- Early Modern Prostitutes, Concubines, and Mistresses
The four books under review demonstrate noteworthy cross-cultural patterns in early modern prostitution and concubinage. Historical developments in Japan (Amy Stanley and G. G. Rowley), China (Beverly Bossler), and France (Nina Kushner) also present cross-national similarities and differences that explain why commodified sex flourished in the early modern period. These authors, although in varying degrees, address how the buying and selling of women’s sexuality was far from an isolated phenomenon. They offer useful insights into the dynamics of history surrounding the sexual commodification of women and its massive impact on familial relations. In the early modern era, as these works demonstrate, market-driven economies fueled the growth of lucrative sex markets and provoked destabilizing changes in the family.
These four works capture both the alluring and the disturbing aspects of commercial sex but not in the same manner. Their focus varies from commoners to high-status social groups. Stanley undertakes a critical examination of the economic and social forces conducive to the exchange of sex for payment among common people. Rowley and Bossler address the privileges and hardships of elegant concubines in elite households. These analyses are mostly social, cultural, political, and literary, with the intent of contextualizing and reanimating the lives of these women. Kushner interprets [End Page 156] mistress-keeping and elite prostitution in a positive light, and her principal concern is with how sociocultural phenomena are representative of female agency.
Amy Stanley’s Selling Women inquires into how the rapidly expanding market economy in the Tokugawa period (1603–1868) was the major catalyst for the spread of Japan’s sex trade across the archipelago. Central to the Tokugawa system of political control was the “alternate attendance” policy, which required the daimyō (regional lords) to reside in the shogun’s capital of Edo (present-day Tokyo) every other year. During such a market revolution, women were circulated like “paper products, textiles, or lacquer bowls” and “became ‘famous products’ (meibutsu) of their region, akin to sake, buckwheat noodles, ceramic dishes, or paper umbrellas in other areas” (106; 108). Stanley is emphatic about the prevalence of commercial transactions to demonstrate that prostitution became a vast historically transforming force across Japan. She thus sees that prostitutes were both objects of exchange and economic actors.
Stanley also highlights the massive economic contributions of “selling women” (baijo or baita) to government coffers as well as regional communities in Tokugawa Japan, using such historical references as legal codes, petitions, criminal records, town registers, and diaries. The first chapter of Selling Women is an analysis of Innai Ginzan, a silver mining town in the Akita domain where Umezu Masakage (1581–1633), Innai’s magistrate, collected levies from brothel keepers. Motivated by the exigencies of domain finance, Masakage confirmed the authority of men to sell or pawn female members of their households into prostitution. As this account illustrates, despite the shogunate’s laws that carefully separated prostitutes from all other female subjects, the pursuit of profit became prioritized over the paternalistic protection of non-prostitute females in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Neo-Confucian ideal of “benevolent government” was seriously undermined by the profitability of prostitution. Stanley delineates the process whereby the ravaging force of money and commodities prevailed against paternalistic government efforts to protect wives and daughters from sex for sale. The Tokugawa regime originally pursued a strategy of regulation through containment by locating the shogunate’s...