The early chapters of "Uneasy Virtue" may give some readers the uneasy feeling that this book is teaching them more about prostitution than they ever wanted to know. Others may be disappointed to find that it is not about the secret lives of prostitutes and their pimps and patrons.
But those who press on will be amply rewarded. For this lucid, meticulous study of America's effort to regulate commercialized sex goes beyond most scholarly treatises on the subject. Historian Barbara Meil Hobson's analysis of the politics of prostitution, focusing on the major reform periods from the 1840s to the sexual revolution of the 1970s, peels away traditional myths and stereotypes of the "oldest profession," and challenges our definitions of social justice and equality between men and women.
The author, who is a research associate at the University of Chicago's Center for Industrial Societies, offers solid documentary support, much of it based on original research, for her view that public policy in regard to women's sexuality cuts across an ideological fault line, between a Victorian moral code and hard-core economic realities. Society's failure to reconcile such competing approaches as legalization versus criminalization and incarceration versus rehabilitation has taken a heavy toll on women's lives among the working poor. Prostitution is one of the clearest examples of women's lack of access to economic and political power.