Sex work and archaeology

Posted on March 5, 2011


Why are brothels such a common focus of archaeologies of gender?

This question was spurred by reading the most recent news coverage about research directed by Mary Beaudry of Boston University on artifacts recovered at the Mill Pond site during the “Big Dig”, massive excavations that were required to place freeways underground. Back in October of last year, this research was covered by news media, including UPI.

The current story, in the Boston Herald, follows a press release on January 31 that contains a really nice video with Beaudry explaining some of the detective work that was involved in identifying the house at 27-29 Endicott St. as a brothel from 1852 to 1883.

The Herald treated the story as something to be parodied, revealing a discomfort with sex work that is really unsurprising. The author ignored Beaudry’s characterization of the site as an “alternative household”, and left out most of the substantive discussion of everyday life there:

“The madam managed to create an atmosphere that mimicked the middle-class home,” she says. “This kind of brothel was referred to as a parlor house, because there were furnishings that sort of looked like a middle-class parlor.”

The story of the painstaking research, and how it made a rich piece of history out of archaeological research conducted as part of a construction project, is worth reading on its own.

But it also made me wonder why we have so many studies of brothels forming critical parts of the archaeology of sex and gender?

The course I teach contains a core of reading about other historic brothel sites. Students in the course have taken the challenge and added new case studies in their own final projects.

In Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives, I discussed two case studies about brothels. One, Mary Ann Hall’s house, was locaed in Washington, DC. The other was from Los Angeles. I wrote:

Brothel sites are from one perspective no different than any other site of residence. In them, archaeologists find material traces of everyday life, of food preparation and consumption, of expressive activities, of birth, illness, and death. But we know that the participants in these activities were bound by commercial transactions, not by the affective bonds that also are part of the heteronormative model. The temptation to present these simply as places where sexual norms were transgressed is strong. In fact, they help us understand the degree to which practices seen in other households represent widely shared values. Archaeological studies provide a sense of what life was like in these establishments in comparison to the lives lived by people in the same areas not employed in sex work.

I could have added many more examples: Nina Clifford’s house from St Paul, Minnesota, New York’s Five Points district, and sites along the western frontier were all included, along with the DC and LA examples, in a special issue of Historical Archaeology.

And that’s just in the nineteenth-century US. From the classical world come reports of brothels at Thessaloniki, and of course, Pompeii, subject of a current museum exhibit.

Maybe that ubiquity is a good enough justification for continuing to emphasize these unique sites. But I wonder about the distorting effect the emphasis on these sites has on our ability to think of ordinary households as also places where sex took place, and structured material life. Instead of leading to our thinking of sex as a normal part of life in all the sites where we work, have we created a special category of sites to which we are relegating sexuality?

I don’t have a solution to this; just the sense that we need to start thinking of sex as something that happens, not just in alternative households, but in every household.