to "relieving practices". Any respectable member of the society would dread the idea of their son/daughter being raped, hence losing their honor and value as exchange matter, before marriage.

So, better have brothels where steam can be let off. Since they contribute to the overall well being of the community, and also pay taxes out of their profession, members of the guild are respected, and being a competitive market it's to be expected that competition will happen not only on physical appearance but also on side entertainment, highly valuing the ability of having philosophical conversations, for example, for which a dedicated training is required.

At the very end is nothing different than what was happening with prostitution in real history: see the Greek Hetaira.

Hetairai were thought to have had only a few men as clients at any one time, to have had long-term relationships with them, and to have provided companionship and intellectual stimulation as well as sex.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the obvious historical example. Just a note: the Greek word hetaera is simply the feminine form of hetaeros, meaning "companion" or "comrade". For example, the closest friends and companions of Alexander the Great are called hetaeri (ἑταιροι, hetairoi). The derived term hetaeria means "association" or "brotherhood". For a famous hetaera the querent should look up Aspasia. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Aug 15, 2018 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ I read a book some years back about Brunelleschi and his work building the dome on the Florence cathedral (fascinating stuff) and I recall there being some section describing how in Florence at the time, prostitutes were required by law to wear hats with bells on them in order to ensure they were easy for men to locate. These kinds of laws originated from religious concerns. $\endgroup$
    – JimmyJames
    Aug 17, 2018 at 16:34

Sex workers are not (regular) humans

That's right. If your society treats guild members as someone detached from humanity, sex with them no longer is "real" sex. Making them sterile would help a lot. Making them a kind of monastic order that answers to "pope" would also help a great deal.

In human history we used to have societies with castes treated like they were something totally different, so this wouldn't be that far from what your readers would probably already know. Think, for example, third gender:

Thus, in ancient India, as in present-day India, the society made a distinction between a third gender having sex with a man, and a man having sex with a man.

As you can see, societies can make such distinctions already, what I propose is quite similar.

Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Third_gender


Give "Intimacy" another meaning

"The only legitimate form of sexual intimacy is between husband and wife."

Then let your religion define "Intimacy" as "Sexual Intercourse For The Sole Purpose Of Procreating". From there, any sexual act that does not involve procreating is considered as an... inconsequential physical entertainment.

Like L.Dutch said in his answer, brothels are places were the steam can be let off, and everything happening between these walls are considered as benign because nobody gets pregnant.

Of course, if any prostitute gets pregnant, the Church intervenes to find and bring the guilty parties to justice...


What's formally acceptable and what's informally common practise are not the same thing.

You are basically describing the state of prostitution in Europe in the 17th-19th centuries. Strict Christianity was the foundation of moral society - but if you were female then your career options were basically domestic service (where you'd be expected to be sexually receptive to your employer), marriage (where you'd be expected to be sexually receptive to your husband), or whore. And there were a lot of whores, and men thought no more of visiting them than they did of visiting an alehouse.

You might think that strict Christianity would lead to laws limiting this - but of course the people actually making the laws were the same ones visiting the prostitutes. Even so, they had to be seen to be doing something, so some laws did exist. Except that until the foundation of modern policing by Robert Peel, enforcement of those laws was purely by "thief takers" paid by magistrates who themselves were rich, and who would not cross another gentleman (or their friends). Hence the word "privilege" for "private law" - not only was enforcement of crimes against people subject to the depth of your wallet or influence, but so was the choice of which crimes were pursued.

Successful prostitutes could move up the ladder to be "courtesans". If they could get the favour of someone prepared to pay for their sole services, then the mistress of a rich or influential man could even have substantial standing herself, and this would not be hidden from the world. Think of Nell Gwynn, for example.

Ironically, despite this level of public knowledge, the worst that anyone could do was to record this formally in writing. Hogarth, Fielding and Dickens scandalised English society by touching on this kind of thing in their work - even though everyone knew what was actually going on.

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    $\begingroup$ "You are basically describing the state of prostitution in Europe in the 17th-19th centuries." You are actually narrowing it more than you have to. In 1161, Henry II granted to the Bishop of Winchester the power to license prostitutes and brothels in the Southwark, London, area called The Liberty Of The Clink. For centuries, the good Bishop grew rich off the earning of the unfortunate girls known as the Winchester Geese. Brothels were not outlawed in the UK until 1751. Prostitution per se has never been unlawful in the UK. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2018 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ This is what I thought of when I read this question. You could also reference the guided age, as well as pope Gregor III? Mistress (why the Lutherine church exists today). $\endgroup$
    – Pliny
    Aug 16, 2018 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ @Malvolio Cool, thanks. I'm not so familiar with history going back that far - I preferred to comment on what I'm sure of. Now you mention it though, I do remember hearing about the Winchester Geese from when I was there last year. The hypocrisy of these guys was truly amazing, and the most amazing thing is they didn't think it was even unusual, never mind wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 16, 2018 at 22:45
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    $\begingroup$ @GarretGang Yeah, loads of Popes were up to stuff. The political corruption they were all at the centre of though, anything like sexual 'immorality' would barely warrant a footnote. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Aug 16, 2018 at 22:49

I'm going to use securiger's comment for this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_prostitution

Even in the Christian religion you can find forms of prostitution down to Jesus supposedly protecting one and allegedly even loving one, and the Koran also basically rewards people with prostitutes with the whole "72 virgins" thing. with sacred prostitution being a thing you could argue for a society who attempt to remain pure by having people release their sexual urges by sanctioned and possibly "blessed" prostitutes. This way they can avoid the "only sex after marriage" problem.

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    $\begingroup$ You cannot find in the Bible Jesus “allegedly even loving one.” Without defending or condemning the allegation, which has been often made, it isn’t in the Bible. Nor does the Bible identify whether the woman he protected from stoning had been in prostitution or in an extra-marital affair. In other words, this answer is not accurate. I don’t think it is accurate about Islam either but I haven’t read much in their literature. $\endgroup$
    – WGroleau
    Aug 16, 2018 at 3:18
  • $\begingroup$ @WGroleau theres more than the bible, and even in the bible hints are made: biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/…. Besides that, the Bible isnt exactly saintly about sex. For example I had to read a part in school about a woman who was barren and told her husband "here's our slave, have a child with her and we'll raise it as our own" (much more elaborately told ofcourse). So basically sex slavery for child theft. So a clause for sacred prostitution isnt far fetched. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Aug 16, 2018 at 7:08
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    $\begingroup$ I won’t dispute that. But I will stand by my comment that you were inaccurate about two things (not) found in the Bible. $\endgroup$
    – WGroleau
    Aug 16, 2018 at 11:57
  • $\begingroup$ @WGroleau I edited it to say "Christian religion", if you have better wording please let me know. $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Aug 16, 2018 at 12:09
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    $\begingroup$ There are a zillion different definitions of Christian, so I have no doubt you can find one that includes prostitution. It is opposed in the New Testament and in the book of Proverbs, but it is mentioned in a neutral way in other places. I don’t condone what Sarah did with Hagar. Although that was culturally acceptable then, the story strongly implies it was not God’s plan. $\endgroup$
    – WGroleau
    Aug 17, 2018 at 4:13

Use prostitution as an outlet within a legal marriage, one that enforces conservatism in other ways

It's natural for men's eyes to wander, but god insists we keep a standard family unit and don't divorce. So men who aren't sexually fulfilled are allowed to go to the prostitute so as to not break their sacred vows. The social stigma of prostitution would go to the wife, not the husband or sex worker, for failing to meet their husband's needs, thus keeping gender inequality firmly in place.


There are a number of ancient religions where priestess and courtesan were the same, typically for the goddess of love or similar.

Add a bit of business sense to this concept and remove the necessity of the sex act happening within the temple (just within the priestess) and you have essentially an escort service that donates its income to charity ^H^H^H the temple.

That concept is absolutely compatible with a religious and conservative society. Conservative does not necessarily mean prude, that is just a combination typical of modern America.


Make premartial sex immoral. Then teach that prostitution is a "necessary evil" to prevent lusty men from taking out their lust on innocent girls.

This was the case in the Middle Ages and 19th century France and Russia.

Medieval civilians accepted without question the fact of prostitution, it was necessary part of medieval life. Prostitutes subverted the sexual tendencies of male youth, just by existing. With the establishment of prostitution men were less likely to collectively rape honest women of marriageable and re-marriageable age. This is most clearly demonstrated in St. Augustine's claim that "the removal of the institution would bring lust into all aspects of the world." Meaning that without prostitutes to subvert male tendencies, men would go after innocent women instead, thus the prostitutes were actually doing society a favor.

St. Augstine was a Bishop and theologian.

France, instead of trying to outlaw prostitution began to view prostitution as an evil necessary for society to function. France chose to regulate prostitution, introducing a Morals Brigade onto the streets of Paris. A similar situation did in fact exist in the Russian Empire; prostitutes operating out of government-sanctioned brothels were given yellow internal passports signifying their status and were subjected to weekly physical exams.

Prostitution and sex crimes aren't uncommon amongst religious leaders today either.

India's devadasi girls are forced by their poor families to dedicate themselves to the Hindu goddess Renuka. The BBC wrote in 2007 that devadasis are "sanctified prostitutes".[88]


Separate true religion from socially acceptable religion

In your hypothetical society, perhaps the conservative social leaders and trendsetters have all the appearances of religious conformity but are actually sin-deniers, believing that there's no problem really with prostitution, especially expensive prostitution, the way they do it.

In this conservative society, the trend-setters and leaders would live every day as if they were religious, but there would be some people (maybe you could name them "Grablers", "Pleamlings", and "Zarbs") who could see that there was a disconnect between what they said and what they did. Maybe the Grablers would scoff at religion while the Pleamlings scoff at the leaders; and wouldn't it be dramatic if the Zarbs take a stand for the truth at their own personal peril?


Dominant != Universally Accepted

Just because 99% of the people would never dream of injecting heroin does not mean that you have nobody injecting heroin.

Dominant Religion != the Government Takes Direction from Religion's Leaders

I'm sure that the religious body that dominates might prefer if their teachings also carried the force of law, but that is not always the case. If the religion has only recently come into prominence, it may not yet have acquired the political power necessary.

As an alternative—especially if you don't want your tale to read like a pastiche of the Catholic Church—it may be that the people who lead the faith have concluded that getting the government on board with their program will, with take-it-to-the-bank certainty, cause their religion to become a corrupt mockery of itself, and so they are actively eschewing government assistance in promoting their views, and ex-communicate any member of the fold who tries to advance the faith by means of governmental power.

(And a pedantic point: I note with approval that you did not refer to this dominant religious group as a "church." Even in fiction that should only be done when the theology of the group is recognizably Christian.)


well, it have been in europe, at least in france: mastubation was so badly see that the church accepted that men go paid a prostitute each time they where feelink like jaking off. it wasn't considered like cheating, because it where their job, and religion couldn't forbide both, since men needed way to enjoy themself.

so, ban masturbation and because they will be the lone socialy acceptable way to enjoy yourself they will quickly gain a lot of influence.


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