The urban regulation of prostitution supports both the idea of differing treatment of social groups and the idea of a universalizing discourse on feminine sexuality. The regulation affected poorer women most directly, but by applying one standard of behavior to women generally, towns threatened any sexually deviant woman with classification as a whore. This, of course, is not unique to the Middle Ages: even in contemporary society the regulation of prostitution reinforces all women’s dependence on men. (Bloch 1991) The regulation of prostitution, though it may have been directed mainly against one group of women, functioned—and may have been deliberately intended by legislating authorities to function—as a vehicle for the control of all. But in practice it was poor women whose behavior was regulated as prostitution, both because regulation was designed and implemented in part to control the behavior of the lower levels of society generally and because the poorest women were the ones most likely to take up the not especially attractive working conditions implied in the provision of sex for money.
Sumptuary legislation indicates that a main problem towns perceived with prostitution had to do with women claiming a social standing beyond that ascribed to them. The legislation lumps prostitutes (or women of suspect sexual morals generally) with urban working women. The purpose of this regulation is not so much to distinguish prostitutes from chaste women but to distinguish different levels in the social hierarchy. This was, in fact, the general purpose of sumptuary legislation in many parts of Europe. 13 But in the case of prostitutes other reasons also became important: distinguishing them in order to advertise their availability, to prevent the harassment of respectable women who might be mistaken for prostitutes, to prevent the contamination of those respectable women, or even to keep the expenses of the bourgeois household down by prohibiting certain kinds of expensive adornment to the chaste. (Karras 1996)
This combination of motives for sumptuary legislation—marking both social standing and sexual deviancy—became important in the later legislation from London. The Liber Albus, a customary from the early fourteenth century, did not give a reason for its prohibition on prostitutes’ wearing furred hoods or gowns, but an ordinance of 1351 provided that no “common wanton woman” should wear fur or other noble lining, because they “have recently from time to time taken up the fashion of being dressed and adorned in the manner and in the dress of good and noble ladies and damsels of the realm, against reason.” They were to wear unlined striped hoods so that everyone “could have knowledge of what condition they are.” (Karras 1996) Clearly the legislation was intended to keep such women in their place, whether that place was a social class position or a position on the margins of society based on sexual behavior.