Sex-trade primer for judges

June 4, 2004

This hefty volume (with a hefty price) is part of the International Library of Criminology, Criminal Justice and Penology, which aims to bring together the most important essays in a particular aspect of the field. It has to be judged, therefore, on the skill and comprehensiveness of the selection, and its usefulness to the researcher and the student in the area of criminology. But as it is about an aspect of sexual behaviour, it is fair also to measure it against readers in the field of sexuality and gender.

The number of these latter volumes has expanded dramatically in the past decade (I have even, with colleagues, contributed one myself), but the market barely seems satiated.

Rightly, in my judgement, the editors do not worry overly about trying to define the nature of prostitution. On the contrary, as in the best of contemporary scholarship on sexuality, they reject the idea that there is any trans-historical essence of prostitution. One can understand prostitution only within the particular historical forms of its organisation, and the focus here is on female prostitution in Western Europe and America since the mid-19th century (male prostitution is dealt with only in passing, on the justifiable grounds that it is organisationally different).

Thus part one, "The history of prostitution", has four pieces discussing aspects of prostitution in the 19th century. Only one, Bracebridge Hemynge's article on prostitution in London from the time of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor , is contemporary. The others are well-known recent attempts to understand prostitution in the new world of industrial, urban mass societies. The outstanding piece, now more than 25 years old but still highly pertinent, is Judith Walkowitz's groundbreaking article on "The making of an outcast group". She argues that the late 19th century saw a crucial evolution, the result of many factors, whereby prostitution hardened as a social categorisation, marking a sharper break between the respectable and unrespectable poor, and forcing working women into an outcast identity and way of life. Similar patterns can be observed in the evolution of homosexual categorisations and identities. The implicit argument in both cases is similar. Though prostitution and homosexuality in one form or another may exist across cultures, the specific classification of "the prostitute" (or "the homosexual") has a distinctive meaning in modern cultures. In tracing this evolution, Walkowitz is also sketching in the distinctively modern organisation of sexuality, of which we are the heirs.

In the following section, "The sociology of prostitution", Mary McIntosh continues the iconoclastic challenge to the givens of the sexual tradition by questioning the ideology of male sexual needs. It has been all too easy for writers about prostitution to take for granted an eternal and unchanging market based on the wayward but incessant imperatives of the male sex drive. McIntosh memorably trashes such assumptions, and in doing so forces sociologists to explore the social and psychic forces that propel men to seek satisfaction through prostitution.

Interestingly, her tentative suggestion at the end of the piece that Freud might have more to contribute to the understanding of prostitution than a functionalist and reductionist social scientist is taken up by Julia O'Connell Davidson, in a discussion of the role of fantasy in male eroticisation of the use of prostitutes.

Not the least of the merits of this volume is that happy juxtapositions of familiar material force the reader to rethink crucial links. The various other studies in the section indicate well that to understand prostitution, we need insights from many approaches, from ethnography to depth psychology.

Thus far I have happily used the term prostitution, with its complex innuendos. The focus of the section on "The politics of prostitution" is precisely on the validity of doing this. Is prostitution best seen as "sex work", demanding proper protection for the rights of the workers? Or is it a manifestation of patriarchal power, creating the myth of free choice against the reality of male exploitation of female bodies? At one extreme are the voices of sex workers themselves, demanding that society call off its tired old ethics. (Coyote was the acronym of the pioneering organisation of sex workers in the US.) At the other is Kathleen Barry's tirade against sexual slavery. It would be facile to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. This is a fundamental division of perception that inevitably affects how we as a society respond to prostitution.

The topic is explored in the final section of the book, "The regulation of prostitution". The editors note four patterns ordering prostitution: legalisation, decriminalisation, prohibition and regulation. Regulation in the sense meant here - in essence accepting the existence of prostitution but attempting to curb public nuisance and deter people from entering the trade - has been the British approach since the 19th century, modified following the Wolfenden report (1957). But the stresses and strains of this approach are now evident - it does not satisfy the sex workers who are criminalised, the communities affected by the sex industry or the moralists appalled by the trade. We are on the verge, I suspect, of a new phase in the organisation of prostitution.

One aspect of this is globalisation, which surprisingly is not highlighted in this volume. The flows of sex workers across national and continental boundaries are a key feature of what Dennis Altman called "global sex". In one sense, the phenomenon is not new: the "white slave trade" that so alarmed feminists and social purity activists at the end of the 19th century is an obvious precursor. But the scale is much greater. Then we have the phenomenon of sex tourism: again not new, but vastly expanded by the explosion of transcontinental travel. And we have cybersex, with its imponderable implications for the way we organise erotic interactions. One thing one can say with certainty is that selling sex is likely to be with us for some time yet - and so are volumes documenting its continued evolution.

In the meantime, this volume is a sound and useful collection. The key writers are represented, and their articles are reproduced as first published, with the original pagination. One or two errors have crept into the editors' introduction. The Contagious Diseases Acts were suspended and then repealed in the 1880s, not passed. And I have always believed that the women's movement of the 1970s was called second-wave feminism, not first-wave as suggested here.

Apart from such hazards, this is not only a valuable addition to the criminologist's library; it will be an asset on the shelves of those of us who make our living writing about sexuality.

Jeffrey Weeks is executive dean of arts and human sciences, London South Bank University.


Editor - Roger Matthews and Maggie O'Neill
Publisher - Ashgate
Pages - 656
Price - £113.50
ISBN - 0 7546 2189 8

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