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  • Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal by Mary Anne Poutanen
  • Robin Grazley
Mary Anne Poutanen. Beyond Brutal Passions: Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal. McGill-Queen's University Press. xviii, 414. $34.95

Beyond Brutal Passions has been long awaited by scholars of intimate relations and urban spaces alike. An evolution of Mary Anne Poutanen's 1997 doctoral dissertation, the study makes a comprehensive analysis of Montreal's court records between 1810 and 1842 to examine prostitution and its links to vagrancy, petty theft, and alcohol consumption. The result is a dense, detailed, and highly readable exploration of the interconnected nature of family, economy, and social regulation in the lives of women engaged in sex work.

The study begins by establishing the "social geography of prostitution" in Montreal. Poutanen shows that, rather than being concentrated in red-light districts, sex work was "ubiquitous," practised in homes, single rooms, abandoned buildings, and public spaces throughout the city. She then turns her focus to residential (brothel) and street prostitution, and the importance of community to both. She argues that women engaged in sex work, whether temporarily or as a career, were less marginalized than integrated. Brothels were often home-based family businesses, which allowed women to combine paid work and child care; streetwalkers, who were considered "undeserving" prospects for charitable aid, banded together for subsistence and survival. In all cases, prostitutes' livelihood and safety depended on their relationships with neighbours, police, and other representatives of the court system, which were "multifaceted" and in constant negotiation. In Part Two, Poutanen examines the "interplay between [women's] experiences and their agency" as these multifaceted relationships played out within the legal system. Supported by quantitative data on frequency of arrests, she contends that between 1810 and 1842, Montreal's elites shifted their emphasis from eradication and rehabilitation to the regulation of prostitution, and criminal punishment for the women involved. She places this shift squarely within the [End Page 205] global demographic, economic, and cultural changes surrounding the rise of the liberal state and its increased role in regulating female sexuality.

The study's greatest strength is Poutanen's sustained commitment to the study of court records. The sheer volume of the material she has consulted is staggering: not only all extant criminal court and police records pertaining to prostitution and related charges (such as being loose, idle, disorderly, or vagrant), but also all criminal accusations in the lower courts which involved female participants. Moreover, she compiled a database allowing her to cross-reference and support her reading of individual stories with quantitative analysis. While she acknowledges that the source material available for Quebec is extraordinarily rich, it is difficult to find a parallel for the depth of research displayed in this study. Poutanen also deserves much credit for her sensitive reading of documents which are often frustratingly partial, and her insistence on recognizing women who engaged in sex work as agents in their own lives. Although she cautions "prudence," noting that women's agency may have been conditional or limited by structure and/or circumstance, she presents compelling evidence of negotiation and resistance in their dealings with family members, neighbours, police, and court officials. She deftly employs authoritarian sources and unpicks the narratives they created to show how the "popular classes," including prostitutes themselves, made use of the courts to regulate one another's behaviour, with the desired outcome less a criminal conviction than a public caution about the limits of acceptable social behaviour.

Poutanen skillfully draws connections between Montreal and other urban contexts, most notably Philadelphia, London, and Halifax. Given the significance of both migration and the British Army garrison to the sex trade in this period, however, I would have liked to see her grapple more fully with Montreal as a colonial site. Incorporating more of the recent literature on transcolonial intimacies would have enriched her arguments around prostitution's destabilizing effects on whiteness. A more nuanced approach to the tangled web of class, sexuality, and "civilization" in this unique colonial context would have strengthened her discussion of Anglophone elites' struggles over prostitution, for example, although these arguments are somewhat better developed in the section on Irish women...


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pp. 205-206
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