Chang on Legg, 'Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India'

Stephen Legg
Sandy Chang

Stephen Legg. Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. xi + 281 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8223-5773-5; $94.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8223-5759-9.

Reviewed by Sandy Chang (University of Texas) Published on H-Asia (March, 2017) Commissioned by Sumit Guha

Prostitution and Empire

In his widely acclaimed 2007 book, The Spaces of Colonialism, Stephen Legg examined the spatial reordering of Old and New Delhi in the early twentieth century, offering a compelling analysis of colonial urban governmentality. His latest monograph, Prostitution and the Ends of Empire, returns to the colonial capital to investigate how the brothel, as an intimate space, was increasingly constructed as a “local, national, imperial, and international problem” during interwar period (p. 3). In the years leading up to the First World War, prostitution in British India was tolerated in segregated “red light” zones; brothels were designated as “safe” sites where the perceived social and biological problems associated with sex work could be contained. By the interwar era, however, brothels became targeted as spaces of scandal, disease, and sexual slavery that necessitated eradication.This book explains this shift, from the policy of segregation to abolition, by drawing on the works of Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Gilles Deleuze. Adopting a scalar methodology, it demonstrates how broader changes in science, colonial governance, civil society, and imperial geopolitics contributed to the growing attacks on brothels during the interwar era.

Prostitution and the Ends of Empire persuasively argues that the change from the toleration of brothels to its subsequent suppression was an uneven and fraught process--one that involved discrete yet entangled networks operating at multiple scales. The narrative arc begins with Delhi and unfolds “out” to explore how the city was intricately connected to broader imperial and global networks. This emphasis on the “relational geography” of brothel regulations enables Legg to draw several revealing conclusions (p. 11). First, the colonial state delegated the regulation of prostitution to civil society actors but was reluctant to provide funds for the “rescue” and “rehabilitation” of these women. Second, while the central government encouraged suppressionist laws at the provincial levels in the 1920s, it refused to legislate against brothels on a colony-wide scale. And finally, the Government of India signed international agreements at the League of Nations pledging abolition, yet at the provincial levels, segregated brothel zones continued to be tolerated.

The first chapter explores how the actions of the Delhi Municipal Committee along with a myriad of civil society actors resulted in the exodus of public prostitutes from the city into marginal spaces. Here, Legg engages with Agamben’s notion of the “state of exception” to show how the city’s prostitutes were “civilly abandoned” by the state and the colonial society as a result of growing residential concerns regarding urban congestion and modernization. At the same time, the author is also careful to account for the various modes of resistance that prostitutes displayed despite this abandonment, such as taking advantage of legal loopholes and challenging their evictions in civil courts. The next chapter charts the spread of the Suppression of Immoral Traffic Acts (SITA) under the legal landscape of dyarchy and provincial self-government between 1919 and 1935. Legg traces how brothel scandals in Bombay and Rangoon, coupled with the flourishing of sexological literature, discredited brothels as “visible” sites of safety. While historian Ashwini Tambe has previously used the same scandal--the murder of Akootai in a Bombay brothel--to explore the social lives of the city’s subaltern community, Legg offers a fresh analysis of the broader, colony-wide implications of the case.[1] Scandals, he astutely observes, “thrive on heterogeneous assemblages; they place the scientific and fantastical, the criminal and legal, the immoral and the ethical, the near and far, side by side, and thrive off their contradictions” (p. 108).

In the final chapter, Legg uses rich archival materials from the Association of Moral and Social Hygiene (AMSH), housed in the Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, to examine how one of the AMSH representatives, Meliscent Shephard, networked the interests of the metropole, League of Nations, the colonial military, medical experts, and Indian nationalists to campaign for abolition of brothels. Legg underscores how discourses concerning hygiene--its moral, social, and imperial variants--were pivotal in shaping the abolitionist campaigns of the 1930s. Building on the insights of Antoinette Burton, he argues that Shephard’s efforts to abolish brothels must be understood within the broader context of imperial feminism. Despite Shephard’s campaigns to secure the support of Indian nationalists, her efforts, inflected by race, gender, and class, were frequently viewed with suspicion by local inhabitants.

This book is an important contribution to the literature on gender, sexuality, and colonialism. Since the publication of Kenneth Ballhatchet’s Race, Sex, and Class Under the Raj (1980), scholars have approached the subject of colonial prostitution in diverse ways. The management of sex work, as many historians have shown, was bound up with broader anxieties concerning miscegenation, racial difference, crime, and public health. Policing of prostitution in the colonies was spurred by fears of moral and biological degeneration within the British Empire. Much of this scholarship focuses on the nineteenth century and the enactment of the Contagious Diseases Acts. Legg’s close study of the interwar period is therefore a welcome one. It shed lights on how debates concerning colonial prostitution continued to erupt, rather than subside, in the aftermath of the First World War. Moreover, as a geographer, Legg brings an awareness and sensitivity to the politics of space that is often overlooked by historians who tend to emphasize change over time. By treating the brothel as a contested site and investigating how it “encapsulated scales from the genital to the global,” Legg tells a fascinating and more complex narrative of the shift from segregation to suppression in interwar Delhi (p. 39).

Prostitution and the Ends of Empire is clearly intended for specialists interested in gender and sexuality, colonial statecraft, the British Empire, and urban studies. This book will be challenging for undergraduates and a broader audience; they will likely find Legg’s earlier articles on urban prostitution, imperial feminism, and the League of Nations more accessible. Nonetheless, the book is packed densely with theoretical insights and meticulous empirical findings that will appeal to scholars interested in historical approaches to the state regulation of sex work. Legg’s attention to archival details and his innovative use of scalar analysis is an admirable example of scholarship that attends, at once, to global and local histories. 


[1]. Ashwini Tambe, Codes of Misconduct: Regulating Prostitution in Late Colonial Bombay (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 79-99. 

Printable Version:

Citation: Sandy Chang. Review of Legg, Stephen, Prostitution and the Ends of Empire: Scale, Governmentalities, and Interwar India. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. March, 2017. URL:

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