- The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria by Nancy M. Wingfield
Nancy M. Wingfield, professor of history at Northern Illinois University, distinguishes herself as one of the few historians who transform received views. Her work focuses on the identity politics of Central Europe and Bohemia, on hegemonic nationalism and nationalist constructions of the Other, and on the blank spots on the cultural-political maps of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and continental Europe. Wingfield’s The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria is a worthy entry in this tradition, an exemplary piece of scholarship that combines history from above and below in significant, often unanticipated ways.
The history of sexualities and the cultures of sexuality in Central Europe have all too often been reduced to discussions of the purported decadence of Vienna and to Freudian representations of sexualities in Austrian and Central European art and literature. Wingfield’s monograph breaks that mold by using modern definitions of prostitution as sex work to reconstruct the business and identity politics of prostitution and prostitutes in a multiethnic, multicultural empire, a world of cultural dislocation, economic pressure, and crushing rural poverty for those “left behind” by modernization and urbanization. The World of Prostitution reconstructs these phenomena in engaging, almost novelistic prose, drawing on court records, memoirs, newspapers, and other print and archival sources, both published and unpublished. Wingfield offers a realistic panorama of experience and identity resting on well-researched facts (especially the economics and demographics of prostitution for all engaged parties) while focusing on sex workers as individuals who were responding to particular social and political pressures, some with agency and some as utter victims of poverty and marginalization. [End Page 510]
Wingfield’s introduction lucidly establishes what it meant to be a prostitute in this period of central European history, tracing how these women were identified and the (in)efficiencies of the control mechanisms imposed on sex work in the empire (and other regions). She then analyzes how these control mechanisms were connected to European migration patterns within the empire. Her stated goal is to tie prostitutes’ lives into the contemporaneous narratives of marginalization, panic, disease, and moral degradation that were and are the stories of those living on the margins of their culture.
The volume’s first two chapters start with a brilliantly nuanced case study, the “Riehl Trial” in Vienna, in which a female Jewish brothel owner was charged not only with pandering but also with swindling her sex workers. Wingfield weaves the evidence from the trial records, investigative journalism, legal decisions, police records, and testimony associated with Regine Riehl’s trial to present a picture of the discourses framing the social realities of prostitution and the business sides of the sex trade, skillfully drawing lines between legitimate and “bad” business (from financial, social, and legal perspectives). The more established, if not always establishment, perspectives speak in their own voices with the participants’ own words, which Wingfield has recovered from a dense web of documentation about the ongoing attempts to “reform” prostitution—its growing regulation by the police and other authorities (including medical) and the growing number of forms it assumed as economic necessity grew.
Wingfield’s gaze then turns in other directions to nuance her big history account with local histories and case studies; she closely examines the ethnic, class, and regional variations of the sex trade and the various identities of the sex workers (both regulated and clandestine). Chapter 3 addresses how the situation in the “provinces” differs from Vienna; chapters 4 and 5 examine the classist and willful approach of the regulatory agencies to the sex trade, paying close attention to legal frameworks and the activities of the vice police and the brothel and medical inspectors. These chapters end with cases demonstrating how journalists identified vice as a central political “problem” of the empire—how, in essence, a wave of “scares” was manufactured by politicians and the media to manipulate public sentiments and obscure the real hardships of the era. The volume’s final chapter traces how...