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Selling sex

Writing the history of prostitution

Raelene Frances

In spring 1979, I spent a fascinating Saturday afternoon in the company of Mary Scrimgeour, the owner of several of Perth's largest and most notorious massage parlours. I was then a postgraduate history student in my early twenties researching the history of prostitution in Western Australia. Mary had worked in Perth brothels in various capacities since the 1930s, when she began as a cook in one of the Roe Street brothels. Our meeting took place in her sprawling Mount Lawley home surrounded by her collection of over 300 antique porcelain dolls. She reminded me of someone's grandmother as she plied me with tea and her home-made fruitcake, and proudly showed me the products of her latest hobby - soap making.

In between talking to me about her past experiences and impressions, Mary interviewed a number of young women applying for positions in her various parlours. She asked them about their education and past experience in the sex industry and explained her policies on drug use, personal hygiene and standards of behaviour ("No swearing unless in private with a client"). They asked her about expected earnings and payments to the management, and about shifts and time off. She also met with two of the older women who managed these establishments to discuss business matters.

Five hours later, as I was taking my leave, Mary asked what the research was for. I explained that it was for a Master of Arts thesis at the University of Western Australia. She looked me over with a professional eye and said gently, "Well dear, if you ever need a job you can come and work for me". I have not had to consider taking up her offer, but her words have often come back to me since I started work as a lecturer in history at UNSW in 1992.

Since then, students have taken on increasing amounts of paid work in order to pay for their education. This is especially true of younger students, where the percentage of full-time students who work during semester has risen from under 50 per cent in 1984 to around 70 per cent in 2000 (Australian Vice-Chancellor's Committee Fact Sheet 6: University Student Finances, November 2001). Although it is hard to say precisely how many, a number of these students of both sexes find working in the sex industry the most lucrative form of casual work available. It was partly my observation of this trend that led me to return to investigating the history of prostitution, putting contemporary developments more explicitly within a broad historical context.

The history of prostitution has usually been written as either the history of male desire or of social policy. Both of these approaches locate the emphasis away from the prostitute. By treating prostitution as sex work, and looking at its history as the history of an occupation, it is possible to put the prostitute at the centre of the story. The common view of prostitution in Western societies, as deeply transgressive of social norms, means of course that sex workers have not been treated in exactly the same way as other women workers, but this was one of the many factors which changed over time and helped shape the experience of those who worked as prostitutes.

What the history of Australian prostitution shows most vividly is that sex workers were, from the outset in the late eighteenth century, part of a much broader international movement of workers, both bond and free. Initially women convicts provided the major supply, but dispossessed Aboriginal women and also non-convict immigrant women soon joined them. The male-dominated industries in post-1788 Australia, especially the mining and maritime industries, drew women of diverse nationalities to service their workforces. In some cases, such as in the extensive traffic from rural areas of Japan, severe economic conditions led to young girls being sold into a life of virtual sexual slavery in places as remote as Darwin, Broome and Thursday Island. Others also came for economic reasons, if in less desperate circumstances, from France, other European countries and the United States. In Australia, they joined the large number of locally born women who turned to prostitution as a much more lucrative occupation than any of the other jobs open to women at the time.

The international movement of sex workers was, however, not just to Australia, but also between Europe and the Americas and the Middle East and between the various countries of East and Southeast Asia. The scale of this traffic inspired a growing humanitarian concern from the 1880s which culminated in the Traffic in Women and Children's Committee established by the League of Nations in 1919. When the United Nations succeeded the League the fight against the traffic in persons became a UN responsibility.

Australia's part in this campaign was to exclude any immigrants suspected of being involved in the sex industry, using the notorious dictation test of the so-called White Australia Policy. It is only since the end of the White Australia Policy in the mid-1970s that Australia has seen an increase in overseas sex workers coming to this country, particularly from Southeast Asia.

The concerns held by the earlier generations of humanitarians about such workers are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago. Those concerns include the young age of some of them, their special vulnerability in a foreign country, the conditions under which they work, and bullying and coercion. An examination of the successes and failures of earlier campaigns to protect the welfare of such workers should shed light on current strategies. The shifting market for women's labour has always been a major factor in the supply of women for the sex industry. The involvement of university students as sex workers can also be seen as part of this longer-term pattern.


Raelene Frances is a Senior Lecturer in the School of History at the University of NSW, and has published extensively on gender and labour history in both the Australian and comparative contexts. Her best known works are The Politics of Work: Case Studies of Three Victorian Industries, Cambridge University Press, 1993 and (with Bruce Scates) Women and the Great War, Cambridge University Press, 1997. This article is kindly republished from Show Cause: A Journal of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, no. 7, 2002, pp. 26-7. Image: Hogarth.


Suggested citation

Frances, Raelene, 'Selling sex', Evatt Journal, Vol. 2, No. 5, July 2002. <>


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