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Regulating Sex Work in Medieval Europe (jstor.org)
51 points by gotocake 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

I have never understood the concept of victimless crime. If two (or more) people are free to choose to have sex together and such parties are free to enter into a commercial / labor agreement how can the combination of the two be a problem?

It seems to me that it's a way to keep women from capitalizing on the area in which they have unique value over men.

Obviously I'm not talking about forced sex - or forced anything. Kidnapping, slavery, and rape are illegal and certainly apply in forced prostitution.

But in cases when it's a choice freely made by all parties concerned legal status can only help make it safer for all.

Selling weapons to ISIS is not a crime then?

Good point.

If I was a purist I'd say "no". Using those weapons might be.

Not being a purist I'm happy to make exceptions for probable use or effect of the activity. So:

Selling weapons to people likely to commit crimes is a reasonable exception to the simple version above. and Prostitution, where the probable outcome is a mutually satisfying service involving ONLY the parties involved is not a reasonable exception.

That’s a great example, but consider the framing of the last sentence of the gp’s post:

> But in cases when it's a choice freely made by all parties concerned ...

Presumably the targets of isis’s weapons are “parties” and don’t want to be shot at.

Then again, what about hiring police: the robber is a “party” too and presumably does not consent to being caught!

"...the robber is a “party”..." yes, but by definition a party that has already broken the law and mutual consent - the interaction with police would be a direct result, or an extension of that non-consensual act.


I can imagine lots of extreme edge cases and semantic word play on this - and I guess phrasing things to take in every conceivable situation is why lawyers make so much.

I'll stick with "the spirit of the notion".

Do you genuinely not understand, or do you just disagree with such laws? People in favor of such laws generally does not consider such actions victimless. For example a historically rational reason to regulate or outlaw prostitution was to curb the spread of venereal diseases.

I disagree that when all parties involved are willing that others can classify one of those parties as a victim. If we did that we could include selling unhealthy food, for instance.

If others don't agree with such transactions they needn't participate.

Reading some psychological literature a picture quickly emerges that answers your question: firstly because there are all sorts of social norms around this, that encourage power plays. The norms are mostly around not doing this, that make both parties to the agreement vulnerable to all sorts of issues before, during and afterwards.

For instance, videotaping the action and then blackmailing people with it. Or otherwise causing trouble outside of the direct transaction. And of course, the other side of it, "services" to prevent that from happening outside of the legal system.

Also I feel like I'm pointing out something that's both disgusting and obvious, but I feel like it needs pointing out. More than a bit of sex is painful. For both sexes, but especially for women. There are reasons for that, which boil down to there being a limit to how much friction skin can take, no matter the amount of lubrication (which obviously doesn't tend to be 100% in order, because while you are "the best ever", so is everyone else). This means that sex work other than perhaps really high class escorts is not voluntary, and even then ... It also means that sex workers quickly gravitate to other options than direct intercourse, of which there are thankfully many.

But making matters worse, this is not the sort of activity that is executed in the calmest and politest of settings, and by it's nature does not promote reasoned discussion. Or to put it more to the point: you're going to get hit hard, accidentally, and you're going to get beaten up, non-accidentally, and you're going to have to beat up people. It's just going to happen. Also, the whole point is to let self-control go for at least a while, which can lead to an otherwise reasonable party being unwilling to stop, say, twisting an arm until a certain event that may take a minute or two to occur.

Thirdly, like anything that involves a lot of endorphins, you can get addicted to it. It can get bad: you can literally get addicted to the pain of overdoing it (as in people who cut themselves open during sex, sometimes without telling the "other side of the transaction" they're going to do this). Even in much milder cases, it's still going to cause abuse and violence.

I am not aware of psychology having any role in legislative work beyond an advisory role. One reason for this, I think, is that for any psych idea or theory one can find at least one diametrically opposed one. There is no empirical test to be carried out to falsify one or another.

Your first point is interesting, in the US where paying for asexual services is illegal in most places, it magically becomes legal if I videotape it (with approval of all concerned) and pay the people not for sexual services but for acting roles that include full sex. In your example it's the blackmailing that's the problem, and that, like my examples of rape and slavery, is illegal with or without sex being involved. And BTW, one can blackmail without professional sex services - the sex can be for free (hence fully legal) or it can involve any other thing the victim (see? no longer a victimless crimes) wants to keep private.

Many jobs have physical limitations and / or discomfort if done wrong. Sitting in front of a computer all day has a great many long term physical dangers. The solution there is workplace safety, ergonomics, and sensible limits. None of those are likely when prostitution is illegal - but are fully compatible with legal sex work.

Actually, I have known some prostitutes. Their workplaces were quite calm and polite. But, in circa 1900, factories, mills and even office typing pools and other workplaces were dangerous, noisy and in no way calm or polite. Workplace regulations have done amazing stuff to make them much more so. In the beginning - shop bosses often beat up people - Henry Ford had private guards shoot striking workers. None of that means we should NOT have pushed for workplace improvements. I see no reason prostitutes should be excluded from that. Are you really suggesting that they should be kept in hard and dangerous settings?

What you describe sounds like criminal controlled prostitution which very often involves... slavery or other coercion. As mentioned in my post - that is bad, should be opposed and prosecuted but will only improve with legal status and allowing prostitutes to call the cops.

I'm not sure what you mean by "... let self-control go for at least a while...which can lead to an otherwise reasonable party being unwilling to stop..." Private businesses often have security staff to keep people from "losing self control". Bars and nightclubs leap to mind. But again - that may be possible illegal activity done by someone - but it's not specific to paying for sex.

Sure - you can get addicted to many things, like jogging, wine, or chocolate... or sex. How does paying for sex change this? Or... should exercise, wine and chocolate only be allowed for free too?


All these points are great for various discussion but I don't see how they relate to keeping the payment for sex illegal.

Sex work was sufficiently centralized in medieval red light districts that a number of places in the UK have a street named "gropecunt lane". Which is exactly what it sounds like.


> A 1393 London ordinance limiting the parts of the city where sex workers could operate attributed problems with the trade specifically to “Flemish women, who profess and follow such shameful and dolorous life.”

This is pretty common even today. There are many parts in Vienna for instance where working girls are not allowed to advertise their services.

Why are they using medieval Europe as some kind of tool for speculation about legal sex work in the U.S.?

It’s a bizarre line of discussion given that for the most part sex work is legal today in Europe.

It's just an interesting historical perspective, they don't have a heavy-handed agenda or anything. Augustine's perspective is interesting:

> Remove prostitutes from human affairs and you will destroy everything with lust.

It's an interesting topic but I also find bizarre the relation with modern policy.

I'm both amused and horrified with the idea on the full sentence where your quote is portrayed: >Theologians followed the teachings of Saint Augustine, who wrote that it was better for sinful men to frequent brothels than to “corrupt” their wives or other respectable women with nonprocreative sex: “Remove prostitutes from human affairs and you will destroy everything with lust.”

It's kinda silly to imagine a group of "celibate" men suggesting the practicals of prostitution instead of corrupting virtuous women with non procreative sex, and at the same time horrible to consider that in the context of bad contraceptive methods, the advice was to subject some of the women to be second class citizens.

Given how dangerous child-birth was, there's a something of a tradition going back to at least the Romans of protecting a wife by using prostitutes for base sex

It was less dangerous for those prostitutes? The chilbirth and childcare was more disastrous and difficult for them as they were single mothers and breadwinners as a result.

True, but they were considered ~disposable.

Yes, and that is why the "both amused and horrified" comment makes perfect sense. Other thing that makes perfect sense is the characterization of it all as "the advice was to subject some of the women to be second class citizens" - yes, in exchange of other women being more protected.

St. Augustine wasn’t a celibate by any means. He struggled with the moral and philosophical nature of things, and certainly got plenty of action during the struggle.

> I had entreated chastity of thee and had prayed, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." For I was afraid lest thou shouldst hear me too soon, and too soon cure me of my disease of lust which I desired to have satisfied rather than extinguished.

Book 8, Chapter 7, p. 139

I was thinking the opening of book three:

"TO CARTHAGE I came, where there sang all around me in my ears a cauldron of unholy loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and safety I hated, and a way without snares. For within me was a famine of that inward food, Thyself, my God; yet, through that famine I was not hungered; but was without all longing for incorruptible sustenance, not because filled therewith, but the more empty, the more I loathed it. For this cause my soul was sickly and full of sores, it miserably cast itself forth, desiring to be scraped by the touch of objects of sense. Yet if these had not a soul, they would not be objects of love. To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscense, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness; and thus foul and unseemly, I would fain, through exceeding vanity, be fine and courtly. I fell headlong then into the love wherein I longed to be ensnared. My God, my Mercy, with how much gall didst Thou out of Thy great goodness besprinkle for me that sweetness? For I was both beloved, and secretly arrived at the bond of enjoying; and was with joy fettered with sorrow-bringing bonds, that I might be scourged with the iron burning rods of jealousy, and suspicion, and fears, and angers, and quarrels."

OK, replace "non-procreative" with "non-consensual".

Indeed. Even in the middle ages they knew prudishness was counterproductive.

Important to note that while the work itself is not illegal it's usually surrounded by a minefield of things that are illegal, such as "running a brothel" or "soliciting". In extreme cases two women sharing a flat posessing condoms could be deemed a brothel and prosecuted.

Brilliant! Much better that they don’t use condoms? Prohibitionists seem to me to be shockingly stupid so I assume I’m misunderstanding them. Can anyone here articulate the reasoning behind such a law for me?

I think it's similar to the lab glassware / "drug paraphenalia" situation - once you've tripped the prejudices of the police they assemble evidence that you're the wrong kind of person.


I think its useful for taking the emotion out of it, and to be reminded that this is an issue we've been dealing with for a long time.

Also this is when red light districts originated, a model still common in Europe today.

I might be wrong, but it was my understanding that sex work was a legal and regulated activity in only some parts of Europe, but it's indeed not illegal on most of the countries.

Something like cannabis in Amsterdam, where the police just turns a blind eye that most people even think is completely legal.

As far as I know cannabis is completely legal in Amsterdam at least in smoking parlors.

That’s just not true, but the truth is complicated.


While recreational use, possession and trade of non-medicinal drugs described by the Opium Law are all technically illegal under Dutch law, official policy since the late 20th century has been to openly tolerate all recreational use...

Technically, or de jure, not true.

I think it’s fair to say it is legal in the softer sense of the word, or de facto legal.

I also don’t believe that it’s complicated to understand such a state of affairs.

Technically nothing, the correct response to As far as I know cannabis is completely legal in Amsterdam at least in smoking parlors. is just what I said. It is not de facto legal either, it’s tolerated and police still retain the power to arrest you for it. The fact that it’s not aggressively policed or prosecuted changes its social status, not the legal status.

One of my all time favourite HN, and general, comments can be found here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6033481

You seem obsessed with laws, as if they possess value and worth in and of themselves, when really they are a very high latency sidechannel of society and power.

Changed legal status tends to follow social status.

Do you think, for example, slavery, universal suffrage, women's suffrage, or homosexuality, are about to be made illegal again?

In some areas it took decades for the laws to reflect reality.

It should be noted, too, that, generally speaking, the police retain retain the power to arrest you. Period. They don't need a reason. They'll just arrest you and charge with whatever they want. Roll a dice. You can get arrested for crossing the street, or cycling home, or holding your tongue the wrong way on a Tuesday. They don't need drug laws for that.

It's usually up to some government prosecutor to decide whether they will go ahead with the case. And in my experience, at least here in Australia, the public prosecutor tends to have their head screwed on way more than the kids in blue. Who for some reason feel it necessary to take guns to the bakery to get their lunch. How insecure do you have to be.

OK, you are correct in the legal sense, but if a law is not enforced, it ceases to have any meaning. That's just like prostitution in Japan being illegal while having extremely obvious places with prostitutes in plain sight everywhere.

Cannabis has never been 'completely legal' anywhere in the Netherlands. It depends a bit though on how you define 'completely legal'. Wikipedia has the details.

This is incorrect. Cannabis is decriminalized, but still illegal in Amsterdam.

This was my first thought too.

> medieval examples suggest that what’s important is not just legal status but how regulations affect workers’ ability to control their working conditions.

Do we really need medieval examples? Surely this is evident in modern examples too?

What is unclear from this document are the mechanisms for conferring legal status. I came away curiously disappointed. Anyone have thoughts?

I’d like to see the industry regulated and that it’s practioners are required to obtain certification, or at least optionally so.

This would not resolve all issues, but you could at least have the option to see a practioner who has done a senior first aid course and knows how to identify STDs.

More widely, I believe sex work should be absorbed in to the healing modalities and professions.

We drastically need to take a different approach to sexual wellbeing, because whatever we have been doing has lead to a sexually violent culture.

I believe the dishonoured / unregulated / unintegrated / unlawful practice of sex work is both a cause and a symptom of our culture’s worst aspects.

I am fascinated by all the 3-legged furniture in the painting. The design guarantees stability due to all legs being on the same plane, solving the wobbling/instability problem so common in 4-legged tables and chairs. However, quadripedal tables and chairs are nearly universal in the modern day, with tripedal pieces being mostly reserved for eccentric art. I wonder at what point the trend changed, did it have to do with manufacturing techniques or simply aesthetics?

Is there a relationship between 3 vs 4 legs and total weight bearing capacity? Maybe the tradeoff was stability for weight of furniture? I’m also not sure that three legs is more stable, wouldn’t it be more prone to tipping over, unless the three legs are splayed very far apart from the seat base? Remember the issue with furniture is a desire to keep it from tipping over, not stability in 3-space. You’d get no,wobble on three legs, but if you leaned or swiveled too much you’d find out that stability was an illusion, because you’d failed to take the vertical component into account.

A four-legged chair for example, regardless of how you lean (within reason) and distribute weight will maintain 3-point contact with the floor.

I imagine a lot of it is that floors are likely much flatter these days.

Stability is a big issue for chairs especially. Rolling office chairs are afaict all 5 legged these days, unless you happen to find an old one. OSHA mandate.

I think that’s for failure tolerance. Five isn’t much more stable than four, but if a wheel falls off then five remains stable.

From experience, if you lose a caster the chair won’t balance on the remainder, it will thud down on the leg. What more legs does however is more evenly distribute the load, which is important when rolling around, leaning back and all, of the other things we do in office chairs.

Im betting it has a lot to do with construction costs, especially with chairs. Chairs are very expensive and difficult piece of work with tons of pieces that need to take serious abuse, more legs means more pieces. Also if you have even the smallest imperfection in angles or squareness on a 4 legged piece of furniture it is immediately obvious. Joinery is what takes the most man hours, so hose stools for example have 24 mortises each, add another leg and you got 32 mortises, and a more expensive piece with more points of failure.

Another thing to consider, the floor. How flat would most floors be at the time? 4 legged chairs would almost always be rocking on 3 legs, causing them to fail and break more often. Shimming a short leg only works if it doesn't move or if the floor is almost perfectly flat.

Depends how you define "stable". Is it "less likely to fall over" or "less wobble"? That's basically the difference here.

A 4 legged chair is much less likely to fall over because it has more points of contact with the ground (yes, this extrapolates). While you're correct that a 3 legged chair isn't going to wobble, many would call it less stable because it is more likely to fall over. The force is distributed only across 3 points and if you sit at an edge that force is going to be highly concentrated along two points. In fact, those two points are always going to create a lever. In a 4 legged chair there are many edges that you can sit on where the weight will be distributed to three points, you have to be specifically on the edge where two legs create a plane to distribute the force to 2 legs (see why this extrapolates? More legs and it is harder to distribute force to only 2 legs).

Why 4 though? Well, I don't have a scientific answer. But it is pretty well balanced, doesn't increase cost much, nor weight. So probably just a compromise. Though in a lot of rolling chairs you will see that they typically have more than 4 points of contact with the ground (notice how much harder it is to tip these over?).

tldr: 4 is actually more stable in the sense of "you're less likely to fall out of the chair and bonk your head".

It's not exactly more legs -> less chance of falling, but rather it is larger footprint -> less chance of falling. The footprint is basically the shape made by the outermost points of contact. If the net force vector (generally just project center of mass in direction of gravity) goes outside the footprint, the system is unstable. You could absolutely have a chair with more legs be less stable than one with fewer legs, if the footprint is smaller.

You are correct, but I assumed that when people are creating their mental model that they envision regular polyhedra. Especially given the context. I felt that the distinction might make things more convoluted and I could leverage the likely mental model to my benefit. But you are technically correct.

Interesting you say that. When I grew up I was always told that four legged furniture was more stable than three legged ones. Three legged stools/tables were common (but not chairs I think) when I grew up and I was always cautioned against toppling. It could be because three legged furniture created a virtual triangle shape (Even if the top of the furniture itself was not a triangle, circular ones were very common) and when one puts weight on the side of the base of the triangle, like siting on the edge, the furniture is more likely to topple than a similar action on a four legged stool.

The floors were less likely to be perfectly level than modern floors so a three legged stool or table would be less likely to wobble.

For tables: leg room and leg exposure.

Three legs are cheaper than four.

I don’t reckon it’d match today’s fashions.

Rocking tables are a pet hate of mine.

Maybe we could add ‘rocking table repair 10hrs a week’ to this list of items that allow you to fulfill the requirements to obtain welfare.

And / or it could be an option for those sentenced community service by the courts.

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