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From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City--Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages

by Catharine Arnold

Pub Date: Dec. 6th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-60034-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

A chronological history of prostitution in London.

A more accurate title for this book is A History of Prostitution in London, Plus Oscar Wilde. Arnold does indeed address Wilde’s famous trial, as well as Regina v. Penguin Books, which allowed Lady Chatterley’s Lover to be published in England. For the most part, though, the only kind of sexuality addressed is that offered in exchange for money. The book is organized chronologically, which unfortunately means that several opportunities for a more thematic analysis are lost. For example, Arnold discusses both the 1749 erotic novel Fanny Hill and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published in 1928, but since they were written centuries apart, the author does not analyze their publication and reception together. Similarly, Arnold describes the early Roman Londinium attitude that “while brothels were regarded as a healthy outlet for the male appetite...patrician wives and daughters must be paragons of chastity,” and the Victorian middle-class belief that “the majority of ‘respectable’ women did not enjoy performing their conjugal rites,” yet never analyzes the ways in which cultural perspectives on marriage and female sexuality were tied to the demand for sex workers across historical eras. One theme in the book is the chasm between the sexual behavior of the ruling classes and the behavior they expected from, and often legislated in, the lower classes, but this is more an observation than an argument. The presence of footnotes, a bibliography and an index give this book a semi-academic sheen, but this is not a work of scholarship so much as it is a digestion of the research of others repackaged for a popular audience. As popular nonfiction, it will satisfy readers looking for a salacious historical read, and the scholarly apparatus will enable especially curious readers to do more research.

This history of sex work is titillating but poorly organized, and it fails to offer a compelling argument.