Between Deviance and Marginalization. Gendered Perspectives on Transnational Crime

Between Deviance and Marginalization. Gendered Perspectives on Transnational Crime

Sarah Frenking / Bodie Ashton, Freigeist project “The Other Global Germany: Transnational Criminality and Deviant Globalisation in Germany”
Vom - Bis
27.10.2022 - 28.10.2022
Margarita Lerman, Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Simon Dubnow, Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture

During one of their conversations about the definitions of good and bad, Lord Henry mentioned to Dorian Gray: “All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is a crime. […] Crime belongs exclusively to the lower orders. I don’t blame them in the smallest degree. I should fancy that crime was to them what art is to us, simply a method of procuring extraordinary sensations.” This quote, taken from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, indicates three central aspects that usually present the framework for discussing illicit behavior: (im)morality, class, and its common perception as a deviation from the norm. The workshop aspired to expand this triad by adding gender as a constitutive element and by examining it from a transnational perspective. Organized in the framework of the Freigeist project “The Other Global Germany: Transnational Criminality and Deviant Globalisation in Germany,” headed by Ned Richardson-Little, the workshop brought together scholars from the fields of history, media, and gender studies. The workshop’s interdisciplinary structure invited the participants to discuss the study of transnational criminality not as a separate field but as an approach that proves to be especially sensitive to different kinds of economic, ethnic, and gender inequalities.

In their opening remarks, the workshop’s organizers SARAH FRENKING (Erfurt) and BODIE ASHTON (Erfurt) emphasized the impact of these inequalities on the perception, persecution, and punishment of crime and established the key questions of the event: how can we investigate the living conditions, transnational mobilities, and border-crossing connections of the actors involved? And how is transnational crime in a historical perspective intertwined with gendered conceptions of social norms? A closer examination of (changing) understandings of deviant behavior and notions of the criminal ensures a new perspective on the functioning of the corresponding societies as such.

ELISABETH JANIK-FREIS (Berlin) approached this question by presenting the involvement of female police officers in the regulation of prostitution in interwar Poland and Germany. By spotlighting the cases of Henriette Arendt and Stanisława Paleolog, pioneers of the female police force in both countries, and expanding on the diversity of their backgrounds and activities, Janik-Freis indicated how – and in what way – these women’s occupations enabled them to leave their mark in the fight against so-called white slavery. ANDREAS GUIDI (Paris), too, accentuated female agency by retracing the trajectories of female smugglers involved in the Mediterranean narcotics trade. Focusing on three port cities at three distinct moments in time – Istanbul in the 1930s and 1940s, Trieste after World War II, and Tangier in the 1960s –, Guidi investigated different forms of women’s involvement in drug trafficking that was heavily influenced by their economic positions, and thereby revealed an additional perspective on the Mediterranean as a producing and transiting space. Moving from practices to discourse, SARAH FRENKING analyzed the image of the so-called trafficking in women evoked in the German press from the 1920s until the 1960s. While German victims remained the central point of concern, Frenking showed how the changing perspectives on this phenomenon and the (alleged) participation of the French state therein, in particular the selling of sex in France’s colonies, served as an anchor point for larger political dynamics in French-German relations. In his concluding remarks, ALEXANDER OBERMÜLLER (Erfurt) directed the audience’s attention to the term “white slavery” itself, the characteristics of anti-Black discourse it contains, and the constructedness – and arbitrariness – of “whiteness” as imagined by the police, physicians, and social reformers.

BJÖRN KLEIN (Basel) inaugurated the next panel by presenting works of literature that reflected reform societies’ view on New York’s “underworld” at the end of the 19th century. According to them, cities in general and the US-American metropolis in particular represented the epicenter of sinful behavior, and the police was rather part of the problem than the solution. Klein analyzed this discourse against the backdrop of the growing rift between bourgeois and working classes in the city and its impact on the former’s views of virtuousness and vulgarism. Turning their attention to a different discursive phenomenon, ANNALISA MARTIN (Greifswald) and NORA MARIA LEHNER (Vienna) utilized newspaper reporting on the so-called “pimp wars” (Zuhälterkriege) that took place in the 1960s in Hamburg’s notorious St. Pauli district to not only evaluate the corresponding media sensationalism but the transnational police cooperation this situation provoked. During these Zuhälterkriege, an extraordinary number of Viennese procurers was said to have entered the city in order to compete with local mobsters. This period also marked a change in the public imagination of the pimp and his masculinity as such; previously portrayed as a passive figure “living off the earnings of one women,” he was now considered a violent blackmailer who frequently worked in groups. Dealing with migration and movement from a different perspective, BODIE ASHTON questioned images of periphery and center particularly in the context of selling sex. Ashton concentrated on how static as well as dynamic characteristics ascribed to the city – understood as a space that corrupts but also is corrupted by the influx of people – shaped the authorities’ perceptions of deviance. Focusing on London as one of Europe’s most vibrant metropolises in the 1930s, Ashton demonstrated how state officials were frequently less interested in the fate of individuals involved in prostitution than in creating the necessary mechanisms to protect the city from their individual corruptness. Commenting on this panel, SARAH KLEINMANN (Heidelberg) pointed to the similarities of the three presented cases – New York, Hamburg, as well as London were port cities, symbolizing a particularly high mobility of their population – and encouraged to deliberate on additional stereotyped patterns of thought related to deviant and “anormal” behavior, such as anti-Jewish notions, as analytical categories when investigating the narratives and concepts presented.

In her keynote lecture, MARGO DE KOSTER (Brussels/Amsterdam/Ghent) addressed the power structures inherent in historical sources and emphasized the awareness that is necessary to nevertheless be able to use them with the objective of reconstructing the lives and experiences of marginalized people. Sources are shaped by technologies of power and reflect the thinking of authorities – that is, the form and structure of the document that needed to be filled out by police officers in investigations predetermined the outcome in a very specific way. She encouraged their reading against the grain in order to get an idea of people’s rationales and agency. Instead of clinging onto the dualism of “legal” and “illegal,” de Koster proposed to understand these classifications as points on a continuing spectrum, on which poverty and restricted economic opportunities need to be regarded as a crucial factor, too. Accentuating the social logic of transgressions rather than legalistic definitions unfolds the possibility of putting the trajectories of the individual actors – people accused of criminal behavior as well as those informing on them – center stage.

The third session commenced with a presentation by FRANK JACOB (Bodø), in which he turned to aspects of marginalization within the life of the famous anarchist Emma Goldman, integrating her experiences as a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe in the US with her marginalization within the country’s anarchist movement due to her efforts in advancing radical notions of female freedom. Considered a femme fatale who would lead men to anarchist activities and who was frequently rebuked for her allegedly aggressive tone, her perception in the national as well as international press reporting was deeply influenced by gendered opinions on “adequate” female behavior. ALEXANDRIA RUBLE (Spring Hill), too, closely examined legal transgressions by women. She demonstrated how five women who were prosecuted in the 1950s in the German Federal Republic on the grounds of “endangering the state” tried to leverage concepts of woman- and motherhood reinforced in the Adenauer era for their benefit. With their efforts being to no avail, Ruble illustrated how these women were caught in the crossfire of legal turf battles in the aftermath of World War II against the backdrop of the Cold War. Adding a more recent perspective, ANDREW TOMPKINS (Erfurt) investigated the flourishing smuggling business across the border of the GDR to Poland. While GDR authorities painted the people involved as criminal gangs whose intention was to undermine socialism, most of them were actually petty criminals, Vertragsarbeiter, and commuters – and frequently women, who sought to use the economic inequality between the neighboring countries in their own interest. Tompkins highlighted instances of cooperation between workers that facilitated trade possibilities and elaborated on how these cross-border commuters, and women in particular, managed to circumvent border controls and police investigations. Focusing on the interplay of the categories gender, nation, and economy, HELEN ANNE GIBSON (Erfurt) underlined the historical context of the three cases in her comment. She invited the presenters and the audience to further contemplate the importance of gender by concisely asking: Were the rebukes of certain practices at times maybe more important than combatting the practices themselves?

The last panel was concerned with creative ways of dealing with experiences of crime and criminalization. MICHELE WELLS (Leuven) initiated the Theater for Humanity in order to facilitate contact and interaction between police officers and formerly incarcerated people, inviting them to meet on the theater stage. Inspired by the South African theater group Workshop ’71 and their anti-Apartheid play Survival, Wells showed the complex interrelation between the courtroom as a stage and the stage as a courtroom, emphasizing the theater’s potential to facilitate individual healing processes. Turning to collective experiences, CAROLIN STEINER (Chemnitz) examined how categories like space, narration, and voice function in true crime podcasts and to which extent they have the potential to further processes of healing in the context of collective trauma. Using the example of Northern Ireland and the reckoning with the history of the Troubles, she juxtaposed the unspeakability of trauma as one of its general characteristics with the medium of the podcast that revolves around aurality, proposing that they may offer a space of action particularly for women that would enable them to renegotiate their position in a culture that constantly equals their bodies with danger and vulnerability. Establishing the ethics of narration and speech as the key subject of both contributions, KATE DAVISON (Edinburgh) introduced her comment by asking: Whose narrative power is mobilized and how do viewers, listeners, producers, and performers interact? She attached particular importance to the role of emotions in historical research, pointing out that there is no space outside emotion and trauma for people surrounded by oppressing structures.

The closing remarks offered by IRIS SCHRÖDER (Erfurt) revisited the central themes of the two-day workshop, concentrating on the categories that appear helpful while investigating the interplay between gender and criminality and on the difficulties concerning the sources. Understanding inequalities as the underlying factor, Schröder suggested to center around the diversity of othering practices and their multilayered facets. In addition to the gendered and transnational elements of deviance and crime treated in the workshop, the aspects space and time could be broadened by transcending the categories of the city and the night. Moreover, a stronger attention to pictures and their importance in understanding (in)justices could further enrich scholarly debates.

Investigating historical events connected to notions of transnational criminality and deviance from the perspective of gender not only fosters a better understanding of the functioning of legal systems, of the difficulties those who had to execute corresponding laws encountered in their daily work on the ground, and of the problems legal definitions posed for criminalized individuals and groups. Rather, it enables us to better comprehend people’s everyday lives – their family relations, their working conditions, and their relationship to their and other people’s bodies. Moving far beyond sensationalist interpretations of crime, closely intertwined with perceptions of vulgarity as proposed by Lord Henry, the workshop’s various contributions illustrate the diversity of research questions that arise from this approach and are enriched by it, and it has indicated the demand to promote the exchange of ideas in this field.

Workshop overview:

Session I: Traded Goods, Trafficked Bodies

Elisabeth Janik-Freis (Berlin): A Female Perspective. The Policing of Prostitution and Trafficking in Interwar Poland and Germany

Andreas Guidi (Paris): Heroin Labs, Contested Borders, and Hippie Trails. Women in the Mediterranean Narcotics Trade, 1940s–1960s

Sarah Frenking (Erfurt): Abducting ‘White Slaves’, Running Brothels, and Policing Mobility. French-German Perspectives on (Colonial) Trafficking, 1920–1960

Commentator: Alexander Obermüller (Erfurt)

Session II: Sex, Cities, and the Underworld

Björn Klein (Basel): The Doctor and the Devil. (Re-)Producing Gendered Borders within New York City’s Underworld in the 1890s

Annalisa Martin (Greifswald) / Nora Maria Lehner (Vienna): ‘Pimp-wars,’ Police and the Media. Viennese Pimps in Hamburg’s St. Pauli, Mid to Late 1960s

Bodie Ashton (Erfurt): Degeneracy from Elsewhere. Sex Work and ‘Foreign’ Anxieties in London between Empire and Commonwealth

Commentator: Sarah Kleinmann (Heidelberg)


Margo de Koster (Brussels/Amsterdam/Ghent): Reconstructing the Everyday/night Interactions between Street Level Bureaucrats and Marginal Groups in Urban Space. Methods, Challenges, Insights

Session III: The (Sexual) Politics of Gendered Criminality

Frank Jacob (Bodø): Emma Goldman, Gender, and Anarchist Radicalism as a Crime

Alexandria Ruble (Spring Hill): Endangering the State. Communist Women on Trial in West Germany in the 1950s and 1960s

Andrew Tompkins (Erfurt): The Gender of Smuggling. East German Customs and the Criminalization of Polish Workers’ Consumption, 1980–1989

Commentator: Helen Anne Gibson (Erfurt)

Session IV: Crime, Criminalization, and Emotions

Michele Wells (Leuven): Performing Sites of Dehumanization. Dismantling the Apartheid Prison in Workshop ‘71’s Performances of Survival in South Africa and the United States of America, 1976–77

Carolin Steiner (Chemnitz): Collective Trauma, Collective Emotions. Northern Irish True Crime Podcasts as a Path to Healing?

Commentator: Kate Davison (Edinburgh)

Closing Remarks
Iris Schröder (Erfurt)

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