The Diseased Body Politic: Paid Sex and the State in Imperial Eastern Europe

On Thursday, September 26, REEEC welcomed Dr. Keely Stauter-Halsted, Professor of History and Hejna Chair in Polish Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to campus.  Dr. Stauter-Halstead gave a presentation to a packed room titled “The Diseased Body Politic: Paid Sex and the State in Imperial Eastern Europe” as part of the New Directions in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies lecture series. Based on her current book project Reforming the National Body, her lecture discussed the issue of prostitution and the formation of a modern nation in the Polish lands during the late 1800s. The spike in prostitution rates and the increased visibility of prostitutes led to a moral panic in Eastern Europe. According to Dr. Stauter-Halsted, commercial sex became a metaphor for disease. Prostitution was a “cancer” that was spreading venereal disease everywhere.

Prof. Keely Stauter-Halsted

Prof. Keely Stauter-Halsted

Dr. Stauter-Halsted examined the most marginalized characters in Polish society of that time period, unmarried lower-class women. She described how the upper classes regarded those women, particularly prostitutes. The Polish elite saw prostitutes as either aggressive and dangerous, or passive pitiful victims who were “nevertheless unredeemable.” Whichever way they were categorized, prostitutes were the Other, separate from bourgeois urban life and not components of a modern Polish nation. They could not integrate into society.

However, Dr. Stauter-Halsted viewed the young women, who migrated from poor rural villages to urban centers and ended up working as prostitutes, as integral to the process of modernization. They were urban workers who helped transform the cities into areas of industrialization and economic growth. Dr. Stauter-Halsted pointed out that those young women were not only prostitutes, but seamstresses, servants, factory workers, and members of other occupations. Prostitution was merely a temporary way for them to make ends meet, a short-term or part-time job on the path to economic advancement. Dr. Stauter-Halstead argued that the prostitutes were upwardly mobile young women who were trying to challenge the status quo and improve their socio-economic standing.

Another aspect of Dr. Stauter-Halsted’s lecture was the medical model of social reform. The end of the nineteenth century was a period of the medical community’s broadening reach into society. One reason for that development was the discovery that venereal disease was more dangerous than expected. Its detection in the initial stages was not always possible. Men infected their wives who, in turn, infected their children. Consequently, prostitutes became the scapegoats for the spread of disease. Doctors cooperated with the police in ensuring the registration and examination of all prostitutes. By the late 1800s, Warsaw police rounded up more than a thousand women per year. The authorities kept detailed records about those young women. As a result, the medical community gained more and more power into the prostitutes’ lives. By the early 1900s, whole new categories of unmarried young women were registered as “discreet prostitutes,” such as barmaids, cafe workers, and factory workers. The women were subject to twice-weekly medical exams. Unfortunately, the lack of sterile medical equipment increased, rather than decreased, the rates of infection. Dr. Statuer-Halsted concluded that societal anxiety about venereal disease led to prevention overreach. Whole swaths of lower-class women were unjustifiably labeled as prostitutes. Poverty became equated with immorality.

A large and rapt audience

A large and rapt audience

Related to the expanding reach of the medical community was the emergence of eugenics. The growing recognition that venereal disease was everywhere and the heightening realization that it was incurable resulted in a turn away from registration and into the sexual hygiene movement. The movement advocated sexual abstinence until marriage, worked to curb prostitution, and promoted chastity. The fight against venereal disease became linked with Polish nationalism, which claimed that venereal disease degenerated the Polish nation. Although the sexual hygiene movement’s leaders did not see prostitutes as merely carriers of disease and no longer castigated those young women as outcasts, they still believed that prostitution should be abolished in order to preserve the health of the Polish people and state.

Dr. Stauter-Halsted concluded her lecture with the statement that the Polish nationalists’ concern about purity was a tense consequence of Poland being an imperial subject. The Polish lands were part of the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian Empires, not a unified independent nation. Doctors became the new spiritual leaders of the Polish nation; they were intellectuals who sought to resist a centralizing empire. To them and other members of the Polish elite, the presence of prostitutes and lower-class women was an embarrassment. The women were hindrances to the development of a modern Polish nation-state. The mostly male elite’s condescending view toward those women indicate an internal colonization within the Polish lands, where one group regarded themselves as superior and more advanced than another, even though they belonged to the same nationality.

Stephanie Chung is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests are in Soviet literature and culture, Russian women’s writing, and Czech literature. She graduated with her B.A. in Plan II Honors, and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies in 2007; and her M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures in 2009 from the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to write a dissertation on Soviet women’s memoirs, particularly focusing on the writer and translator Lilianna Lungina.

One response to “The Diseased Body Politic: Paid Sex and the State in Imperial Eastern Europe

  1. Pingback: Letter from the Director — Thank you for a successful semester! | Center E-News

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