You railers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, you the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug, and keep between yourself and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over or fill it up…Why stand you there mouthing with sleek face about morality? What is morality? - an anonymous whore in a letter to The Times, 1858
Yesterday’s column was inspired by scanning the 19th-century sections of Whores in History while preparing to write my column of June 19th, and while researching it I was struck by how little most anti-prostitute rhetoric has changed since the Victorian Era. Oh, many of the moralists now cloak their need to control others in neofeminist jargon instead of Christian jargon, but that makes very little difference and today I’d just like to point out a few examples of it so you can see exactly what I mean.
The general consensus among Victorian “scholars” was that normal women had no sex drive whatsoever, so it was therefore impossible for any normal woman to choose to be a prostitute. Some argued that all whores were driven to the trade by extreme privation or forced into it by pimps, while others claimed it was due to “laziness” and a desire to avoid “real work”. But the most popular view of all was that whores were atavisms, throwbacks to a more primitive human type, and many a 19th-century researcher (especially in Germany, Italy and Russia) eagerly sought prostitutes (always streetwalkers, of course) who would allow themselves to be studied and measured; Cesare Lombruso of Italy claimed that all prostitutes, without exception, had receding foreheads and large jaws, and that some had “exaggerated” growth of the labia or clitoris. He and his cronies claimed that this cherry-picked “evidence” proved that “primitive” African and American Indian women shared these same features, thus demonstrating that whores were more like “savages” than like highly-evolved Europeans. And since prostitutes were primitive they were also stupid, and thus incompetent to make their own decisions; this of course was used to excuse tyranny like the Contagious Disease Acts discussed in yesterday’s column, because the government could claim it was forced to arrest, incarcerate and “rehabilitate” prostitutes “for their own good.”
Sound familiar? Except for the modern replacement of “nature” arguments (whores are born defective) with “nurture” arguments (whores are made defective early in life by sexual abuse), the propaganda is virtually identical. In both cases non-prostitutes with no personal experience of normal female sexuality (then it was men, now it’s lesbian neofeminists) claim that it’s impossible for a normal woman to choose prostitution, and that all of us are driven to it by extreme privation or forced into it by “pimps” or “traffickers”. As in Victorian times streetwalkers are studied and the observations are then manipulated and distorted to fit the “theory”, which is applied to all prostitutes; we are all victims of child abuse or rape, all drug addicts, blah blah blah. Many prohibitionists openly call us stupid, selfish and neurotic, and even the ones who don’t insist that we’re incompetent to make our own decisions. Just as in Victorian times, these bogus claims are used to rationalize tyranny like the Swedish Model or American-style criminalization on the grounds that it’s “for our own good”. And though one doesn’t hear the claim that we’re “lazy” from neofeminists very often (because they couldn’t blame that on the almighty Patriarchy), it’s still very popular among religious or lawhead prohibitionists (hence the popular decriminalization slogan, “sex work is work”).
By the late 19th century the varying nonsense claims about prostitutes were eclipsed by the lurid propaganda of the social purity movement, which promoted the “white slavery” and “child prostitution” scares in order to further its agenda. I’ve written about this moral panic, and its modern reincarnation as the “human trafficking” (and more specifically “child sex trafficking”) hysteria on a number of occasions, but this time I’m going to let Nickie Roberts have the floor. This is a passage from Whores in History describing the “white slavery” hysteria:
…the social purity campaign looked to the lurid to create its agenda, its two abiding themes being ‘white slavery’ and child prostitution. The ‘white slave trade’, supposedly an organized international traffic in women, was a Victorian fantasy which formed part of the stock repertoire of melodrama in fiction and theatre at this time. The typical story involved innocent white adolescent girls who were drugged and abducted by sinister immigrant procurers, waking up to find themselves captive in some infernal foreign brothel, where they were subject to the pornographic whims of sadistic, non-white pimps and brothel-masters. Middle-class moralists were convinced that a ‘traffic in women’, operated by well-established underworld networks, was going on under their very noses, and they had little difficulty in whipping up a public panic about this non-existent outrage. In fact the reformers based their evidence for the ‘white slave trade’ on the actual international migration of whores, which had begun to be a sizeable phenomenon during the latter part of the century. With the internationalization of capitalism and the opening of trade routes to the far outposts of the Empire, millions of people were on the move, migrating from Europe to hoped-for better lives in the Americas and the colonies. Whores were no exception; taking the migratory option to escape poverty and oppression in their home countries, they travelled thousands of miles to live and work in the cities of the USA, Latin America, Egypt, South Africa and Asia. Men often moved with them, acting as chaperones and intermediaries who would on arrival in foreign cities introduce whores to sex-trade contacts.
How few words we would have to change for this passage to apply to “human trafficking” hysteria! But this was published in 1992, almost a decade before the hysteria was reborn under its new name and Laura Agustín began writing on the way voluntary migration of prostitutes is intentionally misrepresented as an organized slave trade. Let’s hope this iteration of the hysteria collapses more quickly than the last one, and that this time we as a culture can drive the stake through its heart well enough to keep it from crawling out of its well-deserved grave ever again.