The history of "the oldest profession" falls into four broad periods characterized by changes in the policing and organization of the sex trade: municipal regulation between 1300 and 1500, criminalization between 1500 and 1800, medical regulation between 1800 and 1890, and recriminalization from 1890 to 1975.
1300–1500: MUNICIPAL REGULATION
In the late Middle Ages, prostitution was tolerated, indeed encouraged by municipal elites throughout Europe. Prostitutes did not inhabit the margins of late medieval society; they were accepted members of the community with a special place in ritual life. In Germany, prostitutes were honored guests at weddings, and in Lyon they participated in municipal processions and festivals that defined civic space. Prostitutes were full members of medieval society because the city fathers considered them guarantors of domestic order. Like Saint Augustine (354–430), the fifteenth-century city fathers believed that prostitution was a lesser evil, an acceptable alternative to adultery or the rape of virgins. The brothel for these good Catholics provided an outlet for male sexual energy that might otherwise be directed at honest women. That most of the official prostitutes had compromised their virtue—or been raped by bands of young men—also soothed the burghers' conscience.
During the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, officially sanctioned and regulated red light districts existed in most large European cities. In Florence, respectable citizens like the Medici owned the city's bordellos, and a special court known as the onesta moderated disputes between prostitutes and bordello owners. The situation in England was roughly similar. By the early fifteenth century port cities like Southampton and Sandwich had red light districts where prostitution flourished. In London prostitution was illegal save in the Bankside or Southwark neighborhood, where bordellos or "stewes" could be found as early as the thirteenth century. By 1500 the sex trade was the principal economic activity of this area, tolerated and regulated by the local authorities.
On the Continent, town governments actually owned and administered bordellos. Always pressed for ready cash, city governments usually auctioned off the right to run the bordello to an individual known variously as Frauernwirt, bordello padre, or abbess. Contracts between brothel managers and city governments can be found in the records of Strasbourg (1469), Munich (1433), Seville (1469), and Toulouse (1296). In return for a certain sum of money, the brothel manager had the right to charge the prostitutes for room and board and take as much of their earnings as he could. The city did oblige the brothel manager to observe certain regulations governing the hours and the clientele of the brothel. Most cities insisted that the municipal bordello be closed on religious feast days and that priests, Jews, and married men be banned at all times. The municipalities also fined prostitutes who lingered too long with a particular man so that clients did not become too attached to any woman.
In the streets next to the city brothel, a host of unofficial whores solicited in unlicensed drinking establishments. These unlicensed prostitutes tended to be younger, less experienced, and more expensive than the inmates of the official brothel. They were also a source of distress to the city fathers, who considered them illegal and uncontrollable. City governments in southern France, Seville, London, and Augsburg levied heavy fines on these women, whose numbers tended to proliferate as the sixteenth century approached.
In the mid-sixteenth century, the medieval world of tolerated, municipally regulated prostitution came to an abrupt end. Criminalization replaced tolerance and city fathers closed the municipal brothels in Augsburg (1532), Basel (1534), and Frankfurt (1560). Spain followed suit somewhat later; Seville closed its bordello in 1621. Events were not so dramatic in Italy. Though they never officially closed the red light districts, authorities in Florence and Venice adopted a more stringent attitude toward prostitutes after 1511 and tried to suppress all manifestations of venal sex. Throughout Europe, authorities tried to eliminate clandestine prostitutes or at least limit where they could solicit. In France the 1560 ordinance of Orléans made owning and operating a bordello illegal. In Spain Philip IV officially banned brothels throughout his kingdom in 1623. By 1650 the municipal bordello, whether in France, Italy, or Germany, was a thing of the past.
Historians have been at pains to explain this change in attitude. Syphilis, which appeared in Europe in the spring of 1495, at first seemed to provide an answer. Europeans certainly understood how the disease was contracted and knew that prostitutes spread it. But most of the bordello closings occurred some thirty years after the worst syphilis epidemics, which occurred between 1495 and 1510. And in one case, Seville, a serious bout of venereal disease in 1568 led the city authorities to reopen, not abolish, the municipal bordello and its regulations.
What caused the closing of the official brothels? Religious change (not disease) appears to have been the single most important factor in changing attitudes toward prostitution. In Germany, Martin Luther (1483–1546) condemned prostitution and criticized Saint Augustine's rationalization of mercenary sex. Luther and the other Protestant reformers believed that men were to be held to the same standard—chastity—as women and that the bordello, far from discouraging fornication, promoted the ruin of the young. Devout Catholics also railed against whores: in 1566 Pope Pius V threw all the courtesans out of Rome, and in 1556 the Venetian Republic made prostitution a crime. Moralists began to see in the whores a threat to honest women and the matrimonial order. In the Rhone valley, preachers in the 1480s condemned prostitution and with it the municipal bordello, which they regarded as a source of temptation and sin. Though it occurred later than elsewhere, a similar new morality led to the end of toleration in Spain. In Seville, Catholic reformers launched a campaign to reform prostitutes which led in 1620 to the closing of the municipal brothel.
Religious revival, whether in the form of the Protestant or Catholic Reformations, contributed to the criminalization of prostitution, but it did not cause it. Official bordellos were in trouble long before Martin Luther. In 1501 the city fathers of Frankfurt tried to auction off the management of the local brothel but they found no takers: the municipal house was no longer profitable. Too much competition had driven it out of business. The multiplication of clandestine prostitutes appears to have been the problem. In Spain, Italy, France, and Germany a rash of decrees banning clandestine prostitutes preceded the official brothel closings, indicating that new sexual attitudes and practices had made the public brothel obsolete even before religious reformers attacked it.
The proliferation of independent prostitutes indicates an important change in clients' taste: men no longer wanted to go to the public house and rub shoulders with a mixed, even dangerous crowd which was now made up of armed men—that is, soldiers. The large armies called into existence by the early modern state revolutionized prostitution and made it almost a branch of the military. Now hordes of prostitutes followed the armies that traversed Europe. No municipal regulation, not even military discipline, could control these women, who spread disease to the most powerful armies. In Strasbourg, Frankfurt, and Nürnberg, local authorities tried to disband the prostitutes who camped outside the city walls and prostituted themselves to soldiers in nearby forests. But they were powerless to rid the town of these unwanted visitors.
These women and their unruly clients made a mockery of Augustine's lesser evil: they did not guarantee the domestic order, they disrupted it. So too did another new kind of prostitute who posed an even more serious threat—the courtesan. In the late 1400s, preachers in Dijon, Venice, and Florence railed against a better sort of harlot, one who wore fine clothes and plied her trade secretly, a prostitute who seduced respectable men and distracted them from their domestic duties. This woman was called a courtesan, after the genteel women who accompanied the celibate clerics of Rome's papal court on their social rounds. A few of the Italian courtesans were women of letters, like the Venetian poetess Veronica Franco (1546–1591) or the Roman writer Tullia d'Aragona (1510–1556). These women offered more than sex, they offered eroticism—sex with an elegant and accomplished expert.
The courtesan, be she a Venetian poetess or a Parisian actress, enjoyed more independence and certainly more money than her camp follower or bordello sister. These privileged women probably benefited from the criminalization of prostitution, for they were independent entrepreneurs who escaped the brothel and its regulations. But not all early modern prostitutes were so lucky. The disadvantages produced by criminalization probably outweighed the advantages enjoyed by a minority. Criminalization made the prostitute vulnerable to third parties who profited from the prostitutes' need for secrecy and her fear of the police. Pimps, procuresses, touts, landlords, and blackmailers skimmed money off the prostitutes' earnings and diminished their autonomy.
Worse still were the police and other judicial authorities. By 1720 virtually all cities in Europe had adopted ordinances condemning prostitutes and subjecting them to harsh prison terms. In Paris the edict of 20 April 1684 was followed by a series of laws (1713, 1724, 1734, 1776, and 1778) that made prostitution punishable by incarceration in a syphilis hospital or prison for between three months and three years. To the east, Vienna and Prussia had stiffer penalties. In 1690 Frederick I of Prussia ordered all the bordellos closed and their inmates publicly flogged. Somewhat later, in 1750, Empress Maria Teresa established a Chastity Commission which also closed bordellos, arrested prostitutes, and sentenced them to labor as street sweepers.
Unlike its absolutist neighbors, the English Crown did not seek to repress prostitution. No English statutes made prostitution itself criminal. London constables could arrest streetwalkers on lesser charges like vagrancy or loitering, but most were disinclined to do so. In the first third of the eighteenth century, a series of private groups appeared to supplement police repression. Known collectively as the Societies for the Reform of Manners, these moral vigilantes waged open war against prostitution, homosexuality, and other forms of "riot" from 1690 to 1730. Though utterly without authority, members detained women and had them thrown in the Bridewell or a special prison for prostitutes where hard work was prescribed as an antidote to sin.
By 1730 the moral vigilantes had disappeared. Everywhere in Europe, police enforcement of anti-prostitute statutes became lax and episodic. In major cities, certain districts—Covent Garden in London and the Palais-Royal in Paris—were set aside for prostitution, and whores congregated around public promenades, pleasure gardens, and theaters. The large numbers of streetwalkers and prostitutes testified to the lack of police enforcement. Nicolas Edme Restif de la Bretonne (1734–1806), a French writer, estimated that 20,000 women prostituted themselves in Paris, a city of some 600,000 souls. Restif's figures are almost certainly exaggerated, but it is clear that prostitutes were numerous because preindustrial women's work was particularly conducive to prostitution. Women who washed, mended linen, or sold food or second-hand clothes walked the streets, soliciting clients whether for honest or dishonest work. Once the woman had found a client, she was generally expected to bring the cleaned linen or food to his room, thereby facilitating sexual contact. A woman could prostitute herself without anybody, especially nosy neighbors, being the wiser. Full-time bordello inmates had a more difficult time hiding their occupation, but they could reenter the world of honest work with little or no trouble. Single women's work was casual and episodic, so it easily accommodated venal sex.
Only arrest labeled a woman as a prostitute, and arrest was becoming less and less common as a more tolerant attitude toward prostitution emerged. A decline in religiosity as well as a growing concern over venereal disease prompted this change. As early as 1724, Bernard de Mandeville (1670–1733) argued in A Modest Defense of Public Stews that prostitution was not criminal in and of itself. It was only dangerous when uncontrolled. Other, less well known authors called for the end to arbitrary penalties and the institution of regulation as a means of protecting families and promoting public order. Particularly prominent among these regulationists were physicians who regarded venereal disease as the greatest hazard of prostitution and proposed that some system of health checks be instituted.
Such publications proved prophetic. In 1792 Berlin instituted a system for regulating prostitutes which required police approval before a brothel could be opened and compelled prostitutes to live in certain streets. Somewhat later, in 1796, the Paris Commune instructed its police officials to search out and register prostitutes. Registered prostitutes received a card, and in 1798 two physicians were given the task of examining Parisian whores. In 1802 a physician established a dispensary where prostitutes underwent compulsory examinations. Napoleon's prefects continued the struggle to contain and control prostitution. In Lyon, Nantes, Marseille, and other French cities, local officials undertook a census of prostitutes and bordellos. They also limited prostitution to a few preselected streets and required that all bordellos be registered—in other words, approved. At the fall of Napoleon, the foundations of a complete regulatory system existed.
1800–1890: MEDICAL REGULATION
In the nineteenth century, many European cities instituted an elaborate system of ordinances which permitted prostitution but limited and monitored it. These ordinances resembled Napoleon's measures: while there were variations, medical regulation was often referred to as "the French system." And as in France, authorities claimed to be controlling syphilis. But the measures enacted also greatly increased the ability of the police to monitor working-class activity, sexual or political. The father and principal apologist of the regulatory system was the French social hygienist Alexandre Jean Baptiste Parent-Duchâtelet (1790–1836). In 1836 Parent-Duchâtelet published Prostitution in Paris, a two-volume study rife with statistics, tables, maps, and charts. Prostitution in Paris was the first "scientific" study of mercenary sex, for it used empirical evidence—principally Parent-Duchâtelet's own observations at the Parisian dispensary—to describe prostitution. Parent-Duchâtelet estimated that there were twelve thousand prostitutes in Paris, and he collected detailed data (including hair and eye color) on about one thousand.
For the first time we have a relatively accurate portrait of the prostitute. Parent-Duchâtelet found her to be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four and a working woman engaged in traditional, as opposed to industrial, occupations (i.e., a seamstress or domestic). To his contemporaries' astonishment, she was usually a native Parisian (as opposed to a migrant) and almost never the fruit of an illegitimate union. Nor was she herself pregnant at the time she became a prostitute. The cherished scenario of the country girl seduced and abandoned in the city did not hold up to Parent-Duchâtelet's scrutiny; neither did the myths that prostitutes were infertile or possessed of biological abnormalities. Later in the nineteenth century, physicians would attribute prostitution to genetic deformities, but Parent-Duchâtelet gave social reasons for a woman's fall. "Lack of work and poverty," he wrote, "which is the inevitable consequence of low wages, are the unhappy source of prostitution."
Despite his scientific pretensions, Parent-Duchâtelet was no impartial observer. On the contrary, he was an ardent supporter of regulation, and his study argued for the imposition of mandatory health checks and an increase in police supervision. Like all regulationists, Parent-Duchâtelet believed that prostitutes had to be closely monitored and controlled, ostensibly in the interest of containing venereal disease.
The mandatory health check or pelvic examination was the linchpin of the regulationist system. When a prostitute went to the dispensary her name was inscribed upon a register and she was issued a card on which each subsequent visit was marked. This card constituted a license, which allowed her to prostitute herself. Failure to display the card when questioned by the police would lead to immediate imprisonment without trial or judicial recourse. Obviously, regulation greatly increased the powers of the Parisian police. It is certainly not coincidental that nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French legislatures declined to approve—or even debate—regulation. For its entire existence, regulation was at best only semilegal; it was based on administrative decree alone, on the decision of the highest police officer, the prefect.
If the health check was the linchpin of regulation, then the brothel was its center. Proregulation physicians and policemen encouraged brothels because they facilitated police control. Madames enforced discipline and health checks, and the brothel walls assured that no prostitute escaped the all-seeing eye of the morals squad. If the brothel was transparent to the police, it was all but invisible to honest women and children. Municipal ordinance prescribed closed shutters and windows and permitted no distinct signs save the lone discreet red light. To ensure that these regulations were observed, the police both in Paris and the provinces bestowed licenses to run brothels only on certain individuals. Only women over twenty-five years of age could apply for a license, and they had to give proof that the owner of the building in question knew of its proposed use. Brothels could be located only in certain neighborhoods, had to be at least one hundred meters from public buildings, schools, and churches, and could be open only at certain times.
The bordello was the centerpiece of regulation, and it flourished in the home of regulation—France. In 1840 Paris had at least 230 licensed brothels. Provincial France too had "houses of tolerance," as official brothels were known. Montpellier, with a population of approximately 460,000, had twenty-four houses of tolerance, while Angers and Mans had fifteen and twenty-five, respectively. Usually these were small establishments with no more than seven prostitutes, excluding the auxiliary female personnel (maids and cooks), who also satisfied clients at times of high traffic, like market days or when new recruits were called up by the army. Outside France, the bordello was less popular. In 1881 there were only 1,119 brothels in the whole of Italy.
In the course of the nineteenth century, some kind of regulation was adopted by Italy (1860), Russia (1843), Prussia (1839), and Vienna. Officially, England did not follow suit. But between 1864 and 1886 the British War Office and Admiralty administered a series of ordinances that came very close to continental regulation. The Contagious Diseases Acts, as these ordinances became known, were meant to eliminate venereal disease by compulsory registration and medical exams, and the laws were enacted only in garrison towns and ports like Southampton and Plymouth. In these towns, a special police unit called the "water police" tracked down prostitutes and confined them in venereal disease prisons, known as lock hospitals.
The effects of regulation, whether in England or on the Continent, were highly detrimental to prostitutes, perhaps more detrimental than seventeenth- and eighteenth-century criminalization. To be sure, prostitutes could solicit if they had registered with the police and undergone the required health checks. But even registered, they also had to obey an array of ordinances which made it all but impossible for a woman to support herself through prostitution. In France and England prostitutes could not solicit in drinking establishments or near barracks. In Paris they could not occupy sidewalks or major thoroughfares except between seven and eleven o'clock in the evening. They could not stand near churches, schools, public buildings, or in public gardens. Prostitutes could not congregate in groups, speak in loud voices, or provide food or drink in their homes. In short, women could not solicit clients, which is tantamount to banning prostitution.
Far from removing the legal constraints on prostitutes, regulation only increased them. It subjected the prostitute to a more powerful, more invasive police force, thereby throwing her into the arms of pimps and other third parties. It also fixed her identity as a fallen woman by inscribing her name on a register. Regulation subjected prostitutes to consistent police harassment, to social stigma, and to economic hardship.
RECRIMINALIZATION: 1890 TO THE PRESENT
By 1880 the weaknesses of regulation caused many Europeans to turn against the system. Sometimes this movement—or rather movements, for there were many diverse opinions and groups—is called abolitionist because it opposed the existing prostitute statutes. However, it is more accurate to call its proponents antiregulationists, for they sought to reform, not abolish, laws against prostitution. None wanted to legalize or decriminalize prostitution. Most antiregulationists regarded prostitution as a terrible moral scourge and dire biological threat.
Of all the antiregulationists, the British militant Josephine Butler (1828–1906) was alone in manifesting real concern for individual prostitutes. Butler was a middle-class widow of deep religious sensibilities who considered the compulsory pelvic examinations imposed by the Contagious Diseases Acts (CDA) an affront to womanhood. In numerous public speeches, Butler pointed out that soldiers and sailors were not subject to the same invasive procedures, and she called for an end to the exams which she considered "instrumental rape." Through the Ladies' National Association, she mobilized middle-class women to fight against the CDA and aid prostitutes. This unprecedented alliance between middle-class and working-class women staged theatrical "rescues" of prostitutes and succeeded in galvanizing public opinion. In 1886 the CDA were rescinded, and many of Butler's crusaders turned their attention to women's suffrage.
Opposition to regulation did not end, Butler's success encouraged continental opponents of regulation. French abolitionists like Yves Guyot and Senator RenéBérenger criticized not the excesses of the system but its inefficiencies. Of particular concern were the clandestine prostitutes, the large number of women who were never inscribed, never examined, and never monitored by the police. By 1890 they had come to represent more than half of the prostitutes in Paris, and they were thought to constitute a threat to the health and moral welfare of society.
The white slavery panic struck in the midst of this debate. In 1885 London journalist W. T. Stead (1849–1912) published an inflammatory account of child prostitution entitled "The Maiden Tribute to Modern Babylon" in the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead reported that lecherous old men regularly purchased children for five pounds on the streets of London. Stead's lurid accounts started the white slavery panic, which eventually spread from England to the Continent. In 1899 the first international conference on white slavery was convened in London and attended by the representatives of eleven European nations. Three years later sixteen countries sent envoys to the second international conference.
Historians once dismissed the white slavery panic as nothing but hysteria. The antitraffickers' rhetoric was extravagant—one French newspaper claimed that more girls had been killed by white slavers than by tuberculosis—but these zealots were reacting to real changes in the demand for and organization of prostitution. The great migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from Europe to the Americas created both a high demand for prostitutes and the networks to transport them from Europe to the New World. In Poland, for instance, Jewish vice networks grew as Jewish emigration increased. Once limited to Warsaw, Jewish pimps expanded their operations to embrace North and especially South America. In the 1910s many prostitutes in Buenos Aires were Jewish girls transported there by Jewish mafias operating in Poland and the Americas.
The great migrations also fed racism and with it biological explanations for prostitution. Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) did argue that prostitution was a product of private property, along with illegitimacy and other moral scourges. But socialists aside, most Europeans preferred the physiological fantasies of Caesare Lombroso (1835–1909) to the economic explanations of Engels or Parent-Duchâtelet. According to Lombroso and his followers, prostitutes were born, not made, and they possessed atavistic qualities like small heads, husky voices, or tattoos. To Lombroso, prostitutes were degenerates who threatened the biological integrity of the race by injecting hereditary syphilis into the population.
The early years of the twentieth century saw important advances in the diagnosis and treatment of venereal disease. But the Wasserman test and the arsenic-based "606" potion did not allay the fear of syphilis. Quite the contrary: anxiety over venereal disease became more widespread and intense during the interwar period. In France hereditary syphilis was blamed for (among other things) chronic French depopulation. Whether in France, Germany, or Britain, "degeneracy" was associated with syphilis, and prostitutes were subject to stricter measures of medical surveillance than ever before. In France the number of dispensaries where prostitutes were registered and examined multiplied: by 1940 there were over 2,000.
Other purely punitive measures joined these medical statutes. In 1885 the British Parliament passed the deceptively named Criminal Amendments Acts, which raised the age of consent and authorized the police to enter bordellos and arrest "seducers" (and prostitutes) at will. In France the law of 3 April 1903 made traffic in women punishable by three years of prison.
In many instances, special laws were enacted to "protect" minors. In England the Industrial Schools Amendment Act of 1880 authorized police search and seizure of underage prostitutes. In France the law of 11 April 1908 licensed similar police sweeps and provided special reformatories for the underage prostitutes. These statutes, like many others, targeted youth and probably reflected anxiety over the new freedom that life in the cities and the rise of service industries accorded young women.
Not just the young were experiencing a sexual revolution. During the 1890s, a new taste for seduction and eroticism manifested itself in the population at large and had a profound impact on prostitution. The demand for prostitutes changed: sexual need no longer brought the client to the prostitute. In most cities, workingmen had established their own homes and embraced a middle-class conjugal lifestyle. Henceforth, desire rather than need motivated the client, and he demanded more personal, more seductive forms of venal sex. The regulated house of tolerance, for example, tended to disappear. Beginning in the 1880s in Paris and 1900 in the provinces, official bordellos closed; by 1935 there were only twenty-seven official houses in Paris. Clients preferred the illusion of seduction to the regimentation of the bordello and the independent prostitute to the brothel inmate. Now men encountered prostitutes in new places, like the dance hall or the beer garden. Once contact was made, the client accompanied her to a new institution, the maison de rendez-vous or hotel that rented rooms by the hour. Gradually, the maison de rendez-vous completely eclipsed the bordello: in 1935 there were sixty-five recognized hotels in Paris and many more that had escaped police notice.
With the demise of the house of tolerance, prostitutes gained a measure of autonomy. Unlike brothel inmates, the independent prostitute was not enslaved by debt or forced to work long hours. But new forms of domination arose to replace the old. Stricter criminal statutes and police surveillance increased the need for secrecy and opened the door to parasitical third parties. In London, pimps first appeared in large numbers in the 1900s in the wake of anti–white slavery legislation. Isolated from the working class and marked as a "professional," the prostitute found herself at the mercy of criminal elements. In France and Italy hotel owners replaced bordello madames as the managers of prostitution and used their power to extract more work and longer hours from the prostitute. In some cities mafias and crime syndicates took control of prostitution and subjected prostitutes to a new, harsh work discipline.
Life was no better for the prostitute in the Soviet Union or the totalitarian states of Italy and Germany. In 1918 the Russian revolutionaries abolished the regulatory system which had prevailed in tsarist Russia and proclaimed that prostitution, an outgrowth of capitalism, no longer existed. Of course, women continued to sell sex, and they were subject to arrest under a series of ordinances prosecuting vagrants and anti-socials. In the late 1920s, special workhouses or propholactoria were established where prostitutes were reeducated through forced labor.
In the fascist states, the approach was different in form if not in spirit. Mussolini reconfirmed Italy's tolerated brothels in 1923, 1931, and 1940. In Germany, the Nazis reinstated regulated brothels and made sure that strict racial and biological hygiene was observed within them. Throughout Europe, the militarization of society during World War II encouraged a brief, episodic return to regulation.
The years between 1945 and 1972 saw a recriminalization of prostitution that was both profound and paradoxical. In 1951 the United Nations adopted a resolution condemning the traffic in women and calling for an end to state regulation and criminalization of prostitution. Only five nations signed the resolution and most ignored it. In France, while one aspect of the old regulationist regime—the brothel—was abolished in 1945 by the so-called Marthe Richard law, another—compulsory registration—survived. A national health file was established, and any prostitute who failed to register was subject to arrest and imprisonment. Further, the law of 23 December 1958 recognized "passive solicitation" and made it a misdemeanor punishable by a steep fine. As in the past, French prostitutes were subject to police harassment and unpredictable official persecution.
In Italy the Merlin Law of 1956 abolished all forms of regulation, including registration, but prescribed jail terms for individuals convicted of "favoring" prostitution. While ostensibly directed against pimps, the law was used to harass prostitutes, who saw their husbands, boyfriends, and fellow prostitutes prosecuted under it.
In England the situation was no better. Unlike continental Europe, the United Kingdom had known neither true regulation nor even real criminalization: prostitution was not—and had never been—a criminal offense. This situation changed in the 1950s when the Wolfenden Committee recommended a set of new anti–sex trade laws. In 1956 the Sexual Offense Act prohibited brothel keeping and prescribed stiff penalties for those living off immoral earnings. As in Italy, the antipimping law was turned against prostitutes themselves, and the notorious Street Offences Act of 1959 made the situation worse. According to this act, a woman could be convicted of soliciting on the word of a policeman alone and forced to pay a stiff fine. After two fines a woman was labeled a "prostitute" in all judicial documents for life, whether or not she continued to engage in sex work.
While prostitution was being recriminalized in France and England, a new approach was adopted in northern Europe, specifically in Holland and Germany. In Germany officially tolerated and regulated brothels called Eros Centers were established in Hamburg (1967) and subsequently in Bonn, Cologne, Stuttgart, and Munich. While these centers were supposed to eliminate third parties and curb violence, prostitutes declined to work in them because of the extreme regimentation and high room rental fees. In Holland a different, more laissez-faire approach emerged, with brothels and massage parlors being unofficially tolerated, at least in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam aside, the recriminalization of prostitution had a predictable consequence: prostitution went underground and became less visible. The telephone greatly facilitated this process, and today prostitution is all but invisible in most western European cities. Police surveillance and occasional harassment continues and is particularly harsh for those prostitutes left on the streets. These women constitute only 20 percent of the sex workers in most European cities, and yet they account for over 90 percent of the arrests. Even in the most lenient countries, fines and legal fees keep most prostitutes in debt and on the street. To protest these conditions, fifty prostitutes occupied the Saint-Nizier church in Lyon, France, in 1975. Soon prostitutes' groups arose in Grenoble, Montpellier, Toulouse, and finally Paris, leading to the creation of a national organization, the French Collective of Prostitutes. Not long thereafter, other prostitutes' rights groups emerged: in the United Kingdom, the English Collective of Prostitutes (1975); in Amsterdam, the Red Thread (1984); and in Berlin, HYDRA (1980), to name but a few. All of these groups are active today and campaign for the decriminalization of sex work in both national and international law. In 1985 the first International Congress of Whores convened in Amsterdam and addressed a range of issues—AIDS, police harassment, international traffic in women—concerning sex workers. Subsequent congresses have been held, signaling the advent of a new era in the history of prostitution: henceforth, prostitutes themselves will have a say in the organization and policing of the "oldest profession."
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