Whilst history may be one of the oldest scholarly disciplines, it has, until more recent times mostly averted its gaze from that other so-called ‘oldest profession’, prostitution, particularly in the Scottish context.
However, as Louise Settle’s history of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century shows, it can hugely benefit from the historian’s scrutiny. The continuing and often heated contemporary debates about whether or how to regulate, legislate or obliterate prostitution in Scotland and elsewhere are almost as vigorous as those dealing with the ‘moral panic’ of ‘white slavery’ and the plight of ‘fallen women’ in the nineteenth century. The arguments among twenty-first century commentators centre on whether women involved in prostitution are victims of abuse in an unequal world or free agents making legitimate economic choices. Resolution looks a long way off. They might be missing a trick. Settle’s detailed and well researched book provides a welcome addition to our knowledge of this long standing and complex social issue, inviting us to look backwards to see how we got to here.
Settle maintains that working class women’s involvement in prostitution in the early twentieth century was a survival strategy when the social, economic and cultural odds were heavily stacked against them. Prostitution may have been a ‘choice’ but it was one made in Scotland at a time when the available options for many women were severely constrained by prevailing economic conditions and social norms governing women’s behaviour. While the risks were high, the alternatives were worse. Prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the early twentieth century was not glamorous. There are no belles de jour here.
Research into police, court, prison and voluntary social service agency records reveals the reality of prostitution from the accounts of those charged with arresting, prosecuting and reforming the women involved. However Settle’s approach pulls off a remarkable coup. Despite the public nature of her sources and the inherent bias likely in accounts of women’s lives mediated through public officials, the reality of lives in prostitution emerges. A collective biography approach to previously hidden life stories provides much needed insight into the women’s lives. We see their reasons for working in prostitution, its impact and how this was often compounded by the efforts of those determined to prevent it. We also hear the women’s loud resistance screaming through.
The distinctions between the European, English and Scottish legal systems’ approach to prostitution in the nineteenth century clarify the roots of the particularly Scottish approach which emerged in the early twentieth century. The growth of state regulation of prostitution across Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century was closely linked to efforts to reduce the spread of venereal disease. While many European countries adopted the French system of licensing state-regulated brothels, England regulated prostitution in order to control the spread of the diseases among men in the armed forces. A series of Contagious Diseases Acts passed in England in the 1860s made compulsory the genital examination of women suspected of being ‘common prostitutes’ working in naval ports and garrison towns. Prior to their eventual repeal in 1886, things had begun to take a moral turn with the 1885 Criminal Amendment Act which responded to British public opinion seething with ‘moral panic’ following reports of the sexual exploitation and abduction of young girls into ‘white slavery’. The Act raised the age of consent from thirteen to sixteen, made brothel-keeping illegal across Britain while the National Vigilance Association (NVA) in England and the Scottish NVA (SNVA) were charged with upholding and enforcing the new morality laws. However policing remained the key mechanism for tackling prostitution in Scotland.
The 1892 Burgh Police (Scotland) Act and individual Scottish city acts criminalized outdoor prostitution by ‘street walkers’ and ‘common prostitutes’ ‘loitering or importuning for the purposes of prostitution’ and stipulating fines and imprisonment. Licensing laws targeted publicans and others using their premises for prostitution and the 1902 Immoral Traffic (Scotland) Act targeted men who trafficked women into prostitution, acted as pimps or ‘bullies’ or lived off ‘immoral’ earnings, imposed penalties of up to six months imprisonment and later introduced flogging for these offences.
The Scottish system included cautioning whereby a woman was only arrested after being caught importuning three times. Thereafter she was deemed a ‘common prostitute’. Police made a distinction between the ‘common’ or ‘hardened prostitute’ regarded as a public nuisance who were dealt with in the courts and younger women seen as ‘victims’ or ‘amateurs’ with the potential to be diverted from prostitution. Settle found a degree of sympathy among police officers for young women whose difficult life circumstances drew them into prostitution and whom officers judged as having the potential for change. In 1907, the option of probation became available to courts and with the discretion available to police on the streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow, probation officers and the SNVA and the Magdalene Asylums took the opportunity to ‘reform’ the lives and characters of young women deemed to be at risk. This informal ‘penal-welfare’ system diverted women either to a closed institution or subjected them to close supervision by a probation officer in the community. They aimed to teach young women to conduct themselves in a manner more aligned with middle class morality and expectations of femininity in their working and private lives. While some women undoubtedly responded positively to this approach, others fiercely resisted the interference and all attempts at ‘reform’.
Who were the women caught up in this system? Unsurprisingly they were working class and experiencing considerable hardship. Information about their backgrounds shows that many came from poor families and either struggled to find work or survived on very low wages. Once involved in prostitution the women suffered from extreme ill health, abuse, exploitation, homelessness and destitution; they often lived chaotic lives and many died young. Many were single mothers, deserted by their husbands, working to feed their children and avoid the poorhouse. There were many who attempted suicide, or were charged with drunkenness and often being ‘drunk in charge of a child’, breach of the peace, assault or theft; they were frequently in and out of prison, poorhouses, reform homes and hospitals. In poor working class communities prostitution was regarded simply as a fact of life and a way to make some money – women were not unduly stigmatised. They took whatever paid work was available and in straitened circumstances prostitution could temporarily make ends meet despite the risks.
This pragmatism and sheer determination was at some remove from the opinions of the moralisers and law enforcers who condemned prostitutes as having pathological character flaws. The exploration of the social geography of prostitution in Edinburgh and Glasgow charting the sites known for street prostitution and the location of brothels in both cities is revealing. In Edinburgh, street prostitution was traditionally centred on the Old Town and the Mound, in Glasgow around High Street and Glasgow Green. However by the early twentieth century women moved to the expanding commercial and entertainment centres of the cities to meet new demand. ‘Khaki fever’ led to a boost around the docks and railway stations in Glasgow and Edinburgh during the First World War. The number of brothels also increased during this period with women soliciting in the streets then taking men to flats or private rooms rented by the hour thus blurring the distinctions between outdoor and indoor prostitution. The police seemed unable to deter women from working in the city centres or to make many inroads in closing down brothels or prosecuting pimps. Settle shows that the relationships between the women working in prostitution, brothel keepers and ‘bullies’ was complex. Women working as prostitutes might rent rooms in their own houses for other women to use. While some women had cruel, controlling and exploitative pimps, others had husbands who played no part as pimps.
The growth of clandestine prostitution based around Italian ice cream cafes and fish and chip shops in the 1920s and 1930s is a surprising revelation. So too are the links between prostitution and the new craze for dance clubs. This was highlighted by the high profile trial and conviction of Kosmo club owner Asher Barnard and his two managers in 1933 for using the venue to profit from prostitution. The trial shed light on prostitution’s ability to embrace changing technology, survive the economic downturn, capitalise on changing public mores, and expand its reach in novel ways. The Club at 20 Swinton Row in the east end of Edinburgh was one of a number in the city where men could ‘book out’ a ‘dance partner’ for thirty shillings for the whole evening by telephone – the origin of the term ‘call girl’. Telephone calls to a network of taxi drivers, hotels, lodging houses, or flats swung into action to whisk the man and his ‘dance partner’ off somewhere to have sex. Women witnesses in the trial described being coerced into being ‘booked out’, having no access to the telephone to make their own arrangements or control the bookings. Earnings from the ‘booking out’ system however far exceeded those working only as dance partners. Settle argues that earning differentials, lack of alternative employment, coercion and the economic challenges women faced reveal how problematic the notion of ‘choice’ in prostitution at the time was.
Prostitution is described as the oldest ‘profession’ but its roots lie in one of the world’s oldest oppressions – women’s. ‘Profession’ implies choice. While its academic purpose is clear and important, the glimpses this book provides into the life of women is where it shines while debunking the myth of free choice by so-called ‘happy hookers’. Early twentieth-century Scotland blamed the women for making bad choices yet failed to address the harm it caused or why men wanted to rent their bodies in the first place. Abuse victims or free agents? Probably both. Prostitution was indeed a ‘choice’ for women desperately short of options; while dance clubs and brothels may have been preferable to the street, women often made the best of it despite the risks. This complicated clandestine world was challenging to police. Women were ill-served by an unequal society which targeted them for being the wrong kind of woman whilst turning a blind eye to the men who paid for sex with them.