Tobin on Wingfield, 'The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria'

Nancy M. Wingfield
Robert Deam Tobin

Nancy M. Wingfield. The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 288 pp. $80.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-880165-8.

Reviewed by Robert Deam Tobin (Clark University) Published on HABSBURG (March, 2018) Commissioned by Borislav Chernev

Printable Version:

Situating the prostitute among conflicting discourses concerning public health, male and female sexuality, bourgeois and working-class culture, racism and anti-Semitism, trafficking, and the anxieties provoked by modernization and globalization, Nancy M. Wingfield gives a thoroughly researched and densely sourced account of sex work in Cisleithania (the “Austrian” half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on “this” side of the Leitha River) from the mid-1880s to the end of the First World War. The specific historical details of the cultural and societal attitudes toward prostitution are fascinating in and of themselves; the many points of comparison to early twenty-first-century debates about sex work make this study particularly exciting.

Wingfield’s project is enormously ambitious. Even setting aside the Hungarian, “Transleithanian,” half of the empire, Cisleithania was a sprawling conglomeration of nationalities and languages, including Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia, Galicia, and Dalmatia, in addition to the Austrian provinces. Today, these lands are divided among Italy, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Ukraine, as well as Austria. Trieste, Prague, Brno, Crakow, Lviv, and Chernivtsi are, in addition to Vienna, among the important cities that Wingfield studies. The languages used in these areas include German, Croatian, Czech, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Slovenian, and Ruthenian. The linguistic range of Wingfield’s project shows up in her extensive archive. Government documents were often written in German, but not exclusively so.

Wingfield begins her study with an exhaustive analysis of the sensational 1906 trial of Regine Riehl, a Jewish woman who ran a brothel in Vienna. Riehl was convicted of restricting the freedom of the women who worked in her establishment, embezzling, fraud, suborning testimony, and procuring. The widely publicized trial provoked efforts to reform the regulation of prostitution throughout the empire, leading the journalist Karl Krauss to conclude laconically: “It has been decided: Sexual intercourse is to be abolished in Austria” (p. 47). In addition to her exhaustive study of all the court documents related to the Riehl trial, Wingfield analyzes similar trials throughout the empire, government reports from all the Cisleithanian provinces of the empire, and the questionnaires completed by registered prostitutes.

The other part of Wingfield’s archive consists of the lively press coverage of the subject of prostitution. In addition to demonstrating the extent of ethnic and linguistic diversity within the empire, these journalistic accounts reflected a wide range of political opinions. Liberal papers focused on the abuse of the women involved; social democratic and other leftist papers put sex work in the context of the oppression of the working class; and Catholic and right-wing newspapers saw sex work as a symptom of the modern world’s decaying social order, frequently framing the discussion anti-Semitically.

The legal status of prostitution in the final decades of the Habsburg Empire was peculiarly Austrian. Unlike many other European countries, Austria had never decriminalized prostitution, which remained technically illegal throughout this era. However, women who registered with the authorities could qualify as “tolerated” prostitutes whom the police had, per legislation, “the right, but not the obligation, to arrest” (p. 61). Wingfield observes that tolerated prostitution was probably the most heavily regulated form of women’s work in the entire empire. Women filled out an eighteen-point questionnaire, provided extensive documentation about their origins and histories, and submitted to frequent medical examinations and mandatory treatment of venereal diseases.

At times, tolerated prostitution took place in brothels, which were also the focus of considerable governmental attention and press coverage. While brothels were part of an explicit agenda of keeping prostitutes off the streets (where there was fear they might offend public decency), there was also concern about the personal freedom of movement of the women working in the institutions. In addition, brothels were supposed to provide adequate sleeping space, fresh air, and food for the women working there. The government was interested in the sanitation of the buildings, keeping records, for instance, on the types of toilets available. There were also investigations into the fees that brothels charged prostitutes for rent and food, which were often exorbitant.

Tolerated prostitutes who did not work in brothels were called “independent.” They needed to fulfill certain specific requirements, such as having their own room, not shared with other working women. In expensive, over-crowded Vienna, this requirement was difficult to fulfill, for which reason there were not many independent tolerated prostitutes in the capital city. However, elsewhere in the empire, there were more such women.

While a tremendous amount of bureaucratic and journalistic energy was expended on tolerated prostitution, Wingfield reports that studies done at the time concluded that only about 10 percent of the empire’s sex workers were encompassed within the system of registration and oversight (p. 50). The other 90 percent were considered “clandestine” and presented their own set of problems, beginning with one of definition. In periods of increased surveillance and concern about clandestine prostitution (such as during the First World War), officials tended to look with suspicion at all professional women who came into contact with the public, including maids, waitresses, tavern employees, and laundresses. (Wingfield does not mention female nurses, who, according to Klaus Theweleit in his 1977 Männerphantasien, translated into English ten years later as Male Phantasies, were also frequently demonized during and after the Great War as potential prostitutes.)

Tolerated and clandestine prostitutes operated at the cross-sections of a variety of conflicting and even self-contradictory discourses, the most important of which was public health. In the field of public health, many felt that prostitution was a “necessary evil,” balancing the perceived sexual needs of men with the danger of venereal disease to society at large. Many policymakers were concerned about where men would vent their sexual energies if prostitutes were not available. There was concern for the honor of bourgeois and working-class girls, who might be pestered by sexually frustrated men without any outlet for their urges. Nor was it considered beneficial for the men to try to satisfy themselves, because many medical thinkers of the era thought that masturbation had dangerous and deleterious effects.

While some of these concerns may seem absurd to twenty-first-century sensibilities, venereal disease was in fact rampant in the empire. Syphilis alone was said to have infected about 10 percent of the men in urban areas (p. 57), not to mention gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases. Tolerated prostitutes were subject to an extensive range of mandatory health inspections and treatments, as well as ingenious systems to allow the tracing of disease. One brothel experimented with a system whereby each prostitute gave a special identifying token to her clients, so that an infected man could in theory just bring the tokens to help determine who the source was. In practice, however, the tokens rarely indicated the actual source of the infection.

In addition, it is an open question whether the mercury- and arsenic-based treatments of the time did much to combat the epidemic. Indeed, women may have died from the side effects of the treatment. Furthermore, there were instances where disease was spread by the unsanitary conditions prevalent in the medical offices devoted to sex workers. How medical care was supposed to be provided to the women was in general a vexing question, bedeviled by budgetary problems. One report called for hospitals dedicated specifically to sex workers, but nothing came of the idea.

Running at cross purposes to the discourse of public health was a counter discourse of “white slavery.” While public health authorities generally focused on the health of the men who patronized prostitutes (and their middle- and working-class wives and children), the white slavery discourse typically centered on the rights of the working women. The government brought well-publicized cases against madams for restricting the personal liberty of women who worked in brothels, which strengthened the association between prostitution and slavery. Prominent women’s organizations, such as the Bund Österreichischer Frauenvereine (Coalition of Austrian Women’s Organizations), founded in 1902, campaigned against all efforts to legalize prostitution and argued for the elimination of “tolerated” prostitution.

Class issues, however, confounded efforts to combat prostitution. The Österreichische Liga zur Bekämpfung des Mädchenhandels (Austrian League against Trafficking), founded in 1902, reported that not all women wanted to be saved, and that some seemed to return voluntarily to the business. In their annual reports, they consistently listed a number of their clients as “incorrigible.” A 1909 report concluded that many women from the lower classes seemed to attach very little stigma to sex work, apparently because their parents had failed to instill in them a sense of “sexual honor” (p. 74). In light of these difficulties, many organizations gave up on the “incorrigibles” and focused on saving “innocent” middle-class girls from falling into the trade.

The rhetoric of white slavery was also deeply intertwined with anti-Semitic prejudices. Especially the conservative and Catholic press underscored that many of the madams and accused traffickers were Jews. Many of the women who worked for them were also Jewish, coming from impoverished villages from the eastern reaches of the empire. Concerned about the insinuations of the anti-Semites, Jewish groups worked with women’s organizations to combat prostitution and trafficking. Nonetheless, for many citizens, trafficking remained a Jewish activity. Wingfield reports on a denunciation from 1899 when a citizen reported to the police that he had heard two men—“both Jews” who, moreover, exhibited “Jewish” behavior—plotting to take women to New York (p. 197). Wingfield argues that such trafficking stories played into the era’s rhetoric of “anti-Semitism and xenophobic nationalism” (p. 183).

Austria-Hungary was a signatory to the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic and the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic. As the vocabulary of “white slavery” suggests, the focus was on preventing European women from being sent from the eastern parts of the empire to prostitution in such non-European cities as Cairo, Alexandria, and Buenos Aires. Austrian customs officials and representatives from voluntary aid organizations interviewed and interrogated women traveling within the empire and especially those leaving the country to ensure that their work objectives were legitimate. Consular officials abroad also kept an eye out for Austrian women as they arrived and tried to return them home if they ended up in the sex industry against their will.

In general, however, “tracing and rescuing alleged victims of international traffickers was difficult, time-consuming, and seldom successful” (p. 201). It was often hard to find the women, and when officials found them, they frequently had no intention of returning. In fact, at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, vast numbers of Austrian citizens were moving, both within the empire and to the New World. According to Wingfield, “the illicit movement of women was only one of the Austrian government’s concerns in controlling mass emigration” (pp. 187-188). The trafficking panic was thus part of a larger concern about migration and the mass movements of peoples at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.

Wingfield’s account is lively and full of fascinating details, incidents, and case studies. At times, the amount of detail can be overwhelming, but no reasonable reader would want cuts. A conclusion, drawing together some of the major themes, might have been helpful. As it is, the study ends quite abruptly with an analysis of the surveillance of women during wartime. However, this sudden ending gives readers the opportunity to draw their own conclusions from the author’s historical work.  

In addition to the many intriguing insights that Wingfield’s monograph provides regarding prostitution at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries in the Habsburg Empire, her study offers many points of contact with more recent debates concerning sex work. To this day, public health remains an important arena in which prostitution and sex work feature prominently. At the onset of the AIDS crisis, there was also, without doubt, considerable anxiety about prostitutes as vectors of disease and presumably more concern about the health of clients and their loved ones (as well as the health of the general public and “innocent victims”) than about the health of the working women.

Certainly, the anti-Semitic overtones of the discussions of prostitution in the Habsburg Empire seem relevant in analyses of the racist enforcement of the Mann Act, the American “White Slave Traffic Act of 1910,” which affected African American men especially harshly. Heavyweight champion Jack Johnson, for instance, was charged and convicted in 1912 because of a relationship he had with a white prostitute. While the early twentieth-century American legal system presumed that African American men endangered white women and Austrian lawmakers believed that non-European sex markets (like Cairo or Buenos Aires) posed a peril for European women, more recent discussions have typically presumed that white men from the developed world are preying on poor women, often women of color, from the developing world.

The debates around the legality and regulation of prostitution remain as heated today as they were over a century ago, although here too some of the polarities have switched. France, which was one of the first nations to develop a modern system of regulating legalized prostitution, criminalized paying for sex in 2016. In the same decade, a number of major organizations devoted to women’s rights (including the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International) reversed their previously held positions and endorsed the decriminalization of prostitution; the decision to do so, however, was slow and contested, sparking widespread protests among many feminists. At the center of the controversy remains the question of the agency of the women involved, which was behind the concerns of the late imperial Austrian organizations frustrated with the unwillingness of their clients to give up the life of the sex industry.

To this day, therefore, prostitution and sex work remain caught up in debates about race, class, globalization, public health, trafficking, and women’s agency. Wingfield’s The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria shows, with fascinating detail, how, over a century ago, many similar issues—the fight against syphilis and other venereal diseases, “white slavery,” anti-Semitism, and global migration—structured the discourse around prostitution in government, voluntary organizations, and mass media.

Citation: Robert Deam Tobin. Review of Wingfield, Nancy M., The World of Prostitution in Late Imperial Austria. HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.