Sexual Deviants and Attitudes Towards Prostitution in the Early Modern Period

Hello everyone! I know I’ve missed a couple of weeks but as I had the flu I needed some serious time to recover and take it easy. But here I am back again and ready to bring you a new blog post! This week we’re going to be covering prostitution and attitudes towards prostitution during the early modern period. I was thinking about doing prostitution during the twenty-first century as it’s such a hot topic at the moment with legalisation in certain places, but for now I’ll leave that one for another week.

So, prostitution is most commonly referred to as the ‘world’s oldest profession’. And it’s really not hard to see why. While the legal status of prostitution varies greatly from country to country; going from unregulated to a regulated profession, (think the red light district). It is estimated that there are around 42 million prostitutes worldwide. What I’m most interested in is where did this all begin?And when was it at its most popular? Why was is widely accepted in some areas whereas in other areas it was viewed with insurmountable prejudice. What cemented this views, and why? While I’m sure I won’t be able to answer all of these questions, I’ll certainly give it a go!

Prior to the 15th century attitudes were fairly tolerant of prostitutes or sex workers. However, by 1494 attitudes began to change. Many historians have argued that this was a result of the outbreak of syphilis which occurred in Naples in the same year. It ended up affecting most of Europe and is said to have originated from the Columbian exchange as well as speculation being shrouded in the prevalence of other sexually transmitted diseases which could have occurred during the early 16th century. By the time the 16th century was underway prostitution became a profession which was associated with the plague and disease. Many different contagions also emerged which caused many of the brothels to be outlawed by secular authority. Not only did this mean a significant drop in wages for these women but it also meant that prostitutes were being portrayed as something they weren’t. Nearly everyone was affected by the plague, and in this case it could certainly be argued that prostitutes acted as a scapegoat during the time of the great plague.

While prostitutes were considered to be an integral part of the community, ultimately there was a double standard where a man’s sexual promiscuity was accepted whereas a woman’s was looked down upon. For example, sexual promiscuity outside a marriage for men and women was condemned by the church. But a man’s sexual promiscuity was considered less harmful than a woman’s and a man was far less likely to be punished. There have been many theories as to why a man’s sexual deviance was viewed as less harmful. The most obvious explanation would be the idea of gender roles that was so drilled into the minds of everyone in society. As a man grew up he would go through various different stages in his life, these would include: boyhood, adolescence, and manhood. During adolescence the man would be encouraged to experiment sexually with prostitutes, a ‘get it out of your system’ kind of approach. Men’s sexual activity began at an early age long before masturbation and often involved pre-marital sex with prostitutes or servants. Interestingly, respected men kept mistresses and appeared in public with them as well as often recognising their bastard children. If this theory stood firmly with all the males in society, then ultimately prostitutes, mistresses, sex workers or whores were needed within society so that things would run the way they were meant to. In comparing this life cycle with a woman’s, things are somewhat different. A woman during her life will go through, girlhood, adolescence, womanhood, and motherhood. Nowhere in each of these stages is a woman encouraged to experiment sexually. She is to marry, settle down and have children, even with the knowledge that her husband is visiting the local brothel every week. Conduct books were published to treat women who committed adultery and were treated as a crime which was considered far worse than theft. Women whose husbands cheated on them were advised not to complain but to attempt to reform their husbands by setting an example of virtue. This idea is incredibly clever, because no matter what the woman does, she is stuck. Women who took part in sexual misbehaviour were constantly insulted whereas nothing was said about male fornication unless it involved sodomy (and even then it was intellectualised, especially in erotica!), brothel keeping or a bastard child and even if this did occur accusations soon petered out with time.

Ultimately, prostitution was condemned by religious figures. However, many saw it as a necessary evil that helped to satisfy men’s lust while keeping the women clean and pure.

Sorry this is a bit mismatched, the disadvantages of being away from the keyboard for a few weeks! I would love to know your thoughts on this and whether you think prostitution should be legalised! 


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