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The Sexual Morals of Working-Class Women: A Male View (1890)

In the 1880s and 1890s prostitution was a widely debated issue. Members of middle-class moral purity leagues accused the working classes of moral decay. Paul Göhre (1864-1928), Protestant minister and social reformer, spent three months as a factory worker in Chemnitz to experience working-class life and to study class and gender relations. He published his observations in a book entitled Three Months in a Workshop: A Practical Study [Drei Monate Fabrikarbeiter und Handwerksbursche. Eine praktische Studie]. In this excerpt, Göhre offers his perception of his co-workers’ sexual morality. He describes fine (and not-so-fine) gradations in their moral behavior – differentiating, for example, between “cheap whores” and “better whores.” Göhre also accuses male workers of treating their wives badly.

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Now a word about the dance halls. Almost every Sunday evening I visited one or more – eight or ten, perhaps, in all. Some were quite refined, some very low in character. The worst that I saw was the “Kaiserkrone” in Chemnitz, significantly nicknamed “Bloody Bones” in common parlance. There the pleasures of the dance and the joys of a free fight could be combined. There were collected the very dregs of the social order, prostitutes and factory girls of the degraded type with their gallants, young workmen and soldiers from the Chemnitz garrison. I would lay stress on this last fact, and I take it upon myself to earnestly call the attention of the military authorities to the need of forbidding to the soldiery not merely those places of assembly which are notoriously hot-beds of social democracy, but, above all, spots of moral infection like these, where a decently dressed man without a companion can seldom remain unmolested. I was there with one of my mates, somewhat less than an hour, but how many times in our brief stay were we not indecently accosted by women, or jostled by them in the grossest manner! There is no alternative in such a place but to accept the situation and be as low as the rest, or to exchange words and, finally, blows. We avoided both horns of this dilemma by prudently withdrawing. The youthful landlord met us as we were leaving, and asked us why we were going; had we not been pleased? We mumbled something in reply, upon which he said, with an air of pride: “Yes, the place had pretty well run down under my father, but now, thank God! I’ve got it on its feet again.”

The “Colosseum” in Kappel presented a great contrast to this. That was the most imposing of all the dance-halls that I saw, both as regards its appointments and proportions, its music and its clientéle. Here were to be found not only young mechanics earning a high wage, some of them from our own works, but merchants and lawyers, and even, I was assured, officers in civilian’s dress. Among the fair sex one might meet all sorts of shop girls and saleswomen, with the better class of prostitutes, but there were few servants or factory girls. It was really very like a ball-room! The ladies – many a lovely daughter of Eve among them! – were in fashionable toilettes, often very expensive, and almost always in good taste; the gentlemen were also well dressed, if not always in correct evening black, and they were, one and all, easy in their manners and motions and full of youthful grace. The workmen were hardly distinguishable from the rest, save by the absence of the pince-nez and by their larger and coarser hands. Nobody wore gloves. It was usual for ladies when they were asked to dance, to silently hold out a handkerchief to their partners, so that the hot hand which clasped their waist might leave no stain of perspiration there.

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