The Positivity of Prostitution

The Positivity of Prostitution

Women of 19th century Ireland had a saturated image of purity and prominent beauty. These women, however, had another side to their identity, multifaceted in its complexities that extend beyond purity and the ideal woman. The examination of these identities will provide an in-depth and thorough approach to the context of women in Ireland and the usage of prostitution as a viable form of employment.

Irish women in the 19th century experienced multitudes of trouble in finding reasonable forms of employment post-famine. Before the famine, these women were able to find work through various outlets- either in factories and other industries, and agriculture. However, after the famine it was a lot more difficult to find ways to provide women with money and opportunities, thus resulting in alternate forms of employment. Yet, according to the text, The Irish women’s history reader, evidence and statistics within Ireland at that time contribute to a further sentiment that suggests that women in Ireland during this time period did engage in “improper” activities outside positive social norms. Based within large part in the economics of the situation, women had only a few options to choose from upon reaching womanhood- the majority of them including marriage- which left many women without these resources with employment or a positive societal image. Due in large part to the necessity of providing a dowry to a husband’s family pre-marriage, women who were unable or incapable of providing this significant amount of money needed to find alternate forms of providing for themselves. Furthermore, women who had illegitimate children or were pregnant during courtship required a large dowry to give to potential husbands, that was provided typically from their family if the resources were available. For these women, it was a lot harder to find men who were compelled to marry them because of their current status and situation, and a hefty dowry was required for any attempt at sustainable public and societal worth. As stated by Dympna McLoughlin, “The formal exchange of a chaste dowered woman by her father to a man with land or property was slowly becoming the only acceptable mode of sexual alliance from 1880 onwards” (Hayes and Urquhart 84). For many families post-famine, the resources were not as limitless and sustainable as pre-famine and left several women with the inability to get married because of so.  For these women, and many others in similar situations, prostitution was seen as the only practical solution. The prevalence of prostitution during this time isn’t frequently recognized, in large part due to the absence of accounts in women’s history as well as the societal taboo related. However, prostitution was a dominant characteristic of the economy of Ireland and should not be overlooked.

As stated in the text by Maria Luddy in Women’s History Review, “Prostitution existed publicly in the streets, and less openly in the brothels and public houses of the towns and cities of Ireland”. Certain historical accounts and texts have recorded information on the exact numbers of prostitutes in the various cities of Ireland however, as a whole, it was greatly overlooked and “unnoticed”. Maria Luddy furthers this sentiment by stating, “that prostitution was a considerable problem in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland can be gauged by the fact that by 1835 there were at least eleven rescue homes, or Magdalen asylums, attempting to reform prostitutes in Dublin,” (Hayes and Urquhart 87). The Magdalen asylums and other homes of reformation were a necessary form of separating the women who were incapable of being a positive and conservative image that society expected. It must be dually noted, again, that the need for these asylums and reformatory homes is in large part due to the prevailing force of prostitution in Ireland.

The excessive amount of prostitutes in Ireland contributed to the Contagious Diseases Act enforced by the government and supported by the clergy and people of Ireland. This act forced prostitutes to be inspected for venereal diseases in order to continue their economic ventures and oftentimes withdrawal from inspection and/or refusal resulted in legislative activity. As stated by Philip Howell, “But when discussing prostitution or sex work, the word ‘regulation’ can be used in a quite specific sense, ‘regulationism’ referring to the argument that the state should control venereal disease by registering prostituted women, inspecting them for signs of communicable venereal disease, and incarcerating the contagious in order to protect the health of both nation and state,” (Howell, 320). The states constant inspection and monitoring of this behavior can be attributed to the increased public awareness of the issue. Overall, the public faced the issue of prostitution in two extremes- either being ambivalent altogether or enraged by the negative aspects of their society. For those who expressed contempt and disdain for the prostitutes, they were in strong opposition to their lifestyle, despite the underlying fact that for many of these women prostitution was the only available resource of providing a substandard living for themselves, save immigration. Opposition groups began sprouting in an effort to support these women who were being subjugated to legislative measures to cease prostitution however, as a whole the amount of people who either overlooked it or were of disgust far outweighed those who supported the prostitutes.

As stated and constantly reinforced, the image of women projected across society and history books is contradictory of the image of women and their means of obtaining money in reality. As a whole, society was largely based in creating and obtaining a consistent image of women as sole proprietors of purity and celibacy, yet as the text and other historical accounts explain, the issue of prostitution and finding ulterior motives to sustain a lifestyle is noticeable and quite tangible. For these women, they engaged in prostitution for a number of reasons, yet the common theme between them is that they were incapable of providing for themselves either thorough marriage and subsequent dowry, or finding alternate forms of employment.


Howell, P. (2003). Venereal Disease and the Politics of Prostitution in the Irish Free State. Irish   Historical Studies Publications Ltd., xxxiiii, no. 131, 320. February 14, 2009, J-Store.

McLoughlin, D. (1994). Women and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. In Hayes, A. and Urquhart, D. (Ed.) The Irish Women’s history Reader (pp. 81- 86). London: Routledge.

Luddy, M. (1997). Abandoned women and bad characters: Prostitution in nineteenth century       Ireland. In Hayes, A. and Urquhart, D. (Ed.), The Irish Women’s history Reader (pp. 81-         86). London: Routledge.

Luddy, M. (1995). Women in Ireland, 1800- 1918: a documentary history. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press.


Ytreberg, E. (2002). Erving Goffman as a Theorist of the Mass Media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 19, No. 4, 481-497.

The author of the abstract focuses on the interpretation of Erving Goffman, communication scholar, but offers little resolve.  The abstract began with a background of Goffmans findings and its significance to the study of media studies.  The purpose of the abstract was to study media studies and its techniques by using Goffmans studies and work as a referent.

The article was about the similarities and differences between mass-media and personal interaction.  In each of these forms of interaction, there exists a certain amount of public surveillance over the discourse but the capacity of is much more apparent with the mass media. .  Surveillance in a sense is the third party presence of others to ones conversation.  A major aspect of the issue of surveillance as it relates, is the persons ability to adjust and adapt to the given situation. Another major aspect of the abstract is the capacity to which mass-media is critiqued and formed. Ytreberg discusses the concepts of hyper-ritualization and hyper-criticism of the mass-media. Hyper-ritualization is best described as mass-media taking interactions found in everyday life, condensing them and making ‘reality’ much more dramatized. Hyper-criticism is the notion that audience members are more critical of the communication of those in mass-media interaction than in personal interaction.  The author notices that while incompetence in everyday action is not overlooked, it is more noticed in broadcast forms.  Another focus is on the differences between social and mass-mediated interactions and the role of scripting, or pre-planning, dialogue and making adjustments.

Central to the topic, the author includes Goffmans interpretation of informality which is essentially not so much the ability to personally adapt but the ability to take previous knowledge of ‘performing a role in broadcast’ and being able to move effortlessly between these roles. It’s almost as though those in the field of broadcast are to be competent in reading scripts and adjusting these scripts to various contexts than in the skill of communication.

Although the article was very thorough in describing the differences and parallels between mass-mediated and interpersonal interaction, the critique was ‘safe’.  The author placed strong emphasis on Goffmans ideas and theories but simultaneously refuted them. While an overall critique of Goffman was apparent, it was just enough to be sufficient and could have been expanded on greatly.  The author critiques the ‘demonstratively agnostic’ approach of Goffman but doesn’t do much better in this critique.

The article can contribute to the classes’ discussion in that it is related to several theories that we have discussed, specifically constructivism, a person’s ability to communicate skillfully in situations. Adaptation and adjustment was a major topic of concern in the abstract, because through broadcast and mass-mediated interaction, the more scripts are used, the less the communicators are able to think and do by themselves.  While the messages of broadcast are ambiguously person-centered, their foundation is scripted and not necessarily adjusted accordingly.

While the abstract presents thorough thought of Goffmans ideas, and elaborates within its context, there is much more the author could do in including original thought and critique.


Ytreberg, E. (2002). Erving Goffman as a Theorist of the Mass Media. Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 19, No. 4, 481-497.


Published by Kristyn Potter

Founder of Left Bank Media. Editor of Left Bank Magazine. Copywriter. I write about music, and New York mostly.