Lebanon: Codification of Sexual Labor and Its Detractors

By Pascale Graham
Submitted to Session P4987 (Gendering and Governing the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
My paper will explore the history of French colonial mandate Lebanon (1918-1946) through the prism of prostitution. While prostitution pre-existed the arrival of the French, the rise of international organizations and presence of the French army brought public scrutiny of the profession to the forefront. The character of the practice of prostitution was transformed from a relatively unregulated to a highly-regulated one under colonial order. The newly-established system under the 1920 administrative order signed by General Gouraud , whereby prostitutes registered with the local police, carried identification cards, complied with obligatory medical examinations, and worked at designated brothels, had the effect of “professionalizing” prostitution. Tensions concerning public morality grew over how to deal with the “vice”, varying from moralists and feminists calling for an outright ban to others who begrudgingly accepted its presence.

Prostitutes were the subject of heated debate because they represented socio-political transformations of the period. These transformations included: the oversight of new international bodies; unease related to colonial rule and in particular the “civilizing missions” of missionaries; elite feminist organizations and publications; and new laws. Ultimately, international organizations, colonial administrators and missionaries, feminists, and public moralists grappled with questions surrounding the increasingly public role of prostitution. This concentrated the debate on the regulation of women’s bodies with little consideration of the lives behind the practice.
Through the examination of archival sources in France and Lebanon, my paper will investigate the public and private debates around prostitution in three main sites: the metropole, colonial Lebanon, and new international bodies. Thus, it will show how these debates were connected to the increasing regulation of prostitution in Lebanon in the period under study. By so doing I will be connecting with a broader historical literature that understands the development of public morality in colonial states through the lens of “imperial networks”.