- Geographies of Regulation: Policing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the Empire
Numerous books have been written about the Contagious Diseases Acts that instituted regulated, and therefore tolerated, prostitution in parts of Britain and its colonies between 1867 and 1889. Historians of gender, sexuality, class, and most recently empire have all dealt with “the” Acts as have numerous local historians. Howell’s new study of British regulation offers a new perspective on this familiar issue. As a historical geographer, Howell brings to the subject of policing prostitution a keen sense of the importance of space in the disciplinary projects of the Victorian state.1
Geographies of Regulation begins with a detailed “map” of the localities [End Page 448] in which Contagious Diseases Acts (cda) were applied. Howell concludes that cda was far more haphazard in enforcement and far less dramatic in consequences than historians have believed. “The history of British regulationism,” Howell writes,” is not the history of the cda alone” (73). Most of Howell’s book is largely concerned with those areas—Liverpool, Cambridge, and Gibraltar—where the cda was never promulgated but where regulation nonetheless took root.
In Liverpool and Cambridge, “containment” or “localization” (the corraling of prostitutes and brothels into designated districts) achieved informally what the cda created legally (77). The Liverpool police adopted this policy without recourse to formal legislation, and the University of Cambridge’s medieval statutes authorized university proctors to incarcerate prostitutes who consorted with students.
Other chapters of Geographies of Regulation deal with regulation in the empire. Howell focuses first on a neglected corner, Gibraltar, where the authorities created a kind of piecemeal regulation despite the fact that the Acts were never instituted. Howell ends by analyzing the colony of Hong Kong where the cda did apply. He takes issue with historians of empire who emphasize the racial component in British prostitution policies, arguing that even though British authorities dominated, they did not dictate. In Hong Kong, colonial officers cooperated with local Chinese elites; in Chinese cities like Shanghai, regulation was the rule.
Howell has other bones to pick with postcolonial historians, but the readers of this journal will most likely find his emphasis on regulation and space more interesting. Howell asserts, “Spatiality underwrote the (prostitution) regulation project,” and “the most visible element of this policy was the formalization of zones of tolerated prostitution” (232). Is this reliance on spatial segregation a distinguishing feature of the modern state, and was it deployed in other disciplinary or even philanthropic endeavors? Unfortunately, Howell does not generalize. Other scholars will have to inherit the job of placing prostitution regulation in a broader chronological and theoretical framework.
1. Among the many books on the regulation of prostitution in Britain and its empire, the most influential have been Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State (New York, 1980); Philippa Levine. Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York, 2003).