chapter  7
22 Pages

Consuming desires: prostitutes and “customers” at the margins of crime and perversion in France and Britain, c. 1836–85

WithBertrand Taithe

A comparison of the historiography of prostitution and regulationism produced in the nineteenth1 and twentieth centuries illustrates how insular and nationbased narratives of sexuality and gender have become recently.2 Nineteenth-century texts tended to cover and compare several nations and ages, often with the intention of showing that prostitution was ahistorical and that any medical regulation abided by centuries-old wisdom and practice. While not subscribing to this particular agenda, a comparative study of France and England provides useful insights on attitudes towards prostitution. It also demonstrates the fundamental inter-relationship between the two countries. Attitudes to prostitution were integrated to a more global discourse on European problematic urban reality. The regulationists and anti-regulationists who produced this comparative literature on prostitution also read widely and travelled across Europe but principally between France and Britain. Building on the work of Judith Walkowitz and Main Corbin,3 to name but two, one can use a comparative framework to highlight how female prostitution became the object of a repressive “melodramatic fix” in Britain while it became the centre of a fundamentally different nosology of perversion and decadence in France.4 This article argues that from a relatively common basis two stories developed and completed each other in a reflexive manner and through constant references to the other country. In Britain after 1864 the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) failed to focus fear of degeneracy on prostitutes. Instead the anti-CDA movements succeeded in associating stories of prostitution with older and more politically sensitive forms of melodramatic representations within the British radical tradition. In France, regulationism survived the extreme left’s assaults inspired by the British literature and tradition. Indeed, the French practice of regulation was renewed

and reinforced by the fears of national decline revived by the 1870-71 wars against Germany and the Commune.5 Eventually the British and the French narratives achieved remarkably similar results and contributed to define, segregate and persecute women who sold themselves. This chapter will thus start with the common platform of legal, medical and social representations of prostitution. It will then show how the “melodramatic fix” described in Christina Crosby’s work took a greater hold in Britain and failed in France between 1870 and 1885.6 The French situation differed in that there was more focus on venereal danger in a discourse about decadence and male unfitness. In their different ways both sets of representations went through a shift of emphasis from women to men. By 1885, excesses of male sexuality, be it male homo-eroticism or venal promiscuity, became denounced as and assimilated to prostitution. Prostitution had long channelled masculine desires and sexual urges, but through the anti-regulationist or regulationist scaremongering campaigns it became the unacceptable expression of what was essentially wrong with unrestrained masculine sexuality.7