Prostitution is pregnant with disease, a disease infecting not only the guilty but contaminating the innocent wife and child in the home with sickening certainty almost inconceivable; a disease to be feared as a leprous plague; a disease scattering misery broadcast, and leaving in its wake sterility, insanity, paralysis, and the blinded eyes of little babes, the twisted limbs of deformed children, degradation, physical rot and mental decay. – The Social Evil in Chicago (1911)
In ancient times disease was usually viewed as a punishment from the gods; bacteria are, after all, invisible to the naked eye, and until the development of the germ theory the advent of illnesses seemed mysterious and even supernatural. The idea that disease is caused by invisibly-small organisms or “seeds” actually dates to Roman times, but because it could not be proven that such organisms existed until after the invention of the microscope in the 17th century, the theory was never universally accepted even in the medical community, much less among the general public. And even after Pasteur and others had proven the existence of pathogens, the notion of illness as a punishment for sin never wholly disappeared; rather, it merely mutated into a different form thanks to the realization that cleanliness (which, as the aphorism informs us, is next to godliness) tended to greatly reduce the risk of sickness. Those who led “clean”, well-ordered, regimented and “godly” lives became ill much less often, and gossips might even explain an exception by whispering that the sufferer had deviated from “proper” behavior in some way. Since the popularization of the germ theory was contemporary with the “Social Purity” movement, the former neatly dovetailed with the latter in the minds of a large number of Britons and Americans and helped reinforce the push to outlaw “dirty” behaviors such as drinking, extramarital sex (especially with prostitutes) and even masturbation.
Even in ancient times prostitutes recognized that certain diseases were more common among their number than in others, but these illnesses of the Classical Era seem to have been viewed as more of a nuisance than anything else; gonorrhea was completely unknown in Europe before the 11th century, and though lesions consistent with some forms of syphilis have been identified in Roman remains, the absence of any clear description of it in the medical literature supports the theory that this was a milder strain to which most people were resistant. As gonorrhea seems to have come back from the Middle East with the Crusaders, so syphilis seems to have returned to Europe with Columbus; though the “great pox” was well-established among Pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, the first recorded European outbreak occurred among French troops in 1495, and they seem to have contracted it from Spanish mercenaries. This cannot be taken as evidence of rampant homosexuality in the French Army, however, because this early form of the disease was highly contagious even through casual contact and was both more virulent and far more lethal; fortunately Europeans soon developed an immunity to this “proto-syphilis”, and by 1546 it had mutated into the venereal form known today.
By the mid-17th century European whores had largely figured out the visible signs of contagion, but unfortunately both syphilis and gonorrhea can sometimes be transmitted by asymptomatic individuals and so even though the rate of infection among better-informed prostitutes was lower than among other promiscuous individuals (such as members of the upper classes), it was still higher than among the less-promiscuous middle classes, giving rise to the bourgeois notion of prostitutes as carriers of disease. By the early 19th century all but the least fortunate streetwalkers were scrupulous about examining customers; in French brothels the madam herself generally performed the check before allowing a client access to any of her staff, and in English and American establishments the whores were quite as careful as modern girls, lacking only latex condoms as the final precaution. As one customer of a Storyville brothel (quoted in Whores in History) wrote, “She approached and seized my genital organ in such a way as to determine whether or not I had the gonorrhea. She did this particular operation with more knowledge and skill than she did anything else before or after.” But despite such published accounts and the research of medical doctors like William Acton (who despite his moral opposition to prostitution pointed out that whores were consistently healthier than other working-class women due to their precautions and relative affluence), the myth of the “diseased whore” grew and in 1864 the English Parliament passed the first of several Contagious Disease Acts, which were rationalized as measures to root out venereal disease in the armed forces but were actually nothing more than anti-prostitution laws.
The Act created a police “morals squad” which was empowered to define any woman in London as a “common prostitute”, at which point she was arrested and hauled in chains before a magistrate who could order her to undergo a medical examination; if she refused (due to such minor details as, say, not actually being a prostitute) she could be confined to a “Lock Hospital” (basically a prison with a medical staff), forcibly examined and detained for up to 90 days, during which time the staff attempted to scare her out of prostitution while “treating” her with mercury, a largely-ineffective “cure” which even many Victorian doctors opposed. Many were not sick when they arrived, but contracted other diseases (which of course were always interpreted as venereal) from the unsanitary conditions in which they were confined. If she survived the “cure”, an unmarried woman so imprisoned would generally emerge to find her children had been sent to workhouses and her possessions sold to pay her rent. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, a second Act in 1866 expanded the powers of police, forced prostitutes to register and condemned them to “health inspections” every two weeks; the third Act (in 1869) expanded the system to most of the country and inspired an NGO whose members “helped” the police by reporting any promiscuous or troublesome woman (or any one who offended them) as a “prostitute”, who was dragged away and registered no matter what she said in her own defense.
The Acts were so broad that they caught up huge numbers of unmarried working-class women in their dragnet, and so tyrannical that they even offended the sensibilities of many middle-class people. One of these, Josephine Butler, campaigned tirelessly against the Acts for 16 years, collecting a large following and eventually winning their repeal in 1886. Unfortunately, like so many “rescuers” Butler blamed prostitution itself (rather than society’s attempts to suppress it) for the misfortunes of whores, and after her victory turned her efforts to the abolition of the profession. Her activism, and more importantly that of the sexually-repressed middle-class Christian female “purity crusaders” she inspired, resulted in the wave of prohibitionist laws which inundated Europe and North America for the next three decades; by 1918 prostitution was illegal virtually everywhere in the Western world.
And though the tide of busybody regulation of individual sexual activity has largely receded in most of the civilized world, the United States remains submerged in it and some things are the same now as they were in the 19th century. Busybody moralists still profess that their efforts to infantilize whores, rob us of agency, hunt us down and destroy our livelihoods are “for our own good”; amateur women are still victimized by laws designed to “get” prostitutes, sex workers still face the prospect of our children being abducted and our goods pillaged by the State, crypto-moralists still believe that puritanical eating regimens and disinfection of everything are the keys to health, and the “dirty whore” stereotype is as popular as ever. Though the incidence of venereal disease is twice as high in the promiscuous segment of the general population as among streetwalkers and only 3 to 5% of venereal disease in the United States is related to prostitution (compared to 35% from adolescents), the myth doggedly persists that whores spread disease. When one further considers that some studies have shown STD rates up to 80x higher in streetwalkers than in other types of prostitutes, this means that the incidence of STDs in promiscuous non-prostitutes is up to 160x that in escorts, and that escorts and brothel workers together account for only about 0.4% of the sexually transmitted disease in the United States. Yet every legalization regime includes mandatory (and often invasive) “health checks”, while 95-97% of STDs are spread by the good, “clean” members of the general population who can legally screw anybody they like without even the most cursory or sporadic health checks and face neither stigma nor revocation of their professional credentials should they turn up infected.