- 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...