Bodies for rent

Posted on April 2, 2010 by


Plate 1 from William Hogarth's "Harlot's Progress" showing a future prostitute's arrival in London

Prostitution has always existed, but views on the subject have not been consistent throughout the ages. In the fifteenth century, prostitution was seen as a buffer against greater sins. In Florence an official body was created in 1403, the Onestà, in order to regulate prostitution. There are different theories as to why this body was necessary. Either the officials thought it was better to control prostitution while gaining money by imposing fines, or its main task was to eradicate sodomy by restrictively allowing prostitution.[1] Augustine and Thomas Aquinas also thought prostitution was necessary. Both stated that it was a necessary relief for male sexual lust. Furthermore, the available bodies of prostitutes insured maintaining the honour of virgins and women.[2] Prostitution in other words was a necessary means to keep social order.

Sixteenth-century reformers as Calvin and Luther begged to differ. Both wanted strict punishments for those who dared to stray off the right path. Luther stated that prostitution in the time of Augustine might have been necessary since people were living under a heathen regime, but he strongly disapproved of it during his own time. Women had to be good wives and mothers and should refrain from selling their bodies on the street. Calvin even managed to eradicate prostitution in Geneva due to his popularity in that city. The Bible was the law and the consistory was responsible for punishing infringements. Adultery, blasphemy, witchcraft and heresy for example all invoked the death penalty.[3]

In Catholic countries measures against prostitution were taken as well, where these clashed with the habitual laxity of the Middle ages and the Renaissance. A series of edicts were issued by several popes in order to control dissolute life. Pius V for example tried to eradicate prostitution in Rome in 1566 with an edict that banned all prostitutes – about 25,000 – from the city. A month later, the pope was forced to cancel the edict. The high-class courtesans could stay in the city but the low-class street prostitutes had to move to a ghetto which they could not leave.[4]

In general, prostitutes were not wanted. The continuous coming and going of clients disgraced the whole neighbourhood. There were a lot of complaints from shopkeepers and other inhabitants about noise. The association with venereal diseases, gambling and crime did not help to improve the image of the oldest profession on earth.[5] Therefore, it was necessary to separate the morally perverted and virtuous. Governments tried during centuries to create a division by, for example, regulating the clothing of prostitutes or trying to constrain them to a certain area. In sixteenth century Seville for example prostitutes could not wear hats, gloves or long cloaks except in church. Instead, they were forced to wear half long yellow cloaks in public.[6]

During the eighteenth century a new view on prostitution was formulated. Instead of being a spreader of destruction, the prostitute was now seen as a victim of her own material needs. Prostitution was merely a survival strategy.[7] Other female professions such as seamstress required 14 to 16 hours of work a day for meagre wages. Prostitution was the best of a series of unattractive alternatives for a lot of women.[8] It was also common to alternate an honourable profession with prostitution. Being independent was very important. Since women had little control over their own affairs, the only thing they had with which they could advance themselves in a man’s world was their sex.[9]

The fear for social disintegration due to mixing the morally corrupt and virtuous was high. Saunders Welch for example, an eighteenth century London magistrate, proposed to re-educate the prostitutes in order to teach them to behave appropriately.[10] The Magdalen Hospital was created for that purpose. Life within this institute was monastic: hard work, little leisure time and possessions and mail were regularly checked by the nuns. Former prostitutes were enabled to return to normal life with a recovered reputation and the means to earn their living honourably. In 1789 another similar institute was established in London, the Lock Asylum. In other European cities similar actions were taken. In Paris for example the police fervently tried to diminish the visibility of prostitution. [11]

Women usually had good reasons to rent their bodies. During the early modern times prostitutes were mostly seen as vermin that spread corruption throughout society. From the eighteenth century however, prostitutes were seen as victims. One can conclude that ‘throughout history, prostitution has provided a solution to the problem of economic hardship. Simply put, men are willing to pay more for sexual access than for almost any other form of female labour.’[12]

[1] Brackett, J.K., ‘The Florentine Onesta and the control of prostitution, 1403-1680’, The sixteenth century journal, 24 (1993), 280.

[2] Roper, L., ‘Discipline and respectability: prostitution and the reformation in Augsburg’, History Workshop, 19 (1985), 15.

[3] Bullough, V.L. and Bullough, B., Women and prostitution: a social history, Buffalo, 1993, 141-143.

[4] Roberts, N., Whores in history: prostitution in western society, London, 1992, 114-115.

[5] Henderson, T., Disorderly women in eighteenth-century London (Women and men in history), Londen, 1999, 166-177.

[6] Bullough, Women and prostitution, 154.

[7] Henderson, Disorderly women, 185.

[8] Connor, S.P., ‘Public virtue and public women: prostitution in revolutionary Paris, 1793-1794’, Eighteenth century studies, 28 (1994-1995), 229.

[9] Bullough, Women and prostitution, 180.

[10] Henderson, Disorderly women, 43.

[11] Connor, ‘Public virtue and public women’, 230.

[12] Ibidem, 715.