Dark Agents of Sex: Searching for the Sources of Prostitution in Early Twentieth Century Poland

Kamila Uzarczyk

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.12775/APH.2016.114.04

Abstract


A rise of interest in issues of heredity and advances in medicine in the nineteenth century resulted in the widespread medicalization of social phenomena. Theories formulated in the field of natural sciences increasingly served as a tool to explain unacceptable patterns of social behaviour, including prostitution which began to be seen as a biologically determined condition. As a main channel for the spread of STDs – some of them potentially transmissible across generations (congenital syphilis) – prostitution became one of the major concerns of medical professionals. Thus, what was previously a sin and an insult to middle-class moral standards, now came to be seen as a health menace to the entire population. In times of increased competition between nation-states, the latter argument played an even more important role, and the ruling elites sought to tighten control over what they perceived as ‘dangerous bodies’. As campaigners against the ‘great social evil’ also analysed prostitutes’ social milieu, discourses on the causes of prostitution were highly confusing. One source of confusion was Morel’s theory of degeneration, in which the author skilfully combined environmental influence with the concept of hereditary pathology. Additionally, some authors still adhered to a much older explanation for social ills. The construction of an evil ‘Other’ – typically unscrupulous Jew – responsible for planting various physical and/or moral ‘plagues’ in a victimized population, thus threatening its biological existence. The fear of deterioration, inevitably leading to extinction, unified proponents of old-style and modernist anti-vice campaigners. This article offers an overview of expert narratives on the causes of prostitution in the early decades of twentieth century Poland.

Keywords


prostitution; nature versus nurture debate; social hygiene; eugenics; traffic in women and children; anti-Semitism; Poland

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