Look Before You Leap

It has been suggested that the prevalence of prostitution is directly correlated with the decline of concubinage. That is, when ordinary sexual relationships become harder to end without horrible ecclesiastical, legal or financial consequences, men became more cautious about getting into them in the first place. It would seem to follow that the high-water mark of prostitution might be expected when marriage is indissoluble and concubinage formally outlawed, for instance the nineteenth century. As regards the relative number of prostitutes, this may fit; and yet whoever imagined that nineteenth-century men did not have concubines? They were called “official mistresses”, or in New Orleans, placées; the only difference between these and the concubines of Solomon and other rulers was that they lived under a different roof to the wife. It would also seem to follow that the low-water mark of prostitution would be the Swinging Sixties, in which the theory would suggest that men could so easily get laid for free that they did not need to pay for it.

What, then, shall we say about the apparent explosion of prostitution in the last couple of decades, with large numbers of women migrating or being trafficked from poor countries to serve the sexual needs of Western men? Marriage has certainly not become more indissoluble. On the other hand, defenders of the theory might claim that marriage has weakened and concubinage strengthened, so that they are now much the same thing, and taken together are still regulated so as to deter cautious men. State-collected (p)alimony, child maintenance officers and the concept of date-rape all mean that casual “relationships” begin to acquire many of the legal risks and costs of marriage. And indeed, some dedicated punters like to observe that that one does not pay the prostitute to have sex, one pays her to leave afterwards.

The fundamental flaw in the theory is that it imagines that wives, concubines and prostitutes are three easily-distinguished categories whose relative numbers can be readily ascertained for the purpose of drawing lines on a graph. This is not so. In some societies there is a gulf between wife and concubine, in others the categories flow into one another; while there is always a continuous gradation between concubine and prostitute. How do we classify the “professional girlfriend”, the rich man”s “house-guest” and the “good time girl”? What such a woman calls herself and what her enemies call her will often be startlingly different. It follows that any attempt to say how many prostitutes there are in any particular city right now is doomed to failure, because we are likely to count only the full-time streetwalkers and as many of the incall girls and escorts as we can catch, which will be a small minority; while wherever they shade into concubines we shall be altogether helpless. Meanwhile, hysterical moralists exaggerate: I myself have heard a horrified South Asian visitor pronounce that “all” South Asian girls in London were prostitutes, by which he probably meant that they wore modern clothing and looked him in the eye. And if this is where we stand today, what chance do we have of numbering prostitutes in the seventeenth century?

It seems intuitively correct that the more restrictions are placed on sexual access to “respectable” women, the more men who chafe at those restrictions will pay for their sex; but to essay statistical correlations over centuries is foolishness.

Posted on January 28, 2012 at 12:02 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE NAME OF THE GAME, The Trade-Unionism Of Married Women

Leave a Reply