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During the nineteenth century prostitution became labeled as "The Great Social Evil" by contemporaries. This article attempts to unravel some of the complexities in the circumstances surrounding this labeling by Victorians through the investigation of some of the problems and controversies which prostitution raised in society.
In studying the trade in terms of its social, medical and moral implications on Victorian life though contemporary writings, it can be demonstrated that the prostitute's failure to meet middle-class social and gender ideals, the threat she posed to the nation's health, and the moral implications of sin and vice meant that the prostitute had the potential to make an impact on every level of society, and thus attracted much public and state interest towards herself and her trade.
Keywords : Prostitution, Great Warwick women whores Evil, urbanisation, criminality, gender ideals, venereal disease, social purity, philanthropic organisations. The concept of the Great Social Evil envisaged a sin of daunting proportions spreading throughout the social order leaving chaos in its wake; in the nineteenth century no greater social problem was perceived by society than that of prostitution.
There is a wealth of both primary and historiographical material available to the historian on this topic: contemporary pamphlet literature in general is particularly abundant, as are the works of religious figures, social anthropologists, and medical men; secondary literature abounds with texts on crime, popular politics, empire, gender and sexuality. However, primary material on this subject can be misleading and on occasion unreliable.
Nineteenth-century writers were characteristically melodramatic and encapsulated the concept of a perpetual battle between good and evil, order and anarchy Weiner, This serves to reinforce the argument that for Victorians, the moral aspects of life were inherently bound with the physical. However, posts histories display a change in emphasis, focusing on the prostitutes themselves, and their role within wider society Gilfoyle, A vast literature has been produced on almost every aspect of the prostitute, her trade, and how both integrated into and reflected wider social beliefs and practices.
Thus caution needs to be exercised when studying this topic. This thematic approach is preferable to a chronological one given the intricacy of the relationships between aspects of Victorian life; in addition many sources reveal a striking continuity and in some cases unabashed repetition of Warwick women whores and professional opinion.
The emphasis throughout has been on primary material in order to allow a greater flexibility in unravelling the multi-faceted nature of the topic. Social structure had much to do with the popular perception of prostitution, as the majority of contemporary work published on the topic was written by the middle classes about the lower social orders, which came about primarily from nineteenth-century urbanisation. As middle-class protocol dictated a man could not marry until he could support a family, Clement argues that high levels of urban unemployment caused an increase in unmarried people of both sexes, and unfulfilled male sexual desire encouraged prostitution Clement, However, Victorian writers did not often see the socio-economic factors, preferring moral arguments; the urban environment became a place of vice, depravity and sexual danger.
Using a supply-and-demand model, Acton argued that the growth of towns increased the proximity of wealthy idle men mixed with the poor, thus creating ideal conditions for prostitution to flourish Acton, Walsh wrote of the dangers in the crowded city:. The concentrations of vice and their rotaries… the sanction lent by example; the concealment offered by s to every sort of sin; the facilities provided by commerce for multiplying the means of enjoyment; the inducements held up by the love of gain to sacrifice integrity to advancement; the very refinement which attaches itself to vice when it has so many elegant appliances Walsh, 3.
All these factors were said to encourage prostitution, and demonstrate how cities were transformed from places of opportunity to ones of danger. In the mid s W. Though the majority of British literature focused on London, problems were found in urban centres across the country. Studies into the underclass in newly-urbanised cities from the s onwards discovered prostitutes as an abundant part; vice-ridden, criminal and poor.
Poverty was perceived to be linked to prostitution, but not always in an economic sense. Greg wrote that poverty brought boredom; sex provided an interesting distraction to the poor unaffected by morals Greg, However, in practice, poor working wages for women formed by far the strongest link between poverty and prostitution.
Petty theft was more profitable than petty manufacturing and in turn prostitution was more profitable than either. Thus prostitution became associated primarily with the troublesome poor. The common people of all nations, the ignorant and the vulgar, who are uneducated, are extremely vicious… [and may be revolutionarily violent] did not legislation… control and punish them Ryan, It is arguable that the interest in prostitution in Victorian Britain stemmed from the need to cull immoral behaviour through tougher policing.
Gatrell writes that in the Victorian age there was much increase in. Some contemporaries had strong views: Talbot advocated an increase in police powers and the summary conviction of prostitutes Talbot, Publicus Mentor highlighted the importance of both moral and legislative reasons for controlling the poor:. Ultimately, prostitution was regulated in part by the Contagious Diseases Acts see belowbut it was never directly rendered illegal. A vice that accompanied prostitution was habitual drinking, both as cause and accompaniment. A profound difference separated prostitution from other vices; Landels wrote that drunks, vagrants, bankrupts and immoral men could all regain their respectability, but not prostitutes, thus placing prostitution above others as the most disgraceful vice Landels, When parading so openly in public and associated with other vices, the prostitute became the symbol of degradation and sin in urban society.
Prostitution, as a ificant vice in the nineteenth century, was associated with the problematic poorer elements of society; their immorality was closely associated with the Warwick women whores nature of the lower social orders. The urbanisation of the nineteenth century forced the wealthy and poor closer together and the associated vices of the latter, frowned upon by the former, became a visible and thus undeniable problem. Butler argued men had created this divide and spoke of the exploitation of both respectable women and prostitutes, the two described thus:.
The protected and refined ladies who are not only to be goodbut who are, if possible, to know nothing except what is good; and those poor outcast daughters of the people whom they purchase with money, with whom they think they may consort in evil whenever it pleases them to do so, before returning to their own separated and protected homes Butler, This reveals the male exploitation of a lower class to uphold the ideals of a more respectable rank of women, who were equally repressed.
This supposed ability to control their sexual desires made prostitutes another female anomaly. Graham believed that God made intercourse pleasurable so that man could carry out His wishes to procreate with the satisfaction of continuing the natural order of things Graham, Women who lost their virginity outside marriage were frowned upon as illegitimacy was sinful: as they showed desire they must be slaves to greed and lust Burstyn, Within marriage, chastity was supposedly upheld even more rigorously. The wife also had an emotional moral advantage over the prostitute since she could gratify the whole being mind, body, and spiritwhereas the prostitute could only please the body, and then only for money Acton, Another controversial aspect of Victorian prostitution was its apparent freedom from male interference until the s.
By appearing in public managing independent economy, much attention and concern was directed towards her Tobias, The prostitute was also far from the ideal mother figure: Acton saw the two major sins of motherhood, infanticide and bastardy and from the s, baby-farming to be associated with prostitution in the Warwick women whores century Acton, x.
Immoral women corrupted their children and husbands; juvenile delinquency was a particular fear, as children embodied innocence ideally incorruptible. On the subject of motherhood, Acton is frequently cited by historians as arguing that prostitutes could reintegrate with society after a life of prostitution and become a good wife and mother. It was acceptable for men to sin, but women, kept in the pure ideal, could not. There was also the clear display of hypocrisy with men loving one class of women their wives but using prostitutes for sex, all the while preaching purity for their wives Greg, Thus the prostitute did not conform to the role prescribed to her by patriarchal Victorian society.
In an age with two extreme romanticised images of women, she posed a stark contrast to the middle-class ideal of the woman as a mother, an obedient wife and above all financially and socially dependant on her husband. Branding prostitution as the Great Social Evil Warwick women whores to reinforce this patriarchal social structure.
Prostitution was closely associated with venereal disease, and occasionally likened to a disease to be cured on the body politic:. Miller, She became caught up in the Public Health movement, introduced for the physical and moral wellbeing of the population again the two were seen to be inherently linked.
Sexual health can be split into two areas: venereal disease; and the perceived danger of physical overexertion through intercourse see aboveor loss of essential bodily fluids. Acton advocated control over sexual expenditure: 1oz of semen was thought to contain the life-power of 40oz of blood, and therefore intercourse not used for procreation would waste this precious force in men Marcus, This is essential to bear in mind when studying the medical texts; doctors, supposedly writing solely from Warwick women whores physiological and later psychological standpoint, often revealed their moral beliefs.
When studying the effects of venereal disease on the public, doctors who perceived prostitutes as the cause of illness rarely viewed them in a sympathetic light. As with the s of prostitutes themselves, the spread of venereal disease was more speculated than calculated.
All might become infected; if the woman herself was healthy, it was likely that one of her clients would not be. An anonymous doctor calculated the yearly spread of venereal disease: a total of 1, people infected per year from just initially infected women; with each of the infecting 3, men. Thus dangerously diseased, prostitutes were seen as directly responsible for debilitating the health of the male population. Hemyng wrote that her disease.
The Acts were thought to encourage the double standard further, as they were directed against women, not the men who used and funded the trade Garrett, 3. Two sources from argued that regardless of their medical effects which were debatablethe Contagious Diseases Acts thrust venereal disease and prostitution, which until then could theoretically be ignored, into the public sphere. With suggestions that the Acts be extended to the whole of the civil population which in practice was too daunting a prospect the Contagious Diseases Acts became a public issue. Garrett writes:.
The proposal to extend gradually to the civil population the principle embodied with Contagious Diseases Acts of has been… so predominantly brought before the general public that it can no longer be regarded as a matter for professional opinions only Garrett, 3.
As the first proactive attempt by the British government to solve the problem of prostitution which ly had only been of real concern to the medical community and a moral problem for middle-class society at large, the Contagious Diseases Acts helped to emphasise the figure of the prostitute and the problems she embodied at a public level. From the early nineteenth century onward religious sentiment was heavily involved in debates on prostitution.
Although moral attitudes were a source of sympathy for prostitutes in particular religionthey also explain why many Victorians saw prostitutes as moral vermin and not just a problem to be solved. Prostitution as unchecked fornication was forbidden by the Bible, and those involved in the religious revival of the nineteenth century were an abundant source of literature on the Great Social Evil. Other than the biblical story of Eve used for centuries as an example of female sina commonly-cited passage was Corinthians I, Ch.
Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor coveters, nor drunkards, nor railers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. Wardlaw urged religious groups to restrain disgust and to retain sympathy for the unfortunate women. The congregation was middle-class, and their moral principles opposed threats to their domain such as prostitution, gambling, drinking and suchlike Kent, Its devout work against sin was also vital to social purity campaigns.
Nonconformism and Evangelicalism are seen throughout Victorian discussions on prostitution. Many dedicated organisations were set up directly to end prostitution, in particular the Social Purity Alliance. Thus philanthropic organisations can be useful in estimating the popularity of a particular cause, including the case of the Great Social Evil. Society membership figures are useful in judging how popular a cause was, and attempts of charity organisations in creating support were not always successful.
The Social Purity Alliance suffered continuous problems with low membership. In Professor Stuart MP lamented:. We have been in existence for something like fifteen years, and I must say it is with a sense of regret that I learn… our Society contains only 3, members [most of whom had not paid the membership fee], and that of the eight Branches which are affiliated with it only four can be said to be in a thoroughly healthy and sound condition SPA, In addition to membership difficulties, sometimes charities received scorn from onlookers: Whithorne openly criticised charity action as expensive and ineffective Whithorne, Contrary to expectations, these problems suggest the majority of the public was not as preoccupied with the Great Social Evil as some literature might suggest.
The s of pamphlets and organisations point towards a ificant interest, but membership s indicate otherwise: organisations were made up of a dedicated group supporting the cause, but with low membership figures, the general public appeared uninterested. This could provide the basis of an argument that the Great Social Evil was such only to a small section of the population. Walkowitz also argues this point in Warwick women whores study of the role Warwick women whores women in opposing the Contagious Diseases Acts Walkowitz, Though the aspirations of these individuals may have been over-optimistic and somewhat isolated from mass public support, moral campaigns are useful in studying prostitution in that they are primarily concerned with the causes and cures.Warwick women whores
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Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the 'Great Social Evil'