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  • Berlin Coquette. Prostitution and the New German Woman, 1890-1933 by Jill Suzanne Smith
  • Todd Heidt
Berlin Coquette. Prostitution and the New German Woman, 1890-1933.
Jill Suzanne Smith. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP and Cornell University Library, 2013. Paper $27.95, hard $69.95.

Jill Suzanne Smith’s book stakes out a large territory. Her study seeks to offer a cultural and intellectual history of prostitution in two eras of German history, while also offering readings of a wide range of cultural products. Covering feminist journals, drama, literature, film, cabaret, literature and more, the book offers sweeping and compelling arguments that Smith weaves into a important contribution to scholarship on German modernity and gender studies.

In Smith’s work, the prostitute stands as a code through which a number of cultural debates find expression: women’s sexuality, women’s sexual desire, morality and labor. The book is split in half. The first two chapters provide insight into the discourse on prostitution in the late Wilhelmine era, and the final two shift to the Weimar Republic. During the Wilhelmine period, the relationship of the prostitute to Victorianera bourgeois debates on family, love, hygiene, sexually transmitted disease and women’s increasing independence prevail. The range of debates in the Wilhelmine era proves most surprising, and Smith provides extensive cultural-historical background and a wealth of archival research to cast light on the prevailing attitudes toward prostitution. On one end of the spectrum, feminist movements were looking to rid society of prostitution as it became associated with the sexually transmitted diseases and a corresponding ‘social disease’ eating away at the bourgeois morality of German society. On the other end of the spectrum, competing movements went so far as to demand socially acceptable means of expression for female desire, extending Nietzschean individualism to “championing gender-blind individual [sexual] self-fulfillment” (88).

It is striking how often the debates were led by engaged civic activists who were bourgeois women, whether this came in the form of the many feminist organizations that either sought to support and protect prostitutes in their work, on one hand, or sought to criminalize prostitution and reform the “fallen women,” on the other. Even some of the most famous “memoirs” by prostitutes were, in fact, penned entirely or heavily edited by bourgeois women (see particularly Pappritz’s The World of Which One Dares Not Speak and Böhme’s Diary of a Lost Girl, both discussed in chapter 2). Men, of course, played a role as well. Smith’s first chapter focuses on men who wrote scientific and literary studies of prostitution. At this [End Page 50] intersection of “sex, money and marriage,” Smith discusses the attempt to understand prostitution in light of the new scientific (and pseudo-scientific) fields that arose at that time. Richard von Kraft-Ebing as well as Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero posited the prostitute as a physiological or pathological type, predetermining the aberrant nature of those women. Social scientists such as August Bebel and Georg Simmel looked to economic and social pressures creating conditions that pushed women toward prostitution. These competing perspectives culminate in a discussion of the playwright Otto Erich Hartleben, whose work explores the equation of the labor of prostitution with the financial contract of bourgeois marriages. This opening chapter serves as the clearest complement to Smith’s final chapter (discussed below) in that both posit prostitution as a means of labor and economic contracts akin to other, socially sanctioned labor and economic contracts. The bourgeois wife and the prostitute both served the needs of men as dictated contractually in their economic relationships—as (virginal and asexual) wife and whore, respectively.

The transition to the Weimar Republic also includes a shift in the class discourse of Smith’s study. Now in the age of Fordist and Taylorist workplaces, industrial expansion and the rise of the salaried masses, the discourse on prostitution closely paralleled the discourse on the new class of white-collar workers. The criticisms of white collar work as boring, mechanistic, underpaid and yet oversold as a means to rise socioeconomically resonated well with the discourse on commodified sex as an option open to women. In fact, prostitution was often...


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