Book Review – Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports

Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports by Marion Pluskota

(Routledge, 2015), 178 pp, £95 hardcover

Prostitution Cover

 

 

Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports by Marion Pluskota adds to the growing body of scholarship on prostitution which seeks to frame the topic not as a moral and social problem, but as a socio-economic reality for countless women from the poorer and labouring classes.

As a comparative history, this book focuses on the judicial and civic records of two important European port cities – Bristol and Nantes – from the mid eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century, and demonstrates how the experiences in these provincial ports varied from their respective capitols. Although a range of police and court records are used this is not a history of crime, but instead uses criminal proceedings as a means of accessing the lives of women who were identified as prostitutes in their dealings with authorities.

Pluskota effectively challenges depictions of prostitutes as young, naïve, helpless victims of circumstance and poverty portrayed by artists such as Hogarth, showing them instead to be economically disadvantaged women who drifted in and out of what we would now understand as prostitution by choice as their need required. They were not ‘fallen women’ but active participants in a female economy of makeshift (p 8). Pluskota argues that prostitution was a strategic choice made by many single, married and widowed women of varying ages and for varying periods of time which enabled them to earn enough income to survive. As such, these women were self-employed, independent and frequently mobile, and were not powerlessly bound by a system of dependency to pimps, madams and brothels.

Throughout the book Pluskota stays ‘low to the ground’, focusing on prostitutes and their clients who were typically labourers, lower middling sorts, mariners and soldiers; the landladies and landlords of the pubs, inns and residents they occupied; and the watchmen and territorial police they interacted with.

The overarching themes of this work are twofold. First, women who were identified as prostitutes experienced far greater independence and agency than previously assumed. Secondly, the primary forces of social control which acted against prostitution came from within prostitutes’ own networks of community, and were concerned more with civil rather than moral order. Pluskota does a superb job of developing these two golden threads.

Prostitution in the eighteenth century was, for Pluskota, first and foremost a form of economic exchange between prostitutes and their customers, landladies and landlords rather than a form of subjugation and sexual exploitation. Her rationale for this is the absence in the archives of stories of misery, destitution and powerlessness (p 148) and the strong evidence of various manifestations of female agency, such as choosing when and where they lived and worked, selecting customers and negotiating prices, integration within communities, and interactions with authorities.

The social control Pluskota is interested in is not the top down moralising control of the elites but, more interestingly, the ways in which various networks and communities negotiated the broader problems associated with, but not unique to, prostitution. These were not stereotypical concerns about venereal disease or immorality, but rather concerns such as noise and disruptions of the peace raised by neighbours, which then found their way into court records only after all other attempts to mitigate these problems failed.

The contemporary relevance of Pluskota’s work is made most evident in her final chapter which brings together the themes of female agency and social control in a discussion about the spatial distribution of prostitutes throughout these towns (chapter 5). She demonstrates that the geographic location of prostitutes was based more on the laws of supply and demand than on the wishes of civic officials, and that the creation of red light districts was influenced by the appropriation of space by prostitutes rather than the will of the state. She uses this evidence to effectively and compellingly (although briefly) recommend that the policing of prostitutional spaces in our own times ‘should be based on a systematic review of prostitutes’ needs’ (p 140).

The strongest feature of this book is how Pluskota maintains her focus on the women themselves rather than on the ‘problem’ of prostitution as constructed by social commentators and moral reformers. In so doing, she is able to uncover narratives of female agency and autonomy which have been overlooked by many writers.

However, at times this focus on agency teeters on the brink of Pollyannaism in that the reality of what must have been a bleak and grim experience for many women is sometimes lost. Although women chose to enter into prostitution of their own free will, they were compelled to do so out of necessity because of the risk of extreme poverty, and in so doing exposed themselves to violence and disease. These may have been independent decisions, but they may still have been decisions under duress. The voices of these women are now lost, so we cannot know how difficult such decisions really were on an individual level. Although prostitutes in these centres were not bound to a brothel economy we cannot necessarily assume that agency is evidence of emancipation.

However, given that until very recently most works on prostitution emphasised the tragic plight of impoverished women this perspective is both fascinating and refreshing. Furthermore, chipping away at the Dickensian stereotype of the exploited, coerced victims of pimps and madams allows us to better understand the harsh structural realities which oppressed poor and labouring women in the eighteenth century which ultimately compelled many into prostitution.

Overall, Prostitution and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Ports is an excellent contribution to the history of gender, sexuality and social control in eighteenth-century Europe. This book is suitable for both a specialist academic and a general audience. It is thoroughly researched, well written and is an engaging and compelling read.