A Modest Defence of Public Stews
by
Bernard Mandeville

            Bernard Mandeville (1670-1733) was a Dutchman who practised as a doctor in different parts of the continent. Like many of his compatriots he came to England in the early 1690s in the wake of King William of Orange to take advantage of the new regime. He wrote extensively on social topics, using an ironical, almost cynical attitude to oppose the pieties of the day. His best-known work is The Fable of the Bees where he argued that "private vices are public benefits" i.e. that libertinism, greed etc. of the individual result in a benefit for society as a whole. These ideas had a great influence on the Enlightenment, particularly Adam Smith and David Hume.

            In 1724 he turned his attention to the problems of prostitution, and to the mitigation of its ill effects. There have been different views of prostitution, and of prostitutes, who have been variously regarded as (a) temptresses luring men to their destruction, destroying marriages etc. (b) victims of the lusts and brutality of men or (c) women providing a useful service and deserving of the same protections as others. Some have regarded prostitution as a necessary evil which can be mitigated, others that it should not happen at all and must be stopped by whatever methods seem likely to be most effective. Throughout history the response of the authorities has cycled between attempts (always futile) at suppression, unofficial toleration, and official control. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each has been tried in turn. It remains to be seen what effect the currently popular scheme of criminalising the clients and not the prostitutes will have.

            Early 18th c. in England was in the unofficial toleration phase as far as the authorities were concerned, though a private body called "The Society for the Reformation of Manners" was trying to suppress prostitution. Mandeville admitted the problems associated and proposed tightly controlled publicly-owned brothels as a solution to them. In this book he argued his case with much learning in standard oratorical structure and his trademark irony, which has led some to think he was writing tongue-in-cheek.

 

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