"The Great Social Evil": Victorian Prostitution

Nota bene: a large portion of the following material is taken from "The Fallen Woman in Fiction and Legislation" by Megara Bell, University of Massachusetts at Boston.

The estimate of the number of prostitutes differs depending on who is doing the estimation. The Police Department claimed that there were 7,000 in London while the Society for the Suppression of vice that there were 80,000. Scholars believe that the Society's guess may be closer to the truth. In 1841 Greater London had a population of 2 million. According to renowned historian Judity Walkowitz, a 19th century city would commonly have 1 prostitute per 36 inhabitants, or 1 per 12 adult males, which would yield 55,000 prostitutes. Prostitution was not actually illegal in England.

London had relatively few brothels but did have rooming houses that tolerated prostitution in which they lived. Prostitutes were not rootless social outcasts as much as poor, yet independent, working women.

They were primarily young, single women, between the ages of 18 and 22. Their first sexual experiences were not extraordinary, usually serial monogamy within their own social class. Most had previously held low wage jobs, primarily as domestics (maids). Few supported illegitimate children. Their health was generally superior to other working women, who suffered under 14 hour workdays. They had a higher standard of living than others of a similar class background; they had money, clothing and could afford their own rooms. They also had access to the pub, which served as a center of social and political life, but was off limits to the virtuous woman. Prostitution offered the young woman more independence, economically and socially, than could otherwise be available to her.

The only condition that seemed to dispose a woman to prostitution was economic relocation. If a woman was separated from her community and then lost her job, prostitution may have seemed the most favorable option. Statistically, most prostitutes were from poor families and were 1/2 orphans, having one deceased parent. They would be expected to be able to support themselves as the family was rarely in a position to support them. It was becoming more common generally that young woman could be expected to be economically independent. They would have taken jobs that had forced them to relocate, generally to more urban areas, either because of family conflict or economic necessity.

Contrary to the Victorian literary myth of the fate of the fallen woman, prostitution was, and still is, a transitional occupation for primarily working class woman in their early 20's. As long as she had the choice as to when to quit, her future would not be appreciably limited. Most prostitutes would change occupations and "settle down," many marrying former clients.

They could be tolerated in the community. The social ostracization comes from the middle-upper classes, not from the laboring class. The lower classes were in fact more tolerant of sexual and social behaviors that the middle classes found incomprehensible. What are commonly thought of as the Victorian attitudes about sex differ according to social class; sexual norms of the working class were often quite different from those of the middle class.

Interestingly, Charles Dickens helped found Urania Cottage (named for Aphrodite) as an asylum for fallen women, in order to reclaim prostitutes to a life of virtue. It has been suggested that there might be something somewhat disreputable about the energy Dickens displayed toward this particular social problem. Although in his charitable work he apparently believed in the redeemability of ex-prostitutes, his writing reflects the Victorian ideas about rapid decline toward death of the fallen woman. Once fallen, forever lost.

With the rise in prostitution, there was an increase in the prevalence of gonorrhea and syphilis. Specialized asylums for treating venereal diseases (or lock hospitals) served to punish and separate social deviants from the general public. Walkowitz calls venereal disease sufferers the "social lepers of the 19th century." Medical cures were quite primitive and also extremely painful, which fits in with the punitive model of dealing with social/sexual deviants. The quality of treatment of VD and the level of punishment involved was influenced by class and gender disparities.

There was an especially large venereal disease problem among enlisted men and prostitutes who service them, particularly the army, where 1 in 3 soldiers were infected at one point or another. As well as VD, the armed forces reported problems with drinking, demoralization, and homosexuality (or what was euphemistically called "fraternization"). There was an attempt to protect army health by inspecting the soldiers for symptoms of VD but this was abandoned as it was thought to be demoralizing.

The army had several reasons to tolerate, if not actively condone, the use of prostitutes. It was a "professional bachelor" army. Soldiers were not permitted to marry and so it was assumed that they would require some non-committed sexual outlet. The army wished to discourage the homosexual behavior that was becoming increasingly popular among the troops. Prostitutes provided an outlet for heterosexual activity. They thought it necessary to protect army health without actually discouraging prostitution. The way to do this was to inspect the women.

In 1864 the first of the Contagious Diseases Acts was passed. It required any allegedly diseased prostitute to undergo an inspection (the allegation may be made by an infected enlisted man). If she was found to be infected, she could be held in a Lock Hospital for up to 3 months. This was only a temporary measure, until more stringent acts could be accommodated. The Contagious Diseases Act of 1866 allowed a special police force to order women to undergo fortnightly inspections for up to a year. By 1869, the Contagious Diseases Act required prostitutes to be officially registered and to carry cards, it increased inspection stations and targeted towns from 12 to 18, and increased lock hospital incarceration to 9 months.

The Acts made the assumption that prostitution was a permanent and necessary evil. They condoned male sexual access to fallen women and were specifically directed at women in order to protect the health of men. If the priority had been to fight VD, then inspecting the prostitutes' clients would also have been required by the Acts. However, the assumption was that, while men would be offended at the intrusion, the women were already so degraded that further humiliations were of no consequence.

The Acts coincided with increasing concern over prostitution as the "great social evil", as well as with a new interest in state regulation of the poor. The laboring classes were simultaneously a source of cheap labor and therefore necessary for the middle class Victorian way of life (Industrial Age), and the source of social fears and insecurities (images of filth and contagion/pollution). The prostitute was a symbol of class guilt and fear. She was a symbol of sexual and economic exploitation under industrial capitalism.

The Acts were introduced as an attempt to facilitate a professional bachelor army and encourage heterosexual behavior. They were additionally a means to disciplining along class and gender lines.

What the legislators had not counted on when they instituted the Contagious Diseases Acts was the powerful social and political resistance that they would receive from the moral reform movement. The earliest opposition came from Florence Nightingale as well as from the Rescue Society, which was dedicated to reforming fallen women.

Repealers argued against the acceptance and tolerance of prostitution, the sanction of male vice, and the violation of the civil rights of the prostitute. Walkowitz names the issues that faced the policy makers as: the double standard of sexual morality, the participation of women in political activity, the control of women by male doctors, and the role of the state in enforcing sexual and social morality of the poor. The Repeal movement begat 19th century feminism as an alliance between working class and middle class feminists.

Regulationists wished to diminish the effects of what they saw as a necessary evil; repealers wished to eradicate that evil. The original argument for the Contagious Diseases Acts was that they diminished disease. Because of the Repeal movement, regulationists were forced to change their approach to claim that regulation helped to reclaim prostitutes.

Images of the "fallen woman" had defined both the Regulationist and the Repeal positions. The Regulationist believed that they were a necessary evil and that, since they were already so degraded, further humiliations were of no importance. The Repealer criticized the toleration of male vice that created the fallen woman to begin with.

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