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Stefan Zweig on Victorian Era Prostitution and Unsentimental View of Modesty

Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, originally Three Lives (1942).

The present generation has hardly any idea of the gigantic spread of prostitution in Europe before the World War. Whereas today it is as rare to meet a prostitute on the streets of a big city as it is to meet a wagon in the road, then the sidewalks were so sprinkled with women for sale that it was more difficult to avoid than to find them. To this was added the countless number of “closed houses,” the night clubs, the cabarets, the dance parlors with their dancers and singers, and the bars with their “come-on” girls. At that time female wares were offered for sale at every hour and at every price, and it cost a man as little time and trouble to purchase a woman for a quarter of an hour, an hour, or a night, as it did to buy a package of cigarettes or a newspaper. Nothing seems to me to confirm the greater honesty and naturalness of our present-day life and love forms than the fact that it is possible and almost normal for the youth of today to do without this once indispensable institution. It is not the police nor the laws that have restricted prostitution in our world. This tragic product of a pseudo-morality, except for a
small remnant, has liquidated itself because of a decreased demand.

The official attitude of the State and its morality towards this shady affair was never a very comfortable one. From the moral point of view, the State did not dare acknowledge the right of a woman to sell herself, and from the hygienic viewpoint, on the other hand, prostitution could not be spared because it canalized the troublesome extra-marital sexuality. And so the authorities sought to avail themselves of an ambiguity, in that a distinction was made between private prostitution, which the State prosecuted as being immoral and dangerous, and legalized prostitution, which it supplied with a sort of trade license and which it taxed. A girl who had decided to become a prostitute was given a particular concession by the police and received her own book as a qualifying certificate. Inasmuch as she submitted to police control and complied with her duty of being examined by a physician twice each week, she had acquired the business right to lease out her body at any price she saw fit. Prostitution was recognized as a profession among the other professions; but — and here is the rub of morality — it was not quite fully recognized. So, for example, a prostitute who sold her wares, that is, her body, to a man and later did not receive the price agreed upon, had no right to sue him. For then suddenly her suit — ob turpem causam as the law saw it — had become an immoral one and stood without the protection of the law.

It was in such matters that one felt the duplicity of a concept which, although it incorporated these girls into a legally permitted profession, still considered them personally as outcasts beyond the law. But the actual dishonesty lay in the fact that these limitations applied only to the poorer classes. A ballet dancer, who was available for any man at any hour in Vienna for two hundred crowns, just as the girl of the streets was available for two crowns, obviously did not need a trade license. The great demi-mondaines were even mentioned in the papers as among those present at the Derby or the trotting-races, because they were already a part of “society.” And again, certain of the most fashionable go-betweens, who furnished the Court, the aristocracy, and the rich with luxury wares, were above the law, though usually procuring was punished with a heavy prison sentence. The strict discipline, the pitiless surveillance, the social ostracism, applied only to the army of thousands and thousands who defended, with their bodies and their humiliated souls, an old and long since undermined moral prejudice against free
and natural love.

This gigantic army of prostitution, like the real army, was made up of various branches, cavalry, artillery, infantry, and siege artillery. In the ranks of prostitution the siege artillery was the group which had occupied certain streets in the city as their quarter. They were for the most part the places where in the Middle Ages the gallows had stood, or a leper hospital, or a cemetery had been, or where the “freemen” and other social outcasts had found shelter. In other words, vicinities which the citizens had preferred to avoid as residential quarters. There the authorities had set up certain streets as a love market; door after door, in the twentieth century, from two to five hundred women sat as they did in the Yoshiwara of Japan or the Fish Market in Cairo, one next to the other on display at the windows of their dwellings at street level – cheap goods which were worked in two shifts, day and night.

The cavalry or infantry was made up of the roving prostitutes, the countless girls who sought their clients on the streets. In Vienna they were commonly called “line girls” because the sidewalks had been marked off by the police with an invisible line where they might carry on their trade. By day and by night until the gray of the dawn, they dragged their dearly bought false elegance over the streets, in rain and snow, constantly forced to twist their tired, badly painted faces into an alluring smile for every passer-by. Every city appears to me to be lovelier and more humane since these droves of hungry, unhappy women no longer populate the streets, without pleasure offering pleasure for sale, and after all their wandering from one corner to another finally going one and the same inevitable way, the way to the infirmary.

But even these masses did not suffice for the steady demand. There were some who wished to be more comfortable and more discreet than in chasing these fluttering bats or sorry birds of paradise on the streets. They wanted love at their ease, with light and warmth, with music and dancing and an appearance of luxury. These clients had their “closed houses” or brothels. There the girls were assembled in a so-called salon, furnished in counterfeit luxury, some in evening gowns, others in unreticent négligés. A piano player supplied the music; there was drinking and dancing and conversation before the pairs discreetly retired to a bedroom. In some of the more fashionable houses, particularly in Paris and Milan, which had a sort of international reputation, a naive person could labor under the illusion of having been invited to a private house with some very merry ladies of society. Outwardly the girls in these houses were better off than the roving girls of the streets. They did not have to wander through wind and rain, through filthy alleys, they sat in warm rooms, were given good clothes, ample food, and, in particular, ample drink. But in return, they were actually the prisoners of their landladies, who forced the clothes they wore upon them at exorbitant prices, and did such magic tricks of arithmetic with the rent and board that even the most industrious and persevering girl remained in debt and could never leave the house of her own free will.

To write the intimate history of some of these houses would be interesting and also of documentary importance for the culture of that period, for they held the strangest secrets, well known to the otherwise strict authorities. There were hidden doors and a special stairway by which the members of the highest society and, it was whispered, even members of the Court — could pay their visits without being seen by other mortals. There were mirrored rooms and some that offered a hidden view of the neighboring room, in which a couple were unsuspectingly enjoying themselves. There were the weirdest changes of costumes, from the habit of a nun to the dress of a ballerina, locked away in closets and chests for particular fetishists. And this was the same city, the same society, the same morality, that was indignant when young girls rode bicycles, and declared it a disgrace to the dignity of science when Freud in his calm, clear, and penetrating manner established truths that they did not wish to be true. The same world that so pathetically defended the purity of womanhood allowed this cruel sale of women, organized it, and even profited thereby.

We should not permit ourselves to be misled by sentimental novels or stories of that epoch. It was a bad time for youth. The young girls were hermetically locked up under the control of the family, hindered in their free bodily as well as intellectual development. The young men were forced to secrecy and reticence by a morality which fundamentally no one believed or obeyed. Unhampered, honest relationships — in other words, all that could have made youth happy and joyous according to the laws of Nature — were permitted only to the very few. And anyone of that generation who wishes to look back honestly upon his first meetings with women will recall but few episodes that he can think about with unmixed pleasure. For in addition to the social pressure, which constantly enforced precaution and secrecy, there was at that time another element that overshadowed the happiest moments: the fear of infection. Here too, the youth of that era was neglected in comparison with those of today, for it must not be forgotten that forty years ago sexual diseases were spread a hundred times more than they are today, and that they were a hundred times more dangerous and horrible in effect, because medicine did not yet know how to approach them clinically. Science could not yet cure them quickly and completely as it does today, so that now they are no more than episodes. Whereas today, thanks to Paul Ehrlich’s therapy, in the clinics of the small and medium-sized universities weeks often pass by in which the professor is unable to show his students a freshly infected case of syphilis, the statistics of those days show that in the army and in the big cities at least one or two out of every ten young men had fallen victim to infection. Youth was reminded incessantly of the danger. Going through the streets of Vienna, one could read on the door of every sixth or seventh house, Specialist for Skin and Venereal Diseases, and to the fear of infection was added the horror of the disgusting and degrading forms of the erstwhile cures, of which the world of today also knows nothing. For weeks on end the entire body of anyone infected with syphilis was rubbed with mercury, the effect of which was that the teeth fell out and other injuries to health ensued. The unhappy victim of a severe encounter felt himself not only physically but spiritually spotted, and even after so horrible a cure, he could never be certain that the cunning virus might not at any moment awake from its captivity and paralyze the limbs from the spine, or soften the brain. Small wonder then that at that time many young people, once the diagnosis had been made, reached for their revolvers because they could not stand the feeling that they were suspected of being incurable. Then there were the other sorrows of a vita sexualis carried on in secret. Though I try hard to remember, I cannot recall a single comrade of my youth who did not come to me with pale and troubled mien, one because he was ill or feared illness, another because he was being blackmailed because of an abortion, a third because he lacked the money to be cured without the knowledge of his family, the fourth because he did not know how to pay hush money to a waitress who claimed to have had a child by him, the fifth because his wallet had been stolen in a brothel and he did not dare to go to the police. The youth of those pseudo-moral times were much more romantic and yet more unclean, much more excited and yet more depressed, than the novels and dramas of their official writers depict them. In the sphere of eros, in school and home, youth was rarely given the freedom and happiness to which its years entitled it.