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recommended by Siobhán Hearne

Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia by Siobhán Hearne

Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia
by Siobhán Hearne


Societies of all different stamps have tried to eliminate prostitution but it never works and there are always unintended consequences. Siobhan Hearne, a historian of sexuality in Tsarist and Soviet Russia, explains how exploring the history of prostitution provides fascinating insights into social and political history as well as offering some genuine, and very clear, lessons from the past.

Interview by Benedict King

Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia by Siobhán Hearne

Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia
by Siobhán Hearne

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Before we get to the books, could you tell us a bit about why prostitution is an interesting thing for a historian to study—or an important thing, even?

One of the reasons that prostitution is such an important historical topic is that it can provide insight into plenty of different issues, for example gender and class relations, social values and ideas about sexuality, but also the construction of nations and empires, industrialisation, and urbanisation, as well as topics related to military history and medical history. Examining prostitution allows us to access many perspectives on a variety of different ‘big’ questions.

Secondly, prostitution is an important topic for historians because it remains a contentious issue in the present day. Understanding the history of state attempts to regulate prostitution, limit its visibility, and prevent women engaging in prostitution is important because the stigmatisation of women who engage in commercial sex continues in contemporary societies. Legislative changes often have detrimental consequences on the safety of people involved in prostitution. So, understanding the history of ideas about, and state approaches to, prostitution is really important, as it helps inform how we understand prostitution today.

The books you’ve chosen cover the end of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, but across a wide range of geographies. Is there something that links all of them?

One of the themes that links together all of the books that I’ve picked is continuity. Throughout regime collapse, the disintegration of empires, and across different legislative approaches to addressing prostitution, the state goals remain the same—limiting its visibility in order to protect public health and morality. Similarly, the consequences for the women involved (and men involved, but female prostitution is historically the form that’s more likely to have been explicitly criminalised and regulated) remain the same. Put simply, greater criminalisation usually means greater danger for those working within the commercial sex industry. That links all of the books together.

Before we get to the books you’re recommending, tell me a bit about your book, as it covers Russia. It’s called Policing Prostitution: Regulating the Lower Classes in Late Imperial Russia.

My book is a social history of prostitution in the final decades of the Russian Empire before it collapsed in 1917, following the February Revolution and the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy. In this period, the Russian imperial state legally tolerated prostitution through a system of state regulation. State regulation was a common method for managing prostitution in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and its basic premise was to prevent the spread of venereal diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea—STIs as they are known today—by mandating the compulsory examination of women believed to be involved in prostitution, and enforcing their hospitalisation if they were found to have an infection.

“Throughout regime collapse, the disintegration of empires, and across different legislative approaches to addressing prostitution, the state goals remain the same”

I’m less interested in the state actors in the story of Russian state regulation and more interested in how ordinary people experienced and resisted this system. Each of the chapters looks at a different party in the prostitution exchange: women who sold sex, men who paid for sex, brothel madams, the police, and then the urban communities that shared their streets with brothels and women who were engaged in prostitution. In this book, I’m examining all the complicated and varied reactions to prostitution in Russia in the early 20th century using sources produced by people who were actually interacting with the system on a day-to-day basis, rather than medical experts or central government officials.

Was there any kind of unionisation of prostitutes in Russia in your period? Or elsewhere? Did it happen at all?

I haven’t found written evidence of an official union, but there are examples of women who were engaged in prostitution participating in the revolutionary strike action that broke out across the Russian Empire in 1905. 1905 is a really big moment in the history of the Russian Empire. The Russian military suffered a humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War and there were mutinies, rural unrest, and urban strikes breaking out across the Empire in response to a plethora of local and national issues. In the archives, I found some evidence that women who were registered as prostitutes in the city of Vilnius (now the capital of Lithuania) went on strike to protest against the excessive deductions that their madams took from their wages, which could be up to 75% according to the rules of state regulation. Registered prostitutes also went on strike in Yaroslavl in the same year. There are also examples of women clubbing together to write formal petitions to the authorities to protest against violations of their rights as registered prostitutes. Under regulation, registered women had the right to choose their working location (either at a brothel or another location) and plenty complained to the police when this right was not upheld. From these sources we can see that there is evidence of some form of organisation.

So, collective action, at least.


Let’s get on to the books you’ve chosen to shed light on prostitution and its history. First up is Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens: Commercial Sex in London, 1885-1960, by Julia Laite. Tell us about this book.

Julia Laite is a talented and creative historian and I picked her book because of its broad, contemporary relevance. She’s really interested in tracing legal shifts in state approaches to prostitution in London from 1885 until 1960. Her chronological focus is bookended by the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act and the 1959 Street Offences Act. If you’re not that interested in legislation, don’t worry, as it’s more about the impact of various forms of criminalisation on the business of prostitution in London in this period, as well as its impact upon the working lives of women who engaged in paid sex. Throughout the book, she traces the far-reaching consequences of criminalisation and how, often, the situation on the ground contradicted the stated aims of the legislation.

I’d imagine one of the most fascinating things about this whole subject is the extent to which legislative attempts to ‘deal with’ prostitution have unintended, counterproductive consequences.

Yes, it’s an important theme in the history of prostitution, and in Laite’s book, the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act is a case in point and a significant moment in British history. The 1885 Act raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, but it also outlawed brothels and made pimping a criminal offence. These legislation changes were introduced with the stated aim of keeping women and children safe because around the turn of the twentieth century there was widespread concern about the ‘white slave trade’. This referred to a moral panic surrounding the kidnap and transportation of young women and girls to foreign brothels where they were believed to be forced to work as prostitutes.

Was there any truth at all in that?

Yes, of course, exploitation is ever-present in the history of prostitution for various reasons, but historians generally agree that the panic that surrounded the ‘white slave trade’ was disproportionate to the reality. From research conducted on the subject, it appears that the idea of ‘white slavery’ was much more potent than the reality and that the intent focus on it obscured the other forms of exploitation that were taking place within the commercial sex industry.

So, in 1885, the Criminal Amendment Act was passed with the stated aim of keeping women and girls safe. At first glance, it might appear quite honourable to introduce legislation to achieve these ends, but the law also made brothels illegal, which pushed women who were working as prostitutes into more dangerous working conditions. It also increased the dependence of women engaged in prostitution on third parties, like pimps, who were able to charge higher prices for protection from the police. It also made women less likely to report a crime if they had been engaging in prostitution, because doing so would mean admitting to engaging in behaviour that was criminalised. The 1885 Criminal Amendment Act is just one example of legislation that had an honourable stated aim, but a much more complicated reality. That law, in particular, had really far-reaching consequences.

How did the 1959 law change the situation? That’s on the brink of the 1960s, which saw the legislation that created the permissive society. Was 1959 the last blast from the past or something that tried to put the whole trade on a different, less punitive, foundation?

It’s interesting that you’ve put it in that context of the liberal, permissive age, because that’s absolutely how many of us would think of this era, particularly as the Wolfenden Committee Report of 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of sex between men. However, one of the other recommendations of this report was a crackdown on street prostitution. Two years after the report’s publication, solicitation became subject to a much higher penalty with the Street Offences Act of 1959.

As I’m sure you can imagine, these kinds of policies push women engaging in prostitution into more dangerous situations, encouraging greater reliance on organized crime and third parties to avoid police detection. Importantly, they also don’t actually tackle the key causes of prostitution, such as poverty and gender inequality. As well as decreasing the visibility of prostitution, the goal of criminalisation is to focus attention on punishing individuals (like pimps), rather than tackling the pervasive causes of prostitution for which the state and broader society are responsible.

What legislation governs prostitution in Britain now and when was it passed?

A series of acts were passed in the 2000s to update legislation on prostitution passed in the 1950s. It’s important to note that prostitution itself—the buying and selling of sex—has never been illegal in England, Scotland, and Wales, but soliciting on the street and running a brothel, and pimping for financial gain, are all criminal offences. However, definitions of these crimes are quite flexible. For example, in the UK today, if two sex workers choose to work together in one apartment for safety, the law counts this as keeping a brothel, so both women can face criminal prosecution if they are caught. The legislation introduced at different points throughout the 19th and 20th centuries has cast a really long shadow. The current state of prostitution law in the UK is largely derived from the two pieces of legislation that bookend Laite’s study: the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act and the 1959 Criminal Offences Act.

Let’s move on to your next book, The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria, by Nancy Wingfield. Tell us about this one.

This book is a fascinating exploration of prostitution in the multilingual space of the Austrian monarchy in the early 20th century. Nancy Wingfield is an expert in the history of Habsburg Central Europe and she draws on multilingual evidence to reconstruct the world of regulated prostitution. Like in Russia and lots of other international contexts, prostitution was regulated in the Austrian monarchy. Women who engaged in prostitution were registered by the police and were required to attend medical examinations and abide by other restrictions placed upon their visibility and behaviour. One of the things that I love most about this book is the fact that Wingfield writes in such an engaging and lucid manner. She starts the book with a bang, drawing the reader into the highly publicized trial of a brothel keeper, Regine Riehl. She was a madam who was accused of procuring, abusing, and exploiting women who were working at her brothel in Vienna in 1906 and Wingfield vividly reconstructs this trial from a variety of different perspectives. It’s a wonderful, engaging book, so that’s reason one for choosing it.

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The second reason that I love this book is because Wingfield explores the messiness of the regulation of prostitution in practice. It’s really easy to look at regulation as this totalizing system that was enforced from the top down but, in reality, enforcement was dependent on local police forces, local priorities, and the ethnic, social and cultural characteristics of a particular space. She looks at regulation across the monarchy, in spa towns, garrison towns, and even the countryside, which is quite significant, as there has not been much research conducted into paid sex in rural space.

I read the Radetzky March recently, whose central character is an Austrian officer in a small garrison town at precisely this sort of period. The officers in the town treat visiting the local brothel like going to play a round of golf. It couldn’t be more normal.

It’s really built into military culture in this period. In many different international contexts, the regulation of prostitution was introduced specifically with the aim of protecting military health. Therefore, it’s closely intertwined with military culture.

Are there significant developments over the period she’s dealing with? Or is she describing a situation that was fairly static?

She does map shifts that occurred following the highly publicised trial of Regine Riehl. For instance, in the wake of the trial, the Minister of the Interior solicited information from across the vast imperial space to examine how the regulation of prostitution was actually working in practice. Wingfield’s book also shows that regulation survived imperial collapse, as after the disintegration of this vast empire, certain new states that arose implemented the same regulatory legislation. The fact that regulation outlasted such colossal disruption speaks to the broader theme of continuities in the history of prostitution.

Let’s move on to your next book, which is Code of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay, by Ashwini Tambi. What sort of period does it cover?

This book actually covers three distinctive periods in relation to prostitution policy in Bombay. Firstly, Tambe looks at the ‘regulation phase’ (1860s-1890s), when prostitution was regulated under the Contagious Diseases Acts, which were implemented in Britain and British colonies during this period. Then she focuses on the ‘anti-trafficking phase’ (from around 1900 to the 1920s) which was when public and official consideration of prostitution shifted away from supporting regulation into pushing for its abolition because of perceived connections between the regulation of prostitution and what we would call sex trafficking in contemporary language. Finally, she moves on to look at the ‘abolitionist phase’ (1917-1947), when anti-trafficking discourse became connected with nationalist discourse.

“Across vastly different political and legal systems, women engaged in prostitution continue to be regarded as sources of disease and threats to the social order.”

Very interestingly, Tambe’s book also explores continuities. She opens with a conversation that she had with a doctor in the early 2000s and reflects on how he repeated the same discourses that she found in historical documents from the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s. This illustrates the pervasiveness of ideas about medical checks for sex workers, residential segregation, the need for red light districts, and the need to police prostitution in order to combat disease, although concerns in the early 21st century are connected to the AIDS pandemic rather than syphilis and gonorrhea. Across vastly different political and legal systems, women engaged in prostitution continue to be regarded as sources of disease and threats to the social order. Tambe is also interested in exploring how discrepancies between the language of the law—protecting women and girls—and how it works in practice, in her case, in Bombay in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

You mentioned that the there was an abolitionist phase with independence. Was the regulation of prostitution in Bombay, under the Raj, entirely governed by the British authorities? Or was there any sort of Indian oversight into it? What was behind that nationalist drive to abolish prostitution?

Tambe calls the Contagious Diseases Acts [the CDAs] ‘part of a more ambitious imperial agenda’. In Bombay, the CDAs prioritise the oversight of European women engaged in prostitution and attempted to enforce a racial segregation of prostitution in the city through the formation of a European red light district. Tambe illustrates how the CDAs were entwined with broader colonial policies in this period.

To answer your question about the nationalist drive to eradicate prostitution, Tambe demonstrates how women who sold sex were perceived as a threat both by the colonial state and the nationalist elite. They were excluded from the nationalist mainstream and continued to be heavily stigmatised and condemned as threats to public health and morality.

I was wondering whether there were any European prostitutes—the answer is yes. And, as with the British Empire in general, the Raj dealt with prostitution in a racially hierarchical way.

Of course.

Let’s move on to the next book, also about British imperialism—to some extent, anyway. When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria, 1900-1958, by Saheed Aderinto.

In this study, Aderinto probes the complexity of responses to prostitution amongst both British colonialists and Nigerians of various different ethnic, social, cultural backgrounds. The real strength of the book is this focus on the diversity of perspectives in Nigeria in the first half of the 20th century. One of his core arguments is that the British perceived prostitution as evidence of African primitiveness and this perception helped to justify the broader civilising mission in West Africa and Nigeria. He also pays attention to how Nigerians conceived of their own sexuality and responded to prostitution. In his analysis of Nigerian responses to prostitution, Aderinto reaches a very interesting conclusion. The anti-colonial movement, both before and after World War Two, was structured around selecting elements of African culture that were deemed progressive, while discarding what were seen as the more retrograde manifestations of modernity. Aderinto calls this practice ‘selective modernity’ and sees it as a method used in attempts to advance Nigeria towards modern statehood. One of the phenomena that is deemed incompatible with this new modern idea of Nigeria is prostitution.

The conclusion that Aderinto reaches here—that prostitution became something that was seen as completely incompatible with new ideas of what it meant to be Nigerian during the march towards independence—has broader international resonances. For example, you can observe this phenomenon in Ireland and Poland during their respective struggles for independence. His unique take on this trend is one of the things that I think is so wonderful about the book.

Does the books go on to explore the disappointed hopes of Nigerian nationalists? Or did this campaign carry on well past independence in 1960?

The book has a short chapter at the end reflecting on the resonances of his study in the present day. Pat Omoregie interviewed Aderinto on Notches, a blog devoted to the history of sexuality in which he discussed how the Nigerian government was keen to classify prostitution as something ‘unAfrican’ in the early 2000s. In this interview, he remarks on the resonances of the connections between conversations in the early 21st century and those occurring in early 20th-century Lagos.

Let’s move on to the last book you’ve chosen, which is about Mexico, Compromised Positions: Prostitution, Public Health, and Gender Politics in Revolutionary Mexico City by Katherine Elaine Bliss. What sort of time period does this one cover?

This book begins in 1910 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution, in which the dictator Porfirio Diaz was deposed, and the analysis stretches up to the 1940s. Bliss looks at this as a period in which the revolution was built, during which a plethora of ideas were in circulation regarding what it meant to be a citizen in modern Mexico. She puts prostitution at the centre of this history of revolution.

And does the revolution insist that prostitution is an un-revolutionary activity?

Yes, it does, of course. As with some of the other books that I’ve talked about, there was the sense that it was incompatible with ideas about modern society. The idea that prostitution was an unwelcome and outdated phenomenon that needed to be eradicated was something that you see during the Russian revolutions of 1917 too.

Bliss traces the contradictions between these utopian visions about destroying all the remnants of the old regime, and more paternalistic ideas about the need to ‘redeem’ Mexicans who had become tarnished by the debauchery and corrupt dictatorship in order to build a new, modern Mexico. She examines  how these utopian visions often clashed with more long-standing ideas about gender and class and why this campaign to redeem and reinvigorate Mexican society was ultimately unsuccessful. Unsurprisingly, prostitution was not eradicated in revolutionary Mexico because of the usual suspects: political elites and wider society not listening to women engaged in prostitution, or coming to the debate with their own deep-rooted perspectives on morality, class, and gender and, ultimately, not really doing much to tackle things like the potent stigmatisation of women engaged in commercial sex, or poverty.

That leads me very nicely on to my final question, which may be completely unfair—you’re a historian, not a public policy wonk—but does all this historical investigation suggest there is an optimal way of dealing with prostitution as a phenomenon? Is this an area where history can teach us lessons?

I’m so glad that you asked me that as there’s a lot that I can say based upon researching prostitution in historical perspective and listening to contemporary discussions about sex work. For me, the historical record is crystal clear. Criminalisation, no matter who it targets, does not work. People across the political spectrum often profess a desire to abolish prostitution, ensure that prostitution is not the only option for some people in society, and to prevent violence against individuals who sell sex, but criminalisation has consistently hindered any meaningful progress towards any of these goals.

I think the most important lesson to be learned from studying the history of prostitution is just how crucially important it is to listen to the people who actually do this job. Sex workers know what the best methods are for ensuring their safety and human rights far better than policymakers with no lived experience. There’s been an abundance of research on the legal frameworks that would prevent violence against sex workers and ensure that they are able to access healthcare services and legal protection. This research overwhelmingly points to decriminalisation, so removing any criminal statutes related to prostitution. Decriminalisation is widely supported by sex worker-led organisations across the world, as well as Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation, and countless other public health, human rights, and legal organisations.

“Criminalisation, no matter who it targets, does not work”

The decriminalisation of sex work has led to successful outcomes in New Zealand, for example, which became the first country to fully decriminalise sex work in 2003. Since decriminalisation, the commercial sex industry has become much safer and less exploitative and the relationship between sex workers and the police has greatly improved.

Overall, the historical record shows us that any criminalising initiatives, be it by penalising the sale of sex or those who pay for sex, have a detrimental impact upon the safety and human rights of sex workers, who can be some of the most economically and socially vulnerable members of society.

How does a decriminalised system differ from a legal system such as Germany’s?

In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, sex work is heavily regulated by the government. In these contexts, the state imposes restrictions upon how the sex industry can operate and sex workers are required to adhere to these rules or face criminalisation. For example, in Germany sex workers have to be registered and hold a sex worker ID card. You can only get this ID card if you have a valid work permit and after undergoing compulsory counselling, as well as STI and pregnancy tests. Prostitution remains heavily stigmatised despite legalisation, so sex workers risk being ‘outed’ through inclusion on a state database. Those who do not obtain an ID card—either because they choose not to or are unable to as they are migrants or asylum seekers without work permits—risk prosecution and even deportation.

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There are lots of different legal models employed across the world, but sex worker-led organisations pretty much unanimously come out in favour of decriminalisation. However, given the wealth of misinformation about prostitution out there, supporting decriminalisation is not often an attractive position for a politician to take. Often people want to hear about how elected politicians are tough on crime and keen to solve societal problems through the criminal law, but if we actually read histories of prostitution, we see that criminal law doesn’t deliver the stated objectives of lawmakers the vast majority of the time.

And in the decriminalised system you’re talking about, that would be one where you don’t have licensed brothels?

Yes, absolutely, it removes any sort of police oversight. And that would also mean as well, as it has in New Zealand, reducing reliance on third parties, exploitative migration agents, and pimps. Mediators aren’t as necessary in a society where sex work is fully decriminalised.

So, if it’s decriminalised women can work together from premises and don’t need madams, pimps, or anything like that.

Yes, and they can access medical services without fear of being reported to the police. They can have workers’ rights. A very radical thing, it seems, as sex workers have been struggling for these kinds of rights and protections for hundreds of years.

Interview by Benedict King

June 22, 2021

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Siobhán Hearne

Siobhán Hearne

Siobhán Hearne is a historian of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. She received her PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2017 and is currently based at Durham University’s School of Modern Languages & Cultures. She has written widely on prostitution, venereal diseases, and pornography in Russian imperial and Soviet history.

Siobhán Hearne

Siobhán Hearne

Siobhán Hearne is a historian of gender and sexuality in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. She received her PhD from the University of Nottingham in 2017 and is currently based at Durham University’s School of Modern Languages & Cultures. She has written widely on prostitution, venereal diseases, and pornography in Russian imperial and Soviet history.