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Monday, 6 July 2015

Catherine Lee, Policing Prostitution, 1856–1886: Deviance, Surveillance and Morality (Pickering and Chatto, 2012)

This annoyingly had been announced but came out rather too late for me to incorporate its insights into my revised edition of Sex, Gender and Social Change, although I had gleaned a general idea of them from articles by Lee. It significantly adds to our understanding of late Victorian prostitution and its policing and the impact of the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Lee's wonderfully meticulous research on a range of sources covering several well-differentiated sites in Kent which became designated districts under the Acts reveals that these Acts were imposed over a situation in which there had already been various significant local efforts to control and police prostitution. This is contextualised within changing ideas of public space and the kinds of behaviour that were appropriate within it, the nature of developing professional policing, local economies in which the employment opportunities for women were very limited (unlike, for example, the textile districts), plebian communities, and particular elements of the urban geography of the areas under discussion.

She makes the important point that the prostitution that can become visible to the historian is a very particular sector - public streetwalking which came to the attention of courts and was reported in local newspapers - however, it may well be that this was the type most represented in the areas she is analysing, port towns and those near military camps.She also reveals the extent to which many of the women who appeared in the records were not career prostitutes, but women whose intermittent street-walking was part of a 'makeshift survival economy' of casual work, application for poor law or other welfare relief, and petty crime. However, once a woman had been identified as a common prostitute, she would be designated as such (or by various synonyms) when appearing in the records for other reasons, such as disorderly behaviour or even when the victim of an assault.

Lee also suggests that looking at Kent and its designated districts provides nuance to Judith R Walkowitz's pioneering classic study of  the CD Acts and the campaign against them, Prostitution and Victorian Society (1980). The affected women in Kent do not appear to have manifested a 'culture of resistance' to the Acts and in fact in several cases seem to have seen the system as providing benefits, both in terms of the medical certificates of inspection being regarded as a selling device, and for the medical treatment and general respite provided by sojourns in Lock Hospitals. She makes a plausible argument that these women were already so harried by the authorities that the Acts perhaps did not strike them as introducing a yet greater degree of oppression. This raises questions about the extent to which the CD Acts were of symbolic importance in the wider struggle for women's rights rather than having major impact on the already difficult and stigmatised lives of the women they were aimed at.

Policing Prostitution is a shining example of the ways in which a time-delimited, locally-focused study based on meticulous investigation of primary source material provides important new insights into a range of historical issues and should not be dismissed as 'micro-history'. Without these,  any project for 'big-picture' history risks being based on partial facts and false assumptions.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Acquisition is not enough

I meant to post something about the discovery of the missing prints at the Boston Public Library last week in connection with the various comments made in press reports and blog posts about the failure of institutions with substantial document and artefact collections to have adequate collection control in the form of an inventory.

This post I came across today, Libraries and cities are terrible at keeping track of art reminded me.

A major problem seems to me to be that institutions (or their sources of funding) are far more eager to acquire things than to pay for the absolutely necessary basic task of processing them so that they can be kept track of and found when required, as well as described in a meaningful way for researchers to access. This is the invisible labour that makes a collection usable and also provides for its security. I don't think this will ever be solved until it is acknowledged that just acquiring collections, however significant in themselves, is not enough. They have to be accessible.

I suspect that there may also be an issue where one librarian or curator has been dedicated to building up a collection in some particular area but this enthusiasm has not been inherited by successors.

Another issue is that donors may not be presenting their collections to the most appropriate home. It may be very gratifying to be offered an important item or collection, but does the institution have the facilities to care for it? Is the institution a place where researchers are going to look? Would there be much greater research synergy if it were placed elsewhere? Donors should also be aware that their apparently generous gift to an institution comes with ongoing costs of appropriate storage (if not active conservation), processing, and general maintenance.

Books, manuscripts, archives, artworks and artefacts are for posterity, not just an immediate press release and a bullet point in the annual report.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Status update

Haven't been particularly moved to blog here for a while, between the pressures of being one of this year's judges for the Arthur C Clarke Award, work, feeling rather under the weather, etc etc. Didn't even manage to post about Richard Cleminson's great seminar on sexology in Portugal at the IHR a month ago (podcast).

The looming news in these parts is that I am retiring as Senior Archivist, Special Collections, Wellcome Library, at the end of May. However, I shall not be entirely shaking the dust of the Wellcome from my feet, as I shall be moving to a new desk and a new role as a Wellcome Library Research Fellow, concentrating on my research project on Interwar Progressives.

In connection with which project, I shall be participating in the following conferences in the near-ish future:
Being Modern: Science and Culture in the early 20th century, IHR, 22-24 April (not giving a paper but imbibing the wisdom of others)
Also at the IHR, during the same week, in fact on the afternoon of 23rd, I shall be giving ‘Bearded fruit-juice drinkers: the queerness of inter-war progressives’ as the keynote at Marginal Presences: unorthodox belief and practice 1837-2015
In June, I shall be attending The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1945
2015 conference, At Home in the Space Between speaking on 'Feminists and the domestic sphere in early 1930s Britain'.

I have also been making a number of updates to various pages on my website, including adding some recently discovered condom pictures, c. 1930 and an image of that invaluable device, the Le Brasseur 'Re-Rolling Apparatus' for the better preservation of washable reusable condoms:


Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ongoing trends and/or atypical blips?

There is a fascinating graphic, Sex by Numbers on the Wellcome Collection website (yet another spinoff from the Institute of Sexology exhibition).

A lot of these figures are intriguing, but for so many of them we don't have a baseline, or at least, not a baseline lying further back than the original National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyle published in 1994. The generational changes, at least among women, do continue a trend that was already becoming apparent when Eustace Chesser undertook his methodologically somewhat idiosyncratic but nonetheless suggestive study of The Sexual, Marital, and Family Relationships of the Englishwoman (1956) - the women born in the 1930s who have had fewer partners than those in the 1970s were those who, in the 1950s, married earlier and had higher expectations of sexual satisfaction than their foremothers.

Similarly the falling age of first intercourse can be mapped against other early surveys such as Geoffrey Gorer's Exploring English Character (1955) and Michael Schofield's The Sexual Behaviour of Young People (1965) to show a continuing trend over time.

However, some of the other figures cannot be set in a similar context, and I think one might be hesitant to suggest that they represent e.g. ongoing decline in the frequency of intercourse to a point at which nobody has sex at all (though I have come across dystopian sf that posits this exactly - either the drive has vanished or the dystopic State forbids with extreme penalty - an early instance would be E M Forster's The Machine Stops). As this (apparent) decline is set in a context of people living their lives to a greater extent online, maybe what should be being prophesied as the outcome ought to be sophisticated teledildonics?

The lowered toleration for infidelity may have something to do with the removal of the legal difficulties and social stigma around divorce (still very much present at the time Gorer and Chesser were writing) which kept people in marriages they might have preferred to exit, not to mention the (related) rise in the acceptability of cohabitation.

Some of the statistics lead me to wonder about how far they might reflect longer patterns of behaviour - e.g. what percentage of men in the population at a given period were actually paying for sex (and whether it was always a good deal less than All Men) and whether this was more likely to happen 'playing away' - or whether they are idiosyncratic blips.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Forthcoming talk

Compared to this time last year, when I seemed to be on an endless treadmill of giving talks on a wide variety of topics in different venues, I don't have much on my dance-card at the moment. However, I shall be giving the following talk to the Queer Studies Forum at the University of Westminster on 9th Feb at 6.30 pm: 

‘‘‘Bearded Fruit-Juice Drinkers” : the Queerness of Interwar Progressives’
There was a significant mass of individuals and organisations in Britain between the wars, concentrated in the metropolis, who were widely perceived as ‘queer’ both in the contemporary popular sense of generally eccentric and cranky and also on account of their contravention of gender and sexual norms. This paper will look at the ways this somewhat amorphous group destabilised prevalent assumptions of the day, with particular attention to the ways in which they were felt to be violating hegemonic masculinity, whether through belief in pacifism, a dedication to vegetarianism, unconventional personal fashion style, or enjoyment of such unmanly forms of exercise as yoga and folk-dancing, alongside their liberal attitudes towards homosexuality and on other matters of sexual conduct.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

New Year message: The bizarre timescales of academic publishing

Last year I didn't have anything published, which makes it the first year in getting on for 20 that I haven't been able to add something to my bibliography by the year's end. However, I do currently have 2 journal articles, 4 book chapters, and a couple of fairly substantial encyclopedia entries somewhere along in the publication process, and indeed, one of the books in which I have a chapter should finally make its appearance, having been nearly 6 years in the pipeline, early this year.

I also recall that there is another chapter, in the proposed proceedings of an archives conference which took place in the spring of 2007, about which I have heard nothing for a very long time, and assume that the project has quietly expired. Not that one can always count on this; it is not beyond the reach of probability that there will be a sudden and urgent call for final editorial revisions due the day before yesterday, after which there will be another lengthy hiatus.

The year, however, when everybody started saying to me 'Wow, you are so prolific' was probably 2001, in the course of which I saw finally reach the light of day one chapter in a volume generated by a conference in the summer of 1994 (and fortunately there had not been massive advances in the historiography of the topic since then) along with other things which had been turned around in considerably less time. The apparent prolificness was entirely an artefact of the publishing processes involved and not because I had spent the previous 12 months madly writing.

What you see can be quite misleading.