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A variety of terms are used for those who engage in prostitution, some of which distinguish between different types of prostitution or imply a value judgment about them.

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

Clients of prostitutes are sometimes known as johns or tricks in North America and punters in the British Isles.

These slang terms are used among both prostitutes and law enforcement for persons who solicit prostitutes.

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.

A literal translation therefore is: "to put up front for sale" or "to place forward".

Prostitution is sometimes described as commercial sex or hooking.

It is sometimes referred to euphemistically as "the world's oldest profession" in the English-speaking world. Brothels are establishments specifically dedicated to prostitution.

In escort prostitution, the act may take place at the client's residence or hotel room (referred to as out-call), or at the escort's residence or a hotel room rented for the occasion by the escort (in-call). Although the majority of prostitutes are female and have male clients, a prostitute can be, and have clients, of any gender or sexual orientation.

Another commonly used word for a prostitute is hooker.

Although a popular etymology connects "hooker" with Joseph Hooker, a Union general in the American Civil War, the word more likely comes from the concentration of prostitutes around the shipyards and ferry terminal of the Corlear's Hook area of Manhattan in the 1820s, who came to be referred to as "hookers".