Cultural Representations of Nineteenth-Century Prostitution

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Summary
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Paradoxically, in the 19th century, an era very concerned with public virtue, prostitutes were increasing being represented in Western European cultural expressions. Prostitution was a prevalent social phenomenon due to the rapid urbanization of Western Europe. People were on the move as both urban and rural areas underwent considerable material and normative change; the majority of Western European cities grew rapidly and were marked by harsh working and living conditions, as well as unemployment and poverty. A seeming rise in prostitution was one of the results of these developments, but its centrality in culture cannot be explained by this fact alone. Prostitution also came to epitomize broader social ills associated with industrialization and urbanization: “the prostitute” became the discursive embodiment of the discontent of modernity.

The surge in cultural representation of prostitutes may also be seen as an expression of changing norms and a driver for change in the public perception of prostitution. In particular, artists came to employ the prostitute as a motif, revealing contemporary hypocrisy about gender and class.

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