Walking the English Streets

by Laura J. Rosenthal on July 2, 2007

How is “prostitution” defined in contemporary society? A prostitute engages in sex, but what is the precise meaning of “sex”: do lap dancers provide “sex”? Does performing sex acts on film count as “sex”? Do strippers provide “sex”? Escorts? While we regularly hear of legal wrangling over these types of questions, one aspect of “the oldest profession” remains largely indisputable: No matter how anonymous, how arousing, or how indiscriminate an encounter, if no money changes hands then most people would agree that “prostitution” has not taken place.

This may seem obvious. In the Western tradition (and surely in others as well), however, the meaning of prostitution has changed over time. What makes modern prostitution distinctively “modern” has less to do with sex than with money, or specifically, with the presumed capacity to categorize some transactions as economic and others as strictly personal.

Commodifying Sex

Feminists have criticized our excessive faith in the division between a public and a private sphere for the way it has historically devalued women (housework, for example, doesn’t count as “work” because it isn’t paid). They have also rightly pointed to genuine but usually unacknowledged ambiguities in the boundary between sex work and the demands of conventional femininity, an insight related to the public/private division.

The recent film Little Miss Sunshine dramatizes this critique with extraordinary flair when the spirited nine-year-old heroine (who lacks conventional feminine beauty) scandalizes an audience by performing a dance routine based on stripper moves at a children’s beauty pageant. The audience—though accustomed to seven-year-olds wiggling their hips and batting their heavily massacred eyes at the judges—becomes outraged when a contestant’s performance evokes a parallel but less acceptable form of female display.

The film wittily represents the beauty pageant as no better, and in some ways worse, than the strip club. But in spite of this critique and others like it, police raids on beauty pageants are unlikely anytime soon. While beauty pageants and the conventional femininity they represent hypocritically disavow the sexual exploitation on which they depend, stripping treads into dangerous legal territory not just because the performers reveal two or three more inches of female flesh, but also because strippers are paid. Strip clubs explicitly display their commercialism, whereas pageants studiously avoid any implication of this kind of exchange, offering contestants prizes, scholarships, and admiration instead of hourly rates and tips from spectators. One could argue that this too is just hypocrisy, as beauty pageants are fully capitalist operations and would not exist without a profit motive; certainly, a successfully pageant contestant can benefit financially. Nevertheless, the strip club differs in that the direct remunerative relationship between the stripper and viewer is always on the table (so to speak), a dynamic that attracts attention to what exactly is being sold. Pageants mystify this dynamic.

This analogy does not suggest that beauty pageants or stripping are the same thing as prostitution, but it makes the point that while paid services of many kinds hold the potential to become prostitution, no sex act threatens to become prostitution without overt commodification.

Seekers of Pleasure

This has not always been the case. In British history, at least, important changes in this regard occur between the late seventeenth century and the end of the eighteenth century. In the late seventeenth century a fairly typical (misogynist) poem describes prostitution as follows:

For this old Maxim does all Mankind know,
That She that’s once a Whore, is always so;
Not pox nor Gout can ’ere confine desire,
Nor can old Age extinguish lustful Fire;
Like Sparks rakt up in Embers ’tmay return,
In fury, and with Rage and Passion burn.
—Richard Ames, The Female Fire-Ships. A Satyr again Whoring. In a Letter for a Friend, just come to town

On what grounds does the maxim—convincingly, according to the poet—warn that once a woman becomes a prostitute she will always remain one? While a modern reader might speculate that prostitution might ruin her reputation or trap her in poverty, the poem suggests something else: that once a woman experiences sex, she will never stop seeking it. The poet does not represent prostitution as a means to an end for the woman—that is, a service performed for money that would probably hold no interest without remuneration. Rather, whatever the initial reason for prostitution, once she experiences this pleasure she will never be able to stop.

This is not to suggest that prostitution was disconnected from money at the time. The same poet, in fact, writing about certain seasoned prostitutes insists that:

’Tis not for Pleasure Nightly thus they trot,
That by long custom they have quite forgot;
Like Men, who their indulgent Palats feast
So long, till they at last quite lose their Taste:
No, ’tis for Mony—Mony is their aim,
For Love thy do not understand the Name.

While money, according to the poet, at a certain point motivates streetwalkers, profit only takes priority after “long custom.” This characterization invokes the widely held belief that too much sexual activity would desensitize the body to pleasure (and also cause infertility). Any coldness found in the embraces of a prostitute, then, was generally attributed to a surfeit of pleasure on her part rather than to anything alienating or uninteresting about sex work itself. Prostitutes, as the lines above suggest, enter the trade in the first place seeking opportunities for their own sexual enjoyment; desensitization serves in part as their punishment.

In the writing of the late seventeenth century, then, there is the belief that all women posses the potential for erotic desire and that no women who indulges in it will be able to resist it in the future. These ideas provide a very different sense of prostitution than what would later follow. In the seventeenth century, a woman could even be called a “prostitute” or a “whore” (at this time generally interchangeable terms) without the implication that her sexual activity was remunerated. Humphrey Mill, a constable-poet writing in 1640, offers a wide range of stories about streetwalkers, but in some of them the women do not charge men for sex and in at least one anecdote actually pay men for it.

Mill was a reformer, but we find similar assumptions about prostitutes in the libertine literature of the period. A narrative called The London Bawd (1705), for example, tells the story of a whorehouse that specializes in accommodating women whose husbands have left them unsatisfied. By secretly becoming prostitutes, these women satisfy their sexual desires and earn a little extra money as well. In The Whore’s Rhetorick (1683), an old bawd tries to train a young woman to become a great prostitute by insisting that she accept clients on the basis of their ability to pay rather than on the basis of her attraction to them.

While this may at first glance seem consistent with the familiar understanding of prostitution as the exchange of sexual labor for money, the initial assumption of the text is exactly the opposition: that without the guidance of the old bawd, the young prostitute would instead seek attractive men regardless of their ability to pay. Representations of prostitutes as seekers of pleasure, of course, can still be found in erotic and pornographic writing. The difference between the earlier constellation of beliefs and what would later develop, however, is that in the seventeenth century both reformers and pornographers agreed that sexual desire above all else motivated whores and that only the most desperate and overly experienced ones would become alienated from this aspect of their work.

Victims, not Aggressors

By the end of the eighteenth century certain fundamental assumptions about why a woman would become a prostitute had changed. The Suicide Prostitute (1805) represents prostitution from the beginning as pathos rather than pleasure. Here a fictional prostitute expresses her envy of virtuous women for their freedom (a quality in earlier texts associated instead with the prostitute):

Nor may they know the horrible disgust
Of feign’d enjoyment, and affected lust
Yes these, and thousand more distressing arts,
To midnight rakes the sick’ning wretch imparts;
Her trade to catch each wretch’d tainted breath,
Foul as his sins, and pestilent as death
To clasp a form, unlovely to the view,
Fondness to swear, and pledge the kiss untrue
And tho’ her soul shake, with abhorrence keen,
At joys unsweet, detested, and obscene.

Prostitution in this poem offers no temptation or pleasure. In prostitute stories written in the second half of the eighteenth century, women are tricked rather than tempted into an initial sexual experience or they fall in love with a man who later abandons them. In these depictions, women walk the streets for money alone.

The changing goals of eighteenth century reformers also reveal changing attitudes toward sex work. Members of the earlier Societies for the Reformation of Manners rounded up generally laboring class women suspected of sexual “disorder” and brought them before magistrates hoping for a conviction. These reformers aimed to clear the streets of prostitutes. They believed that prostitutes not only set a bad example for other women but also distracted working men from their labor and tempted them to criminal acts. George Lillo’s popular play The London Merchant (1731) captured these anxieties by telling the story of an apprentice who first steals from his master and then kills his own uncle to get money for the unscrupulous temptress Millwood.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, a new reform movement represented prostitutes as victims rather than aggressors. Midcentury reformers expressed many of the same concerns as did earlier reformers: prostitutes would break up families, disrupt productivity, tarnish the image of London in the eyes of foreigners, abandon their children, and spread venereal disease. Yet these new reformers, unlike their predecessors, aimed to reform prostitutes themselves. They insisted that many women who became prostitutes did so only out of the desperate need for money. As the prominent reformer Jonas Hanway argued in Thoughts on a Plan for a Magdalen House for Repentant Prostitutes, “[e]very other animal is obedient to his appetite, but appetite has frequently no share in the promiscuous commerce of these women.” The Magdalen House, established in 1759 by reformers and charitable donations, took in women who wanted to leave prostitution. The Magdalen House was itself too small to make a significant dent in London’s prostitution population; nevertheless, it marks a distinctly different attitude toward prostitution.

Certainly the possibility of a pleasure loving prostitute has never disappeared from the cultural imagination: we see her in full force in John Cleland’s midcentury Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, often hailed as the first work of literary pornography in English. But the story of Fanny Hill follows the reformist trajectory as well (if satirically): Fanny becomes an orphan, travels to London to seek her fortune, faces assaults to her virtue, and falls in love. She ends the novel happily married, insisting on the superiority of conventional female behavior. So while the earlier image of the pleasure loving whore had not disappeared, she nevertheless had become overshadowed by the victimized women who would only walk the streets for survival.

Even a brief history of “prostitution,” then, reveals that conceptions of sex work depend on particular social conditions. Contemporary sex work, which depends on commodification for its definition, is not a social aberration but continuous with the expanded commodity culture that first developed in the eighteenth century. In the eighteenth century, this emergent commodity culture demanded new kinds of distinctions between business and pleasure, commercial and sentimental value.

We hold onto fine distinctions between “sex” and sexually charged activities—absurd as these distinctions may appear in their exactitude and specificity—because our economic structure demands that we put our faith in firm distinctions between things that become commodities and things that are too precious for money, between public activities and private ones. We do this with such fervor because the distinction is so unstable.

The criminalization of prostitution offers the illusion that some key aspects of experience still remain beyond the reach of capitalist exchange. Sex workers pay for this ideological illusion through abuse, harassment, humiliation, marginalization, poverty, and imprisonment. For everyone else, it’s priceless.

Laura J. Rosenthal is Professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park, where she specializes in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature. This article is adapted from her most recent book, Infamous Commerce: Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006).

See original at NSRC


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