Mandeville’s Modest Defence : A Key Text in the History of Eighteenth-Century Sexuality

Laura J. Rosenthal
The University of Maryland, College Park

Tonal ambiguity characterizes some of the most interesting writing in the eighteenth century: who is Swift satirizing with his talking horses?   Is Clarissa attracted to Lovelace or not? Should we admire or despise Dorimant?   Perhaps no writer, however, has proven harder to pin down than Bernard Mandeville.   The most fundamental points of his Fable of the Bees, in which he argues that vice benefits rather than undermines (as reformers would have it) the economy, remain in dispute.   Does Mandeville seriously advocate vice in order to achieve economic prosperity and thus protection from invasion by other countries, or does he satirize an emergent commercial culture for its dependence on venality?   Either way, as E. J. Hundert has argued, Mandeville “introduced into the heart of European social understanding a series of arguments designed to sustain the radically unsettling conclusion that the moral identities of his contemporaries had been permanently altered by a previously unacknowledged historical transformation.”[1]   Criticized for the daring acknowledgment of the values of commercial culture and for his apparent defense of prostitution in particular, Mandeville then published his lesser-known Modest Defence of Publick Stews (1724).

Irwin Primer has recently made Mandeville’s Defence available to a wide readership in his excellent edition, Bernard Mandeville’s “A Modest Defence of Publick Stews”: Prostitution and Its Discontents in Early Georgian England (New York, 2006).   As the subtitle suggests, the book offers more than Mandeville’s controversial pamphlet: a substantial introduction, an extensive bibliography, and some relevant passages from Fable of the Bees and other contemporary texts.   As Primer points out, Mandeville’s Defence offers just as enigmatic an argument as his Fable: here Mandeville proposes that the British government institute public, regulated houses of prostitution.   Such a project, according to Mandeville, would have the benefit of limiting the spread of venereal disease (prostitutes would be checked for “soundness”), protecting “virtuous” women from seduction, lowering the rates of infanticide, and giving young men sexual experience before marriage so they don’t overvalue any one woman.   Mandeville’s liberal secularization of (hetero)sexuality and case for its practical management combined with his often illiberal assumptions about gender and sexual orientation make his Modest Defence difficult to read through twenty-first century sensibilities.   (For example, Mandeville advocates state brothels in part because they would, in his view, reduce sodomy.)   Mandeville provocatively suggests that the government should treat sexual service like any other commodity in the capitalist marketplace, a position that in some ways anticipates certain strains of recent feminist thought on this topic.   Inconsistent with his apparent embrace of the chaos and corruption endemic to other transactions of capitalism, however, Mandeville sketches out a strict (though comic) set of regulations for commercial sex that would distinguish it from any other good or service mentioned in the Fable.   While acknowledging the essay’s complexity, Primer ultimately suggests that in spite of its satire and ribaldry, the Defence calls serious attention to the plight of London prostitutes and that “Britain’s Parliament needed to address their sufferings and other evils associated with their trade” (20).   In spite of its limits, the Defence is indeed remarkably nonjudgmental about prostitution and unusually sympathetic toward women who found sex work to be their best option.   The reader must keep in mind, according to Primer, that Mandeville does not defend prostitution in general or prostitution as practiced, but rather prostitution “as it might be, and even then his defense of his plan seems to be intentionally flawed” (20).   Clearly one of these flaws must be the intense regulation that Mandeville recommends, which would nearly imprison prostitutes in state-run brothels and transport to the colonies any who insisted on working independently.   Mandeville also leaves unstated how government officials would distinguish prostitutes from non-prostitutes.   Primer suggests that in Mandeville’s time a woman’s “fall into prostitution [was] irreversible” (22), which would lessen this problem.   Primer is right that this trope irreversibility was a “commonplace,” frequently found in periodical literature; nevertheless, Randolph Trumbach’s research into court records suggests that at least in the first half of the eighteenth century, laboring-class women could drift in and out of sex work without facing rejection from their families or communities, rendering the distinction between prostitutes and non-prostitutes much less obvious.[2]

Taking publications like The Spectator at their word on the intransigence of female reputation, however, is an error that has nearly become orthodoxy in eighteenth-century studies and, for the most part, Primer refreshingly takes very little for granted about prostitution.   The edition is thorough and up to date, offering an open-minded perspective on an issue that has attracted much misconception and prejudice.   In his extensive and useful commentaries, Primer ambitiously places Mandeville’s essay in the context of both eighteenth-century debates over morality and twentieth/twenty-first century debates over prostitution, suggesting that Mandeville’s essay should be understood as a key text in any history of sexuality.   Primer’s detailed account of the reception of A Modest Defence is useful, fresh, and engaging; he captures the genuine complexity of Mandeville’s essay and the multiple angles from which it has been read (although occasionally with tendentious assessments of critics and historians who in his view under-appreciate Mandeville).   Every now and then there seems to be too much information: do we really need to know, for example, how many times Mandeville uses the word “fornication” (132)?   Yet this “lexicon of sexual terms” is characteristic of Primer’s detailed care and the seriousness with which he demands we take Mandeville’s essay.   This volume, which will become the standard scholarly edition for this text, provides a new resource for Mandeville scholars and an excellent opportunity for instructors to integrate this important work into their classes.


[1]   E. J. Hundert, The Enlightenment’s Fable: Bernard Mandeville and the Discovery of Society (Cambridge, 1994), 14.

[2]   Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution, Volume One: Heterosexuality and the Third Gender in Enlightenment London, 2 vols. (Chicago, 1998), 1: Part 2.