The Modern Career of “The Oldest Profession,” and the Social Embeddedness of Metaphors

This article was fun to write, and it’s even more fun to play with Google n-grams to track the usage of metaphors about prostitution in the UK vs US (such as this or this). Among many nuggets I uncovered:

Rudyard Kipling coined the metaphor “the most ancient profession!”

“Sex work” initially referred to sexuality research! (Masters and Johnson, in particular, referred to their investigations as “sex work.”)

Metaphor theory! The lady embalmers of Cincinatti! More below:

Mattson, G. (2015). The modern career of ‘the oldest profession’and the social embeddedness of metaphors. American Journal of Cultural Sociology 3(2), 191-223.

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Metaphors are elementary particles of meaningfulness, serving as cognitive resources for framing social problems or social movement narratives. This article presents a diachronic analysis of a metaphor synthesizing insights from cultural sociology and conceptual metaphor theory (CMT), an interdisciplinary neuroscientific program with robust empirical findings for how meanings change over time. I track the diffusion of ‘the most ancient’ metaphor for prostitution through publications on both sides of the Atlantic from its coinage by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. I explain the puzzle of its persistent polysemy by its embeddedness in three discursive communities: occupational professionals; social movements demanding state action against white slavery; and journalists, writers and cultured readers. These competing uses explain the paradox of how a metaphor about prostitution’s timelessness became a convention at the very movement that prostitution’s abolition seemed possible. While this single metaphor was used to express multiple opinions about prostitution’s inevitability, it shored up the ontological status of prostitution, a concept that contemporary researchers still struggle to unpack or displace. The diachronic analysis by which cultural categories are juxtaposed and reified is one of the insights of CMT for social cognition, with implications for sociological analysis of narratives, tropes and discourses.


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