Prostitution: Gap Between Depiction and Reality

           In 19th century urban Europe, there were several popular depictions of prostitution. On one extreme, it was a sexual economy that consisted of child trafficking, violence, kidnap, and rape. This perspective incorporated the vision of the fallen woman, a Magdalene-like figure who was closer to God for having fallen into sin, been victimized, and then redeemed.  On the other end of the spectrum, prostitution was portrayed as a regrettable but necessary part of society. This perspective focused on female vice, portraying prostitutes as lavish women who seduced and exploited men. These popular depictions of prostitution bolstered political movements that employed the archetype of a prostitute as a figurehead to advocate their agendas. Although the conditions of prostitutes in Europe varied immensely, for the typical lower to middle class woman who resorted to the streets or the brothel house, the driving factor was poverty. During this time period, women in economically desperate situation had few other options. Due to lack of social support and adequate employment, many women took to the streets and succumbed to petty theft, alcohol, and venereal disease. Prostitution was a vortex. It was easily entered, and from there, the slope into destitution became steeper. For some women, the social facts of poverty could form bonds almost as strong as those physical chains of sex trafficking that the political sensationalists sometimes depicted. Prostitution was not the result of male corruption or of female vice; it was often a means of survival. The gap between depiction and reality revealed how political agendas drove society’s views of prostitution, provoking fear and outrage in order to prompt social change. Although political activists intentionally cultivated stereotypes of prostitutes as a political tool, the reality was that most prostitution in 19th century Europe resulted from poverty and the marginalization of women in society and the economy.

 

Prostitutes as Victims

Prostitutes as Victims

Prostitutes as Temptresses
Prostitutes as Temptresses

 

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