The issue of how many women are selling sex has been an obsession in Europe since the 19th century. Both social explorers (researchers) and medical men were interested in knowing, in order to carry out projects to control prostitution but also to show that prostitutes were so numerous they should be considered ordinary people – and thus saveable. This idea ignored the lack of decently paid occupations for women as well as the variety to be found among prostitutes.
The following excerpt comes from William Acton’s 1857 book on prostitution. Britain did not have the regulatory system in place in several continental countries, where numbers of ‘overt’ and ‘registered’ women were known. Note his warning about clandestinity even in those countries with regulation – exactly the one that hampers calculations today – and Acton’s comment on the inconsistency in methods. Note also how the counting slips into talking about loose women. Things are not so different today.
Prostitution in Some 19th-century European Cities
Mr Tait, a writer on prostitution in Edinburgh, whose estimates I receive with every respect, but at the same time with considerable reserve, informs us that in that city they number about 800, or nearly 1 to every 80 of the adult male population. In London he considers they are as 1 to 60; in Paris, as 1 to 15; and in New York, as 1 to 15.
The manner of these calculations is as follows: One-half of the population of each place is supposed to be males, of whom one-third are thrown aside as too young or too old for exercise of the generative functions. The remainder is then divided by the alleged number of public women in each community-namely, in Edinburgh, 800; in London, 8000; in Paris, 18,000; and in New York, 10,000.
It appears that the above estimate for London is not far short of the mark, the number of recognised women being about 8600; but the number of males, of twenty years of age and upwards, being close upon 700,000 (632,545 in 1851), we should arrive at the proportion, for London of one prostitute overt to every 81 (not every 60) adult males.* It will be observed, also, that in attributing 8000 public women to London and 18,000 to Paris, this writer has not allowed for the enormous clandestinity of our own capital, while he has more than quadrupled the French official returns, I presume, on that account.
In Paris, in 1854, among a population numbering 1,500,000 persons, there were 4206 registered “filles publiques,” that is to say, one overt prostitute to 356 inhabitants, over and above the unnumbered clandestine ones, who are variously estimated at 20,000, 40,000, 50,000, and 60,000.
In Hamburg (population within the walls 120,000), there were, in 1846, only 500 registered public women, or 1 to every 240 inhabitants; but I have seen no estimate of the clandestinaires of the place.
The population of Brussels is about 270,000 and the number of females borne upon the books of the Moral and Sanitary Police is 630. That capital would appear pure indeed, were the relation of these numbers to be taken as an index of morality; but it will appear hereafter that this test is fallacious.
In Berlin, we are told by Dr. Holland that, in 1849 “the number of prostitutes in brothels was 225, and of women under superintendence of the police 545; total, 770; and taking the male population above sixteen years of age as 153,802, there would be 201 males to every such female. This gives no clue to the extent of clandestine prostitution; but I find that, in a report of the Berlin police of 1849, the total number of loose women of all classes of society was estimated at 10,000.
William Acton, Prostitution. London, Churchill, 1857, p. 19.
*The single males are but 196,857.
– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist