- Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India by Stephen Legg
It is only fairly recently that the historiography of prostitution and the attempts at its control or eradication has moved into the interwar era, a period in which there was a distinctive shift away from regulation and [End Page 406] segregation, largely due to the development of a wider discourse of hygiene and the role of the citizen in combating venereal diseases.
Legg writes as an urban geographer with a particular interest in India, and while this work addresses theoretical debates particular to these fields, it is also extremely valuable to the historian, especially to historians of sexuality who are examining the varied roles of space. It provides useful ways of thinking about changing ideas of public space and civic life in the era of modernity and demonstrates the importance of bringing particular material sites of the urban environment into the picture.
This study does not however take the very granular approach that we find in Julia Laite’s Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885–1960 (New York, 2012) or that of Catherine Lee’s Policing Prostitution, 1856–1886: Deviance, Surveillance and Morality (London, 2013) on Kent. Legg is more interested in the ways in which the problem was being addressed at a variety of interconnecting levels, from the League of Nations’ concern over the Traffic in Women and Children to what happened on specific streets, via a range of different government bodies, imperial, national and local, and civil organizations.
While paying tribute to Philippa Levine’s magisterial work, Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York, 2003), Legg registers an important proviso that Levine, and other historians, have tended to present India as a more monolithic entity than in fact it was. In particular he points out the complex, even at times incoherent, interplay between different governmental levels — transnational, imperial, national, local — further complicated by the involvement of various voluntary organizations engaged in campaigning and activism, as well as particular factors that came into play at specific sites at particular times.
Legg brings a particularly useful insight into the role of sexology (itself more strongly influenced than is sometimes credited by late nineteenth century movements of moral reform as well as movements for public health) as an influence upon policy toward prostitution. This builds upon scholarship that has already gained significant recognition, regarding the influence of campaigns of moral reform (emerging from the UK protests against the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860s) and a rising paradigm of preventive medicine and public and individual hygiene. The impact of sexology upon public policy has tended to be considered something of a ‘‘long game’’ in the reformation of attitudes to questions of sexual identity leading to legislation. The effects of the contributions by the ‘‘science of sex’’ on colonial officials and in administrative circles have very largely, to the best of my knowledge, been overlooked. Legg makes a well-supported case that the construction within sexological writings from Britain, Europe, and North America of the brothel as a central problem played a discernible part in interwar responses in India to wider issues of sex work and public space. [End Page 407]
Among the strengths of this book are its detailed accounts of the various local Suppression of Immoral Traffic Acts (sita). On one level these were responding to the transnational campaign against the traffic in women and children (previously known as the White Slave Trade), which ultimately became a concern of the League of Nations, but Legg argues that they also fit into a longer tradition of concern by the Raj over questions to do with Indian womanhood. While they were enacted by provincial governments, to whom the relevant areas of activity were devolved, there was a significant degree of pressure from central government to undertake such action. In practice the implementation of these acts bore most heavily upon the sex workers...