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Philippa Levine - "A Multitude of Unchaste Women:" Prostitution in the British Empire - Journal of Women's History 15:4 Journal of Women's History 15.4 (2004) 159-163

"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 colonial cultures, normalizing prostitution in "degraded" societies. This trope was key to the ways in which British imperial opinion commented negatively not only on the sex trade in colonial arenas but also on colonial societies more generally. Prostitution became a symbol of considerable significance in the condemnation of societies regarded as immoral or amoral, unconcerned with brutalizing women. Colonial men's indifference to the shame of their womenfolk became an index of male brutality, and the unquestioned acceptance of prostitution the mark of coarse and unfeeling societies.

This gesture of normalization allowed colonial practice to differ markedly from domestic. Colonial ordinances implemented policies that would have been unallowable in the domestic context. In many parts of the empire, for example, civil and military authorities classified the brothel trade into a first, second, and third class. These classifications were definitively and centrally racial. The first-class brothel served an exclusively white clientele, and in some places also connoted that the vendors too were white. European women working in Indian brothels, for example, were classified first class, as were brothels staffed by indigenous women but reserved for British soldiers stationed in India. Third-class brothels, conversely, were those both staffed and frequented by locals. They were seldom brought [End Page 160] under colonial surveillance on the principle that transmission of disease would have no effect on colonial populations. This classificatory scheme also frequently guaranteed women's outsider status from their birth communities. The first-class brothel may have slightly augmented women's earning power, but servicing foreign men often disgraced them in their own worlds, despite British insistence that prostitution carried no stigma among colonial populations.

Justified through the sentiment that colonial societies were less stringent in matters sexual, such thinking provided colonial authorities a convenient and effective means to employ a variety of regulatory systems aimed at controlling women prostitutes. The domestic Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s stopped short of legalizing the brothel, fully aware that bourgeois Victorian sensibilities would not countenance such a policy in Britain. In the colonies, however, the legalization and management of the brothel lay at the heart of the regulation schemes of the later nineteenth century. In Britain's Southeast Asian colonies, brothel women carried identity cards and, by the end of the century, regulating authorities required their photographs and identifying details to be on display in the brothel at all times.

The British generally chose to emphasize what they saw as indigenous examples of prostitution rather than to recognize the effects of their own rule on local society. One of the most misconstrued of these worlds was that of the Indian devadasi, and the misunderstandings are so emblematic of the workings of colonial sexual thinking that they justify lengthier discussion. Devadasis were women dedicated to Hindu temples, literally married to the gods and thus beyond the reach of mortal marriage. 7 Trained in the performing arts, such women also formed sexual alliances, often long-term, with men of high social status. Colonial attention rested exclusively on the sexual element of their occupation, and from the 1860s convictions for dedicating girl children to "temple harlotry" under sections 372 and 373 of the Indian Penal Code became increasingly common. Their secular counterparts, the courtesans, entertained wealthy men and in pre-colonial India were often attached to the royal court. 8 Variations on these traditions were geographically widespread, and although there were important distinctions between the religious and secular traditions as well as between regions, British commentators chose largely to ignore these. Instead, they read these traditions en masse as demonstrations of a degraded culture, discounting the intensive education in the arts that so often characterized this work. What the police commissioner in Bombay condemned as "sanctified harlotry" defined India, and negatively. 9 For the British, the devadasi was not the servant and wife of the gods, but a slave to unharnessed human desire and a profound threat to Victorian readings of the marriage contract. 10 [End Page 161]

Although the anti-nautch movement, as it was called, was a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon, earlier colonial policy had moved to redefine the courtesan out of "art" and into "sex," uneasy about the connections between the erotic and the spiritual that were alien to the Victorian Christian tradition. 11 Changes in how colonialists perceived courtesans and devadasis also reflect a considerable uneasiness with the success and power of these women, who often enjoyed substantial wealth, owned property, and in many ways were more independent than other women. Courtesans "expected and enjoyed a functional equality with men." 12 Ignoring the advantages that might accompany this occupation, contemporary sociological literature and journalism still dwells on the tenacity of the devadasi tradition in "backward communities" 13 and a narrative of debasement is widespread. Abha Narain speaks of the degeneration of art into "crass prostitution," while B.R. Patil, otherwise sympathetic, claims that the devadasi profession "in its original form was free from sex and noble in character." 14 Colonial authorities made shrewd use of this link between corruption and sex. India could be condemned as sexually lax, the men as ignoble and the women as promiscuous. It was a pattern repeated across the empire, a convenient means by which the British could maintain the institution of prostitution while locating blame for its allegedly deleterious effects safely away from Britain and British values.

Sexuality, then, was integral to imperial politics, and by focusing attention on a form of sexuality regarded in the West as an index of brutalization and degradation, imperialism could, in a sense, have its cake and eat it too. Since prostitution was acceptable in colonial societies, little could be done to extirpate it, and western men could utilize its services without contributing to women's "downfall." Yet the very existence of prostitution indicated the urgent need for imperialism's mission. The prostitute symbolized difference, and her occupation identified 'lesser' populations with sexual anarchy. With colonial societies as the harbingers of decadence, sexual laxity and racial primitivism became synonymous with women as both archetype and victim of degeneracy. What better way for the colonial state to provide for the sexual appetites of its predominantly male population while justifying its close control of local peoples?

Philippa Levine is professor of history at the University of Southern California. Her most recent book is Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (Routledge, 2003). In 2004, Oxford University Press will publish her edited volume on gender and empire as part of the Oxford History of the British Empire series.


1. Surgeon General, Bengal to Director General, Army Medical Department, 9 June 1884, L/MIL/7/13810, Oriental And India Office Collections [OIOC], London.

2. Janet M. Bujra, "Women 'Entrepreneurs' of Early Nairobi," Revue Canadienne des Etudes Africaines/Canadian Journal of African Studies 9, no. 2 (1975), 213-34; [End Page 162] and Luise White, The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

3. T.D. Mackenzie, Acting Chief Secretary to Government of Bombay to Secretary, Government of India, Home Department, 28 January 1888, OIOC, L/MIL/7/13815.

4. 'Resolution on Lock Hospital Reports, British Burma, for the Year 1875,' 5, OIOC, V/24/2296.

5. C.P. Lucas to Frederick Meade, 6 May 1879, CO129/184 (6690), Public Record Office, London.

6. J. Fullarton Beatson, Surgeon General, Indian Medical Department to Officiating Secretary to Government of Bengal, Judicial Department, 16 May 1877, OIOC, P/1003.

7. Frédérique Apffel Marglin, Wives of the God-King: The Rituals of the Devadasis of Puri (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1985), 18; Mrinalini Sarabhai, The Sacred Dance of India (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1979), 6; and Amrit Srinivasan, "Reform and Revival: The Devadasi and Her Dance," Economic and Political Weekly 20, no. 44 (1985), 1869-76, esp. 1870.

8. Veena Talwar Oldenburg, "Lifestyle as Resistance: The Case of the Courtesans of Lucknow," in Contesting Power: Resistance and Everyday Social Relations in South Asia, ed. Douglas Haynes and Gyan Prakash (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

9. S.M. Edwardes, Crime in India (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 84.

10. David J. Pivar, "The Military, Prostitution, and Colonial Peoples: India and the Philippines, 1885-1917," Journal of Sex Research 17, no. 3 (1981), 256-69, esp. 264; and Kunal M. Parker, "'A Corporation of Superior Prostitutes:" Anglo-Indian Legal Conceptions of Temple Dancing Girls, 1800-1914," Modern Asian Studies 32, no. 3 (1998), 559-663, esp. 562.

11. Thomas R. Metcalf, The New Cambridge History of India, III, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 102.

12. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, Women Writing in India, vol. 2: The Twentieth Century (New York: The Feminist Press, 1993), 7.

13. J.J. Panakal, "Prostitution in India," Indian Journal of Criminology 2, no. 1 (1974), 29-35, esp. 30; Neera Desai and Maithreyi Krishnaraj, Women and Society in India (Delhi: Ajanta Publications, 1987), 269; Edwardes, Crime in India, 86; M.S. Islam, "Life in the Mufassal Towns of Nineteenth-Century Bengal," in The City in South Asia: Pre-modern and Modern, ed. Kenneth Ballhatchet and John Harrison (London: Curzon Press; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980), 224-56, esp. 247; and S.D. Punekar and Kamala Rao, A Study of Prostitution in Bombay (Bombay: Allied Publishers, 1962), 190.

14. Abha Narain, "Witty Keepers and Royalty," Times of India (22 October 1994); and B.R. Patil, "The Devadasis," Indian Journal of Social Work 35, no. 4 (1975), 377-89, esp. 377.

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