GenSpotters’ Book Review: Beyond Brutal Passions. Prostitution in Early Nineteenth-Century Montreal by Mary Anne Poutanen

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At the outset of the nineteenth century in Montreal, the elites were wondering about the objectives of sending prostitutes to prison. Was it about dissuasion or rehabilitation? According to the prisoners themselves, jail fulfilled a need. First of all, it provided social welfare to destitute and homeless people which, most of the time, were elderly, mothers and their children, as well as prostitutes. For women of this era, running a brothel or living off the avails of prostitution were means to have access to the basics: food, clothing, and a roof. Several historians have studied prostitution—either for Québec or for the rest of Canada—but few actually covered the first half of the nineteenth century.

Poutanen's essay is divided in two parts. The first one discusses women accused of prostitution, the second one emphasizes on the judicial system's procedures related to the lodging of a complaint against the presumed prostitutes.

The first three chapters are about the places where women lived and worked. The author addresses prostitution's social geography, prostitution at home and in brothels, and street prostitution.

As for chapters four to seven, they focus on the relation between the plaintiff, the accused and several authorities from the justice system. Poutanen outlines the administrative complexity related to the filing of a complaint against a presumed prostitute or a brothel keeper. She studies the complicated relationships between policemen, watchmen, and prostitutes, concentrating on court cases. Finally, the author explains punishments and the way they evolved during this period.

This essay sheds light on the complex relationships between the women accused of prostitution and the society in which they were living and working. Beyond Brutal Passions portrays the unknown social environment, yet very real, that was prostitution in Montreal in the early nineteenth century. A relevant essay that is now essential on the subject.

Poutanen, Mary Anne. Beyond Brutal Passions. Prostitution in Early Nineteenth Century Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 409 pages.