Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico

Profit and Passion: Transactional Sex in Colonial Mexico

by Nicole von Germeten

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Colonial documents and works of literature from early modern Spain are rife with references to public women, whores, and prostitutes. In Profit and Passion, Nicole von Germeten offers a new history of the women who carried and resisted these labels of ill repute. The elusive, ever-changing terminology for prosecuted women voiced by kings, jurists, magistrates, inquisitors, and bishops, as well as disgruntled husbands and neighbors, foreshadows the increasing regulation, criminalization, and polarizing politics of modern global transactional sex. The author’s analysis concentrates on the words women spoke in depositions and court appearances and on how their language changed over time, pointing to a broader transformation in the history of sexuality, gender, and the ways in which courts and law enforcement processes affected women.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520297319
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/06/2018
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Nicole von Germeten is Professor of History at Oregon State University.

Read an Excerpt


Bawds and Brothels

Now as for the go-between, this should be some woman who is kin to you and who will be loyal to you. ... Make sure that your go-between is skilled and subtle in her speech; she must be able to lie with ease and to understand the lady's reactions. ... If you have no such relative, find one of those old crones that frequent the churches and know all the back alleys — the ones with the huge rosaries dangling from their necks.

"Archpriest," she said, "one makes the old woman trot if he needs her, and you must do the same because you have no other. You must treat this old woman well, for she can help you. ... Never call me vile or ugly names. Call me 'Good Love' and I will be loyal; people are pleased by pleasing names, and good names cost no more than bad ones."

For the old woman's sake and to speak the truth, I have called my book Good Love, and so do I call her always. Because I treated her well, she was a real asset to me.

Again being alone, without a sweetheart, I sent for my old woman and she said, "What now?" Then she laughed, saying: "Greetings, my good sir. Here comes good love, as good as a trusted friend could hope to find."

Juan Ruiz, known as the Archpriest of Hita, wrote his humorous and devout Book of Good Love around 1320 and endowed his character Trotaconventos with great verbal skill and flexibility in dealing with her clientele. Ruiz depicts her as a crafty old woman but also names her "good love," in honor of what she provides him through her talent with words. The narrator both fears and trusts Trotaconventos with all his emotional and sexual happiness. Women labeled whores and bawds produced an enormous textual record in Spain, in the form of legal, political, and literary sources that document the complexities and nuances of working in this trade. However, in New Spain, more subtle scribal seductions took place. Clients, officials, and male and female purveyors purposefully obscured the sexual marketplace. As observed by Josefina Muriel, "prostitution [sic] had a perfectly clear place and was peacefully tolerated by the authorities." Especially for the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, highly legible peninsular literature, law codes, and the history of increasing regulation and eventually suppression underscore transactional sex's textual erasure and its hidden prevalence in New Spain.

Three kinds of written expressions of Iberian commercial sex prefaced the elusiveness of American interpretations. First, in Spain, jurists, poets, dramatists, and moral/religious commentators recorded a wide range of understandings of disreputable women that did not clearly define what constitutes a woman who sells sex acts, versus a promiscuous woman who makes no money off her behavior, versus a woman simply known as having an immoral reputation. A second aspect highlighted in written documentation was the crafty and sly male or female bawd — rufianes and alcahuetas (or masculine, alcahuetes) like Trotaconventos — who caused the most official worry from the medieval era until well into the seventeenth century. Lastly, from the 1200s to the 1600s, increasing crown and municipal control of legal brothels (mancebías) dominated the Iberian legal discourse, leading to a large body of regulations that the viceregal authorities did not leave a record of enforcing. Sixteenth-century Spaniards brought these late-medieval laws and customs to the New World, where participants apparently veered away into a more informal street- and home-based practice that left only the slightest traces of its existence.

The first half of this chapter mines the prolific files of Iberian brothels and pandering. The second half of the chapter draws from a much smaller transactional-sex archive for sixteenth-century Mexico City. In the new viceregal capital, the crown-regulated brothels could not displace the older tradition of male and female go-betweens who masterminded sexual relationships, often in a hospitable setting. This more domestic milieu for engaging in sex for gifts or money did not limit its entrepreneurial nature but obscured it from surviving scribal annotations. Both procurers and their clientele used their time before the courts to disguise their reputations, tactics that further obfuscate how women in Mexico transacted in sex. Sex for sale in the sixteenth-century viceroyalties operated on the fringes of legality and surveillance. In an effort to clarify some of the subtleties of writing transactional sex, throughout this section of the chapter I will point out the terminology that led me to a particular case — that is, how the case was verbally catalogued within Mexico's national archive.


To begin with the legal context, sex for sale existed in various forms in Roman and Visigothic Spain, as well as when Muslim rule dominated the peninsula, because from ancient times, gendered social hierarchies created an idea that men needed an easily accessible sexual outlet to protect women born to elite, protected status. The laws that most affected the American viceroyalties emerged out of medieval monarchs' efforts to consolidate their authority through promulgating legal codes. In the second half of the thirteenth century, the Siete Partidas or "Seven Sections" of the Castilian King Alfonso X (known as "the Wise") put in place the judicial understanding of selling sex, drawing from Roman jurisprudence, canon law, and the fueros, or customary Iberian laws. However, the naming or categorization of an act or status within the Siete Partidas did not necessarily assign a punitive function to the given act or status. Legal texts could define nonmarital or nonmonogamous sexual statuses without criminalizing them.

For example, the Siete Partidas did not elaborate regulations against women who made an income off their own sex acts, although Alfonso X and his compilers/jurists did use the word putería ("whoring"). Putería comes up in the fourth Partida, which discusses family relationships broadly, including those between servants and vassals and their masters. This official acknowledgment of the institution's legal existence without specifying judicial repercussions for working in the brothel served to grant these women a legal identity or status. While not criminalizing women who sold sex with a specific judicial sentence, the Siete Partidas burdened their children with a heavy load of moral condemnation due to their maternal lineage. Of course, the Partidas, with the purpose of strengthening crown justice, operated from a hierarchical, patriarchal frame of reference, valorizing male-led families and states. This was the emphasis in this law code's legal use of putería.

Marriage and children occupy much of the content of Partida Four, including Title Fifteen, Law One, which discusses illegitimate children. This section comprises just one of the many legal categories for the various permutations of children born out of wedlock. Iberian law codes had to deal with a wide variety of birth patterns for heirs due to the essentially polygamous practices of the high nobility and others in medieval and early-modern Spain. An obsession with lineage and property inheritance overcame any regard for adhering to monogamy within the relatively new institution of sacramental Christian marriage — marriage having become a sacrament only at the Fourth Lateran council in 1215. According to the Siete Partidas, children born of women who "estan en la putería [are involved in whoring]" should be known as mánceres, a reference to their sinful birth and to the fact that, according to Alfonso X and his jurists, these children could not know who to claim as their father, due to the assumption of multiple sex partners on the part of their mothers. This statement served to protect men from women who might claim that their children had inheritance rights. If the man could paint the woman as a whore, he could easily reject her claims, based on this section. The law further adds that these children were engendered in evil and born to vile status.

In contrast, other titles (especially Title Fourteen) in the Fourth Partida discuss barraganas, or legal, recognized concubines, with much less disdain. These concubines' status as protected by one man probably made them a more palatable option for the Partidas's compilers. Barraganas could legally draw up contracts with their male partners, in a similar fashion to the way a tradesman's apprentice or a domestic servant negotiated their employment. This suggests that women who operated outside male control most intimidated the medieval lawmakers, as they represented a threat to patriarchal moral codes.

The Seventh Partida deals with acts considered evil and deserving of punishment — what we would call criminal law, as opposed to the family law discussed above. Title Six, Law Four discusses "los infamados" or reprobates known as "lenones" or "alcahuetes" (elsewhere called ruffians), starting with a definition from the Roman context: "'Leno' in Latin means the same as alcahuete; a man such as this has his female servants or other free women in his house, commanding them to do evil with their bodies for money ... he is reprobate for this." Despite the very strong literary and grassroots tradition of female procuresses (alcahuetas), further explored below, here the Siete Partidas defines them as men only.

Male and female panderers took a variety of forms. Ruffians in early-modern Spain offered protection from violence and helped when women faced law enforcement. They collected a certain amount of money from women who sold sex, sometimes also interacting with them in the role of a boyfriend. In contrast, male and female procurers (alcahuetas and alcahuetes) received money directly from male clients in exchange for setting up meetings and arranging safe locations for these encounters. This second category seems to fit best with common early-modern use of the word alcahueta. In terms of working as sexual intermediaries, the word tercera (third) also covers this kind of activity. Lawmakers and moralizers hated procurers because they allegedly drew men and women into sexual commerce through their legendary clever and subtle verbal ploys.

Title Twenty of the Siete Partidas contains two laws that deal with alcahuetes/as in more detail. Here, the first lines of the title seem to treat what would more commonly be called ruffians — violent panderers — as opposed to the more sophisticated female intermediaries (alcahuetas). This title breaks alcahuetes (loosely interpreted) down into five categories:

evil rogues who guard whores that are publically in putería, taking part of what they earn; secondly those that go about as panderers for those seeking them; thirdly, when men raise in their houses captives or other servants knowing that they do evil with their bodies; the fourth is a man so vile that he panders his own wife; the fifth is if someone consents that a married or other well-placed woman fornicates in his house, for something that she gives to him, although he does not go about procuring for them.

Only the last two categories discuss the intermediary tradition. The Siete Partidas go on to say that alcahuetes/as do great evil by convincing good women to do evil and by pushing those who are just starting to commit errors into becoming much worse. These men cause women dishonor by the evil done with their bodies. In punishment, the Siete Partidas say that alcahuetes should be brought before judges, and if they are proven to be rogues, they should be ejected from the town along with their whores (putas). Those procurers who rent rooms to "evil women" involved in putería should lose their houses and pay ten pounds of gold. Any slave woman having sex for money and giving some of it to her master should be freed, and if she is a free woman, she should receive money for her dowry. Men who pander their own wives, other married women, virgins, nuns, or widows with a good reputation deserve the death penalty. This title ends with the note that all of these laws also apply to women: procuresses or alcahuetas. The next title moves on to sorcerers and diviners, crimes closely connected to alcahuetería (see chapter 2).

As these complex medieval legal definitions show, procuring encompassed a broad range of activities. The Siete Partidas blended together what archival court cases show to be the very different functions of male and female procurers. Across Europe, grammarians used Latin terms to define alcahuetería and demonstrated confusion about gender roles within this profession. In a Castilian dictionary dating from 1516, alcahuete is simply defined as lenocino. In 1570, alcahuetería is equated with rufianismo in Italian. A Spanish-English dictionary from 1591 translates alcahueta as a bawd or lena. In their interactions with litigators, courts viewed procurers as criminals.

In contrast to procurers, the Siete Partidas do not provide a simple definition for the women who made their income from sexual commerce. While they are written and, therefore, acknowledged as a category, their legal status is ambiguous and obscured, even in this most basic, fundamental Spanish law code. While making them indecipherable as actual criminals, this semi-erasure also suggests the importance of a grassroots social or moral understanding of these women's acts and reputations, which may or may not show up in the surviving documentation. Specific case studies underscore their illegible textual identity.

Even the terminology used in legal codes, royal decrees, court cases, and witness statements varies widely and often contradicts itself. Castilian King Enrique III in the 1398 Cortes de Toro made a distinction between "putas públicas [public whores]," clarifying that rameras were on the other hand "encubiertas [secret whores]." As private concubines, rameras had to pay a larger tax because they were thought to make more money working with a select clientele outside the public brothel. The first time this word appears in a Spanish dictionary was in Antonio de Nebrija's 1495 vocabulary of Spanish and Latin words, where interestingly Nebrija defines ramera as a "puta onesta [honest whore]" or, in Latin, meretrix. The same definition continued in the 1505 and 1516 dictionaries, where the entries for puta continue to equate this word with ramera or meretrix. Therefore, if a public whore equates to an honest whore, the definitions of ramera had changed from the late fourteenth century to the sixteenth century. Despite the unstable terminology, a classification emerges: public women and brothel workers (implying sexual accessibility to all men) contrasted with secret or semimonogamous concubines. Of course, this distinction matters only when everyone could publicly acknowledge the existence and functioning of the legal brothel. In the more ambiguous American context, Spanish officials in the New World frequently applied the term mujeres públicas to a wide variety of women.

While panderers had a clear punitive threat applied to their actions, public women and concubines did not — their crimes faced moral not criminal sanction. The authorities attempted to legislate over women's clothes, hair, jewelry, and other markers to make a clear public distinction between sexually controlled women and women perceived as promiscuous. For example, in this society only young virgin girls traditionally wore their hair uncovered and displayed its beauty. A covered head signified a sexually active adult woman. But women labeled whores also took pride in showing off their beautiful loose hair, rejecting the standard expectations for a secluded married woman's appearance. The crown often failed in enforcing sumptuary laws or policing fashion. The fact that early-modern women with virtuous reputations imitated the official dress designated for whores has confounded historians since the nineteenth century. Historians, assuming that all women in the past also bought into the official condemnations of non–sexually conforming women, could not grasp why some honorable women actually wanted to emulate scandalous women's appearance and dress. In fact, literary sources such as La Lozana Andaluza (introduction) and La Celestina (chapter 2) portray sixteenth-century courtesans as the cosmetologists of their day, helping women in the arts of hair dye, makeup, facial hair removal, care of their hands, and even dental health.

One fascinating medieval definition does a better job than the sumptuary laws in defining these women, even if it probably misunderstands their lives completely: rameras were "women who don't spin," a definition perhaps inspired by La Lozana's rejection of this feminine task. In other words, whores, unlike all other women, neither made their living nor just passed their time by doing needlework. They rejected the essential task of a genteel or hardworking woman.


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Copyright © 2018 Nicole von Germeten.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
1. Bawds and Brothels 15
2. From Whores to Prostitutes 36
3. Respectable Mistresses 50
4. Courtesans and Th eir Lovers 69
5. Streetwalkers and the Police 88
6. Multiple Prostitute Identities 109
7. Selling Sex, Saving the Family 130
Conclusion 153
Notes 161
Bibliography 209

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