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Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 159-163

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"A Multitude of Unchaste Women:"1
Prostitution in the British Empire

Philippa Levine

Although it was a commonplace for British travelers and colonial officials to claim that paid sex was rampant across the empire, they rarely acknowledged that the changes wrought by colonial rule had profound consequences on the shape of the prostitution. Trading in sex was certainly not a phenomenon brought east by British colonists, but the effects of colonialism were often visible in new forms of commercial sex which arose directly from the material circumstances that colonialism imposed. In Africa, for example, the sharp demographic changes which moved working men out of their customary lifestyles and into single-sex labor barracks created a range of new sexual markets, and indeed practices, by which men made the harsh and isolated life common to the new African economy bearable. Women living on the fringes of such camps or in nearby town and cities offered companionship in the form of sex, cooked meals, and company to such men, an arrangement the British dubbed wholesale as prostitution. 2

The British saw prostitution wherever they looked. Colonial officials concurred with the casual assumption that, as one moved east, so prostitution became an increasingly common phenomenon. Prostitution, they were fond of asserting, "offends no native susceptibility." 3 It was a routine part of life, and living evidence of native disorder. Colonists saw colonial cultures as looser, attaching less stigma to prostitution than the industrialized west. Burmese women, claimed a colonial doctor in 1875, were sufficiently unchaste that "if not prostitutes," they were "next door to it." 4 C.P. Lucas at the Colonial Office knew that in China and thus in Britain's Chinese-populated colonies, "prostitution is more or less of a recognized character." 5 In India, likewise, there were too many "phases and varieties of prostitution" to enumerate. 6

For the British colonial state, prostitution was a problem but it was also both a necessity and a convenient canvas on which to illuminate the greater evils or dangers of uncivilized peoples. Prostitution was problematic in part because of the close associations, typically drawn in the nineteenth century, between the sex trade and sexually transmissible diseases. It also raised the specter of the working woman in an era dedicated to romanticizing a vision of idle, frail womanhood. The existence of prostitution was, moreover, a source of moral disturbance in a Christianized world view. Yet at the same time, colonial officials, both in the metropole [End Page 159] and in the colonies, recognized the preponderantly masculine forms in which their work was cast and argued strenuously that without prostitution, life in the colonies would be morally and physically dangerous. The argument turned, of course, on understanding the male sex drive as an aggressive, active force, itself vital to colonial conquest. As a result, throughout the imperial era, the "problem" of prostitution was of central importance in colonial policymaking, often resulting in legislation and policies that would have been unacceptable in a metropolitan setting.

Prostitution provided a picture of what lurked behind the necessary facade of manners and rules, made manifest in those regions of the globe yet to feel the impact of civilization. Like the crumbling civilizations or "primitive" social structures to which she was compared, the prostitute was a throwback, a reminder of why imperial expansion was a "civilizing mission." Modernity and rationality implied containing and channeling sexual instincts in ways that colonists claimed were beyond the reach of less advanced peoples. The east's problem was its failure to move beyond the primitivism of unchained nature, to contain sex within boundaries that made it productive and purposeful rather than merely sensual and pleasurable. Prostitution's emphasis on pleasure rather than procreation drove home this divide between the Christian and the heathen, the former claiming sex as a procreative and biblically ordained duty, the latter merely wallowing in its sensuality. To be natural was to be in a state of savagery, to be pre-rational. Shame was allegedly absent in...