In 2018, debates on how sex work should be regulated continue to cause friction. Is prostitution the ‘oldest profession’ or the ‘oldest oppression’? Perhaps both. Different states have taken different approaches to the regulation of prostitution. In some places, the practice of prostitution is illegal – in 2010, Iceland even made lap dance clubs illegal. Other states such as the Netherlands, New Zealand, Australia, have all legalised prostitution. Alternatively, the “Nordic model” penalises those who buy sex, but not those who sell it.
Amnesty International is a world advocate in legalised prostitution. They argue that the abuse and discrimination that this marginalised group of – mainly – women, faces, is more adequately combatted when the practice is not illegal. This makes sense, after all, if prostitutes are hidden from the state, the state cannot ensure their wellbeing. On the other hand, in places where prostitution has been decriminalised, trafficking of women into brothels, and illegal brothels continue to facilitate abuses. The fact that it is mainly women selling sex to men arguably means that the practice perpetuates gendered ideas of sexuality in which women are passive, providers of sex, and men full of sexual desire that must be fulfilled.
Meanwhile, the University of Brighton recently came under fire for apparently supporting prostitution amongst its undergraduate students. The presence of a sex work support charity at the University’s freshers’ fair caused quite a stir. Should that kind of support be offered to students? Was it encouraging its female students to take up prostitution as a way to fund their studies? Feminists accused the charity, Sex Workers’ Outreach Project of idealising the lifestyle and promoting the industry. Others praised the ‘great work’ that the charity was doing.
Arguments amongst feminists – and others – over how prostitution should be regulated, is nothing new. Neither are the gendered biases that accompany its regulation. Examples of both can be found throughout history, from sex workers imprisoned for their ‘deviance’ in Mussolini’s Italy, to the religious rituals needed to neutralise the threat of the promiscuity of ‘public women’ in pre-colonial Ghana. Many historical issues were highlighted by Loizos Kapsalis this week at the Gender and Sexuality History Workshop. Loizos’s paper felt relevant to today’s world, as well as being of historical interest. It’s certainly a topic of current interest to academics – historians and others – as this recent edited volume shows.
Loizos talked on: ‘Gender, Sexuality and the Regulation of Prostitution in British Colonial Cyprus, 1878-1914.’ His paper pitted attitudes towards the regulation of prostitution in Cyprus against one another. As Loizos pointed out, the regulation of prostitution was a form of social control across the British Empire. Meanwhile in Britain itself, regulatory Acts submitting prostitutes to physical examinations and other processes that robbed them of their dignity, were protested fiercely by early feminists. Loizos however, focused on the attitudes of the local Cypriot elite to female (there were two male, the rest were female) prostitutes.
The image of the prostitute went against the grain of the nationalist ideal woman. The maternal and domestic women that were relied upon for the biological and social reproduction of the Cypriot middle class were not sexualised in the minds of elites. Meanwhile, prostitutes were deviant and diseased and threatened this idea of womanhood. Complicating this, however, were normative views of male sexuality. Young men’s health depended on being able to release their sexual desires and, whilst unmarried Cypriot women were out of bounds, the mainly foreign prostitutes on the island seemed like a good outlet for these desires. The battle over the regulation of these women is the subject of Loizos’s paper. The idea of segregating them socially and geographically was hotly debated. I’ll avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal how it all worked out, you’ll have to read the paper!
Loizos’s paper generated some lively interest. Many of those who had come to see him speak had questions to ask. The difference between ‘full time professional’ prostitution, and casual work was discussed. The issue of racial prejudices against certain groups of women also came up. Interestingly, in the discussion of whether men were blamed for transmitting venereal disease to their middle class wives, Loizos told us that Cypriot men were held responsible for this in his period. The discussion continued into the bar at Selwyn College, where it took unexpected turns. Talking with an archaeology student, I learned about the historical depictions of Cypriot women as ‘grotesque’.
We were very pleased to see so many people attending our first workshop. We are very proud to provide the University’s only outlet for graduate work on the history of gender and sexuality. We are very grateful to Loizos for kicking off the term. Finally, we hope to see more new faces as well as the old, same place, same time, on Tuesday.