Historical Accounts of Prostitution – Sociology Essay
While the subject of prostitution and prostitutes is an uncommon theme in most historical studies, it is nevertheless a prevailing fact of any society. Prostitutes have occupied numerous roles throughout
history ranging from the idyllic image of a refined courtesan to that of the unglamorous streetwalker. Indeed, to understand the position that prostitutes occupy in a society is to understand a fundamental aspect of the world in question. Gail Hershatter’s Dangerous Pleasures explores the changing, multifaceted role of prostitutes in the tumultuous era of twentieth century Shanghai. Her fascinating research is not only a unique take on the field of Chinese history, but also a serious look at a group of women that has historically been marginalized and unheard.
Hershatter’s voluminous book is divided into five sections covering the whole spectrum of prostitution from the colorful world of courtesans and their upper class clientele to the rehabilitation program propagated by the communist party. The author’s work provides a complex analysis of the diverse prostitution world, ranging from the social lifestyle of different ranking prostitutes, to prostitution practice, and to their autonomy and control over domain. The author juxtaposes contrasting ideas about prostitutes by painting them as both victims and perpetrators.
In the first part of the book, Hershatter provides a categorization and classification for prostitutes, and the various social views concerning them. In doing so, the author clarifies the general definition of prostitution, and shows that there is much more complexity to the subject matter then what is pictured today. She characterizes their roles as prostitutes by defining their ranks, either ranging from the common streetwalker who is out to sell her body for sexual entertainment, to the elegant courtesan, who’s role serves as to please the patron with various art forms, such as music, painting, and dancing. As a result, a much broader view of prostitution is described for the general audience.
Part two analyzes the lifestyle and social roles of prostitutes during 20th century Shanghai period. In Hershatter’s interpretation, the courtesan was often perceived as an enchantress who exercised considerable control over her clients. The Courtesan lived in a perputal social circle, surrounded by gossip, admiration, hate, passion, and love. But, the main point of interest was the effects prostitutes could have on society. These effects often ranged from control over clients, to setting fashion trends,g
The main premise of Hershatter’s study is that prostitution is an indication of modernity in a society. If the presence and role of prostitution is an indicator of modernity, then likewise, public perception of prostitutes is an indicator of societal trends. Even among those who are not in the habit of soliciting prostitutes, the subject of prostitution is nevertheless regarded with at least a mild curiosity – one which Hershatter more than satiates. In contrast to the rather restricted and disgraceful position that modern prostitutes occupy, the colorful world of prostitution in early twentieth century Shanghai, included high ranking courtesans their madames,
In a larger context, Dangerous Pleasures also delves into the backdrop across which the study takes place – early twentieth century Shanghai. The “Pearl of the Orient,” Shanghai was once the city where greed, both East and West collided to create the preeminent city in China, known both for its elegance and destitution. Dominated by foreign powers Shanghai was in essence a microcosm of the semi-colonial China.