Case Study: Prostitution

We can learn a great deal about women’s history from studying women in a particular situation. Discussion of prostitution, a topic that has long excited widespread interest, incorporates ethnographic, historical, philosophical, medical, religious, and sociological elements and can tell us much about different societies’ attitudes toward women. Popular attitudes toward prostitution also provide information on a particular society’s beliefs about race, class, gender, and age, as well as eugenics and hygiene, not to mention gender difference in marriage. The variety of sources described here can be employed as a model for students interested in other women’s history topics.

Diane de Poitiers

Courtesans, or upper-class prostitutes, are among the women often mentioned in traditional histories, from the hetaerae of Ancient Greece, through the Byzantine Empress Theodora, to Diane de Poitiers, the 16th-century mistress of Henri II, King of France. Courtesans have been the subject of Japanese woodcuts, “Pictures of the Floating World,” dating from the Edo Period [See Analyzing Evidence: Paintings and Prints], and of European portrait painters.

Some, like the Madame de Pompadour and Madame du Barry, the mistresses of French King Louis XV during the mid-18th century, came to wield significant power. These women, however, represent only a small percentage of prostitutes, many of whom lived—and still live—in poverty.

Both men and women have been employed as sexual laborers throughout history. When Western governments began attempting to regulate prostitution during the 19th century, however, their policies concentrated on the sexual behaviors of women. Journalists, moral crusaders, and politicians discussed prostitution in newspapers, periodicals, parliament, and public speeches or discussions. Novels reflected contemporary female stereotypes associated with prostitution (the “weaker” morals of women or the “dirtiness” of women from certain ethnic groups, often immigrants). Physicians, sociologists, and other specialists sought to explain its causes. Reflecting the growth of prostitution as a global concern, beginning in the late 19th century, countries throughout the world began signing international treaties banning the transportation of women for illicit purposes, which was known as the “white slave trade.”

European states, as well as some cities in East Asia (but not the United States), that regulated prostitution kept a close eye on “registered” prostitutes, who constituted a small percentage of sex laborers. Most sex laborers worked clandestinely, sometimes only temporarily.

Governments passed laws meant to control the behavior of prostitutes. Officials tracked their health with compulsory medical examinations designed to detect venereal diseases. “Morals” police monitored their behavior and movements, and arrested them for a variety of violations, sometimes resulting in court cases. All of these documents (laws, court records, police records, and health exams) provide a rich source basis for the study of prostitution.

Health Book

For example, the regulation of prostitution in the last decades of the Habsburg Monarchy included a variety of assumptions, among them the widespread literacy of women and a competent bureaucracy large enough to oversee the administration of prostitution. Prostitutes were expected to fill in application forms for health books as well as to read behavioral and health rules and regulations the police provided. The questionnaires demanded personal information, including name, date, place of birth, residence, religion, and marital status. If the applicant were married or a minor, the permission of her husband or parents was necessary for registration.

Some health book applications might contain subjective questions, such as why the applicant had chosen to become a prostitute. The health books, which varied locally throughout the Habsburg Monarchy, usually contained the name, age, and place of birth of its holder, and from 1894, also an identifying photograph of the prostitute. Prostitute Habsburg MonarchyThese were primarily photographs of faces only, but occasionally, they included full-length, formal studio portraits. Health books tracked the government-mandated regular visits prostitutes had with police doctors to determine the state of their health. In addition to telling us about the health of individual prostitutes, as well as more general information about the age of regulated prostitutes, their hometowns, and the towns and cities in which they chose to work, this material also provides evidence that prostitution was part of the family economy among the poor of the Monarchy.

In an era before antibiotics, venereal disease was the main cause of concern about the health of prostitutes. Because registered prostitutes might have as many as 20 clients a day, they risked great exposure to venereal disease (and other infectious diseases) and at the same time exposed many people to it. Indeed, by the time a registered prostitute was discovered to have a venereal disease, she might already have infected numerous clients, who might pass the disease along to a spouse or other partners.

When a registered prostitute left a city or town, she was obliged to inform the local police. If she planned to continue practicing prostitution in her new place of residence, she had to reregister with the police. They in turn contacted the police at her previous place of residence to verify her presence there as well as any criminal record or venereal infection. In addition to information on the health and possible criminal activity of prostitutes, this correspondence tells us about the mobility of prostitutes within the Monarchy.

In addition to local, regional, and state governmental documentation of the behavior of individual prostitutes, there are also the numerous publications by social organizations concerned with the issue of prostitution. Although many male and female bourgeois social reformers sought to eliminate prostitution altogether, their approaches were often very different, in part because of contrasting attitudes toward venereal diseases. For example, many reforming middle-class women’s groups in the United States asserted that the very regulation of prostitution discriminated against women and helped force them into a lifetime of prostitution; once labeled as prostitutes, their possibility of finding “respectable” employment was limited.

These varied materials reflect differing class, cultural, religious, and social perspectives on prostitution, especially in the modern, Western world. They tell us what observers thought about prostitution and how their attitudes changed over time. Until recently, there were few personal accounts by prostitutes to provide clues about their varying motivations or their attitudes toward the governments, organizations, or individuals that sought to regulate the practice or abolish prostitution. Oral histories as well as the anthropological and sociological studies that document the lives of prostitutes, many of them from Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe and almost all of them poor, have begun filling this gap.