Rethinking Sacred Prostitution

Sex workers, like all other workers, ought to be able to work regular hours, have a pension, get time off when they are ill, be safe and healthy at work, and not be exploited. When they want to change careers and do something else, the fact that they have been a sex worker should not be stigmatised, as this will prevent them from choosing a different career.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being a sex worker. Sex work is work. Sex is sacred, as long as it is fully consensual. Therefore fully consensual sex work is sacred.

But all too often, because sex work exists in the interstices between the legal and the illegal, due to the prudish attitudes promulgated by conservative Christians, sex workers are denied these basic rights of all workers, and they are exploited by unscrupulous criminals.

Trafficking is clearly wrong, and the exploitation of migrants and the the vulnerable should be stopped. But trafficking and sex work are not synonymous. Some people choose to make a living in this way, and as long as it is a freely chosen career, then that shouldn’t be a problem.

That’s why I agree with the assertion that sex work is work.

Sacred prostitution

The extent to which sacred prostitution has existed over time is disputed. It was not part of Canaanite religion [1], despite claims to the contrary [2].

However, it seems that it does exist in Hinduism, in the cult of Yellamma. The meaning of this cult is highly disputed, but women do offer sexual intercourse to strangers as part of the rituals, and some have characterised it as prostitution and even sex slavery. The status of female devotees of Yellamma is also disputed, and may have been adversely affected by the introduction of Western codes of morality.

Some contemporary Pagans have tried to reintroduce sacred sex work in various forms, for example reintroducing people to the sacred nature of sexual intimacy and touch. These efforts are to be applauded, but we must take care that being sex-positive doesn’t turn into being sex-pressuring, as Shauna Aura Knight points out:

Here’s some things that aren’t sex positive:

  • Sex positive does not mean you must fuck everybody in your group.
  • Sex positive does not mean it’s ok for people to pressure you into getting naked.
  • Sex positive does not mean you have to be ok with having sex in front of other people
  • Sex positive does not mean it’s ok to aggressively flirt with or physically touch anyone just because you think they’re hot.
  • Sex positive does not mean it’s ok to use your position as a group leader or teacher to get people to have sex with you.
  • Sex positive does not mean that you have to dress sexually all the time or have lots of sex.
  • Having lots of (consensual) sex does not mean that you are less deserving of respect.

Whatever the nature of ancient rituals involving sexual intercourse, I believe that we should focus on enthusiastic consent to sex and intimacy in all contexts. If enthusiastic consent is absent, then there’s something wrong. Consensual intimacy and sexual pleasure are known to be healing and helpful, and whatever is healing and helpful is sacred. If money is involved in the situation, that makes it a bit more complicated, but it doesn’t invalidate the consent.


  1. Tess Dawson (2011), Orgies-R-Us: Sex, Lies, and Prostitutes in Canaanite Religion. Kina’ani.
  2. Joanna H Stuckey (2005), “Sacred Prostitutes”, Matrifocus: Cross-Quarterly for the Goddess Woman (Samhain Issue).
  3. K. L. Kamat (2000, 2016), The Yellamma Cult. Kamat’s Potpourri.
  4. Shauna Aura Knight (2013), Sex, Ethics, and Paganism. Pagan Activist.
  5. Yvonne Aburrow (2016), Creating Consent Culture. Pagan Consent Culture.

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One thought on “Rethinking Sacred Prostitution

  1. These are all valid points. When I was in Amsterdam about a decade ago, the sex work industry seemed to incorporate at least some of these ideals. Prostitutes were not criminalized. it took place above board. There were regulations pertaining to health and security and apparently sex workers even had a union of some sort. The involvement of money does complicate matters of consent, but illegality is what really drives abuse, coercion and trafficking within prostitution.

    With or without the involvement of money, the key to ending abuse and harassment is to foster a truly sex-positive ethic (as opposed to one that is merely permissive). The places with the worst cultures of rape and harassment are without exception those with puritanical religious cultures. The Sexual Revolution in the West has gone a long way toward fixing that by allowing many more avenues for sexual expression and identity, but fell short by retaining a certain amount of puritanical hypocrisy and double standards, juvenile attitudes and a culture which encouraged too many men to view gratification as an entitlement rather than something to be negotiated with other people.

    I would amend only one of Shauna Aura Knights rules:
    “Sex positive does not mean you must fuck everybody in your group.”

    No it does not, but if called upon to do so with enthusiastic consent, I must either do so or die honorably in the attempt! 🙂

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