The History of Prostitution Now
Fifteen years ago, Timothy Gilfoyle published a lengthy essay devoted to the history of prostitution in the American Historical Review. He observed that in the last quarter of the twentieth century, historians complicated the history of prostitution “in ways unanticipated a generation ago.”1 As the six books reviewed here demonstrate, innovation in the history of sex work continues. Historians are now studying “up” rather than “down,” concentrating on brothel madams and luxury establishments rather than streetwalkers and street solicitation. Scholars today point to changing patterns of consumption and leisure (including tourism), rather than altered labor relations (like industrialization) to explain changes in the sex trade. Historians now importantly address previously neglected issues like colonialism, state building, and race to produce a more complex picture of the sex worker of the past and her business. [End Page 188]
A case in point is Elizabeth Epstein Landau’s Spectacular Wickedness. Landau is hardly the first historian to write about New Orleans’ famous vice district, but her book departs from its predecessors in its cultural approach and focus on race.2 Landau’s analysis begins with Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that decreed that blacks and whites be separated by a color line that could not be crossed. That same year, the Storyville red-light district emerged in New Orleans and offered just what Plessy denied: sex across the color line. Based on the Bluebook tourist guides to Storyville produced biannually between 1897 and 1900, Landau argues that Storyville “aggressively advertised the availability of mixed-race women for the sexual pleasure of white men” (5). Bluebooks capitalized on the “cultural fantasy of antebellum white supremacy,” evoking the “octoroon balls” and light-skinned “fancy women” purchased by wealthy white men for sexual enjoyment under slavery (11).
The “sexual organization of Storyville” reflected this largely imaginary but potent vision of the Old South, which “reinscribed the racial order of the plantation” (162). Black men were servants and musicians but never customers, and white men were offered “the illusion of antebellum, white male supremacy” (8). While Storyville capitalized on an imagined past, the vice district and its denizens were “modern.” Modernity in Storyville stemmed not only from industrialization or rationalization of labor, but also from up to date business practices like advertising and repackaging the vice district as a tourist destination. Storyville offered escape and exoticism: its brothels, known as “resorts,” advertised “foreign” girls (for example, Jews and “French” women) who entertained in rooms decorated in Chinese or Moroccan styles. Storyville was a “sexual theme park” or fantasyland rather than a factory, an eroticized version of Coney Island (9).
Spectacular Wickedness is less concerned with the common prostitute than with the Storyville elite, the brothel madams. Landau devotes a chapter to Lulu White, mistress of the Mahogany Hall, a four-story brothel on Basin Street that combined luxury with modern fixtures like elevators, central steam heat, and “seventeen bedrooms, each with its own bath with hot and cold water and extension closets.” White’s brothel, additionally, was “the best octoroon resort in the city” (145). Lulu White was born in Alabama to a white father and his black housekeeper, but she claimed to be the daughter of a Jamaican planter and listed herself at different times as black, white, octoroon, or quadroon. Much like other Storyville denizens, White played with racial categories, but lack of sources makes it hard for Landau to say much more about her. Sometimes Landau says too much, using sparse evidence to concoct unconvincing interpretations. Does a pornographic postcard showing a sailor penetrating Lulu White, for example, demonstrate the madam’s agency?3 Lulu White’s testimony during a 1904 trial for failure [End Page 189] to pay tax on the beer consumed in her brothel reveals a different kind of agency. In this “rare example of her recorded speech,” Lulu White appears as a skillful businesswoman who subverted the city tax laws and acquired a fortune thanks to her commercial acumen (150).
Madams are also the subject of Maryann Wall’s Madam Belle and Penny Peterson’s Minneapolis Madams. Wall’s book focuses on the foremost madam of Gilded Age Lexington, Kentucky, Bell Brezing. Like Lulu White, Brezing ran a “modern” luxury house with twenty-seven rooms, multiple parlors, and electric lights at a time when most of Lexington still relied on gas. Brezing also offered nostalgia for the Old South. Many of her customers were wealthy Easterners who purchased horse farms in Bluegrass Country to raise thoroughbreds and enjoy “their idea of how squires lived in the Old South” (128).
Brezing became rich as a brothel owner and amassed assets in stocks, traveled with clients to races in other cities, and showed off her well-dressed girls at the Lexington Opera. She prospered until 1911 when the municipal court indicted her for “brothel-keeping.” In 1917, reform-minded city officials enacted a tough anti-prostitution ordinance and closed down both Brezing’s brothel and the Lexington vice district. Brezing became reclusive, dying in 1940 in her once-splendid house, now a wreck.
Wall devotes much of her book to Brezing’s clients, the wealthy Easterners who bought farms and raced horses in Bluegrass Country. Wall has less information about Brezing herself, but still provides a multidimensional portrait of the woman that does not use her occupation as a sex worker to define her. Wall, for example, does not assume that Brezing’s early suicide attempt and her recurring addiction to morphine stemmed from the “shame of prostitution.” Rather, she points out that morphine was widely used in Kentucky and that Brezing had troubles, like the institutionalization of her mentally retarded daughter, which bore no relationship to prostitution. Wall ultimately sees Brezing “less as a prostitute … and more as a businesswoman keen on amassing real estate and wealth” (ix). Did Brezing, like Lulu White, sell sex across the color line in her brothel? She certainly sold the “charm” of the “Old South,” but Wall says little about Brezing’s employees or the practices in other Lexington brothels.
In midwestern Minneapolis, surprisingly, madams did offer sex with African American women. This is but one of the interesting facts revealed by Penny Petersen’s Minneapolis Madams. Petersen aims to illuminate the forgotten sex district, beginning with the buildings that stood there. Petersen adeptly utilizes tax rolls, fire inspection records, court documents, and probate files to determine when brothels were built, how they were decorated, how much they cost, and who paid for them. In Minneapolis, upstanding citizens, politicians, bankers, contractors, and furniture dealers [End Page 190] loaned the madams money to build and decorate their brothels, essentially making them elite partners in vice.
Minneapolis prospered in the 1880s and so did the madams. Some like Jennie Jones became rich: when Jenny Jones died in 1889, her estate included $17,000 in certificates of deposit, and a brothel valued at $15,000. Ida Dorsey, a black woman from Kentucky, first appeared in Minneapolis around 1886 at the head of a “rough” bar. But she moved up fast 1891. By 1891, she contracted the construction and decoration of a three-story brick and mortar brothel for $13,000. The secret to her success was her ability to defy Minneapolis’ strict segregation of black and white prostitutes: Dorsey simply claimed that all her girls were black, even though their skin color varied, according to a Minneapolis newspaper, between “coal blackness and blonde whiteness.”4 Sex across the color line drew the Minneapolis elite to Dorsey’s brothel. A journalist reported that “business men of high social standing” spent their evenings with Dorsey’s “abandoned negresses” who danced the can-can and organized “foul orgies.”5 Dorsey like Lulu White profited from white men’s fascination with “dusky beauties.” She made enough money to purchase real estate both within and without of the vice district, buy several mainstream businesses, and relocate her family to Minneapolis. But reformers who opposed the vice trade were gaining influence and in 1909 Minneapolis experienced its own version of the white slavery scare.6
Minneapolis purity crusaders accused Chinese men—of whom there were no more than one hundred in Minneapolis—of seducing white women into prostitution in chop suey restaurants. The Minneapolis antivice commission proclaimed the “white race” under attack and cracked down on prostitution. Police searched Ida Dorsey’s brothel, and gave other madams stiff jail sentences. The reformers took control of the city government in 1909, resulting in several madams leaving town. Ida Dorsey decamped briefly to St. Paul only to find that police raids (and payment for police protection) made brothel-keeping there too expensive. She then returned to Minneapolis and, thanks to her considerable contacts and real estate holdings, ran a clandestine brothel until her death from cancer in 1918. In Minneapolis and New Orleans, according to Petersen, racism explains both the appeal of the vice districts, and, ironically, their demise.
While race preoccupies recent historians of prostitution in the United States, scholars of Latin American and Asian sex work address other issues, especially colonialism and state building. Tiffany A. Sippial in Prostitution, Modernity and the Making of the Cuban Republic reconstructs the history of prostitution in Havana against the background of the transition from Spanish colonial rule to independence. Between 1840 and 1868, Spanish officials tolerated prostitutes and arrested them only when neighbors complained. [End Page 191] This informal toleration ended in 1868, the beginning of Cuba’s first war of independence. The Spanish instituted strict regulations on the pretext of limiting venereal disease and sent 97,000 soldiers to quell the rebellion. The Special Hygiene Section, a newly formed branch of the police, forced all prostitutes to undergo medical exams and issued healthy women identity cards complete with photo identification. In other words, regulation based on the Parisian model was instituted.7 But there was also resistance to this regulation: prostitutes refused to comply and Cuban nationalists developed “a disdain for the central tenets of the regulatory system under Spain” (84).
Prostitution was a key subject in the “broader national conversation” concerning independence and national identity that occurred between 1880 and 1902. The failed quest for independence led to fears of degeneracy and moral failure. Anti-colonialists and physicians cast prostitutes as victims of slavery and Spanish colonialism, and especially as the prey of the Special Hygiene Section. Regulated prostitution became inextricably linked to colonial oppression (122).
The US government briefly reinforced regulation of prostitution during its occupation of the island, but following the American withdrawal in 1902 the new Cuban republic dismantled it and explained that it was the “ultimate vestige of colonial corruption and immorality” (149). Cuban intellectuals and physicians produced “a unique fusion of anti-trafficking and anti-colonial discourses,” which cast criminalization as the “modern” alternative to Spanish regulation (172). Cuba ratified the 1921 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic of Women and Children and criminalized prostitution throughout Cuba four years later.
Modernity and state formation are also major themes in Regulation Prostitution in China by Elizabeth J. Remick. Remick argues, “far from being a ‘peripheral’ social issue, prostitution and its regulation were at the heart of the modern state building undertaken by Chinese local governments” (2). Chinese officials, like Cuban nationalists, rejected tradition and embraced a “modern” attitude toward prostitution, but while Cubans identified modernity with the abolition of prostitution, the Chinese considered regulation the “modern” approach.
Although loosely based on Japanese prostitution policy, Chinese regulation tended to vary from town to town. Remick identifies three types of regulation that were enacted in three different cities. The first and most common form was “light regulation,” utilized in Hangzhou. Authorities registered and taxed prostitutes and brothels, limiting them to authorized areas. Aside from these measures, authorities did not monitor the sex trade. The second type of regulation was “revenue intensive” and prevailed in Guangzhou. It involved taxing clients when they hired a girl, paid for a banquet, or spent the night in a brothel. Authorities also heavily taxed [End Page 192] brothel and restaurant owners, but generally did not intervene further in the sex trade. The final type of regulation was the “coercive” regulation that prevailed in Kumming. Under this system, the police taxed sex workers who were limited to a walled and guarded quarter. Banned from the theater and the city streets, and subjected to frequent medical exams, Kumming’s prostitutes lived under something close to “quarantine” (51–189).
The state building produced by these regulatory regimes differed as much in degree as content. All three cities drew some revenue from prostitution and increased the size of their police forces to deal with prostitution. The effects of this increase in revenue and bureaucracy under “light regulation” were muted because the revenue collected was small and the increase in bureaucracy was limited to the prostitution police. In the case of the “coercive and intensive” approach, police collected considerable funds and cities were required to sustain the large numbers of police and medical officials that tight regulation required. The “revenue intensive model” employed in Guangzhou, according to Remick, provides the most convincing proof that regulation contributed to the growth of the state in twentieth-century China. Thanks to the revenues generated by fees and fines, Guangzhou embarked on a series of public works, including the creation of new schools, better transportation, and improved social services. This made the city “one of the most recognizably modern” in China (3).
Remick uses difficult to access police archives, providing a more precise picture of prostitution in Republican China than ever before. One might complain that we do not hear the voices of the sex workers themselves. But, just about all historians of sex work (including those discussed here) lack documents in which sex workers speak. Melinda Chateauvert’s Sex Workers Unite is an exception. Informed by close readings of recent historical materials, Chateauvert examines and explains the sex workers’ rights movement in the words of those who created it. Along the way, Chateauvert recounts the story of sex work in the United States during the late twentieth century, a period previously neglected by scholars.
Chateauvert begins with the Compton Cafeteria Riot of 1966, noting that transgendered sex workers participated in this confrontation with the San Francisco police. She then analyzes the earliest debates within US feminism about prostitution before turning to Margo St. James’s founding of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in 1973. COYOTE was not a failure, Chateauvert argues, as some historians have contended.8 The organization challenged received notions about sex work, argued against the inconsistent application of criminal laws, and pointed to “selective enforcement” (now called racial profiling) in law enforcement. By maintaining a helpline that provided on-the-spot legal advice to sex workers under arrest, COYOTE committed to assisting individual sex workers. COYOTE also brought an [End Page 193] end to the mandatory venereal disease quarantine of women charged with prostitution in San Francisco. The organization, most notably, served as a model and inspiration for the creation of subsequent sex workers’ organizations in the United States and abroad.
The 1980s and 1990s were not kind to sex workers. Chateauvert explains that “HIV/AIDS changed the political and legal landscape,” thus “sex workers had to resist the virus of repression” (114). Defined as a high-risk group, sex workers found themselves subjected to compulsory medical testing and quarantine in many states and municipalities. The AIDS panic led California, Georgia, Florida, Utah, and Nevada to pass laws in 1991 that made prostitution a felony crime on the second offense, carrying a sentence of up to three years in prison if the accused tested positive for HIV.
The AIDS crisis forced COYOTE and sex worker rights’ activists to rethink their strategy. Chateauvert argues that “the polite tools of civic activism—petitions, letter-writing, telephone calls, visits to elected officials’ offices, testimony in legislative hearings—no longer seemed to work” amid the AIDS crisis (110). Activists switched their goal from decriminalization to harm reduction. Gloria Lockett and Priscilla Alexander established the California Prostitutes Education Project (CALPEP) in 1985 to provide education and health services to sex workers in Bay Area communities. In 1999, the St. James Infirmary also opened in San Francisco, offering “compassionate and non-judgmental healthcare and social services for all sex workers while preventing occupational illnesses and injuries through a comprehensive continuum of services” (114). Both organizations are still in operation.
Harm reduction not only applied to health services, but also to better working conditions. The sex industry grew into a multi-billion dollar industry in the 1980s and 1990s, characterized by greater competition and pressure on sex workers to generate profits. Many sex workers found themselves transformed into “independent contractors,” which meant the end of oversight by government agencies like states’ labor commissions and occupational health and safety administrations. Chateauvert describes various aspects of this important change in sex industries and analyzes organizations like the San Francisco’s Exotic Dancers’ Alliance. Founded in 1993, the organization challenged increased stage fees, sexual harassment, and lack of job security in Bay Area theaters and strip clubs.
The emergence of the Christian Right and the anti-pornography wars presented special problems for sex workers. The anti-porn crusade brought together social conservatives and academic feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Kathleen Barry who conflated pornography with prostitution and advocated for the abolition of both. Sex workers fought back, disrupting conferences and holding demonstrations to assert sex workers’ rights. [End Page 194] These efforts were not entirely successful. Long-time activist Carol Leigh, for example, observed: “There is (now) an entire generation of young people/students who are more than willing to continue the marginalization, censorship and stigmatization of sex workers” (196). Such “whore bashing” was so common that the activist Annie Oakley organized the first Sex Workers Art Show in 1997 to “humanize” sex workers. Since that time, the show has visited towns and university campuses throughout the United States promoting sex workers’ rights through performance art.
Chateauvert ends Sex Workers Unite by pointing to the complexity of sex work and the multiplicity of individuals—male and female, black and white, transgender and cisgender—who perform it. The category of “prostitute,” defined as a white female street walker, is increasingly irrelevant in a world where the range of individuals and venues for those who perform sex work has multiplied. The image of the prostitute as a poor white woman soliciting on the street is fading for historians, as the works under review here demonstrate. The history of prostitution today is focused on a range of sex workers and a number of previously ignored issues like racism, colonialism, and consumption, making our understanding of sex work both past and present more complex.
KATHRYN NORBERG is an associate professor of history and gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles where she teaches courses on contemporary sex work and the history of prostitution. Her recent publications include: “The Body of the Prostitute, Medieval to Modern” in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body, 1500 to the present (2013), edited by Sarah Toulalan and Kate Fisher; and “In Her Own Words: An Eighteenth-Century Parisian Madame and her Brothel” in Prostitution in Eighteenth-Century Culture: Sex, Commerce & Morality (2011), edited by Markman Ellis and Ann Lewis. She is currently completing a book on the history of one brothel in eighteenth-century Paris that is based upon a manuscript dictated by its madam.
1. Timothy Gilfoyle, “Prostitutes in History: From Parables of Pornography to Metaphors of Modernity,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 1 (February 1999): 117–41.
2. There are few studies of how race and racism affected prostitution in the past or present. A notable exception is Cynthia M. Blair, I Gotta to Make My Livin’: Black Women’s Sex Work in Turn of the Century Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
3. Also incredulous is Landau’s claim that the viewer of the postcard “simultaneously [performed] an act of bourgeois ascendancy and a critique of aristocratic pretensions and exclusivity.” Landau, Spectacular Wickedness, 143.
4. “Almost Babylon,” Minneapolis Journal, June 15, 1886.
6. The white slavery scare was a moral panic centered on the seduction of young white women by foreigners or Jews. The panic began around 1909 and abated during World War I. See Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900–1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), 112–37.
7. The licenses and health checks created by the Spanish closely resembled the regulations established by the Parisian police in the early nineteenth century. Regulations [End Page 195] that came to be known as the French or Parisian system, which was adopted by countries around the globe. See Alain Corbin, Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1870 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 3–39.
8. Ronald Weitzer, Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (New York: New York University Press, 2011), 74. [End Page 196]