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A new film about staging La Traviata is using the most old-fashioned and clichéd image in its publicity: that of Violetta on the floor in the classic pose of Fallen Women. Yes, I know the opera and I know the novel it’s based on (La dame aux camélias 1848) and I am capable of appreciating romantic imagery and tradition. But to choose just this pathetic and highly charged pose to advertise a supposedly innovative film seems perverse and uncreative to me.

I’ve written before about the iconography of the Fallen Woman: her position on the ground, sometimes twisted, sometimes being reached out to by a kind person (usually a man). In La Traviata (1853) Violetta is dying of consumption, so she’s also seen in pathetic poses in bed, but using the floor image in publicity photos drives home the idea that her essence is this: morally low, a kept woman, demi-mondaine, courtesan or woman

who’s gone astray (traviata). At the beginning of the story Violetta is a happy-go-lucky good-time girl (though ill). Finding true love with Alfredo she is portrayed as morally redeemed and self-sacrificing.

Possibly the gay lady may come to the ‘bitter end’ some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her ‘inferiors’, and the ful­some adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. – James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, Curse IV: Fallen Women, 1869

Whether the staging is brought into the present or not, Violetta always has a scene on the floor to drive home her moral abjection. Why else would she be on the floor? People who fall get back up right away; if they can’t, they are too injured. In Violetta’s case the injury is moral. Of course people also play on the floor, but Violetta is not playing in these scenes.

A limp Violetta can signify death but also helplessness, unconsciousness, submissiveness, despite the fact that she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love. In the beginning she is so good at gaiety that everyone around her has fun. Later she remains faithful to Alfredo despite his father’s meanness and sacrifices her own happiness for her lover. I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.

Observe the similar pose used to portray a woman hypnotised by Charcot: drooping, weak, the passive object of every male student’s gaze. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’, considered to be a sexual dysfunction at the time (1885). If he were not holding her up, she would fall to the ground. I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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In some country far away, in a box I left in someone’s attic or garage decades ago, there is a copy of this newsletter, which I bought in June 1968. I can see myself holding it, in a tiny apartment on Bank Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, when it was not the hyper-chic area it is now. The single-burner hotplate sits on a shelf, the bathroom sink is cluttered with dirty dishes, and it is all for me alone.

In Notes from the First Year Shulamith Firestone asked:

What does the word ‘feminism’ bring to mind? A granite faced spinster obsessed with a vote? Or a George Sand in cigar and bloomers, a woman against nature? Chances are that whatever image you have, it is a negative one. To be called a feminist has become an insult, so much so that a young woman intellectual, often radical in every other area, will deny vehemently that she is a feminist, will be ashamed to identify in any way with the early women’s movement, calling it cop-out or reformist or demeaning it politically without knowing even the little that is circulated about it. . . Notes from the First Year. The New York Radical Women, 1968.

Are you surprised anyone would say that in 1968? I discovered Firestone and I were the same age when she died the other day. We also looked superficially alike: granny glasses assured that, though my own hair would never lie down Rapunzel-like (no extant photos of me, though). I met her once briefly but never attended the meetings where her particular feminist theory was made.

Nowadays people talk as though all women interested in liberation in the 1960s were thinking the same thing, but it wasn’t like that. It was a movement of women, with all sorts of ideas being bandied around simultaneously. There weren’t any leaders. The material in Notes from the First Year was exciting, but I did not think that I was outside the cool centre because I did not sit in rooms with serious theorists calling themselves radical. My ideas were ill-formed, and I couldn’t have written a book about them, but I wouldn’t have wanted to, either – I was too busy living.

Some people cannot abide anything about what’s now called second-wave feminism because of how some of its ideas have panned out all these decades later. Maybe it’s easier for me to distinguish all the variety because I was there at that particular beginning. Most feminist ideas from that period are now accepted as obvious; few people would argue with them. But some were provocative and mind-bending, such as Firestone’s idea that women were a class – an underclass subordinated to men because of biology. But it was also only one of a lot of ideas flying around.

When I nearly ran into Catherine MacKinnon a couple of years ago in Basel, I commented that we are more or less the same age, too. Her ideas have not changed over all these decades; she goes on saying the same thing over and over, in the case of prostitution still citing a study from 1976 that proves all prostitutes were abused as children. It is very annoying that a few fanatics claim to speak for everyone interested in women’s movements in the 60s and 70s, as I wrote in Extremist Feminism: Something Dark.

At New Slave Trade or Moral Panic?, a panel on trafficking at London’s Battle of Ideas in 2010, I said contemporary ideas about women’s innate sexual vulnerability are a big step backward. Firestone thought biology was key and so do today’s victimising fundamentalists. But Firestone and friends advocated revolution: women seizing power, achieving autonomy, throwing off their chains, taking responsibility, taking risks. The Rescue Industry, in contrast, has infantilised women by inserting itself between them and the forces oppressing them, supposedly in order to protect them

The full panel and some audience interventions are on the Battle of Ideas’s website. Thanks to Carol Leigh for putting together this Naked Anthropologist clip.

I still cannot get over how a gender expert hearing me speak at the International Development Institute in Sussex exclaimed, in some distress, that it is irresponsible for me to talk like this. I’m supposed to have betrayed original, fundamental tenets of feminism. Sigh – the ideas flying around during this era certainly don’t thrill me, that’s for sure.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Prostitution, referred to under headings like The Great Social Evil or A Delicate Question, was a common topic of comment in The Times of London in the mid-19th century. The different points of view expressed have always seemed to me very similar to what we hear today, except for rhetorical style. Some anonymous letters purported to come from prostitutes themselves, and opinions differed as to whether they were genuine or written by campaigners.

One letter, from 24 February and referred to the other day vis-a-vis Charles Dickens’s Rescue fantasy, feels very genuine to me because I recognise its tone and the points made from writings by and conversations with contemporary sex workers. Dickens thought it was genuine as well but appears not to have clocked that the writer condemns the Rescuers (I can hear her saying fuck off quite clearly).

She distinguishes herself from complainers like a previous letter-writer prostitute, and from the seduced-and-abandoned sort of woman, acknowledging that both exist but not in the enormous numbers moralists were claiming. She despises lazy women who think prostitution will be easy, as well as married women who take up the trade. She is anti-foreigner, recommending the police deport non-English prostitutes, and she thinks removing a lot of prostitutes from the street is not a bad idea. She scoffs at the exaggerated statistics thrown about (at the time, the unfounded number was 80,000 prostitutes in London). She suggests that the term victim be applied to the horrendously paid workers who carry out more respectable occupations available to women at the time (such as those in these posed photos) and defends those who also sell sex from the label prostitute.

She’s a woman with a mind of her own. The full letter is long; skip to the bold if you don’t want to read it all. My favourite bits are in red.

24 February 1858, The Times

Sir, Another ‘Unfortunate’, but of a class entirely different from the one who has already instructed the public in your columns, presumes to address you. I am a stranger to all the fine sentiments which still linger in the bosom of your correspondent. I have none of those youthful recollections which, contrasting her early days with her present life, aggravate the misery of the latter.

My parents did not give me any education; they did not instil into my mind virtuous precepts nor set me a good example. All my experi­ences in early life were gleaned among associates who knew nothing of the laws of God but by dim tradition and faint report, and whose chiefest triumphs of wisdom consisted in picking their way through the paths of destitution in which they were cast by cunning evasion or in open defiance of the laws of man.

I do not think of my parents (long in their graves) with any such compunctions as your correspondent describes. They gave me in their lifetime, according to their means and knowledge, and as they had probably received from their parents, shelter and protection, mixed with curses and caresses. I received all as a matter of course, and, knowing nothing better, was content in that kind of contentedness which springs from insensibility; I returned their affection in like kind as they gave it to me. As long as they lived, I looked up to them as my parents. I assisted them in their poverty, and made them comfortable. They looked on me and I on them with pride, for I was proud to be able to minister to their wants; and as for shame, although they knew perfectly well the means by which I obtained money, I do assure you, Sir, that by them, as by myself, my success was regarded as the reward of a proper ambition, and was a source of real pleasure and gratification.

Let me tell you something of my parents. My father’s most profitable occupation was brickmaking. When not employed at this, he did any­thing he could get to do. My mother worked with him in the brickfield, and so did I and a progeny of brothers and sisters; for somehow or other, although my parents occupied a very unimportant space in the world, it pleased God to make them fruitful. We all slept in the same room. There were few privacies, few family secrets in our house.

Father and mother both loved drink. In the household expenses, had accounts been kept, gin or beer would have been the heaviest items. We, the children, were indulged occasionally with a drop, but my honoured parents reserved to themselves the exclusive privilege of getting drunk, ‘and they were the same as their parents had been’. I give you a chapter of the history of common life which may be stereotyped as the history of generation upon generation.

We knew not anything of religion. Sometimes when a neighbour died we went to the burial, and thus got within a few steps of the church. If a grand funeral chanced to fall in our way we went to see that, too—the fine black horses and nodding plumes—as we went to see the soldiers when we could for a lark. No parson ever came near us. The place where we lived was too dirty for nicely-shod gentlemen. ‘The Publicans and Sinners’ of our circumscribed, but thickly populated locality had no ‘friend’ among them.

Our neighbourhood furnished many subjects to the treadmill, the hulks, and the colonies, and some to the gallows. We lived with the fear of those things, and not with the fear of God before our eyes.

I was a very pretty child, and had a sweet voice; of course I used to sing. Most London boys and girls of the lower classes sing. ‘My face is my fortune, kind sir, she said’, was the ditty on which I bestowed most pains, and my father and mother would wink knowingly as I sang it. The latter would also tell me how pretty she was when young, and how she sang, and what a fool she had been, and how well she might have done had she been wise.

Frequently we had quite a stir in our colony. Some young lady who had quitted the paternal restraints, or perhaps, had started off, none knew whither or how, to seek her fortune, would reappear among us with a profusion of ribands, fine clothes, and lots of cash. Visiting the neighbours, treating indiscriminately, was the order of the day on such occasions, without any more definite information of the means by which the dazzling transformation had been effected than could be conveyed by knowing winks and the words ‘luck’ and ‘friends’. Then she would disappear and leave us in our dirt, penury, and obscurity. You cannot conceive, Sir, how our ambition was stirred by these visitations.

Now commences an important era in my life. I was a fine, robust, healthy girl, 13 years of age. I had larked with the boys of my own age. I had huddled with them, boys and girls together, all night long in our common haunts. I had seen much and heard abundantly of the mysteries of the sexes. To me such things had been matters of common sight and common talk. For some time I had coquetted on the verge of a strong curiosity, and a natural desire, and without a particle of affection, scarce a partiality, I lost—what? not my virtue, for I never had any.

That which is commonly, but untruly called virtue, I gave away. You reverend Mr Philanthropist—what call you virtue? Is it not the principle, the essence, which keeps watch and ward over the conduct, the substance, the materiality? No such principle ever kept watch and ward over me, and I repeat that I never lost that which I never had – my virtue.

According to my own ideas at the time I only extended my rightful enjoyments. Opportunity was not long wanting to put my newly acquired knowledge to profitable use. In the commencement of my fifteenth year one of our be-ribanded visitors took me off, and introduced me to the great world, and thus commenced my career as what you better classes call a prostitute. I cannot say that I felt any other shame than the bashfulness of a noviciate introduced to strange society. Remarkable for good looks, and no less so for good temper, I gained money, dressed gaily, and soon agreeably astonished my parents and old neighbours by making a descent upon them.

Passing over the vicissitudes of my course, alternating between reckless gaiety and extreme destitution, I improved myself greatly; and at the age of 15 was living partly under the protection of one who thought he discovered that I had talent, and some good qualities as well as beauty, who treated me more kindly and considerately than I had ever before been treated, and thus drew from me something like a feeling of regard, but not sufficiently strong to lift me to that sense of my position which the so-called virtuous and respectable members of society seem to entertain. Under the protection of this gentleman, and encouraged by him, I commenced the work of my education; that portion of education which is comprised in some knowledge of my own language and the ordinary accomplishments of my sex; moral science, as I believe it is called, has always been an enigma to me, and is so to this day. I suppose it is because I am one of those who, as Rousseau says, are ‘born to be prostitutes’.

Common honesty I believe in rigidly. I have always paid my debts, and, though I say it, I have always been charitable to my fellow crea­tures. I have not neglected my duty to my family. I supported my parents while they lived, and buried them decently when they died. I paid a celebrated lawyer heavily for defending unsuccessfully my eldest brother, who had the folly to be caught in the commission of a robbery. I forgave him the offence against the law in the theft, and the offence against discretion in being caught. This cost me some effort, for I always abhorred stealing. I apprenticed my younger brother to a good trade, and helped him into a little business. Drink frustrated my efforts in his behalf. Through the influence of a very influential gentleman, a very particular friend of mine, he is now a well-conducted member of the police. My sisters, whose early life was in all respects the counterpart of my own, I brought out and started in the world. The elder of the two is kept by a nobleman, the next by an officer in the army; the third has not yet come to years of discretion, and is ‘having her fling’ before she settles down.

Now, what if I am a prostitute, what business has society to abuse me? Have I received any favours at the hands of society? If I am a hideous cancer in society, are not the causes of the disease to be sought in the rottenness of the carcass? Am I not its legitimate child; no bastard, Sir? Why does my unnatural parent repudiate me, and what has society ever done for me, that I should do anything for it, and what have I ever done against society that it should drive me into a corner and crush me to the earth? I have neither stolen (at least since I was a child), nor murdered, nor defrauded. I earn my money and pay my way, and try to do good with it, according to my ideas of good. I do not get drunk, nor fight, nor create uproar in the streets or out of them. I do not use bad language. I do not offend the public eye by open indecencies. I go to the Opera, I go to Almack’s, I go to the theatres, I go to quiet, well-conducted casinos, I go to all the places of public amusement, behaving myself with as much propriety as society can exact. I pay business visits to my trades­people, the most fashionable of the West-end. My milliners, my silk­mercers, my bootmakers, know, all of them, who I am and how I live, and they solicit my patronage as earnestly and cringingly as if I were Madam, the Lady of the right rev, patron of the Society for the Sup­pression of Vice. They find my money as good and my pay better (for we are robbed on every hand) than that of Madam, my Lady; and, if all the circumstances and conditions of our lives had been reversed, would Madam, my Lady, have done better or been better than I?

I speak of others as well as for myself, for the very great majority, nearly all the real undisguised prostitutes in London, spring from my class, and are made by and under pretty much such conditions of life as I have narrated, and particularly by untutored and unrestrained intercourse of the sexes in early life. We come from the dregs of society, as our so-called betters term it. What business has society to have dregs—such dregs as we? You railers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, you the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug and keep between yourselves and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over, or fill it up, and by some humane and generous process absorb us into your leavened mass, until we become interpenetrated with goodness like yourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who do not know what shame is—the shame you mean?

I conduct myself prudently, and defy you and your policemen too. Why stand you there mouthing with sleek face about morality? What is morality? Will you make us responsible for what we never knew? Teach us what is right and tutor us in what is good before you punish us for doing wrong. We who are the real prostitutes of the true natural growth of society, and no impostors, will not be judged by ‘One more unfortunate’, nor measured by any standard of her setting up. She is a mere chance intruder in our ranks, and has no business there. She does understand what shame means and knows all about it, at least so it seems, and if she has a particle left, let her accept ‘Amicus’s’ kind offer as soon as possible.

Like ‘One more unfortunate’ there are other intruders among us—a few, very few, ‘victims of seduction’. But seduction is not the root of the evil—scarcely a fibre of the root. A rigorous law should be passed and rigorously carried out to punish seduction, but it will not perceptibly thin the ranks of prostitution. Seduction is the common story of numbers of well brought up, who never were seduced, and who are voluntary and inexcusable profligates. Vanity and idleness send us a large body of recruits. Servant girls, who wish to ape their mistress’ finery, and whose wages won’t permit them to do so honestly—these set up seduction as their excuse. Married women, who have no respect for their husbands, and are not content with their lawful earnings, these are the worst among us, and it is a pity they cannot be picked out and punished. They have no principle of any kind and are a disgrace to us. If I were a married woman I would be true to my husband. I speak for my class, the regular standing army of the force.

Gentlemen of philanthropic societies and members of the Society for the Suppression of Vice may build reformatories and open houses of refuge and Magdalen asylums, and ‘Amicus’ may save occasionally a ‘fallen sister’ who can prevail on herself to be saved; but we who never were sisters—who never had any relationship, part, interest, or com­munion with the large family of this world’s virtues, moralities, and proprieties—we, who are not fallen, but were always down—who never had any virtue to lose—we who are the natural growth of things, and are constantly ripening for the harvest—who, interspersed in our little, but swarming colonies throughout the kingdom at large, hold the source of supply and keep it fruitful—what do they propose to do with us? Cannot society devise some plan to reach us?

‘One more unfortunate’ proposes a ‘skimming’ progress. But what of the great bubbling cauldron? Remove from the streets a score or two of ‘foreign women’, and ‘double as many English’, and you diminish the competition of those that remain; the quiet, clever, cunning cajolers described by ‘One more unfortunate’. You hide a prurient pimple of the ‘great sin’ with a patch of that plaster known as the ‘observance of propriety’, and nothing more. You ‘miss’ the evil, but it is existent still. After all it is something to save the eye from offence, so remove them; and not only a score or two, but something like two hundred foreign women, whose open and disgusting indecen­cies and practices have contributed more than anything else to bring on our heads the present storm of indignation. It is rare that English women, even prostitutes, give cause of gross public offence. Cannot they be packed off to their own countries with their base, filthy and filthy- living men, whom they maintain, and clothe, and feed, to superintend their fortunes, and who are a still greater disgrace to London than these women are?

Hurling big figures at us, it is said that there are 80,000 of us in London alone—which is a monstrous falsehood—and of those 80,000, poor hardworking sewing girls, sewing women, are numbered in by thousands, and called indiscriminately prostitutes; writing, preaching, speechifying, that they have lost their virtue too.

It is a cruel calumny to call them in mass prostitutes; and, as for their virtue, they lose it as one loses his watch who is robbed by the highway thief. Their virtue is the watch, and society is the thief. These poor women toiling on starvation wages, while penury, misery, and famine clutch them by the throat and say, ‘Render up your body or die’.

Admire this magnificent shop in this fashionable street; its front, fittings, and decorations cost no less than a thousand pounds. The respectable master of the establishment keeps his carriage and lives in his country-house. He has daughters too; his patronesses are fine ladies, the choicest impersonations of society. Do they think, as they admire the taste and elegance of that tradesman’s show, of the poor creatures who wrought it, and what they were paid for it? Do they reflect on the weary toiling fingers, on the eyes dim with watching, on the bowels yearning with hunger, on the bended frames, on the broken constitutions, on poor human nature driven to its coldest corner and reduced to its narrowest means in the production of these luxuries and adornments? This is an old story! Would it not be truer and more charitable to call these poor souls ‘victims’ ?—some gentler, some more humane name than prostitute—to soften by some Christian expression if you cannot better the un-Christian system, the opprobrium of a fate to which society has driven them by the direst straits? What business has society to point its finger in scorn, to raise its voice in reprobation of them? Are they not its children, born of the cold indifference, of its callous selfishness, of its cruel pride?

Sir, I have trespassed on your patience beyond limit, and yet much remains to be said. . . The difficulty of dealing with the evil is not so great as society considers it. Setting aside ‘the sin’, we are not so bad as we are thought to be. The difficulty is for society to set itself, with the necessary earnestness, self-humiliation, and self-denial, to the work. To deprive us of proper and harmless amusements, to subject us in mass to the pressure of force—of force wielded, for the most part, by ignorant, and often by brutal men—is only to add the cruelty of active persecution to the cruelty of passive indifference which made us as we are.

I remain, your humble servant, Another Unfortunate.

Dickens was probably misled at the beginning by the author’s clear-headedness about the poverty and immorality of her early life. But it’s little wonder he backed off from any rescue attempt once he did understand.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Two hundred years ago in Europe, women who misbehaved sexually were referred to as fallen from God’s grace. In mid- and late-19th-century paintings, the fallen woman was portrayed in a physically low position: gazing hopelessly up at the sky, kneeling in shame and sometimes being raised up by a kind person, as in this picture by Dante Gabriel Rosetti.

A 1949 photo by Art Shay, also called Fallen Woman,shows the persistence of this iconography: the low, twisted, deviant body.

It is interesting to study the history of a phantom: the phantom of Rescue, of the woman who needs to be Saved, when it turns out she doesn’t want saving because she doesn’t consider what awaits her after being saved to be an improvement.

This week is Charles Dickens’s anniversary, reminding me that he was involved in Urania Cottage, a Rescue home for prostitutes run by an upper-class woman, Angela Burdett-Coutts. I didn’t remember that he once tried to save a woman who didn’t want saving, though (like Nicholas Kristof who bought a girl out of a Cambodian brothel who returned not long after). Here are excerpts from the story of a rescue attempt that was successfully averted.

Do what Dickens didn’t: Price of not reading a letter in full

Ben MacIntyre and Rose Wild, 4 February 2012, The Telegraph (India)

London: A campaign by Charles Dickens to “save” Victorian prostitutes was plunged into embarrassment in 1858 when the novelist became embroiled in the case of a “fallen woman” who did not want to be helped up. . .

In February 1858, The Times ran an article by a self-confessed “Unfortunate” who had taken up prostitution. At that time, there were up to 80,000 sex workers in London and numerous social reformers were campaigning to drive prostitutes from the streets. The article was spotted by the wealthy philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, who had financed Dickens in setting up a refuge for “fallen women” in Shepherd’s Bush.

Dickens wrote to the editor of The Times, John Thadeus Delane, saying that Burdett-Coutts had asked him to find out the name of the woman who had written the article “with the view of doing good to some one” — presumably encouraging her to give up street-walking and take up residence in the refuge. Delane said he would ask the writer if she was prepared to reveal her identity“. . .

The problem, however, was that neither Dickens nor Burdett-Coutts had bothered to read to the end of the second column. Had they done so, they would have discovered that, far from being a repentant sinner, the writer was perfectly happy being a prostitute, and her letter was a denunciation of do-gooders — such as Dickens — who were trying to take away her livelihood.

Far from expressing penitence, the anonymous prostitute accused the reformers of rank hypocrisy. “You the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves … why stand you on your eminence shouting that we should be ashamed of ourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who do not know what shame is?”

The writer described how, as the child of drunken parents, she had become a prostitute at the age of 15, and did not regret it. She wrote that she had made a good living, educated herself, supported her family, put her brothers through apprenticeships, always paid her debts and “been charitable to her fellow-creatures”.

When Dickens belatedly realised he was dealing with a prostitute who was not only content with her lot but extremely articulate, he backtracked fast . . .  “Miss Coutts . . .  is immensely staggered and disconcerted . . . and is even troubled by its being seen by the people in her household. Therefore I think the writer had best remain unknown to her

Note that the baroness invested in Rescue could not even bear to hear about a prostitute writer that didn’t want help and refused to allow her writing to be seen by inmates in the home. There is a direct link here to a crazy guessing game to get ‘real’ statistics on how many women are sex-trafficked. It is impossible for most people to accept that large numbers of trafficking victims aren’t discoverable because they don’t exist, at least in big numbers. Now they are called trafficked, then they were called fallen – it’s not a big difference. Here’s a shot of a contemporary staging of Verdi’s La Traviata, about another fallen woman. The clichéd posture is still with us.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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From where we stand now, it seems obvious: people begin selling sex for a variety of reasons, none of them being they were born destined to do it. As I mentioned the other day discussing research on clients, social scientists and the Rescue Industry alike now disbelieve the notion that a prostitute type exists amongst women.

The book Sisters of the Night: The confidential story of Big-City Prostitution, published in 1956, goes some way toward explaining a question I’ve had, to wit: why has there been such a large quantity of research attempting to find out why women sell sex? When I first started reading this material in 1997, as a complete outsider to academic research, I could not understand why book after book and article after article asked the same questions: why did you start selling sex? when? were you abused as a child? and so on.

Sisters of the Night is based on an investigation by Jess Stearn, a New York journalist and author of many books. He was assigned to research not the what of prostitution but the why - in his words.

‘The more I explore,’ I told Chief Magistrate John Murtagh, head of New York’s famed Women’s Court, ‘the more I realize how little I understand these women.’

The Chief Magistrate smiled sympathetically. ‘They call it the Oldest Profession,’ he said drily, ‘and yet nobody really knows what makes these girls tick. The prostitute has never been understand by our courts. Indeed, she is still an enigma to science itself. Because of this lack of scientific knowledge, the degree of moral responsibility is essentially a matter that must be left to the Lord himself.

There were other official indications of the complexities of prostitution. Dorris Clarke, chief probation officer of the Magistrates Courts, who has interviewed more than ten thousand prostitutes, observed with a shrug:  ”’Psychiatry has been a help, but six different psychiatrists, handling the same case, may still come up with six different answers.’

From our present perspective, two things stand out: 1) the assumption that selling sex means having a terrible life for all women who do it and 2) a confidence that psychology can explain what’s going on – ie, why women start to do it. Stearn continues:

. . . prostitution is one of the damning paradoxes of our time. It is a social problem which cannot be understood apart from other social problems – a postwar deterioration of morality, the alarming increase of dope addiction among teenagers, political corruption and the double standard which makes it a crime for a women to prostitute herself, where her partner in prostitution goes scot-free.

Which seems more or less contemporary: it can’t be extracted from socioeconomic issues. And note in 1956 he already mentions the asymmetrical nature of punishment. Jumping a few lines, though, Stearn says:

The move to control prostitution legally has been losing ground. . . Long experience has shown that legalization is no remedy. The International Venereal Disease Congress, which voted overwhelmingly thirty years ago for legalized prostitution, recently voted just as overwhelmingly against it. It was no safeguard, the group found, against VD, for the simple reason that five minutes after she was examined a girl might be infected again. And the licensing of brothels, the American Social Hygiene Association discovered, makes it easier for girls to begin their careers and forms a convenient center of operations for racketeers and dope pushers. No, legalization was not the answer, and neither were jails, which became practically schools for prostitutes, where young offenders learned about perversion and dope and became further indoctrinated in the tricks of the trade.

Which leaves Stearn where? Somehow he manages to ignore his socioeconomic links a page later when he says:

It became obvious to me . . .that only a real understanding of these women, of their relationships from childhood, and of their outlook on society and on life in general could lead us to a solution. Other scourges of Biblical times have been extirpated by modern science – why not prostitution? But first must come understanding of the girl and her problem.

Back to psychology, then – in the 50s considered more scientific than it is today. Find out which experiences cause which perverse behaviours and you know who becomes a prostitute. Stearn now lists some of the apparent conundrums:

  • What makes a teenage girl say sullenly to a probattion officer who is trying to help her: ‘It’s my body. Why can’t I do with it what I want?’
  • Or why does another observe slyly: ‘If it weren’t for us, no woman would be safe on the streets. We’re the great outlet.’
  • Why does a girl, able to shift for herself, become attached to a procurer, who mistreats her and takes her money?
  • And why does still another pin on the wall of her cell a portrait of a muscled brute in loincloth, a whip in one hand, and kneeling behind him in chains a nude girl, arms raised in adoration?
  • And why does a girl, while bitterly justifying her own prostitution, say with a gleam of hate in her eyes: ‘I’d kill the man who’d make a prostitute of my sister.’
  • Or why does a pretty teenager, given  separate suite by doting parents, convert her flat into a brothel and the, impenitently, view it all as an ironic joke on her parents?
  • Why did Anna Swift, one of the most notorious of madams, boast of her virginity and savagely declare she was seeking revenge?
  • And why does a former prostitute, comfortable married for years, revert to her old trade at the first crisis in her marriage?

Wouldn’t you think he’d realise himself that there isn’t going to be a single determining cause for such a wealth of situations and behaviours? Well, maybe he did realise it perfectly well, but asking the question was his assignment: the why of prostitution. I now turn back to the preface by Peter Terranova, a police inspector in charge of the Narcotics Squad at the time:

Secrecy has a queer way of adding glamor and mystery to a subject. Rip away the Hypocrites’ Curtain surrounding prostitution and the whole community will finally recognize that it’s just another social evil which may be tackled with intelligence and perhaps cut down, if not completely eliminated.

In the 50s possibly only a vice cop would have used the term social evil unselfconsciously. What can be seen here clearly is the justification for the kind of research that has predominated on the subject of commercial sex for all these decades: the focus on why women sell. The idea is find the reason(s) and eradicate them, despite everyone’s realisation that the reasons are going to turn out to be widely diverging, if not downright contradictory. Still, the idea of the bad girl is very much still alive here, with the badness (or evil) seen to be a matter of character, something that psychology can elucidate. For the psychologists amongst my readers, I am not saying that psychological theories are useless, or that Stockholm Syndrome never exists, or brainwashing, or denial, to explain individual cases. As in the past, my critique goes to the wholesale explaining of hundreds of thousands of people as suffering from these syndromes, by default.

So far no interest has been shown in men who sell sex, despite equally well-known scenes like Los Angeles’s cruising as described by John Rechy. I will advise on this and other matters as I advance in the book.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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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


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This is a long academic piece but useful to understanding the beginnings of what I came to call the Rescue Industry. The links between reference numbers and endnotes go via the original publication’s website (rhizomes). If you use them you just need to click the back button to return to this page.

Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities

Laura María Agustín, rhizomes.10, spring 2005

Abstract: Social interventions aimed at helping the group positioned as most needy in Europe today, migrant women who sell sex, can be understood by examining that time, 200 years ago, when ‘the prostitute’ was identified as needing to be saved. Before, there was no class of people who viewed their mission to be ‘helping’ working-class women who sold sex, but, during the ‘rise of the social,’ the figure of the ‘prostitute’ as pathetic victim came to dominate all other images. At the same time, demographic changes meant that many women needed and wanted to earn money and independence, yet no professions thought respectable were open to them. Simultaneous with the creation of the prostitute-victim, middle class women were identified as peculiarly capable of raising them up and showing the way to domesticity. These ‘helpers’ constructed a new identity and occupational sphere for themselves, one considered worthy and even prestigious. Nowadays, to question ‘helping’ projects often causes anger or dismissal. A genealogical approach, which shows how governmentality functioned in the past, is easier to accept, and may facilitate the taking of a reflexive attitude in the present.

This article addresses the governmental impulse to name particular commercial-sex practices as ‘prostitution’ and its practitioners as ‘prostitutes.’ Although it is conventional to refer to ‘the world’s oldest profession,’ the term prostitution has never described a clearly defined activity and was constructed by particular social actors at a specific time for specific reasons. [i] Within feminism, the phenomenon called prostitution is the centre of an intransigent debate about its meanings, one aspect of the conflict revolving around what words should be used to describe women who offer sexual services for sale: prostitute, sex worker, prostituted woman, victim of sexual exploitation. The use of one label or another locates the speaker on one or the other side of the debate, which essentially asks whether a woman who sells sex must by definition be considered a victim of others’ actions or whether she can enjoy a degree of agency herself in her commercial practice. In the prostitution discourse, those who sell are women and those who buy are men; it is a gendered concept, despite the enormous numbers of transgenders and men who sell sex and the transgenders and women who buy it. The anxiety to define and classify concerns the position of women, and this anxious debate should be seen as a governmental exercise carried out by social actors whose own identities are at stake. Academics and other theorists and advocates for one or another vision define themselves as good feminists or caring persons through their writing and advocacy. Being ‘right’ about how to envision women who sell sex is necessary to these identities, which explains the heated, repetitive nature of the debate. At the same time, for most of those who actually carry out the activity that excites so much interest and conflict, the debate feels far away and irrelevant.

Nowadays, much of the discourse targets migrant women who sell sex, particularly in wealthier countries. I have written in other places about the construction by outsiders of these contemporary subjects as prostitutes, sex workers or victims of ‘trafficking’ when their self-definitions are different (2005a), the construction of victimhood in general (2003a, 2005a), the disqualification of other elements of their identity (2002, 2004b, 2006), the obsession with certain of their sexual practices to the exclusion of everything else about their lives (2003b), the difficulty on the part of many feminists to accept the agency of working-class women who sell sex (2004a) and the voluminous quantity of interventions designed to help, save and control them (2005b).

The social sector desiring to help and save women who sell sex is very large indeed. The proliferation of discourses implicated includes the feminisation of poverty, closing borders and immigration law, international organised crime (especially ‘trafficking’ and modern forms of slavery), sexual-health promotion, the control of contagious diseases, debt bondage, non-recognised economic sectors, violence against women, women’s and human rights, social exclusion, sex tourism, globalisation, paedophilia and child labour, as well as policies aimed at controlling the sale of sex. Attendant technologies have also proliferated, including safe houses, rehabilitation programmes, outreach projects, drop-in centres, academic research, harm-reduction theory and a whole domain of ‘psy’ theories and interventions concerning the causes and effects of selling sex on individuals. People positioned as experts on the subject constantly lobby governments, write and speak at conferences on the subject, with the result that women who sell sex are pathologised as victims daily.

All these preoccupations and apparatuses provide employment for large numbers of people, the majority women. These social-sector jobs are considered dignified, sometimes prestigious and may even be tinged with a sacrificial brush—the idea that those employed in ‘helping’ are unselfish, not themselves gaining anything through their work. The fact that their projects are governmental exercises of power is ignored. There is strong resistance to the idea that rescue or social-justice projects might be questionable or criticised in general, and the internecine feminist conflict focussing on whether the activity called prostitution is inherently a form of violence or can be a plausible livelihood strategy distracts from any real reflection on the usefulness of the projects. Yet, despite the abundant efforts carried out on their behalf, there has been little improvement in the lot of women who sell sex since the whole helping project began two hundred years ago. ‘Programmes presuppose that the real is programmable,’ said Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller (1992: 183). In this case, ‘the real’ is too often a woman designated victim who does not want to be saved, so it is little wonder that programming does not work. This article therefore explores the beginnings of the identification of a pathological activity (prostitution) and the labelling of its practitioners (prostitutes), the governmental projects that resulted and the social effects on both groups involved. Read the rest of this entry »


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History professor wins national award for article on sex trade workers, Victoria Island University

His most surprising discovery was to find so many brothels in Victoria in the census years 1891 and 1901. “Previously, I had thought that the provincial capital was a rather prudish and ‘Victorian’ kind of place, but in fact it was the sexual emporium of the Pacific Northwest. I was also surprised to find the longevity of some of the brothels, which operated continuously in the same location for two decades or more.” . . . “Of course, not every dressmaker was a sex trade worker,” he added. “ For example, the 1891 census might identify a middle-aged widow who lived alone with her children in a respectable part of Victoria as a ‘dressmaker’. That woman likely made a living with needle and thread. “But the census also revealed groups of young women living together in less-respectable parts of the city who identified themselves as dressmakers. I suspected, correctly, that these census households were brothels.”

19th-century New Orleans brothels revisited, at Missourian

. . . a parade that took place in 1897, when city leaders passed a law creating the Storyville district. “Apparently, when prostitutes got word they had won, they got horse and carriages and wore these outlandish costumes. Some of them were nude, some wore tight sailor pants. Some wore Egyptian costumes, and one of them had bare legs and was waving a foot at people in the street from the carriage. Some were grabbing male bystanders and improvising sexual displays. . . . They went down Canal Street and turned into the Quarter. There were hundreds of prostitutes in the parade, and dozens of carriages. And they were all laughing and probably drinking and very bawdy. But of course, it was the landlords who won.”

Crime on the Lower East Side, from the Tenement Museum

Prostitution was a pervasive part of immigrant life on the Lower East Side. Located one-block west of Orchard Street, Allen Street stood as the neighborhood’s most notorious thoroughfare of commercial sex. There, most prostitution took place in tenements. During the 1890s, for example, one observer remarked that in “broad day light you can see them [prostitutes] at their windows and calling to passers by at night. They are so vulgar in front of their houses that any respectable person cannot pass without being insulted by them.” Another resident lamented that neighborhood women could not walk the street after dark “without becoming a victim to them because of the paramours who hang around corners awaiting the proceeds of their concubines.” For most, there was little recourse. “It is useless to appeal to the police,” decried another resident, “as the very men who are sent out in citizen clothes stand and talk with them and go in saloons and drink with them.”

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Everleigh Club, Chicago

When critics bring up the similarity of today’s trafficking brouhaha with white-slavery scares, they most often point to William Steads investigation for the Pall Mall Gazette in London in the late 19th century. In the April 2008 issue of Reason Magazine, Joanne McNeill reviews Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul, by Karen Abbott. I’ve highlighted some phrases that show how the same contradictory interpretations of ‘the evidence’ occurred back then and the same rhetoric from those who hate prostitution. 

The ‘White Slavery’ Panic: Anti-prostitution activists have been equating sex work with slavery for over a century

In 1907 a group of evangelicals visited Chicago’s Everleigh Club brothel, where they handed out leaflets that said, “No ‘white slave’ need remain in slavery in this State of Abraham Lincoln who made the black slaves free.” According to the Illinois poet Edgar Lee Masters, an Everleigh Club regular, “the girls laughed in their faces.” In Sin in the Second City, the Atlanta-based journalist Karen Abbott recounts how Minna Everleigh, one of the club’s proprietors, “explained graciously, patiently, that the Everleigh Club was free from disease, that [a doctor] examined the girls regularly, that neither she nor Ada [Everleigh, her sister and co-proprietor] would tolerate anything approaching violence, that drugs were forbidden and drinks tossed out, that guests were never robbed nor rolled, and that there was actually a waiting list of girls, spanning the continental United States, eager to join the house. No captives here, Reverends.”

The Everleigh Club was an ornate mansion. Thirty themed boudoirs (“the Japanese Parlor,” “the Moorish Room,” “the Egyptian Room”) included absurd touches of decadence, such as hidden buttons to ring for champagne and a fountain that fired a jet of perfume. The city’s finest chefs prepared the women’s dinners. They read poetry by the fire with guests, who included the writers Theodore Dreiser and Ring Lardner. Sometimes Minna and Ada let swarms of butterflies fly loose throughout the house.

Some anti-prostitution activists nevertheless believed the Everleigh ladies were no different from slaves. Then as now, opponents of prostitution assumed that no woman in her right mind consensually exchanges sex for money. Abbott challenges that view in her account of Chicago’s red light district at the turn of the last century. She interweaves the stories of sex workers and clientele, evangelical activists and conservative bureaucrats, explaining how the term “white slavery” was routinely applied to consenting adults. Reading her historical account, you can hear echoes of that debate in the current crusade against sex trafficking, which similarly blurs the line between coercion and consent.

The Everleigh sisters, Abbott notes, believed a sex worker was “more than an unwitting conduit for virtue. An employee in a business, she was an investment and should be treated as such, receiving nutritious meals, a thorough education, expert medical care, and generous wages. In their house, a courtesan would make a living as viable as—and more lucrative than—those earned by the thousands of young women seeking work in cities as stenographers and sweatshop seamstresses, department store clerks and domestics. The sisters wanted to uplift the profession, remove its stain and stigma, argue that a girl can’t lose her social standing if she stands level with those poised to judge her.”

The attempt to portray prostitutes as professionals never made much headway against the tendency to view them as victims. At the beginning of Sin in the Second City, Abbott describes an event in 1887 that forever changed the American public’s perception of sex workers. Authorities raided a Michigan lumber camp, finding nine women working as prostitutes. Eight accepted their prison sentences, but the ninth woman protested that she was tortured and forced into sex slavery. The lumberyard proprietors claimed the women were well aware of what they were hired to do; “the job description,” Abbott notes, “made no mention of cutting trees.” But the public was so moved by the woman’s story that she was pardoned and released from jail.

It was 20 years before another case of “white slavery” was reported in a Midwestern newspaper. But in the meantime, rumors of girls who were “trafficked” into sex slavery began to circulate. In 1899 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union missionary Charlton Edholm reported, “There is a slave trade in this country, and it is not black folks at this time, but little white girls —thirteen, fourteen, sixteen, and seventeen years of age—and they are snatched out of our arms, and from our Sabbath schools and from our Communion tables.” Perhaps they found themselves in a “false employment snare,” in which a young rural girl answered a city want ad and found herself locked in a brothel, her clothes held for ransom. Or maybe a gentleman from the big city, after plying her with drinks or drugs, deflowered her and sold her to a pimp.

Around the same time, anti-prostitution evangelical groups revised their platforms. Victorian society previously had reviled prostitutes as lost women who reduced men to animals. The rhetorical shift conveniently removed the prostitute’s responsibility for her actions. “Reformers across the country repeated and embellished Edholm’s narratives, panders used them as handy instruction manuals, and harlots memorized all the ways they might be tricked or trapped,” Abbott writes. These rumors reinforced rural Midwesterners’ fears of losing their children to the dirty, crime-ridden streets of Chicago. “Never before in civilization,” wrote Hull House founder Jane Addams in 1909, “have such numbers of girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon the city streets and to work under alien roofs.” Read the rest at Reason.


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This post reproduces a recent paper from one of the big immigration think-tanks. In a clear fashion the authors show how the meaning of ‘illegal’ changes with the times, and each generation’s particular ideas about which migrants should be let in and which kept out.

Yehuda Bauer believes that the term ‘illegal migration’ was first applied by the British in the 1930s to describe undesired Jewish migration to Palestine. Other terms are sometimes used: clandestine migration, undocumented migration, irregular migration and unauthorised migration. All posit a clean, correct, unambiguous opposite which is always ‘legal’.

The context of the following paper is the USA, where most people’s ancestors came from somewhere else. Resistance to new migrants nowadays often claims that past forms of migration were better, more orderly and respectful, more English-learning, more adapting and, therefore, less obnoxious and trouble-causing. This article explains why that’s a romantic view not supported by historical evidence. [Images of Ellis Island and Angel Island, immigrant entry points in New York and San Francisco, added by me.]

De-Romanticizing Our Immigrant Past: Why Claiming “My Family Came Legally” Is Often a Myth

Immigration Policy Center, Washington DC, 25 November 2008

Many people assume that their family immigrated to the U.S. legally, or did it “the right way.” In most cases, this statement does not reflect the fact that the U.S. immigration system was very different when their families arrived, and that their families might not have been allowed to enter had today’s laws been in effect. In some cases, claiming that a family came “legally” is simply inaccurate—undocumented immigration has been a reality for generations. Whether one immigrated “legally” or “illegally” depends on the laws in effect at the time. When many families arrived in the U.S., there were no numerical limitations on immigration, no requirements to have an existing family or employment relationship with someone in the U.S., and no requirement to obtain a visa prior to arriving. As numerical limitations were instituted and certain immigrants were restricted from entering the U.S., illegal immigration increased. The definition of who was “legal” and who was “illegal” changed with the evolution of immigration laws. Many of our ancestors would not have qualified under today’s immigration laws. Today’s requirements that potential immigrants have close family ties to qualified U.S. citizens or permanent residents, or have employment offers in particular fields, would have effectively restricted many of our families from coming legally to the U.S. Until the late 19th century, there was very little federal regulation of immigration—there were virtually no laws to break. The new nation needed workers, and immigration was “encouraged and virtually unfettered.”[1] There was no border surveillance to allow only those with proper documents to enter the U.S. Potential immigrants did not have to obtain visas at U.S. consulates before entering the country. Rather, immigrants would simply arrive at ports of entry (such as Ellis Island and other seaports), be inspected, and be allowed in if they didn’t fall into any of the excluded categories. Before the 20th century, there was virtually no bureaucracy responsible for enforcing immigration laws. Read the rest of this entry »


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