Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Fallen Sisters"? Attitudes to Female Prostitution in Jamaica at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

"Fallen Sisters"? Attitudes to Female Prostitution in Jamaica at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt


The subject of prostitution, whether male or female, in post-emancipation British Caribbean society has received scant attention from historians. In his study of crime in Trinidad, David Trotman has done more than most to address the issue of female prostitution, and Bridget Brereton also treated it briefly, but with considerable incisiveness.3 Admittedly, not a primary focus of his work, Patrick Bryan's treatment of female prostitution in turn-of-the-century Jamaica is somewhat perfunctory. This paper, although very much a preliminary study, seeks to add more substance to the small body of historical literature on this subject, especially for Jamaica.

Trotman asserts that prostitution in the British Caribbean dates back to the days of slavery when female slaves were hired out to provide sexual services.5 Sociologist Fernando Henriques, however, had previously argued that during legal chattel slavery the men in the society had great access to slave women who did not own or control their bodies and therefore were not in a position to sell sex. More recently, both Higman and Beckles have clearly shown that prostitution did exist in the urban centres of the Caribbean during the period of slavery.7


After emancipation women formed a large part of the migration from the rural areas to the towns, and as employment opportunities in domestic service, seamstressing, washing and other "female occupations" declined in relation to the supply of labour, some women were probably obliged to sell sexual services to survive.8 Girls, even as young as twelve years of age, were also recruited into prostitution by persons, usually women, who provided them with shelter and sustenance.9 But there may have been an element of choice as well, for as the Jamaica Times noted, some women who started out as domestic servants, dressmakers and the like eventually gave up those jobs to become prostitutes.10 Not unlike Victorian Britain, therefore, however they entered the profession, the decision to become a prostitute was a rational one;11 and as Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch states in relation to Africa, in many instances "Prostitution arose from a young woman's own initiative . . ."12 The result of all this was that the prostitution "industry" grew and by the end of the nineteenth century seemed to have been fairly well organized in cities such as Kingston and Port of Spain.

In Britain, despite the rise of the new Victorian morality of the dominant middle class which tried to purge the moral excesses of the Georgian era, female prostitution thrived. According to Ronald Hyam, "At mid-century there were almost certainly more brothels in London than there were schools and charities put together." He estimates that during the 1860s there were about 80,000 prostitutes, including a few West Indians, operating in London alone. Clearly there was a booming market for these services, perhaps not least among the middle classes themselves. But by the 188Os a strong middle class Purity Campaign developed against prostitution. Hyam argues that this represented an outburst of neurotic puritanism, an attack on the easy-going attitudes of the working class. "It resulted in a repressive new sex code, and the reduction of sexual opportunity. The 'canonization of sexual respectability' was . . . the most prized achievement of the Victorians."13

This puritanism of the late Victorian period was imported into the Caribbean among an elite who were desperate to prove their British bourgeois pedigree. In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, there was a growing concern in Jamaica about the moral degeneration of the society which was manifested by the "profligacy and rowdyism" and female prostitution that were especially evident in the streets of Kingston. Female prostitution therefore existed in a social environment that was not particularly friendly.

In the 1870s the main discussions of the oldest profession were through references to the 1867 Contagious Diseases Law which had as its focus the transference of sexual diseases, and targetted women who were supposed to be the main culprits - "idle women" or prostitutes. …

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