In both of the languages that I study--Hebrew and Latin--there are many words for prostitute, from zonah and kadesha in biblical hebrew to meretrix, scortum, and lupa in Latin. But what can these words actually tell us about who these women were and how their systems of prostitution worked--if there were systems at all.
More specifically, I want to talk about whether these prostitutes were slaves or single women. The answer to that question depends on a lot of things including which culture you want to look at: Roman or Ancient Israelite: Ancient Israelite/Biblical prostitutes, at least from the research that I have done so far( and I'm probably writing my final paper for the year on this topic) were the only women in Ancient Israelite society who were free from the control of a man. Before marriage, women belonged to the oldest man in her family, usually her father, but sometimes the brother would take control if the father had passed away. After marriage, the woman belonged to her husband, and if the husband died, she would be sent back to her father's house. The prostitutes in 1 Kings 3 came to Solomon because they didn't have a man to make the decision that they were looking for. I'm sure there are other examples.
But Rome, on the other hand was a little more complicated. Prostitution was an extensive industry: looked down upon, but at the end of the day, relatively common. There were brothels on every corner at least according to the archaeological record at Pompeii. There were essentially two categories of prostitutes in Rome. The first, called a number of things, including a mulier, a woman, or a scortum, or occasionally meretrices in the plural, were prostitutes, owned by a man, a pimp, a leno, who worked out of inns or taverns or in a brothel. These women, often foreigners who were captured by pirates or in battle, were sold to the pimps as slaves. They rarely made enough money to buy their own freedom. The second category was the meretrix, a word that literally means, the one who earns. These prostitutes were generally Roman women who chose this profession. She walked the streets and acquired her own clients, and she in fact wasn't under the control of any man.
So what's the verdict? I think it's still out. The Zonah and the Meretrix were certainly single, independent women, who didn't need a man, but does that make up for the pimps, the lenones that enslaved many helpless foreigners? You tell me.