Seduction, prostitution, and the control of female desire in popular antebellum fiction

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During the antebellum era, increased attention to the prostitute coincided with a prevalent conception of women as, in Nancy Cott's words, essentially "passionless" unless aroused by sincere romantic love. Yet it seems paradoxical that this ideology existed alongside an increasing awareness of women whose livelihood depended upon manufacturing and marketing sexual desire. In this essay I argue that the prostitute became an object of antebellum fascination and concern less because of her defiance of the ideology of passionlessness and more because of the extent to which she could be made to reinforce this ideology. Casting the prostitute as a victim of seduction preserved predominant beliefs about the dependency of female desire on male impetus. The popular novels of George Thompson and Osgood Bradbury elide the sexual autonomy of the prostitute by making her a victim of men, but they do so in different ways. Thompson employs two variants of the seduction narrative that differ according to class, but both result in the subjection of female desire to male control. His indigent females are chaste victims of violent forms of sexual exploitation, while his licentious rich women reveal an inherent tendency toward monogamy or an inability to command their own aberrant desires. Bradbury, in contrast, is remarkable for his willingness to allow fallen women and prostitutes the chance to reform. As refreshingly progressive as Bradbury's novels seem, however, his adherence to the seduction narrative ultimately suggests that female desire is doomed to dissatisfaction unless properly channeled toward working-class men.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-191
Number of pages26
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Female sexuality
  • Nineteenth-century American literature
  • Popular antebellum literature
  • Prostitution
  • Seduction narrative

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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