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Thursday, 19 January 2012

Julia Laite, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial sex in London, 1885-1960

This was a book that I was been ardently anticipating: this was a woefully understudied period in the history of prostitution in the UK, and I have been aware of Laite's work in the area for some years. It does not disappoint.

Its great strength (among many) is its attentiveness to the quotidien business of prostitution and its policing in the metropolis, rather than policy debates and the work of rescue movements. While Laite gives due attention to the various government interventions, both actual legislation and the work of commissions and committees, she is always focused on how developments reflected what was going on on the street and how they impacted the way sex work was regulated.

What becomes clear is the enormous diversity of practices, both in the ways women engaged in exchanging sexual acts for hire and in the means the authorities took to, if not prevent this, to keep it from becoming a perceived source of public annoyance. Since actually trading sex for money is not illegal in the UK, the endeavour to control it took various forms, and Laite does a masterly job of showing the means the police used to harry working women. Besides the oft-criticised 'solicitation' charge - whereby a woman already known to be 'a common prostitute' could be arrested and fined for 'soliciting to the annoyance of the public', even if nobody testified to being actually annoyed - various other strategies could be deployed. During the Second World War, for example, prostitutes using taxis to pick up clients and as a place to have intercourse with them could be prosecuted under wartime edicts concerning wastage of petrol.

The work also demonstrates that despite all the attempts of police, magistrates and moral reformers to designate the 'common prostitute' as a being apart, the boundaries were always fuzzy and women sex workers were part of larger communities and had other identities. Depicted in the media usually either as pathetic victims or scheming harpies, these women - many of whose stories can be recuperated from documentary sources - were doing their best to get by in a harsh world and making the best of their lot.

Ironically largely as a result of increasingly constraining legislation, numerous third parties were significantly involved in the world of sex work. Besides the taxi drivers providing mobile brothel facilities already mentioned, there were many intermediaries and facilitators profiting from the trade, landlords, owners of pubs, cafes and nightclubs, quite apart from the most obvious and stigmatised third party, the ponce or pimp. Prostitution formed part of a wider economy of entertainment and recreation in the city.

This is an extremely important book with a lot to say about commercial sex, women's labour, urban life, policing, and some really rather depressing continuities in attitudes, policies and moral panics.

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