Debating Prostitution: The Regulation of Sexual Commerce and State Formation in Peru, c. 1850–1910

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Paulo Drinot, University College London
As elsewhere in the world, in the nineteenth century, physicians and lawyers in Peru, as well as government authorities, began to turn their attention to prostitution. From the 1850s Peruvian elites embraced a new, transnational, paradigm that at once helped them make sense of prostitution and in turn seemed to offer a solution to its perceived effects on society: regulationism. For Peruvian elites, regulationism, with its emphasis on the medical policing and the enclosure of prostitutes in isolated areas of the city, promised to address, through one coherent set of regulations governing sexual commerce, the threat to public order, public morals and public health that was increasingly associated with female prostitution. But elites also perceived regulation as expressive of a modern, rational, even scientific, approach to prostitution.

Arguments in favour of regulating prostitution circulated in the 1850s and a number of detailed proposals were put forward in the 1870s. But Peru did not implement a regulationist system until the first decade of the twentieth century. In this paper, I examine these proposals and debates over regulation in detail. As was the case in many other national contexts, debates over prostitution in Peru were shaped by, and in turn, helped shape broader debates over the regulation of individual bodies, both male and female, and of the social body, that is, of the nation. As elsewhere too, debates over prostitution in Peru reflected broader changes in ideas about the role of the state in managing “the social”, and more specifically, “the sexual”. Debates over prostitution and its regulation, as I suggest in this paper, expressed the ways in which the “sexual question” came to occupy an increasingly central place in discussions over state formation and nation building in the second half of the nineteenth century in Peru.