Reference: FRANCES, R. (1994)
The History of Female Prostitution in
Australia in PERKINS, R., PRESTAGE, G., SHARP, R. & LOVEJOY,
F. (eds.) (1994) Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia. University of
New South Wales Press: Sydney. pp.27-52.
When local councillors and other prominent citizens planned appropriate ways to celebrate the 1993 Kalgoorlie Centenary, a group of Hay Street sex workers suggested a brothel museum as a fitting tribute to the longstanding contribution of the prostitution industry to the town's economic and social life. While the city aldermen were not quite ready for such an idea, its conception raises a number of issues about the history of prostitution in Australia. Most obviously, the sex workers were drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the official disapproval of their industry alongside the open toleration, even encouragement, of the Hay Street brothels as a facility for local men and as a tourist attraction for the town. Equally important is the idea of prostitution as a subject for historical investigation and representation. What kinds of objects and texts could be included in such a museum?
The changing physical environment of prostitution is an obvious starting point. One scene might depict the interior of an 1890s hessian tent (through which enterprising policemen could poke spyholes in their quest for conclusive evidence of commercial sex), equipped with a wooden box on top of which washbowls contain water costing almost as much as a 'short-time' with the tent's occupant. Next to the basin, a handful of metal tokens struck with the silhouette of a young woman on one side and a name and address on the other. The only other furniture is an iron bedstead, above which is pinned a medical certificate signed by the local doctor proclaiming the prostitute (a young French woman) free of venereal diseases. Draped across the end of the bed, a collection of lacy underwear, silk stockings, high-buttoned boots and brightly coloured clothing. Moving forward in time, the next scene might contain an interior of a weatherboard and iron house, 1920s. Cleanly but basically furnished, it has a basin with cold running water in the corner. Through the door a bathroom, with chip heater, is visible. On the dressing table lies an Italian newspaper left behind by the last client. The final scene shows a street view of the same room in the 1970s, framed by a car window. The top half of the door opens independently of the bottom (in the manner of a horse stabledoor) to reveal a scantily clad woman sitting inside, lit by coloured lights. In the background the watchful eye of an older woman, expensively dressed and bejewelled, surveys the prostitute and the onlooker.
Such a display, while potentially very evocative and illuminating about the changing working conditions and even to some extent the working relationships of goldfields sex workers, nevertheless could not elucidate the more complex issues associated with the changing nature of prostitution over time. It would require considerable amounts of text to explain the complex range of factors which shaped, and still shape, the sex industry: changing economic options for women; changing sexual practices and values within the prostitute and non-prostitute community; technological changes; developments in medical treatment; shifts in the general economic climate; wars; racial ideologies; and, probably most importantly, changing state interventions in the form of legislation and its administration by the police, courts, prisons and other government agencies. This chapter will explore this complex history and the way in which it has been dealt with by Australian historians. It will look exclusively at female prostitution, since male prostitution is virtually absent from the historical record and entirely absent from the historiography.
It is a conventional wisdom that prostitution is the oldest profession and that it has existed in all societies in all times. The case of Aboriginal society before the European invasion refutes the latter claim. As far as we know, prostitution, in the sense of the exchange of sexual services for goods or money, did not exist in traditional Aboriginal society. Most (but not all) Aboriginal societies did practise some form of polygamy, but this was not prostitution. Nor was the ritual exchange of women as a sign of friendship between different groups of people (Williams and Jolly, 1992, pp.9-19). The earliest hints we have of commercialised sex are with the Macassar fishermen who visited the northern shores of Australia on a seasonal basis from at least the 1670s. There were certainly sexual liaisons between these fishermen and local women, and cases of Aboriginal women returning to Macassar with their lovers. There is also evidence of a barter system whereby Aboriginal people exchanged local goods for rice, calico, alcohol and fishing equipment. Oral histories record some cases of women being exchanged for dugout canoes but it is unclear how widespread this was, or indeed whether it was in the period before European contact or in the later period (the trade did not end until 1907) when Aboriginal societies and economies were under greater pressure (McKnight, 1976).
Historians are on firmer ground when talking about prostitution in the post-invasion period, although our knowledge is by no means complete here either. As feminist historians have shown, prostitution was an integral part of the social and economic system of the early convict colonies. The numerical predominance of males on the first convict ships (amongst both convicts and gaolers) was from the outset perceived as a social and political problem: those in authority believed that 'without a sufficient proportion of that sex [female] it is well known that it would be impossible to preserve the settlement from gross irregularities and disorders' (Martin 1978, pp.22-9). Women were needed as an antidote to sexual deviance (read sodomy), rape of 'respectable' (read upper class) women, and rebellion. It was thus a matter of considerable urgency to find female sexual partners for the European colonists. Aboriginal women were obvious candidates for this role, and indeed Arthur Phillip, the first Governor, hoped that in time Aboriginal men would 'permit their Women to Marry and Live' with the convicts (Rutter, 1937). In the short term, however, this was not practicable and, as subsequent events were to show, liaisons between convict men and Aboriginal women were to cause much interracial tension (Reynolds, 1982). Having toyed with and rejected (on humanitarian grounds) the idea of luring Polynesian women to Sydney, the authorities turned to the possibility of bringing in significant numbers of women convicts. The issue here was not miscegenation, as it was to become by the end of the nineteenth century. Class considerations were paramount. The favourable response later on to Japanese prostitutes was based not just on their quietude but also on the fact that they didn't appear to have half-caste babies very often.
The plan was only partly successful. Only one quarter of the convicts transported on the First Fleet were women. If we add gaolers and officials to the numbers of males, women were outnumbered by roughly six to one in the convict settlements until the increase in free female immigration in the 1830s (Carmichael, 1992, p.103). To achieve even this level of comparability in the numbers of men and women, the authorities had to transport women on much less serious offences than those for which men were transported (Robson, 1963, 1965; Oxley 1988). But, the supply of female offenders was still not sufficient to keep pace with that of male convicts. This meant that, if the intention to use these women as sexual partners for convicts was to be fulfilled, some or all of the convict women would have to have multiple male partners. Indeed, in Phillip's opinion, 'the lusts of the men were so urgent as to require the prostitution of the most abandoned women to contain them' (Rutter, 1937). The fact that 12 percent of convict women were recorded as prostitutes before leaving Britain no doubt predisposed them to continue their former occupation in the colony (Robson, 1963). Other conditions in the penal settlements encouraged widespread prostitution. In the early years of the settlement no provision was made for housing for female convicts and a woman's best chance of accommodation was through striking up a liaison with some man. Those who could not or would not attach themselves to one man found the temporary bartering of sex for accommodation just as effective. Women were also the frequent targets of male violence and many found it necessary to seek the protection of one man, in return for sexual favours, against the sexual demands of other men. Limited opportunities for female employment in the early years, where the major demand was for male muscle-power, also placed pressure on women to prostitute themselves as one of the few ways in which they could earn a livelihood. According to Anne Summers, the result was a situation of 'enforced whoredom', either to one man or to many (Summers 1975, pp.267- 85; see also Alford, 1984, p.44; Aveling, 1992).
There is considerable debate about the exact level of prostitution in convict society (Lake 1988). Historians such as Lloyd Robson (1965), Alan Shaw (1966) and more recently Robert Hughes (1987) have tended to accept the judgements of contemporary officials who condemned the female convicts generally as 'damned whores', possessed of neither 'Virtue nor Honesty'. But the evidence upon which this judgement is based is problematic. How can we know, for instance, whether the frequent allegations of universal whoredom reflected the class- and sex-based prejudices and preconceptions of literate officials more than actual practices in the colony? As Michael Sturma has pointed out, middle and upper class commentators tended to see working class women as prostitutes simply because their behaviour transgressed their own class-based notions of feminine modesty and morality. For instance, long-term de facto relationships were a common and accepted part of early nineteenth century working class culture, but from the perspective of the middle or upper class observer, these women were prostituting themselves, albeit to 'one man only' (Sturma 1978). Such men were also shocked by working class women's open and aggressive sexuality compared to that of 'virtuous' women of their own class (Daniels 1993). Early feminist historians such as Anne Summers and Miriam Dixson have ironically reinforced this picture of wholesale whoredom by incorporating the stereotype as a key element in explaining Australian women's current low status in relation to Australian men. Women were compelled into prostitution by State policy and structural factors rather than their own personal 'vice' but they were, by these accounts, prostitutes nonetheless (Summers 1975; Dixson 1975). Portia Robinson (1985), writing in the mid-1980s, presents the opposite view of the women of Botany Bay as good wives, good mothers and good citizens. If they were prostitutes, she says, it was as a result of their criminal environment in Britain rather than conditions in Australia. On the contrary, Australia offered women the chance for redemption (Robinson, 1988, p.236).
In the final analysis, it is impossible to know exactly how many women engaged in commercial sex during the convict period. Despite this, prostitution obviously was a key institution in convict society, providing one of the few economic options for women who supplied a high level of demand for sexual services in a disproportionately male population (Alford 1984). There is a sense, too, in which the actual numbers of women working as prostitutes is irrelevant to an understanding of the place prostitution played in colonial society. What is more important is the fact that those in authority believed it to be widespread yet, apart from ritual expressions of disgust, showed a high degree of toleration for the practice. As noted earlier, this toleration reflected the official belief that prostitutes provided a necessary outlet for the powerful lusts of working class men. It was also accepted because the women who provided this service were, from the point of view of the ruling class, the 'other' - working class women with values and behaviour markedly different from those of women of their own class. The sharp contrast between the speech, dress and behaviour of convict women and the demeanour of middle and upper class women also helped mask the extent to which sexual services were exchanged for financial gain across social classes. Because of this, convict society, particularly in the earlier decades, was noticeably more tolerant of women of 'easy virtue' amongst its upper echelons than was contemporary British society or later colonial society.
Deborah Oxley (1988, p.87) makes another important point in identifying prostitution as a structural part of the capitalist patriarchy which characterised colonising society. Working class women's role in this society was primarily to reproduce the working class: future, past and present. An intrinsic part of this role was the provision of sexual services to men, through marriage, force or payment. Sex was commercialised and turned into a commodity.
The convict era was thus crucial in setting the pattern for the history of prostitution in Australia. It saw the establishment of the sex industry as an important part of the life experience and work options of women within colonising society; it was also during this period that the extent of prostitution came to be used as a gauge of the worth of colonial women and of the success of colonial society more generally. Prostitution assumed a rhetorical and symbolic significance quite apart from its importance as an avenue for women's economic survival.
Meanwhile, as prostitution of European women flourished in the penal settlements, wherever the white colonisers intruded on Aboriginal lands sexual contact between white men and black women occurred soon after. In some cases this was the result of Aboriginal people extending traditional hospitality to visitors. That is, Aboriginal women were lent to the intruders in the expectation that friendly relations would ensue. In some cases, too, Aboriginal women became more regular companions for white men, often as a deliberate strategy to incorporate the newcomers into the Aboriginal kinship system. It was also, no doubt, sometimes a matter of personal preference on the part of Aboriginal women, who welcomed the novelty the white men provided and perhaps also wished to cast in their lot with the ascendant power in the region.
All too often, however, sexual interaction was coercive and violent, with Aboriginal women being conquered and taken in the same way that Aboriginal lands were. In the aftermath of dispossession Aboriginal women were often left with little choice but to engage in prostitution, either for money or for goods, in order to survive as individuals and to contribute to the survival of their kin. They formed the pivot of what Deborah Bird Rose (1992, Ch.19) calls 'an economy of sex'. As access to hunting grounds was increasingly prevented and sources of food became rapidly depleted, Aboriginal people were forced to participate in the white economy to survive. In the early colonial period, where convict labour was readily available, Aboriginal women's sexuality was often the only saleable item possessed by the survivors who eked out a precarious existence on the edges of white society. In the north, the labour of young men was also valued, but here the almost total absence of white women placed Aboriginal women in even greater demand. They were indispensable as domestic workers as well as performing a wide range of non-traditional women's work, such as stock work and mining, in certain areas. For all these workers, satisfying the sexual demands of their co-workers and bosses was usually considered part of the job. The more fortunate were able to obtain something in exchange for their sexual favours - such as extra rations which were shared with their kin in the camp. The less fortunate were treated as sexual slaves, confined for the use of white managers and stock workers. Ann McGrath (1984a, 1987) relates the Northern Territory practice of keeping a number of young 'stud gins' locked up in a chicken-wire enclosure as an enticement for white labourers, who were otherwise reluctant to work in the so-called 'womanless North'.
While this practice contributed to the economy of the pastoralists, the relatively benign practice of exchanging sex for extra rations contributed enormously to the survival of Aboriginal groups dispossessed by pastoralism and mining or living in areas where the bush tucker was radically depleted.
But it was not just Aboriginal women who were engaged to satisfy the lusts of men in the North. In the late nineteenth century Japanese and, to a lesser extent, Europeans and Australians operated brothels, especially in ports and mining centres. The more southerly the location the greater the proportion of Australian and European women and the fewer the Japanese found in sex work. The earlier goldrushes in Victoria and New South Wales, by contrast, were served almost entirely by prostitutes from Britain and Australia. Japanese brothels were a prominent feature of waterfront life in ports such as Broome, Darwin and Thursday Island, where the inmates catered for the wide range of nationalities engaged in the pearling, pearl-shell and fishing industries, as well as those employed on cargo and naval vessels. The role these women played in the economic life of the ports was as great as their contribution to its social facilities. Brothel-keepers were often in partnership with pearl fishermen, the proceeds of prostitution being used to finance the purchase and outfitting of Japanese pearling luggers (Hunt, 1986; C. Moore, 1992; Sissons, 1976-77).
Aboriginal women were also involved in prostitution in the maritime industry, though their case is somewhat special. In Western Australia, for instance, until legislation in 1871 prohibited the practice, they were employed both as divers and prostitutes on the pearling luggers which operated out of ports such as Broome and Roebourne (Hunt, 1986; Reynolds, 1990). On shore, women from local areas and others abandoned by drovers, miners or troopers far from their own country, waited in the mangroves at the river mouths to sell their wares to the fishermen as they came ashore with their earnings. Again, state intervention attempted to outlaw this practice. It would be naive to think, however, that legislation put a stop to the trade in Aboriginal women's sexuality. This continued, albeit in a more clandestine fashion.
The frontier has had a special legacy in the way in which prostitution is treated by sections of Australian society into the present. There is still a certain 'out of sight out of mind' mentality regarding sexual relations between women of Aboriginal descent and non-Aboriginal men which extends to commercial sex, especially in rural areas. For most of the twentieth century Aboriginal women were controlled by the various state 'protection Acts' rather than the civil and criminal laws which were used to police non-Aboriginal prostitution. They were thus put in a separate category to other prostitutes. In some ways this had negative consequences for the women concerned, since the powers of the Chief Protectors of Aborigines were far more far-reaching than those of the police in relation to non- Aboriginal prostitutes (Huggins and Blake, 1992). In other ways their separateness was more positive. The fact that Aboriginal women usually traded sex in fringe-camps or on isolated stations rather than city streets meant that they escaped many of the moves by police and criminal organisations to control their activities and earnings. The balance of these factors must have varied considerably with the experience of individual women.
The frontier years also had ramifications for non-Aboriginal sex workers. The legacy is clearly evident in mining towns such as Kalgoorlie, where prostitution is openly carried on under the virtual supervision of the police. As in colonial days, the police (and apparently the majority of the local community) consider the brothels a necessary part of life in a mining town where men still outnumber women. This acceptance and semi-official control has been a mixed blessing for the women concerned. The vigilance of the police ensures that criminal elements are kept away from the brothels and their inmates, making sex work in Kalgoorlie much safer than probably anywhere else in Australia. However, this security comes at the price of excessive intrusion into the personal relationships and movements of sex workers. As one former Kalgoorlie prostitute recalled of her years in a Hay Street brothel in the 1970s, after fleeing Sydney because of violence from the 'big fellas': 'Oh no, you weren't allowed to have boyfriends. Not in Kalgoorlie... The police won't let you... I tell you what, I couldn't cop that, not being free' (Frances, 1993, p.14). In addition to having their personal relationships vetted, sex workers were forbidden to shop in the town after midday and were not allowed to use the local restaurants, hotels, swimming pool or cinemas or to go to the racecourse. This situation persists to the present day (Cohen, 1994).
The sale of sexual services was not, however, simply a product of the sex imbalance in convict society or on the frontier. On the contrary, prostitution flourished in every late nineteenth century city in Australia even where the sex ratios were more evenly matched. Of course, there were the perennial demands for commercial sex from enclaves of men, such as in the merchant marine and the armed forces. But colonial cities supplied other customers. In this case the demand came from white men who sought sexual release with prostitutes because, in the context of prevailing moral codes, 'respectable' women were not available to meet these demands. Middle class men, enjoined to defer marriage until they had attained a sufficient level of financial security, were not willing to stay virgins until they married in their late twenties or thirties. Single women of their own class were not generally willing to engage in premarital sex because to do so would spoil their marriage prospects. After marriage, the desire to limit family size, increasingly evident in Australian middle class families from the 1870s, meant that many couples severely curtailed their marital sexual activity. Men, 'naturally', it was thought, sought carnal solace in the arms of prostitutes. Bourgeois Australians had inherited from England the same double standard of sexual morality which insisted on women's chastity before marriage and faithfulness afterwards in the interests of guaranteeing the paternity of the heirs. While men were expected to have strong sexual urges and extramarital sex was winked at on their part, respectable women were generally expected to feel little sexual desire of their own and were condemned should they seek gratification outside the marital bed. Working class men too were increasingly subject to this bourgeois code of morality, and because of relatively high wages in Australia may have been able to afford prostitutes' services more readily than were their British counterparts.
The supply of prostitutes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries came principally from the working class. Despite the rhetoric of the working man's paradise, wages and conditions for Australian women were far from heavenly. While the growth of manufacturing in the major urban centres in the late nineteenth century did open up new opportunities for women as paid workers, the options were still very limited and none of them very alluring. In 1900 domestic service was still the most popular female occupation, offering women a life of confinement, hard work, low wages and the strong possibility of sexual harassment from male employers and their sons. Women who preferred the freedom of the factory had a narrow range of female jobs open to them, all of which paid around half the male rate for similar occupations. For young women living at home, this was just enough to make the effort worthwhile. For older women, or those without family or friends to supplement their wages, life was difficult to say the least. Women with dependents found it almost impossible to subsist and support their children or other relatives on factory wages, while the logistics of balancing childcare and paid work outside the home were daunting.
Prostitution was attractive to many such women because, like outwork for the clothing industry, it offered them the chance to work from home. The increasing work opportunities in shops and offices offered slightly higher status but usually not much more in the way of remuneration. Even if a woman took only one paying customer a day, at the going rate of two shillings and sixpence for a short- time (at the bottom end of the market) she would earn more in a week than as a skilled tailoress or a lady typist. In times of economic depression the gap between respectable and unrespectable earnings was even wider (Scates, 1993, pp.40-41). Given these economic realities, it is hardly surprising that there was always a ready supply of women to meet the demands for commercial sex in Australia's colonial cities. No doubt there were also women drawn to the prostitute's lifestyle for its own sake, as offering a more enjoyable and freer way of earning a living than other kinds of feminine work. Historians have been slower to recognise this aspect of prostitution than they have the economic one.
The forces propelling women into sex work were therefore almost as strong in the post-convict era as they were during the earlier colonial period. But, late nineteenth century Australians were increasingly less willing to allow the open, uncontrolled activities of streetwalkers on their city streets and of bawdy houses in their neighbourhoods. The period from about 1870 through to the First World War saw concerted efforts by legislatures and police forces in all the colonies to 'clean-up' their streets, and prostitutes were a major target of this cleansing operation.
How can we explain these moves to reform urban street life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? There is no one explanation which covers the situation in all colonies, but certain common processes are identifiable. And these relate to transformations in the management of urban space common to cities in other English-speaking countries at about the same time. The growth of an urban middle class which accompanied the industrial expansion of the nineteenth century created a class of leisured wives and daughters who sought to use urban space in new ways, most notably by shopping and promenading in the central business districts. A variant of this was the fashionable Melbourne pastime of 'doing the Block', or promenading around the Collins, Swanston, Bourke and Elizabeth Streets block of shops. With more 'respectable' women using the streets, the presence of what they regarded as 'nuisances' had to be minimised and preferably eliminated. Hawkers, beggars and drunks were all targets of this campaign, but prostitutes were especially targeted. The reason for this is obvious: while it might be annoying for a bourgeois woman to be accosted by beggars and so on, it was extremely embarrassing for her to have to encounter 'fallen women' and, worse still, to be mistaken for one of their number and propositioned by men (Davies, 1989; also Walkowitz, 1992). The attack on street culture can also be seen as part of a broader middle class assault on working class behaviour generally, aimed at reforming those aspects of life which did not fit with the demands of an ordered, industrial society (Daniels, 1984).
Colonial legislatures were thus responding to similar pressures on other recently industrialised societies when they introduced a series of legislative changes which sought to give the police greater powers to control street life. Prostitutes were especially affected by changes to the vagrancy clauses of the police offences Acts, such as occurred in Victoria in 1891 and New South Wales in 1908, which made soliciting by women an offence for the first time (Arnot, 1987; Golder and Allen 1979-80). Other legislation at both municipal and state/colonial levels imposed new penalties on brothel-keepers.
It should be noted, however, that the aim of this legislation was not to suppress prostitution entirely. Indeed, legislators generally accepted the inevitability of prostitution as a social institution - a 'necessary evil', as it was often referred to. Assuming that men's sexual instincts would find some outlet, politicians argued that it was better that they were satisfied by prostitutes than translated into the seduction or rape of 'respectable' women. The best one could do was control its more offensive side-effects. As Western Australian Attorney-General Walter James explained during the passage of the Police Amendment Act in 1902: 'I realise ... that it would be undesirable to entirely suppress it [ie: prostitution], even if we had the power to do so... On the other hand I do not believe in its being carried on in an open, flagrant and almost insulting manner. I believe it should be kept in restraint' (Davidson, 1980, p.41). James's remarks sum up the dominant attitude of Australian authorities to the issue of prostitution from the late nineteenth century until the present day.
Pressures specific to new societies also saw increasing efforts to control the operation of prostitution in colonial Australia. Kay Daniels (1984) charts the changing attitude of the authorities to prostitution in Tasmania after the middle of the century, when colonial legislators were concerned to minimise the visibility of prostitution as part of the transition from a convict to a free society. The passing of convict society saw a change in the attitude of middle class people to prostitution. While the sexual exploitation of convict women was widely acknowledged, it was accepted as a reflection of the immoral nature of the women themselves, who were not ordinary women but 'whores'. With the move to a 'free' society, prostitution came to be seen in the same light as many other aspects of working class culture: as a social problem to be dealt with by civic authorities. Alongside sporadic (and largely unsuccessful) efforts to 'rescue' prostitutes was an increasing array of legislation designed to control prostitution.
Similar concerns were evident in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s. Here the intensely masculine, frontier-style town, with large numbers of alluvial prospectors, was being replaced by a more family-oriented society based upon wage-labour in deep mines. 'Respectable' residents became increasingly dissatisfied with the open displays of the town's many prostitutes, who solicited throughout the central parts of the town in broad daylight as well as at night. Such behaviour was considered inappropriate in the presence of increasing numbers of 'respectable' women and children so moves were taken by the police which eventually localised the brothels and severely curtailed the public movement of sex workers (Davidson, 1980, 1984).
Other pressures also affected society's willingness to intervene in the lives of prostitutes. Health considerations, for instance, became increasingly important in the context of British imperial expansion in the latter half of the nineteenth century. While venereal disease was not a new phenomenon in that century, governments saw it as an increasingly serious problem, especially as it affected the fitness of the nation's military personnel. Prostitutes were targeted as the major carriers of VD and the most vulnerable to control. In Britain, the government enacted the controversial Contagious Diseases (CD) Acts of the 1860s which aimed to provide a pool of disease- free prostitutes for the use of troops in English garrison towns. The British military authorities also wanted similar legislation introduced in ports regularly visited by its troopships. Governments in New Zealand, India, Singapore, Canada and South Africa bowed to this pressure, as did the government in Tasmania in 1879 (Warren, 1993; Backhouse, 1985; Van Onselen, 1980; Macdonald, 1986; Arnot, 1987, 1988; Daniels and Murnane, 1979). Other colonies, notably Victoria and Queensland, introduced such CD Acts without any direct pressure from the military, their intention being more clearly designed for the protection of the civilian (male) population (Evans, 1984; Arnot, 1987). It is clear that many in the colonies saw the CD Acts not only, although primarily, as a health measure. They were also a way of controlling prostitutes' behaviour generally. As the editor of the Perth Sunday Times argued in 1909:
A CD Act is wanted in Western Australia for several reasons. It is wanted in the interests of morality and public decency; it is wanted for the protection of the prostitutes themselves; it is wanted because syphilis is becoming dangerously prevalent and because the only effective means of checking it is to put the women of the town under some restraint (Davidson, 1980, p.65).
Like the British legislation, the colonial laws provided for compulsory examination of prostitutes and their forcible detention in so-called lock hospitals if found to be suffering from a venereal disease. Unlike the British legislation, however, the colonial versions were not geographically specific but applied to women throughout the colony as well as in the ports. The laws were obviously discriminatory, applying only to women and not to the men who must have infected them. While some politicians conceded the injustice and illogicality of this, none was prepared to extend the Act to cover men. As the premier of Queensland, William Kidston, candidly admitted, 'In a Parliament, however, which was composed of 72 men, no seriously minded man would propose to introduce such an innovation' (Evans, 1984, p.142). Not all colonial governments were so insensitive to the civil rights of women. South Australia, for instance, prided itself on doing things differently from the former convict colonies, its Advocate General declaring that CD-style legislation was not in accordance 'with the sentiments of the Colony', representing as it did an infringement on the rights of women and official condoning of immorality (Horan, 1984, p.115). Western Australian legislators were likewise sensitive to lobbying from religious, feminist and civil rights groups and deleted sections from the 1911 Health Act which provided for compulsory notification and treatment of venereal disease, fearing that this was a version of the CD Act (Davidson, 1984, pp.178-181). Those colonies which did introduce and enforce the CD Acts were arguably influenced by their heritage of female convictism. As Kay Daniels says of Tasmania, the upper classes
... seem not to have had a finely developed sense of the rights of working-class women. Decades during which the mere accusation that a woman was a whore had been sufficient to deny her protection and civil rights had no doubt blunted colonial sensibilities and left a society more anxious than most to draw a dividing line between the prostitute and the 'respectable' woman (Daniels, 1984, p.79).
The issue of the control of venereal disease raises important questions about not just the legislation on a colony's statute books but also the ways in which it was administered. Different emphasis and interpretation could result in radically different implementation of essentially similar laws, with significantly different consequences for individual sex workers. In Queensland, for instance, the Act for the Suppression of Contagious Diseases of 1868 was not applied universally but only to particular centres of population, largely because of the cost, the limited facilities and the fear of a backlash of organised protest (Evans, 1984, p.142). However, within the gazetted areas women who found their names on the police list were subject to regular medical examinations and if diagnosed as having syphilis or gonorrhoea were incarcerated in special lock hospitals for periods of from three to six months. Inmates in these hospitals were treated more like prisoners than patients, subject to strict rules and regulations in the hope that such discipline would bring them 'to a sense of their past degradation' (Evans, 1984, p.143). Recalcitrant patients could be placed in solitary confinement, placed on a diet of bread and water or even removed to the lock-up and visitors were not permitted. Medical treatment was largely ineffective, given that there was no effective cure until the introduction of Salvarsan treatment in 1912 gave relief to some victims of the disease. (More effective treatment was not available until the use of penicillin from the 1940s.) For Queensland prostitutes, the legislation was enormously intrusive, forcing them to keep on the move to avoid police notice or to relocate outside the gazetted areas. Once caught in the web of official notice life could become a tedious series of imprisonments in the dreaded lock hospital.
By contrast to the Queensland situation the Victorian contagious diseases legislation, embodied in the Act for the Conservation of Public Health of 1878, was never brought into operation. According to Meg Arnot (1987, pp.10-20) this was primarily due to the activities of an organised and articulate lobby group galvanised by the Women's Christian Temperance Union. But, this did not mean that diseased prostitutes were free from official harassment. On the contrary, the Victorian police had ample flexibility under the vagrancy clauses of the Police Offences Act to cover this contingency. As plainclothes constable Albert Tucker explained to the 1906 Royal Commission on the Victorian Police Force: 'When we know that a woman is suffering from syphilis and is soliciting about the streets, we get hold of her and lock her up, charge her under the Vagrancy Act, and inform the magistrates in the morning, and they will send her to the gaol hospital' (Amot, 1987, p.15). A similar strategy was employed by the Western Australian police after the deletion of the compulsory VD clauses from the 1909 Health Bill (Davidson, 1984, pp.178-181).
Concerns about the spread of venereal disease became especially acute in times of war when authorities became alarmed at the effect on the fighting potential of the armed forces. In such circumstances, officials were prepared to take drastic action in the interests of national security. In Perth, for instance, several cases of syphilis amongst recruits at Blackboy Hill during late 1914 were attributed to prostitutes in Roe Street brothels. The police immediately instructed the Government Medical Officer, Dr Blanchard, to examine all the brothel inmates and report his findings. Any women found to be diseased were prosecuted as vagrants. This initial inspection was followed by regular fortnightly checks, paid for at the cost of a guinea a visit by the prostitutes. The police and medical authorities had in effect introduced a system of regulation of the Roe Street inmates without any legislative sanction whatsoever.
The Second World War saw even more drastic official harassment of professional sex workers and so-called 'good-time girls' who provided sex for servicemen on a less commercial basis. Under the National Security (Venereal Diseases and Contraceptives) Regulations of September 1942, the chief medical officer in each state was empowered to compel any person whom he had 'reasonable grounds' to suspect of suffering from a venereal infection to undergo a medical examination. If found to be infected the person could be detained in a stipulated hospital or other 'suitable place'. Although men were also technically covered by these regulations, in practice it was women who were its main targets. The regulations were applied with special enthusiasm in Queensland, where large numbers of Allied troops were either based or passing through during the war. Queensland women designated as 'common prostitutes' were already subject to regular medical surveillance and compulsory confinement and treatment under the 1937 Public Health Act; the National Security Regulations extended this medical surveillance to the rest of the female population. Information given by infected troops was used as the basis to 'contact and dispose of' any woman allegedly suffering from venereal disease (Saunders and Taylor, 1987, pp.157-61).
Other aspects of the increasing State intervention in the prostitution industry had serious consequences for sex workers. Changes to the vagrancy laws across Australia in the early 1900s made living off the proceeds of prostitution an offence under the various Police Offences Acts. The targets of these laws were 'bludgers' or pimps, men constructed in the popular imagination as villains who debauched and enslaved innocent girls and young women, then lived off their immoral earnings. Concern about this practice was fuelled by sensationalist reports in the London press of an international 'white slave traffic' which lured innocent young girls to a life of shame in Continental and Oriental brothels. Similar reports appeared in the press across the English-speaking world throughout the 1890s and 1900s, prompting legislation to deal with the organisers of this 'trade in human flesh' . In most cases these stories had racist overtones, with the villains being portrayed as 'foreigners' of one sort or another, corrupting the wholesome morals of women of British origin and descent. Australia was no exception to this pattern. In Western Australia, for instance, the villains were usually French or Italian, with the occasional 'Afghan buck' thrown in for additional colour. A few sensational cases involving Italians added fuel to these beliefs (Davidson, 1980, pp.24-25). Ironically, the police were rarely successful in apprehending and convicting 'white slavers', although there is certainly historical evidence of the existence of syndicates who traded in prostitutes, with or without the full knowledge and consent of the women concerned (Davidson, 1980). Indeed, a deputation of concerned feminists who lobbied the 1914 Premiers' Conference in Melbourne regarding the international traffic in women and girls were refused admission and told that the premiers did not believe in the existence of such a trade (Davidson, 1980, p.71). The men who became the targets of this legislation were generally less villainous types - the husbands and relatives of prostitutes who willingly contributed their earnings to the upkeep of people they lived with and loved. Very often, too, the 'bludger' of popular imagination was in reality a necessary assistant to the prostitute, providing protection against violent clients and a less obvious way of soliciting custom. The legislation rebounded on these women, who could no longer support family members or use their help without fearing the prosecution of their menfolk (Golder and Allen, 1979-80; Arnot, 1988, p.54). One can see this attack on 'bludgers' as the most extreme form of a move throughout Australian society from the late nineteenth century to sharpen the definition of men as breadwinners and women as dependents
All these State interventions in combination had profound effects on the ways in which prostitution could be practised in twentieth century Australia. The increasing illegality of so many aspects of prostitution and related activities meant that police had more control over what prostitutes did and where they worked. In Western Australia this power was used by the police, in collusion with magistrates, medical authorities and local governments, to establish red-light districts in major population centres such as Perth and Kalgoorlie. The breadth and flexibility provided for by the vagrancy laws meant that police could virtually dictate the behaviour of prostitutes and brothel-keepers on pain of imprisonment. While this policy meant severe infringements on the ability of sex workers to choose the location of their workplaces, it also had ramifications for the structure of the sex industry. Before the policy of localisation (ie: up to about 1915) it was possible to be a freelance prostitute, operating as a streetwalker or independently in a house or flat. With the advent of the Hay Street brothels in Kalgoorlie and those of Roe Street in Perth, it became increasingly difficult for women to operate outside the tolerated brothels. In order to escape police harassment women had to become either brothel inmates or keepers. While this meant big profits for the few who became keepers, for the majority of sex workers the change spelt a 'proletariatisation' of their occupation as they gave up self-employment for the position of brothel employees, handing over half their earnings to the madam (Davidson, 1980). Police ensured that organised criminals were kept away from the tolerated brothels by using the vagrancy provisions against 'bludgers' to deter any men other than customers from associating with the inmates.
A similar process of proletariatisation occurred in New South Wales over the same period, although it took a different form. Hilary Golder and Judith Allen (1979-80) describe how the increased police powers encouraged corruption in the police force, with individual officers accepting bribes to administer the law selectively. Organised criminal gangs, already in existence to control the gambling industry as well as the opium and illicit liquor traffic, seized this opportunity to extract protection money from freelance prostitutes, brothel-keepers and individual pimps, since they were the only ones with enough capital to pay either the police or the new heavy fines. Increasingly, sex-workers were forced to relinquish their former independence for the dubious protection of criminal networks. As Golder and Allen (1979-80, p.19) argue, this meant that
... the individual lost control over when, for how long, with whom and for what amount or kind of payment she worked. Her work could be deployed and incorporated into the service context of the drug, liquor or gambling traffic, whether she liked it or not. Increasingly she could be pushed into positions of risk, both as regards rival underworld gangs and the agents of the state. And where pimps survived, they tended to survive as employees of the criminal interests and acted in a managerial or supervisory capacity.
The changes to the New South Wales Summary Offences Act in 1908 thus provided the structural preconditions for the rise of the rival 'gang queens', Tilly Devine and Kate Leigh, who dominated Sydney prostitution from the 1920s to the 1940s.
The changes which occurred in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries set the framework for the operation of prostitution for most of the twentieth century. Only since the late 1970s have governments started experimenting with new ways of treating prostitution, generally moving towards less punitive models of legislation. These changes reflect changes in public attitudes towards sexual relations between consenting adults generally and a greater awareness of the deficiencies and injustices embodied in the previous approach. The evolution of new approaches is an ongoing process and the end of the twentieth century promises to be another crucial period in the history of Australian prostitution as state governments and local councils grapple with the various civil rights, health and planning issues associated with prostitution (Gerull and Halstead, 1992). What is certain is that we will continue to see 'the State' behaving in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Different levels of government (federal, state, local) have different priorities and responsibilities and these are not always compatible. Likewise, different state agencies (eg: police, child welfare, health, prisons, military) have different agendas which sometimes coincide but at other times work in opposition to each other.
Although State activities have been enormously important in influencing the nature and experience of prostitution in Australian cities, they are by no means the only factor explaining changes in the industry over time. For instance, the State does not simply apply its policies to a passive prostitution industry. Sex workers have been able in the past, and will no doubt continue in the future to resist and negotiate attempts to control them. Since the 1980s this has been expressed most effectively through organised groups such as the Australian Prostitutes Collective and the Scarlet Alliance, but even before this there is evidence that prostitutes acted individually and collectively to protect their rights and to shape their working lives. Roberta Perkins (1991) notes the way in which Sydney street prostitutes acted collectively to retain certain working conditions, such as the refusal of 'kinky' services to clients. Oral evidence from my own research on Kalgoorlie reveals a similar collective control of the services offered in Hay Street brothels until the late 1970s (Frances, 1993).
Individual acts of resistance are harder for the historian using written sources to uncover, but occasionally we get glimpses which suggest that prostitutes did not always accept the official view of their lives and behaviour. Prostitutes in Western Australia, for instance, complained to higher officials if they felt police officers were abusing their powers and these complaints appear to have been taken seriously and acted upon. Individual women also frequently abused arresting police in terms which reversed the supposed moral value of prostitute and policeman. Thus a Parramatta woman shouted at police who arrested her in a hotel in 1879: 'God bugger the police, they are a lot of bloody scoundrels' (Golder and Allen, 1979-80, p.21).
Popular attitudes and practices regarding sexuality and morality must also be recognised as a factor in the changing nature of prostitution. Different class and demographic patterns also affect the type of clientele seeking the services of prostitutes and hence the type of services demanded. Kalgoorlie sex workers, for instance, comment on the less complicated demands made by the miners and 'bushies' who form the bulk of their customers. Into 'good old fashioned sex', they make fewer demands on the women's time and ingenuity, in sharp contrast to the 'deviants' amongst the Perth businessmen who frequent prostitutes in that city (Cohen, 1994, p.17). But even Kalgoorlie has seen an expansion in the variety of its services over the last 20 years. Ex-prostitute Rita, talking to me in 1978, described how things had changed in the nine years since she began working in Hay Street: 'I did it nine years ago and it was just ordinary, straight, prostitution. But now, there's that many perversions, that many things ... they've got a whole big menu (laughing)' (Frances, 1993).
This transition reflects the changing nature of the demand for prostitutes' services. Essentially, prostitutes provide services which men cannot get easily elsewhere. Where there are large numbers of single men and few available women this tends to be simple sex, the kind they would expect to enjoy with girlfriends or wives. In the past, clients were also drawn from single men who could not expect their girlfriends to contravene prevailing sexual mores by engaging in sex outside marriage and from married men whose wives did not want to have sex for fear of pregnancy or because of ill health. A relaxation of social taboos concerning extra-marital sex and better contraception has meant that more men can find sexual partners without having to resort to prostitutes. Those who do still seek a prostitute's services are thus often temporarily away from their womenfolk (like miners or servicemen) or seeking sexual activities that their wives/girlfriends are unwilling to engage in. As non-prostitutes become more sexually adventurous, prostitutes are sought for increasingly bizarre kinds of services, a situation which is resisted and resented by many sex workers.
Other factors independent of legislation have affected the demand for and supply of prostitutes. Social and economic crises such as wars and depressions have had particular importance in this respect. In both the 1890s and 1930s depressions more women were drawn into prostitution, as both single and married women sought other ways to make money when they or their husbands were unable to find enough work at their regular occupations. The population of Perth's Roe Street brothels rose from 50 to 70 during 1930, as both single and married women took desperate measures to survive the economic downturn (Davidson, 1980, p.110). The increased numbers of women selling sexual services and the reduced spending power of men in the community meant that earnings for individual prostitutes and madams suffered considerably during this period.
The reverse happened during periods of economic boom, such as goldrushes and during wars, both of which brought large concentrations of men with money to spend. During wars especially the increased numbers of women, particularly young women, willing to engage in sex with soldiers was more than offset by the easy earnings available from men who were intent on having a good time before leaving for the battle zone. Many women took advantage of high wartime earnings to amass considerable amounts of capital which they used either to retire from prostitution or to expand their interests in the industry. Two notorious Roe Street madams of the interwar years, Mary Ann Collins and Josie de Bray, made their fortunes from brothels in Fremantle and Perth respectively during the First World War (Davidson, 1980, p.100). The Vietnam War was also a boom time for Sydney sex-workers, as Rita recalls: 'I had more money than I've ever had in me bloomin' life. I had trips all over Australia. Went everywhere. I had a ball. Money was no worry' (Frances, 1993).
Changing immigration policies were also important in influencing both the supply of prostitutes and customers. The female emigrant ships of the nineteenth century carried many single women who found their way on to the streets and brothels of Australia's young cities, inspiring the concern of reformers like Caroline Chisholm. Mass immigration of men from particular ethnic groups at different periods in our history has created special demands for the services of prostitutes, since racial prejudice amongst Anglo-Celtic Australians often prohibited their mixing with non-prostitute women. The Chinese and Pacific Island workers of the nineteenth century are the most obvious example, but later arrivals of Italian and Yugoslav workers in the twentieth century had a similar effect. Immigration restrictions could likewise restrict the supply of sex workers to meet these demands. While Japanese prostitutes played a large part in catering to non-white clients in the nineteenth century, especially in the north and on the Western Australian goldfields, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 meant that most returned home, along with their countrymen (Sissons, 1976-77). Certain immigrant groups could also operate successfully as entrepreneurs in the prostitution industry. The Japanese in northern Australia mentioned previously are one instance; the Maltese in the back lanes of East Sydney in the 1960s is another (see Perkins, 1992).
While factors such as these explain the changing dimensions of prostitution over time, other themes have retained a remarkable constancy or resilience. The gender bias of most of the laws about prostitution and their implementation is all too apparent from the preceding discussion. The class nature of prostitution and the enforcement of laws against it are also especially evident. The economic forces propelling women into prostitution have acted most strongly against working class women, but not exclusively. Prostitutes have been drawn from all sections of society and have operated in ways which have usually reflected their different social origins. Almost invariably, the targets of police harassment have been those least able to defend themselves: the streetwalkers and inmates of 'lower class' brothels who cater to a wide clientele. Middle class sex workers, operating as call girls, escorts or, in earlier times, in exclusive brothels, have had a much easier time of it, being able to work more discreetly and having more powerful friends to intervene on their behalf. Even when middle class women did come under official notice, as happened during the venereal disease surveillance of the Second World War, they were treated differently from their working class sisters. While the diseased street prostitute was sent to the lock hospital and treated as a prisoner, middle class sex workers contracting the disease were sent to private hospitals and treated as patients (Saunders and Taylor, 1987).
Racial and age biases have also been evident in the way the law has been administered. Older women have generally been more vulnerable to arrest, both because they are generally forced to solicit more frequently to maintain their earnings and because the public and the police regard their presence as more offensive than that of younger women. On the other hand, very young women were considered in need of protection and reclamation and were also more likely to receive official attention (Golder and Allen, 1979-80). Racial discrimination is a more vexed issue. In some situations prostitutes of non-Anglo-Celtic descent were less likely to be prosecuted. Japanese women, for instance, largely escaped prosecution in Queensland because they were seen to provide 'suitable outlets' for the sexual passions of 'coloured' male labourers. It was far preferable, in the eyes of the authorities, to have Asian women servicing this trade than European women (Evans, 1984, p.139). Japanese women in Western Australia also enjoyed a remarkably prosecution-free existence, probably for similar reasons, even though their customers were often white. The logic here still seems to have been that it was better for Japanese women to perform this 'degrading' work than it was for Australian women. The high profile of Japanese, French and Italian women in Western Australia also encouraged politicians in the mistaken belief that 'our social conditions' meant that the supply of Australian women for prostitution had given out (Davidson, 1980, p.137).
A final recurring theme refers both to the historiography and the history of prostitution in Australia. Because of its illegal, clandestine nature, prostitution presents particular challenges and opportunities to the historian. The frequent contacts between some classes of prostitutes and officialdom mean that historians often have more knowledge about the lives of prostitutes in the past than about their more 'respectable' sisters, about whom few written records survive. But such records present their own problems: they are a partial account only, in that not all sex workers are represented in the police record. And they present the picture from the official perspective rather than from the point of view of the woman herself. Occasionally historians are blessed with diaries or reminiscences of such women, but these are very rare indeed. The historian of prostitution needs to be especially imaginative in the use of the surviving written record, listening hard for the voices of women who do manage to get recorded. For the more recent past the task is made easier by the use of oral history, where prostitutes can speak their own stories in their own words. The work of Roberta Perkins (1989, 1992) on Sydney's 'working girls' from 1985 onward is an indication of how rewarding such research can be for the historian. Similar studies in other Australian cities would greatly enhance our knowledge of the history of prostitution in this country since the Second World War. Such studies would not just provide analysis of changing trends; they could literally restore the voice of prostitutes to history. Interviews of this kind could provide the raw material for 'playback' oral testimony as a feature of our hypothetical museum of prostitution.
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