Journal of Women's History 15.1 (2003) 202-211
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Regulation and the Nation:
Comparative Perspectives on Prostitution and Public Policy
David J. Pivar. Purity and Hygiene: Women, Prostitution, and the "American Plan," 1900-1930. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. xxi+283 pp. ISBN 0-313-32032-2 (cl).
Katherine Elaine Bliss. Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. xv + 243 pp.; ill.; tables. ISBN 0-271-02125-X (pb).
Christian Henriot. Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849-1949. Trans. Nöel Castelino. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xviii + 467 pp.; ill.; tables. ISBN 0-521-57165-0 (cl).
Donna J. Guy. White Slavery and Mothers Alive and Dead: The Troubled Meeting of Sex, Gender, Public Health and Progress in Latin America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. viii + 216 pp. ISBN 0-8032-7095-x (pb).
Yvonne Svanström. Policing Public Women: The Regulation of Prostitution in Stockholm, 1812-1880. Stockholm: Atlas Akkademi, 2000. xix + 502 pp.; ill.; tables. ISBN 91-89044-75-4 (pb).
These studies of prostitution in five different countries situate commercial sex and responses to it in the context of social, political, and economic changes. In the last two decades, historians of sexuality have made a persuasive case that scholarly investigations of such topics as prostitution, once considered details of history, contribute to the understanding of larger historical issues. Such is the case with these works, which together underscore how the history of prostitution illuminates the larger story of drives for progress and modern governance in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Controlling prostitution has been associated in a general sense with a stable social order in many historical contexts. These connections, however, took on a new specificity and importance to the modern state in the [End Page 202] nineteenth century with the establishment of the French system of regulating prostitution. First envisioned in 1836 by Alexandre Jean-Baptiste Parent-Duchatelet, a French sanitary engineer, this scheme required that women employed as prostitutes register with authorities and ply their trade in legalized brothels. Enclosing brothels in particular parts of the city and monitoring them would help protect morality and the social order. 1 Though this approach declined in popularity in France in the 1850s, it persisted abroad. Advocates of state regulation hoped it would end the blight of prostitution and aid in the fight against venereal disease. In reaction, some rallied in support of abolition, citing the failures of legalized prostitution and the abuses it perpetuated.
A variety of themes unite these books, but their perspectives on the fate of regulation and abolition in diverse national and municipal contexts provides a useful framework through which to begin a consideration of them. The first three works discussed here are particularly comparable because they all focus on both prostitutes in major urban areas and attempts to regulate their trade. The final two works address government and reform movements more than the actual working of the sex trade.
In Policing Public Women, Yvonne Svanström seeks to understand why Sweden established a system that considered women the sole source of venereal contagion and targeted public women for regulation and inspection. Early in the nineteenth century, Swedish authorities apportioned blame for venereal disease in a gender-neutral way, aiming disease control measures at both men and women. However, women were, even in this early period, more likely to be subjected to medical inspection and treatment, a disparity that lay the groundwork for the gendered policies that would follow.
Svanström looks to the importation of ideas and policies from other European countries to explain the intensified focus of regulatory efforts on women. In the 1830s, Stockholm authorities, impressed by the French system of organized, regulated brothels, tried a similar plan in their city. But, public objections, coupled with police preference for unofficial supervision over prescribed rules, led city leaders to soon abandon this approach. Though Sweden did not copy indiscriminately the French system, the national government did pass...