Conclusion: Stereotypes of Prostitutes as Political Figureheads


In 19th century urban Europe, there were several popular depictions of prostitution. These different versions were linked with political agendas that employed the stereotype of a prostitute as a figurehead for various social campaigns.  In England, W.T. Stead provoked scandal with his article “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” which attempted to unveil a web of child trafficking in London. He portrayed prostitutes as victims of state-sanctioned, aristocratic male violence and corruption. Allied with Stead, social reformer Josephine Butler cultivated the archetype of the prostitute as a “fallen woman.” She publicized the stories of young, impoverished girls who had fallen into sin, been victimized, and then reformed by charity.  This sympathetic vision of prostitution emphasized male corruption and played off of class tensions in an effort to generate social reform.  In France, a different political agenda, one that emphasized state regulation, cast a different vision of prostitution.  Emphasizing female vice, this version characterized prostitutes as lazy, dangerous, and contagious. A threat to the order of society, prostitutes and brothel houses needed to be controlled by the state. It was an acceptable industry only as long as all of its parts remained completely visible to the state. Sculpted by political agendas, stereotypes of prostitutes emerged as figureheads of social movements; but the realities of prostitution often differed from the depictions. In reality, prostitution did not result from feminine vice or from male lust, but from a woman’s determination to survive the social facts of poverty in 19th century urban Europe.


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