Thursday, September 16, 2021

Alexander Koester (1864-1932)

Alexander Koester (1864-1932), German painter.
Alexander Koester, Sprintgtime

Friday, September 10, 2021

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)

John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), American artist.
John Singer Sargent, Study of an Egyptian Girl

Friday, September 3, 2021

Whores in History

Whores in History by Nickie Roberts is an attempt at an in-depth history of prostitution in the West. The author admits that she is not unbiased (as a former stripper she considers herself to be a sex worker) but she’s actually rather less biased than most authors who have tackled this subject. She makes it clear up-front that she favours the complete legalisation of prostitution. Interestingly enough she’s as critical of feminists as she is of moral crusaders.

Her accounts of the various different forms of prostitution that existed in classic Greece and ancient Rome are fascinating. I knew that of course there would have been expensive courtesans and cheap streetwalkers but I had no idea that there were so many distinctively different varieties of prostitute in the ancient world, each with a different social status. Prostitution was simply taken for granted in the ancient pagan world. The rise of Christianity changed all that.

In spite of Christian hostility to sex the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages were in practice surprisingly easy-going in sexual matters. The mediävel Church may have ben corrupt but it was tolerant and often humane. The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation put an end to tolerance. But efforts to persecute prostitutes were notably unsuccessful and the profession continued to thrive until the moral reformers of the late 19th century appeared on the scene. The moral reformers were horrified by the things they saw in working class areas. Working class people were, despite their ghastly lives, managing to enjoy themselves - they were drinking, dancing, singing, making jokes and carousing with prostitutes. They had to be stopped.

The moral reformers were nice respectable middle-class people. They were distressed by the plight of the poor but they were not prepared to consider that maybe that plight was the result of an unjust economic system that ruthlessly and mercilessly exploited the working class, especially working class women (wages for working class women in “respectable” occupations were either starvation level or below starvation level and the work was unbelievably gruelling). It was after all that unjust economic system that made those nice respectable middle-class people so prosperous. Another explanation had to be found, and it was. They decided that the plight of the working class was a result of the immorality and viciousness of working-class people. It was all their own fault. So nice respectable middle-class people didn’t need to feel guilty after all. And surely the most wicked of all those wicked working class people were the prostitutes. The fact that the prostitutes made enough money to afford decent housing and decent food just proved how wicked and sinful they were.

The 19th century was the great age of prostitute rescue. Pious moral reformers put the whores into homes where they could be taught respectable middle class values. These homes were in practice prisons. The girls were taught respectable trades to fit them for a life of never-ending toil and drudgery for starvation wages but at least they wouldn’t be upsetting nice respectable middle-class people any more.

One of the key points that Roberts makes is that efforts to suppress prostitution were invariably aimed at working class prostitutes who catered for working class and lower middle class customers. The moral reformers were careful not to interfere with the pleasures of the rich and powerful.

She also points out that for working class girls prostitution was often by far the best career option available. Prostitutes on the whole enjoyed a much higher standard of living and were healthier, better housed, better fed and better clothed than respectable working class women. Their working conditions were immeasurably better. Many had the temerity to enjoy their lives. It was the relative prosperity and well-being of working class prostitutes that seemed to enrage the moral reformers more than anything else, added to the fact that so many prostitutes stubbornly refused to die young but instead eventually married or started small businesses with their earnings.

The book gets really interesting when it gets to the early 20th century. In the US this was the great age of Progressivism. The progressives succeeded in getting draconian anti-prostitution laws passed, the result of which was to put prostitution in the hands of organised crime. In most European countries similar approaches were taken, all of which made life miserable for whores but made nice respectable middle-class people feel really good about themselves. Then the feminists got in on the act. Feminists didn’t want men telling women how to live their lives. Henceforth feminists would tell women how to live their lives, and women would have to listen to the feminists, or face the consequences.

Even if you’re uncomfortable with her idea that prostitution should be completely legal and unregulated it has to be admitted that Roberts makes a very strong case. It’s hard to argue with her assessment that trying to regulate prostitution just leads to police corruption and abuses of power. Roberts also doesn’t take a simplistic political view. She points out that socialist regimes have been just as sexually repressive as capitalist ones, and she clearly (and rightly) dislikes the strand of feminism that seeks to control women’s sexuality. She also (correctly) points out the links between censorship (all too often driven by hostility to women’s sexuality and fear of women’s bodies) and attempts to control women’s sexual behaviour.

It’s a book that makes a complex but compelling argument. If you only ever read one book on the subject of prostitution this is the one to read. You may not agree with her but she’ll get you thinking. And in the current age of neo-puritanism the book is more relevant than ever.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

orientalist photography

Orientalism was one of the more interesting artistic manifestations of the late 19th century. I have no desire to rehash any of the political arguments on this subject since I dislike the politicisation of art. Suffice to say that in the late 19th century European, British and American artists were obsessed by the exotic.

They were also obsessed by the erotic. The combination of the exotic and the erotic always makes for a heady brew.

Artists who flocked to North Africa and the Middle East (and sometimes further east) did not just take canvasses and their paintbrushes with them. They also took cameras.
Algérie, Jeunes Femmes Photochrome originale d'époque, Circa 1890
Algérie, Bédouines du Sud, Photochrome originale d'époque, Circa 1890
Algérie, Femmes Mauresques, Photochrome originale d'époque, Circa 1890
Algérie, Jeune Fille du Sud, Photochrome originale d'époque, Circa 1890
Algérie. Jeunes Femmes Mauresques. Photochrome originale d'époque. Circa 1891
Nu au jasmin, vers 1904
Afrique du nord au repos
Une belle fille du sud
Jeune mauresque nue
Types d'Orien

Friday, August 27, 2021

Harlots, Whores and Hookers

I hope I got you attention with the title of this post. Harlots, Whores and Hookers is an entertaining if not particularly scholarly history of prostitution. And the social history of the 19th century is one of the focuses of this blog (or at least it was intended to be one of the focuses).

He takes the story back about as far as it can be traced, to the historical rise of temple prostitution in ancient times.

He tries to be fairly even-handed, admitting abuses when they existed although it’s fairly obvious that he takes the entirely sane view that most of the abuses are either the result of attempts to prohibit prostitution, or are exacerbated by such attempts. At the time he wrote the book (1979) it still seemed possible that western societies would learn to deal with sex in a rational grown-up manner.

Much of the book is devoted to cataloguing the repeat attempts to suppress prostitution and the inevitable failure of all those attempts. Failures which usually just made things worse for everybody. Evans seems to favour the idea of legalised but government-regulated prostitution, which is at least saner than attempts at prohibition (although the argument could be made that government regulation could make things worse).

He’s not inclined to see prostitutes as victims, pointing out that for most of history prostitution was a better option for women than supposedly respectable occupations which paid a pittance. He also explodes the myth that most prostitutes come to a bad end. Some prostitutes certainly have come to a bad end, but most have eventually married and blended into respectable society and some have done very nicely for themselves.

The book does deal briefly with the subject of prostitution in the 19th century, which is of course the period that interests me most.

The book is an interesting throwback to a time when it was still possible to discuss social problems in an intelligent and reasonable way. Not a great book but not bad as a brief introduction to the subject.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Pierre-Gérard Carrier-Belleuse (1851-1932)

Pierre-Gérard Carrier-Belleuse (1851-1932), French painter.
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, Femme en déshabillé vert, 1889
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, Young Lady Adjusting her Corset, 1893
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, La frileuse, 1894
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, Nu sous un parasol, 1890
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, La Première Pose, 1900
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, Reveil
Pierre Carrier-Belleuse, Un nu, 1897

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Jean Agélou (1878-1921)

Jean Agélou (1878-1921), French photographer.
Jean Agélou, Fernande
Jean Agélou, Fernande
Jean Agélou, Serie 034 No 2
Jean Agélou, Serie 034 No 3
Jean Agélou, Seated nude smoking
Jean Agélou, Seated nude female, circa 1920
Jean Agélou, Female nude posed under a garden arch