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Some Chose Drudgery, Others Vice : UNEASY VIRTUE : The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition by Barbara Meil Hobson (Basic Books: $19.95; 256 pp., illustrated)

February 14, 1988|Elinor Lenz | Lenz is the co-author of "The Feminization of America."

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.

Hobson emphasizes, however, that women on the streets and in brothels have not all been passive victims of social forces, as they have often been depicted. Many chose prostitution as their means of survival. In effect, working-class women during the early years of the century had three economic options: marriage, menial work or prostitution. As one woman, Maimie Pinzer, put it, "I just cannot be moral enough to see where drudgery is better than a life of vice." The brothel was a refuge for women who were battered wives or who could see no other way to escape a life of grinding poverty.

So far, neither moral reformers nor feminists have been able to develop a viable social policy for prostitution, mainly because they have dealt with it as a narrow, single issue. Hobson insists public policy reforms today must be linked to unemployment, child welfare, and the growing feminization of poverty as a result of divorces and nonmarital pregnancies. She makes a convincing case for her thesis and at the same time, adds light to the heat of today's controversies about the regulation of sexual behavior in an AIDS-conscious era.

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