Investigating education, health, and stigma associated with sex work
The procedure of a proper education producing a well-adjusted laborer is sociologically established, yet the institution of sex is quite disruptive when placed into the same educational paradigm. Like the relationship of pursuing academics to conventional lines of blue- or white-collar work, sex education is connected to sexual labor.1 This chapter serves to investigate historical attitudes towards sexual education pertaining to topics of sex work, like that of disease contraction and prevention, and its ultimate contribution to the classical stigmatization of prostitution. A nineteenth century book written by a London physician will be the focal primary source reviewed to examine sex education’s contribution to early Western societal narratives against prostitution. The source’s implementation in this historical analysis highlights both formal legislature and unsavory opinions against prostitution, featuring a comparative lens between metropolitan European cities of the time.2 More so, the intersection between sex education and sex work has curious roots, providing much evidence for the reasoning behind modern attitudes towards sex work. The aforementioned analysis does incorporate an admittedly Westernized sociological focus, which is inherently uncomprehensive, however, it does provide convincing evidence for early societal contributions against sex work relevant to the U.S. and Europe.
Dating to the 1800s in Europe, the purveyors of sex education were mainly medical professionals, yet they lacked basic, accurate information about sex work and prostitution in their public messaging. Dr. Michael Ryan punctuates his book title with the caption, “Proving Moral Depravation to be the Most Fertile Source of Crime, and of Personal and Social Misery,” providing a vivid depiction of the condemning content to come. Moreover, Dr. Ryan prominently indicates throughout the entire book that prostitution is a plague to society and is to be prevented; due to his stature as a medical doctor, this was also his clinical opinion in the interest of public health. The influence of Ryan’s work is another highly relevant point of consideration. As listed in his publication information, Ryan was a member of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in London, working specifically as a senior physician and lecturer on the practice of medicine. While some of his content is contextually plausible considering the stance held by many upper-class European women, Ryan is clearly perpetrating a message of intolerance towards sex work in his body of sex education messaging. Ultimately, Ryan’s spiteful language which colored his professional recommendations holds considerable weight.
With this intersection of sex education and labor, the established perception of disease contraction and related sex worker public health matters is well illustrated by Ryan in his “General Considerations”3 passage. Sex workers’ susceptibility to venereal diseases was decently understood during the nineteenth century as Ryan reports syphilis, gonorrhea, urine strictures, and diseases of the prostate gland, bladder, uterus, and kidneys as common ailments.4 Another health matter reviewed by Ryan includes him explaining that some of the moral defects of prostitutes are also due to “the love of strong liquors” which “generally plunges them into the lowest state of brutality.”5 In both instances, the diseases phenotypes associated with sex workers were identifiable yet were used as a point of discrimination by educators like Ryan. Throughout the entire prostitution narrative, Ryan poses venereal diseases and addiction as medical ailments sex workers subjected themselves to, making them less deserving of empathy and treatment.
In terms of sexual education and health, much of the blame for the spreading of venereal diseases was placed on sex workers as “considerations of prostitution were seldom without reference to venereal disease.”6 This not only manufactured a harmful, false narrative during the 1800s, but these effects were pervasive and dictated many undertones of modern-day sex education.
Much of the prostitution discourse is characterized by questioning the original causation of sexual labor, which is deeply implicated in sex education. Dr. Ryan confidently professes that “Seduction is the most common cause of prostitution in all nations.”7 More so, he names laziness, misery, vanity, and “the desire of procuring enjoyments without working” as the most active causes of prostitution. Here, Ryan has ignored any socioeconomic factors which may have caused a European woman of the Victorian era to pursue sex work and has indicated that her sexual labor is not work nor a job. This narrative comfortably establishes how at this time sex education served as a stringent warning away from sex work. Ryan attributes very little agency to sex workers by letting “the reward of their labour be compared with the price of their dishonor,” continuing that “surprise will no longer be felt that so great a number abandon themselves to this wretched state of life.”8 Ryan is not ignoring the premise that prostitution could constitute as work; in an educational fashion, he is instead conveying that sexual labor is unequal to other means of work.
It's important to recognize the historical effectors that facilitate our modern understanding of the intersectionality between sex education and work. This analysis provides an example of the formal dissent against prostitution and its manifestation through methods of early sex education. Sex education principles dating from the nineteenth century make a stance very clear: to sell one’s sex for money is a moral depravity. In a piece of published, accessible literature, a medical doctor held the stance that sex work is a threatening source of societal corruption. While Ryan’s formal written interests were in the efforts of public safety and health, his book reflects the broader societal implications of thwarting sex work through means of improper, highly stigmatized sex education.
Howlett, Caitlin. Against Sex Education: Pedagogy, Sex Work, and State Violence. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. https://www.bloomsburycollections.com/book/against-sex-education-pedagogy-sex-work-and-state-violence/.
Levine, Philippa. Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. New York & London: Routledge, 2003.
Ryan, Michael. Prostitution in London, with a Comparative View of That of Paris and New York. London: H. Bailliere, 1839. https://www.gender.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/SearchDetails/Prostitution%20in%20London#.