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Topics in History: A Global History of Sex Work, 1850-1950

A black and white photograph of two women standing on the rocks at Macdonald Park on the shore of Lake Ontario with Murney Tower in the background.
Archives of Ontario, Two women walking in Macdonald Park, Kingston, 1898-1920

This course examines the history of sex work from the mid-nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth century in a global context. The seminar is organized both chronologically and thematically, beginning with early histories of the regulation of prostitution in colonial settings such as India, Peru, Canada, etc. We will explore various forms of sex work, from streetwalking and brothel prostitution to erotic dancing. The course will highlight how various identity markers, including gender, race, class, sexuality, age, and disability impacted sex workers’ lives, labour, and their criminalization.

Two of the major questions of the course will include the relationship between sex work and the state, and the problem of “knowing” sexuality as historians. The course will highlight various government approaches to handling the “problem” of prostitution and examine why sexuality has come to be regulated and controlled far beyond other forms of labour. It will also explore the limitations of researching and knowing sexuality, whether due to silences in the archives, colonial knowledge, and government and police control over access to information concerning sex work.

Students will be expected to complete readings (or view/listen to other media) and arrive prepared to discuss weekly themes with their classmates. Assignments will include a research paper on the history of sex work using primary and secondary research.

Department of History, Queen's University

49 Bader Lane, Watson Hall 212
Kingston ON K7L 3N6




Queen's University is situated on traditional Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe territory.