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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.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Posted on behalf of Judith Walkowitz (edited version):

    I want to second Lesley’s praise for this book. It shows the great utility of exploiting linked sources to build life stories of subaltern subjects. And it definitely shows that even within a narrow range of possibilities, the life histories of prostitute women varied in notable ways.

    It certainly adds nuance, to quote Lesley, to my own story of policing under the C.D. Acts. There is no doubt that Lee is correct in assessing metropolitan policing under the C.D.Acts as an additional layer of policing secondary to the oversight and spatial management of local police.

    I both agree and disagree with her assessment of the gynecological examination. She is right to call me to task in not sufficiently highlighting the significance of prostitute women calling themselves “Queen’s Women,” evidence of their attempt to manipulate the conditions of subordination under the C.D. Acts to best advantage. But that does not mean they were insulated from broader cultural currents, including feminist repeal propaganda and long-standing popular fears of hospitals and medical anatomists as “body snatchers” and desecrators of pauper graves, nor that they were incapable of complex subjective understandings beyond survivalism.

    These views surfaced during the agitation against the Acts in Plymouth in 1870s, when feminists established a political arena that made possible the legal resistance of registered women. Plymouth was different from many of the locales studied by Lee, but that is the point: a different political situation can yield a different dynamic, even among prostitutes. Fifteen percent of registered women in Plymouth failed to comply with medical registration in 1870: courts were overflowing with cases. Now 15 percent is, of course, not the majority, but it is roughly equal to the proportion of U.S. students who protested the Vietnam War in the early 1970s. I raise this because I want to challenge Dr. Lee’s use of “statistics” as somehow self-evident, demonstrating women’s indifference to medical inspection. Mobilizing statistics in that way strikes me as simplistic and naïve.