Prostitution: from tolerance to prohibition (History)

Prostitution: from tolerance to prohibition (History)

Provide the means to make prostitution disappear by penalizing customers. If the project of the Minister of Women's Rights is causing a wide controversy, the question is not new. In its January 2013 issue, the Monthly History looks back extensively on the history and debates around the "oldest profession in the world".


Condemned by the law and the prophets, prostitution, in sometimes very varied forms, has been perpetuated since ancient times. It has its history and its legends, its literature, its painting, its filmography. From medieval bordeaux to modern brothels, from ladies of petty virtue to wedding brides, the splendours and miseries of courtesans have never ceased to inspire the stanzas of poets and the anathema of preachers. The Enlightenment and the great hope of happiness, progress and dignity for all, however, tilted the question. Moral scandal, prostitution became a political scandal. The last struggle, witness to a hated slavery.

In fact, the cohorts of bridal girls are the fruit of poverty and social distress. Behind their often pitiful fate lurks the sinister shadow of the merciless pimp, the government in the days of great tolerance being only a slightly bureaucratic version of it. It was therefore necessary to abolish, to prohibit. The injunction came from English feminists.

Yes but ... the question becomes more complicated. How far does the freedom of women - and men - who “sell” themselves (should we say “rent themselves”)? Where is the difference - argued Simone de Beauvoir - with the fact of selling (renting?) His arms at the factory? And how to treat sexual misery other than by the always reiterated recommendation of abstinence? The debate was beautifully posed in the 1880s by Yves Guyot. It is far from being closed.

Prostitution: from tolerance to prohibition. Monthly L'Histoire, January 2013. On newsstands and by subscription.


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