Holler on Germeten, 'Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico'

Nicole von Germeten
Jacqueline Holler

Nicole von Germeten. Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018. x + 235 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-520-29729-6; $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-29731-9.

Reviewed by Jacqueline Holler (University of Northern British Columbia) Published on H-LatAm (September, 2019) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=53367

Selling Sex and Making Gender in Colonial Mexico

In her new book, Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico, Nicole von Germeten relocates women’s sexuality to the center of imperial geographies. She not only charts the history of transactional sex in New Spain from the 1500s to the early nineteenth century, but links the theme to the changing status of women, their economic and domestic activities, their relationship with the state, and the category of respectability. This book is therefore an important contribution to the extremely limited literature on prostitution in New Spain, to the growing body of works on the history of sexuality in Mexico, and to our understanding of women’s history in the colony.

Von Germeten’s starting point is the early modern Spanish concern with the putative proliferation of prostitution, the beginning of a longer legal and religious discussion about women’s sale of sex and its harms, particularly in colonial contexts. Despite its apparent ubiquity, however, prostitution left fewer traces in the archives of the Spanish American colonies than in those of the metropolis. In response, von Germeten has painstakingly assembled a broad array of sources. Legal treatises, criminal records, Inquisition dossiers, breach-of-promise suits, and arrest inventories (libros de reos) are all mined for information on different forms of transactional sex. Recourse to these sources permits the author to trace American transactional sex from its foundations in the sixteenth century to the emergence of discourses of prostitution and exploitation in the eighteenth and nineteenth, and from plebeian home to brothel, street, and stage. Von Germeten intertwines two threads: first, the narrative of how transactional sex was understood, framed, and regulated by law, the state, and society; and second, the story (or rather many stories) of the women who sold sex.  

One of the key contributions of von Germeten's early chapters is her parsing of the particularly American and colonial forms of transactional sex. Brothels were well known and much regulated in the Old World (contributing significantly to municipal coffers there); however, brothels did not emerge consistently in America, despite early attempts by urban governments to create them. Instead, von Germeten suggests, transactional sex “veered away” into domestic prostitution and procuring. Both of these activities were conducted without much regulation or prosecution except the sporadic punishment of procurers (“ruffians”) and bawds. While procurers were judged harshly by both society and law, women who participated in transactional sex were generally portrayed as less culpable. Socially, however, whores were often deeply stigmatized because of their low social and ethnic status and their putative connections to disease (particularly syphilis) and sorcery. Stigmatization was exacerbated by the erosion of legal toleration for prostitution, epitomized by Philip IV’s 1623 decree closing all brothels in his domains. The elimination of brothels only increased the ambiguity of transactional sex. Late-seventeenth-century efforts to punish, enclose, and rehabilitate women who sold sex nonetheless presaged growing social and legal concern with transactional sex. In the eighteenth century, the label “prostitute” begins to appear in the sources. Von Germeten argues that the term represents a changed view of transactional sex as a social problem rather than a matter of individual sin. Reformers were concerned with preventing the growth of the problem, and in particular the corruption of poor young women (especially if white). Reforms were stymied, however, by the social changes of the century, from urban growth to mixed-sex sociability. From 1770 on, a raft of (futile) legal measures aimed at controlling the locations in which soliciting was acceptable; in the nineteenth century, these were complemented by legal provisions modeled on those of France that focused not only on the spaces of prostitution but on the age of prostitutes themselves. Far from eliminating prostitution, these provisions, von Germeten suggests, contributed mainly by intensifying the stigmatization of women who sold sex—and violence against them. The ever-clearer figure of the “prostitute” inscribed some women as abject while protecting the respectability of others.

The second narrative thread of the work, the stories of women involved in transactional sex, is rooted in a nuanced theoretical discussion. Von Germeten notes, for example, that transactional sex cannot be understood apart from its rootedness in a culture that generally viewed sex as a form of exchange. Thus, von Germeten suggests, multiple forms of transactional sexuality can be seen as positioned along a spectrum. At one end stood marriage, which “converted [women's] sexual capital into economic and social capital” (p. 10) and which protected women's respectability; at the other, cash exchanges between men and women of the street made clear the transactional nature of sex (and the disreputable character of the women involved). Von Germeten thus refuses to create a binary distinction between transactional and nontransactional sex. To give her topic coherence, however, she focuses on “public, commercial sexual exchange” (p. 10) rather than including concubinage or longer-term, in-kind relationships. Her subjects, rendered on the page in lively, sympathetic, and engaging studies, comprise bawds, sorceresses, procuress-mothers, mistresses, courtesans, and actresses. Differentiated by class, ethnicity, and economic success, these women were united by their involvement in in some form or other of sexual exchange. Not all were “prostitutes,” a term that emerges relatively late in von Germeten’s records and is associated with discourses of victimization. Von Germeten resists the temptation to portray transactional sex as a site of either unambiguous female sexual agency or gross injustice. Defying easy categorization, she suggests, transactional sex in colonial Mexico also confounds polarized discourses of victimhood and agency.    

Analyzing multiple case studies, von Germeten shows how women navigated (or foundered upon) the blurred boundaries between respectability and the sale of sex. Faced with the law, they could and did plead vulnerability on the basis of their sex, but they also sought to portray themselves as respectable women even when evidence suggested the contrary. Perhaps the book's most compelling chapter concerns the selling of sex within the late-colonial family, usually by parents prostituting their daughters or husbands their wives. In such a context, selling sex could be a form of filial duty, fitting within and reinforcing the existing age and gender hierarchies of the family. In addition, procuring could be a form of upward mobility, where casta, or mixed-race, girls were used to attract higher-ranking men with a hope of securing a better future, or where their virginity was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Von Germeten’s analysis reveals a nuanced and sympathetic picture of plebeian families. The cases Von Germeten examines, moreover, demonstrate how young women could use the courts to free themselves of the burdens of obedience, complementing the growing literature on girls in the colony.

Any book on a topic as contentious and varied as prostitution will face challenges of interpretation, particularly given the nature of the sources. Von Germeten is keenly aware of the “scribal seductions” of her topic. In addition, her focus is less on assessing women’s actual situations than on analyzing their performances of gender and morality. That said, her language sometimes suggests a romanticized view of transactional sex. For example, the term “sexual entrepreneurs” is used to describe women who sold sex outside of licensed brothels. Sexual violence is almost absent from the work, and in some cases the assumption is made that women who sold sex, unlike married women, enjoyed freedom from forced sex. Interpreting the violent rage of a woman arrested for prostitution, von Germeten suggests that “perhaps [she] had become used to defining her own use of her body without having to submit to any men unless she chose to on her terms” (p. 117). The possibilities of bodily sovereignty may have been more constrained, particularly given that the woman in question was a streetwalker and camp follower. In addition, while the book is well rooted in the broader historiography of colonial Mexico, there are occasional lost opportunities. Perhaps it is not entirely fair to expect a book whose approach is primarily cultural to consider the entirety of the colony’s social and economic history, but might the limited creation of brothels in the sixteenth century relate less to metropolitan discursive strategies than to the nature of colonization itself, with its ready opportunities for (often exploitative) sexual relations between Spanish men and colonized women outside cash exchange? How did the general deterioration of economic conditions for plebeians in late-colonial Mexico City affect women engaged in transactional sex? Finally, how did militarization act as a catalyst in the growth and transformation of prostitution? Those quibbles aside, however, this is a significant and very welcome book. It not only uncovers the fascinating history of transactional sex itself, but illuminates how women engaged in transactional sex and conceptions of the prostitute shaped women’s lives and the history of gender. The book will be widely read by those interested in women’s history, the history of sexuality, and colonial Mexico, and will be useful in seminars on the history of gender in colonial Latin America.  

Citation: Jacqueline Holler. Review of Germeten, Nicole von, Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico. H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. September, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=53367

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