Efforts to end prostitution
Throughout the history of western civilization arguments for or against the legalization of prostitution have led to vacillation of governments between tolerance and elimination. St. Thomas Aquinas called it a necessary evil, useful in preventing the crime of rape. In this St. Augustine agreed. In medieval Europe many cities built public brothels, which were run by the city. These vanished after a plague of syphilis swept Europe in the 1500s, possibly brought to the Old World from the New World following the voyages of Columbus and other early explorers.
In the 17th century French clients demanded that the government regulate the prostitution industry by mandating medical examinations of its practitioners and removing them from the streets. The French also required that prostitutes wear a badge which identified them as such and practiced their trade only in registered brothels. This worked well in Paris and the larger port cities, but in smaller towns and at inns and taverns in less populated areas had little effect. British doctors and other citizens began to argue for a similar arrangement in England.
Because many prostitutes also worked as waitresses in the inns of the German states and Austria, in 1751 Empress Marie Therese banned women working in taverns. She also issued proscriptions against the practice of prostitution, ordering those caught at the practice to endure a public whipping, followed by imprisonment. The dirndl, a dress worn in the German states and Austria (a la the St. Pauli Girl), was banned by her edict as were any other type of “short” dress. Inspired by her fellow Empress, the Czarina Elezaveta ordered Russia purged of prostitution by imprisoning or exiling any guilty of the practice.
Prostitution was legal throughout most of the United States until early in the twentieth century. An active and highly vocal campaign led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the same group which brought the joys of Prohibition to the American public, led the charge against the sex business. Between 1910 and the beginning of the First World War most of the United States made prostitution illegal. As with alcohol, the laws on the books did not kill the business, they merely moved it underground. Red light districts and streetwalkers were still relatively easy to find in all of America’s major cities, protected through bribing officials.
When there were no national or state laws banning prostitution there were still many local laws which either regulated where it could take place or banned it outright. Both the cities of New York and Pittsburgh rounded up prostitutes and marched them out of town in 1891, in response to the demands of those of their citizens who were likely not engaged in the trade. Both New York and Pittsburgh officials looked the other way when the prostitutes returned. Even the very symbol of hedonism, Henry VIII, attempted during his reign to shut down the brothels in his domain, but gave up when he found so many of them too well protected by clients.