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Sex work researcher and writer Gail Pheterson writes that these metaphorical usages exist because "the term "prostitute" gradually took on a Christian moralist tradition, as being synonymous with debasement of oneself or of others for the purpose of ill-gotten gains".In the Ancient Near East along the Tigris–Euphrates river system there were many shrines and temples or "houses of heaven" dedicated to various deities documented by the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus in The Histories As early as the 18th century BC, ancient Mesopotamia recognized the need to protect women's property rights.It is sometimes referred to euphemistically as "the world's oldest profession" in the English-speaking world.

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The word "prostitution" can also be used metaphorically to mean debasing oneself or working towards an unworthy cause or "selling out". For the sake of the longed alliance with imperialist democracies [Stalin] has brought the Comintern to the last stages of political prostitution." Besides targeting political figures, the term is used in relation to organizations and even small countries, which "have no choice but to sell themselves", because their voice in world affairs is insignificant.

In this sense, "prostituting oneself" or "whoring oneself" the services or acts performed are typically not sexual. In 2007, a Russian caricature depicted the Baltic states as three "ladies of the night", "vying for the attentions of Uncle Sam, since the Russian client has run out of money".

Common alternatives for prostitute include escort and whore; however, not all professional escorts are prostitutes.

The English word whore derives from the Old English word hōra, from the Proto-Germanic *hōrōn (prostitute), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *keh₂- meaning "desire", a root which has also given us Latin cārus (dear), whence the French cher (dear, expensive) and the Latin cāritās (love, charity).

Those seeking to remove the social stigma associated with prostitution often promote terminology such as sex worker, commercial sex worker (CSW) or sex trade worker.

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