04/25/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Prostitutes, the Internet, and Regulation, Part I

There are prostitutes on the Internet? I'm shocked. Not really. It's an old profession and an old story, even though this month brought news of Cook County, Illinois, Sheriff Tom Dart suing Craigslist for posting its "erotic services" section. That particular section evidently generates a generous portion of Craigslist's annual $80 million income, and Craigslist denies that it knowingly facilitates prostitution. Dart has used information from Craigslist to make several sting arrests and has busted up an organized group involved in teen prostitution. Dart asks for $100,000 as reimbursement for the investigation pursuing Craigslist over the year.

Of interest here from my medievalist's-eye view is that the shadows of the Middle Ages are long regarding the struggles within Western culture on how to handle prostitution. Do you try to outlaw it? Do you tolerate it and regulate it through fines and taxes? Or do you institutionalize it? Medieval towns, countries, and the Christian church tried all three methods with limited success.

The scriptural basis that prostitution was morally wrong comes from Deuteronomy 23: 17: "There shall be no whore of the daughters of Israel." While people today are concerned about the degradation to the spirit and lives of the prostitutes, the spread of STDs, and the connection between prostitution and other crimes (for example, theft and drugs), we still have the connection between prostitution and vice. Medieval folks understood prostitution less as an exchange of sex for money than as promiscuity. A woman could be considered a prostitute if she had been with more than one man. Of course, like the number of angels dancing on the head of pin, the exact number was in dispute over the centuries.

So far as eradicating prostitution goes, Bologna, for example, expelled prostitutes in 1250, Venice in 1266 and again in 1314, and Modena in 1327. It didn't work.

Toleration and regulation of prostitution as a part of the social system -- but on the margins -- was a more popular idea. Prostitution was a somewhat acceptable outlet for male sexuality. The "lesser evil" argument was that it kept men from committing rape or adultery, particularly in situations such as war, where men outnumbered women. The Church argued century after century as to how prostitutes should tithe and whether or not they should accept the money of an unreformed prostitute. Also, prostitutes often had to wear special clothing to announce their trade, which couldn't compete with the finery of wives. In German-speaking lands, for example, prostitutes were known by the color of their clothing: green in Augsburg, yellow in Vienna and Leipzig, and red in Zurich. Some towns had fines for prostitutes, which were de facto licensing fees. Prostitutes throughout Europe were confined to certain parts of the city to live and work, as they were not to contaminate the respectable citizens.

Does that attitude ring any modern bells? Another news article on prostitution this month comes out of North Charleston, South Carolina, where the Sheriff there says that while prostitution is nothing new to the city, more prostitutes are going off the streets and onto the web, where they can reach more people more discreetly. Without additional staff and budget, the police target prostitution mostly when they see an organization behind it.

Institutionalizing prostitution probably seems the strangest remedy to us. There were municipal brothels, often owned or licensed by the local municipal authority. They usually restricted prostitution to certain streets or taverns. In towns that had official brothers, freelancers were fined. In Paris, the prostitutes even had a guild under the patronage of Mary Magdalena. Most of these brothels were shut down by the sixteenth century due to shifts in moral attitudes

And not all prostitutes were women. There were a few gay brothels in Paris, Chartres, and Orleans, although little is known about them. Nor do we have much documentary evidence on the inner lives of the prostitutes. The only court testimony we have from a prostitute in medieval England that describes the life is from a male transvestite. In 1395, John Rykener, who called himself Eleanor, was caught performing a libidinous act in Soper's Lane, London, with a male client, who claims he thought Eleanor was a woman. Eleanor, who worked as an embroideress and a whore, named names for the court. The outcome is unknown.

Prostitution, whether illegal, tolerated and regulated, institutionalized, or on the Internet, is part the fabric of society.