19th-century techniques for counting prostitutes: same problem as today

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

6 thoughts on “19th-century techniques for counting prostitutes: same problem as today

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  2. Marc of Frankfurt

    With regard to gender main-streaming I always wonder why prostitutes and punters as selling women and buying men are counted differently in the sex4pay arena. The units typically employed are: absolute number of women sex workers vs. men per period of time serviced.

    But sex workers -being it men, women, trans or intersex people- are on and off sex work. On the contrary, buying customers can be regarded as being mentally inclined punters for all the rest of time between their actual pay6 visits, aren’t they? Can you too smell the hegemonic judgement “once a whore, always a whore” behind these type of statistics and data presentations? These gendered evaluation following market habits instead of sexuality realities render the number of punters lower as their importance within society actually is. This too contributes to keep men as discreet clients more in the clandestine shadow zone in comparison to the typically and by market or advertising necessity in the red light exposed and therefore more vulnerable sex workers. No wonder why they are then so often merely objectified by media and society at large.

    To break up this methodological entrenched stigmatisation and instead of counting non-conform vulnerable people, we better count sex work places (working premises, shifts…), to emphasize that there are jobs and facilities being made available (by investors;-) to fund people, families and last but not at least foster economic growth (gdp).

  3. Laura Agustín

    I am not familiar with the problem you claim to be the norm. The numbers of men in the writing above, by William Acton, are population figures for the cities at the time.

    In contemporary studies I know, whether methodologically questionable or not, the numbers reported are numbers of clients.

  4. Kris

    That’s funny!!

    I did such a count once too in 2005. I tried to estimate the number of prostitutes in sex clubs in the Netherlands. That was very difficult because there is no official register where you can find such information. I had to find all the brothels through internet. I estimated that number to be almost 600 (that number is now estimated to be 400). Then I tried to figure out how many prostitutes worked at each brothel. Of almost 70 brothels I could find information how many prostitutes worked there. I arrived at an average of 10, with an error margin of 1,5. So if you extrapolate then you arrive at some 6000 prostitutes, or taking into account error-margins, between 5000 and 7000 prostitutes in sex clubs.

    The number of prostitutes in other sectors is more difficult to estimate.

    I estimated that there were 228 escort agencies. Of 56 I could find information about the number of prostitutes working there. That was 14 with and error margin of 3. That’s 3200 escort prostitutes, taking into account error margins that’s between 2500 and 4000 escort prostitutes.

    At that time (2005) there were 1500 window brothels. If you estimate that a prostitute works 4 shifts per week, then you arrive at almost 4000 window prostitutes.

    Cool isn’t it?

  5. William Thirteen

    as a Berlin enthusiast i can’t resist asking – does Acton have a bibliography in the book which might give more information regarding the Berlin police reports mentioned in the excerpt?



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