Tag Archives: history

Fallen Women: persistence of an image

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

Second-wave feminism: Revolution, not Rescue

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

Letter from the prostitute that didn’t want saving, 1858

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

Fallen women, including the one Charles Dickens didn’t save

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

Sisters of the Night: why prostitution research is the way it is

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