What role did the figure of the prostitute play in wider discussions of sexuality and gender?

According to Trumbach the role of the prostitute, between 1650 and 1850, was to provide an escape from the intimacy of marriage, to guarantee that men would never be transformed into women and that the male was not a sodomite.

1 This role would seem to echo changing definitions of masculinity that increasingly promoted heterosexual, penetrative sex and denounced homosexuality. This somewhat limited view, however, only associates the prostitute with definitions of masculinity and does not consider her role in defining femininity and female sexuality.

Attitudes towards prostitution and legislation regarding its control are therefore good indicators of how sexual relations between men and women were perceived. It is important to note that, within such a broad time period, views of the prostitute and therefore feminine and masculine roles did not remain monolithic. In this way the role of the prostitute, having a constant presence in society, is useful in tracking changing relations between men and women.

It is ironic that the prostitute became a scapegoat for male desire yet also a figure to criticise morally.

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In the same way the prostitute became a model of femininity with which to oppose, yet her fashions were imitated by women all over London. She is also evidence of the fact that not all women were conforming to society’s model of femininity, set out by prescriptive literature. In other words she showed how the ‘double standard’ regarding gender roles, discussed by Keith Thomas, was very much prominent between 1650 and 1850.

The prostitute linked men, women, politics, power and gender ideals with a sexual underworld that allowed gender roles to be defined through public criticism and debate thus serving to promote and reinforce them.

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Trumbach highlighted the role of the prostitute as the necessary alternative to sodomy. Heterosexuality was, indeed, concretised during this period with the prostitute becoming proof of single male heterosexuality and confirmation that men were not engaging in sodomy. Despite moral objections to prostitution, male engagement with prostitution was seen as necessary and healthily normal. Read why change is constant and inevitable

For example Tom Jones, in the novel of the same title, engages with prostitutes but it is viewed as normal as he does not divulge in masturbation or homosexuality. PG Bouce justifies this by suggesting that masturbation would ‘spend’ something ‘precious’ (according to medical journals) and the husband must ‘save’ his strength for work.

2 Prostitution was therefore the accepted and encouraged alternative with public protests regarding the restrictions on prostitution including that of A Conference on Whoring (1772) signed by “Phil Pornix” also confirming that prostitution prevented greater evils. In 1724 Bernard Mandeville in ‘A Modest Defence of Publick Stews’ called for the legalization of prostitution and public brothels with the consequence of less masturbation and halting the “debauching of modest women” and encourage men to “exercise their lewdness in a proper place”.

4 The prostitute thus became a scapegoat for the landed gentry to express their masculinity outside the confines of marriage. Trumbach believes that society became increasingly intolerant towards homosexuality between 1650 and 1850.

In the seventeenth century, under the guise of a one sex model, homosexuality was accepted to an extent exemplified by Lord Stanthorpe who was not ostracised for having male and female sexual relations.

5 However after 1750, when the physiological differences between the male and female were characterized by the two sex model, masculinity was defined by heterosexual vaginal sex. The prostitute therefore, in the words of Welch, an avid reformer, would not be suppressed due to fears of sodomy, “a horrid vice too rife already, though the bare thought of it strikes the mind with horror”.

By the same token Trumbach believed that ‘sexual passivity… would permanently deprive a male of masculine status’ thus suggesting that a male who did not engage in heterosexual sex outside of marriage, namely with a prostitute, was part of a third gender of mollies and transsexuals.

7 Therefore after 1750, masculinity was defined by the engagement of heterosexual sex where the prostitute became an integral part, whereas women were being increasingly defined through the establishment of the private, domesticated family nucleus.

Prostitution was the antithesis of chastity, a virtue that prescriptive literature such as that of Wetenhall Wilkes regards as ‘the great point of female honour’.

8 This is crudely demonstrated in the language of a press report of 1786 where a confrontation between a ‘harlot’ and a ‘young lady’ ended where the ‘virgin was conveyed home in a fit, and the prostitute was dragged to the watch house in a frenzy’.

9 The juxtaposition of words emphasises the contrasting roles for women and the contempt towards the prostitute.

The containment and condemnation of prostitution outlined women’s own expected gender roles as chaste, modest and sexually passive. Acton, who wrote Prostitution: Its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects written 1857, identified that a modest nature and a ‘sense of delicacy and shame which, so long as they are preserved, are the chief safeguards of her chastity’.

10 To maintain the double standard the role of the prostitute was therefore essential in keeping society ‘pure’. The prostitute was seen as a necessary evil as male lust had to be channelled to maintain the chastity and honour of females.

The issue of chastity was not applicable to the labouring classes according to officials such as Gaskell who professed that “sexual intercourse was almost universal prior to marriage in the agricultural district”.

11 Keith Thomas believes that it was the growing ‘middle-class respectability’ that emphasised the importance of the nuclear home and marriage during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Sexual promiscuity could not occur within the high emotional values placed upon marriage and men were being criticised for having extra marital sex.

An article by Richard Steele in the Guardian on 2 May 1713 proclaimed that he could not comprehend that men had ‘usurped a certain authority to exclude chastity out of the catalogue of masculine values’ but criticism of illicit sexual activity was almost always confined to preserving the honour of married women of respectable families.

12 Even when men were criticised at the end of the eighteenth century for ‘his sinful nature’ regarding prostitutes, he was rarely prosecuted or openly condemned.

13 The prostitute, the centre of the debate, was ignored or became the subject of reform movements, headed by men themselves. By emphasising a rhetoric of ‘protection’ from prostitution, men were able to reinforce their power over women and the home while at the same time allowed a definition of femininity to be formed through the open condemnation of prostitution. By the nineteenth century portrayals of prostitution had changed from and ‘agent of destruction’ to a subject to be pitied, whose involuntary entrance into the trade was a result of feminine weakness and male sexual drive.

This parallels a shift from where the prostitute was her own responsibility to becoming the responsibility of polite gentlemen’s charitable organisations. This change highlights how females were desexualised and given less power thus implying that they were subject to the men’s own sexual desire. In the mid seventeenth century it was believed that the prostitute exercised little control over her sexual desire and sexual activity was considered a physiological necessity, even a remedy for ailments such as green sickness.

All women were seen to crave the hot and dry male and carnal lusts represented the main motivation for prostitution. As well as having sexual control they were also responsible for having a corrupting influence on men and women of high society. The prostitute was regarded as “an Evil, not dissimilar to a person infected with plague” according to an account of the Institution of the Lock Asylum in 1792, showing her to be responsible for an infectious sexual desire among men.

Conversely by the late eighteenth century the prostitute was seen as worthy of sympathy and charity, as a victim of male ‘heedlessness’ and ‘bad associates’.

14 The Magdalene Hospital was set up to reform ‘fallen women’. Acton highlighted the ‘vice’ of women occasioned by ‘natural desire; natural sinfulness; the preferment of indolent ease to labour’ this reflected reformers proposals to introduce working houses for fallen women.

15 Fielding also believed that society should ‘reform those prostitutes whom Necessity has drove into the streets, and who are willing to return to Virtue and obtain an honest livelihood by severe industry’.

16 However, her new standing meant that she was denied agency. Being a helpless victim implied that those women who sexually offended by choice were unforgivable thus reinforcing the limits of female sexual practice through a rhetoric of pity and forgiveness towards the prostitute.

Gowing contested that ‘early modern England was a highly litigious society, with a sharp concern for the regulation of sex and morals’.

17 The laws on prostitution were contradictory, however, often resulting in public condemnation of prostitution but little direct action to conquer it. The public nature of prostitution juxtaposed ideas that women, especially mothers and wives, had to lead a private life confined to the nucleus of the family and the home.

Laws and state regulations to restrict the public presence of prostitutes served to reinforce the expectations of women to remain modest, quiet and private. Contradictions within the gender system were, however, too apparent with public prostitution therefore it needed to be curbed but the law did not target male perpetrators only the prostitutes themselves. Bullough views it as ‘a period of hypocrisy symbolised by police licensing of illegal prostitution, and the uninhibited morals and manners of the very ruling groups who so piously condemned the morals of the lower classes’.

18 The half-hearted attempts of men of London in the second half of the eighteenth century to remove prostitution from the streets was characterised by the low number of arrests and convictions of prostitutes. Between 1785 and 86 only fifty women were arrested.

The Police Committee of 1816 believed ‘that it seldom happens that individuals trouble there heads about [the presence of brothels] except where they are particularly annoyed about the nuisance’.

19 In Lambeth, for example, the householders demanded prostitutes be dealt with to “prevent their wives and daughters from having their eyes and ears offended with indecencies.

20 Contradictions in law allowed moral condemnation of the act of prostitution allowing the prostitute to become a tool to help society define a gentle lady’s character but it is also indicative of how men covertly engaged in extra marital sex, defining their own masculinity through heterosexual sex. Prostitutes also represented those women that were not conforming to the ideals of femininity and gender. Actresses, who were often associated with prostitutes, expressed their sexuality on stage and found a new way of circumventing the law.

The sexual realism of actresses provided ‘radical consideration’ of female roles.

21 In some cases these women became idols to not just women but the masses also. For example Nell Gwynn, an actress in the 1660s, was mistress to Charles II and later became a symbol of Protestant womanhood amid fears that Charles would be succeeded by his Catholic brother. The Feigned Courtesans, a play written in 1679, was dedicated to Nell showing how her position as mistress did not detract from her power over mass popularity. Even being a prostitute she won the affection of many.

Elizabeth Barry, acting between the 1680s and 1690s, expressed her desires and sexuality freely on stage and created heroines out of prostitutes, giving the ‘whore’ dramatic prominence.

22 Her performance in The Maid’s Last Prayer (1693) was ‘an aggressive attack on libertinism and society’s debased attitude towards sexual behaviour’.

23 Even though she was an exceptional woman, she was able to challenge gender roles in a public arena. Despite condemning the roles of prostitutes, the roles of actresses were supported as shown by the high audience turnout.

Kimberly Crouch also contends that aristocratic women emulated some actresses dress and performed private theatricals within the home. Prostitution allowed women to exert some independence and engage in a female subculture, in stark contradiction to gender roles set out for women. In literature written in the eighteenth century prostitutes were upheld as heroines. The protagonist in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) was a prostitute, and Fieldings Tom Jones (1749) was primarily about fornication.

There were no outright objections to the publications of these novels at the time. A shift in the subject matter of literature was reaction to evangelicals denouncement of prostitution and societies such as ‘The Suppression of Vice’ who called for the elimination of obscenity. Thomas Bowdler, who was concerned with overt sexuality in Shakespeare plays, was successful in publishing an expurgated version of Shakespeare in 1818.

24 In general nineteenth century literature did not promote the prostitute in any form and when she was written about, she was denounced.

Despite the outward objection to prostitution, in the hope that women would be protected from obscene literature, the sale of under the counter erotic literature increased. The sexual texts reflected demand with Latin and French pornography available in such texts as Arctines Postures. Keith Thomas highlights how the double standard, where sexual relations outside marriage were pardonable for a man but a matter of ‘upmost gravity’ for the woman, was engrained in English society especially through laws concerning prostitution.

25 In Eighteenth century Britain there was a decline in marriage and a subsequent increase in the number of bachelors, making the role of seducer appealing. Women were taught to turn a blind eye to the double standard as the first Marquis of Halifax iterates in a letter to his daughter at the end of the seventeenth century advising her that ‘next to the danger of committing the fault yourself, the greatest is that of seeing it in your husband….. such an indecent complaint makes a wife much more ridiculous than the injury that provoketh her to it.

26 . Prostitution was seen as inevitable and was widespread where in London, 1841 it was estimated by the Chief Commissioner of Police that 3. 325 brothels existed.

27 By 1850 the prostitute was engaging in the act for economic gain whereas the male was fulfilling his natural lust. Other demonstrations of the double standard occur when looking at medical concerns of government officials who sought control of venereal disease in particular by medical examination of the woman and not the man.

It reinforces the idea that gender roles were plagued with a double standard and that the immoral nature of prostitution was expressed openly but never acted upon legislatively.

In conclusion the prostitute played a crucial role in defining gender roles and sexuality. With the introduction of the two sex model to explain physiological differences between men and women, the prostitute served as confirmation that men were engaging in heterosexual sex outside of marriage.

Sodomy became unacceptable and, although prostitution was morally condemned, it was condoned as the acceptable alternative. With the rise in middle class respectability the prostitute could be used as the antithesis of the female role in society, thus marking out the boundaries for women to be child bearers, mothers, sexually passive and submissive, modest and chaste before marriage. The prostitute concretised gender roles by 1850 and served as a constant scapegoat for changing attitudes during the period 1650-1850.

In the mid seventeenth century she was moderately accepted under a wave of anti-puritanicalism, then condemned for being a socially destructive female in the early eighteenth century, in 1750 she was to be pitied but overtly condemned until the decline of libertinism in the mid nineteenth century where, again she became unacceptable. Throughout the whole period she was still being used and hired. Therefore, superficially, gender roles were changing in the public eye, but covert sexuality was still being practised behind closed doors.

Most importantly she was a reflection of the ‘double standard’ that existed in English society at that time. Trumbach, however, concentrates too narrowly on the prostitutes role as defining masculinity when, in fact, she served as a model of female independence, earning wages and engaging in an impenetrable female subculture. Her role as a female, ironically, was not to be confined to the gender roles set out by the landed gentry yet these same men used her to reinforce their own heterosexuality. In this way she was an integral part of the mapping of changing gender relations throughout the period.

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What role did the figure of the prostitute play in wider discussions of sexuality and gender?. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/role-figure-prostitute-play-wider-discussions-sexuality-gender-new-essay

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