During the Victorian Age, prostitution was a wide-scale problem in Britain. The very essence of it went against every moral value that was promoted during this time. Values such as chastity, prudence and grace were dismissed and disregarded by “fallen women.” These women were led into prostitution for varying reasons, the most prominent being social and economic concerns. Upon entering into the world of prostitution, there were several different avenues that could be taken by prostitutes including military encampments, brothels and streetwalking. The number of women prostituting during the Victorian Age was staggeringly high. Although London police reports recorded there to be approximately 8,600 prostitutes known to them, it has been suggested that the true number of women prostituting during this time was closer to 80,000 (Rogers). As a result, concerns were raised, and prostitution’s prominence led to several governmental acts. These acts attempted to eradicate the problems associated with prostitution’s presence in London society and were followed by reactionary reform movements led most notably by single women who worked to repeal them. The activities of prostitutes were affected by many things, but the circumstances surrounding their fall, the events of their daily lives and the acts and reforms regarding their rights were the issues that took precendence in their lives.
The Path to Prostitution
Several factors in society led to prostitution, but the most prominent were social classes and the economy. According to Deborah Logan, during the Victorian Age, the life of the working class woman was considered a breeding ground for “fallenness.” The upper echelon of society worked under the belief that the familial traditions and practices of the working class were deciding factors in the eventual downfall of the working class woman. An example of their beliefs can be seen in the working class idea of an engagement, an arrangement made through the premarital intercourse of the two people involved. This type of behavior, although acceptable among their peers, was frowned upon by their social betters and deemed wildly inappropriate (Logan, 29). However, due to the nature of their status in society and the social inequalities that existed during the 19th century, working class families were not capable of following the traditional engagement rituals that would have been expected in polite society, and women were often born into disadvantageous situations to which they were forced to adapt in order to survive. In addition to this, the poor economic status of the working class family often forced women to work in unsavory places among members of the opposite gender. As a result of such circumstances, their close associations often resulted in problems including inappropriate knowledge, exposure to elements unfit for women, and unfortunate events such as rape (Nolland, 68).
One writer acknowledges that the three most common professions that led to prostitution were factory workers, seamstresses, and servants. Women who worked in factories worked alongside men for long hours and sometimes late into the night; this type of setting often led to cases of corruption and rape. Women who worked as seamstresses had an entirely different set of problems that led to prostitution. Although they were not exposed to men as those in factories were, they were over-worked and underpaid. There were many seamstresses, but there was not enough work for all of them; therefore, many women who were rooted in this profession used prostitution as a supplementary income in order to avoid starvation. Finally, women who worked as servants in the households of the middle and/or upper classes were often forced into prostitution. Oftentimes, they were either seduced or forced into a sexual liaison by their bosses. Because of the inequality in their professional relationship and social status, these women did not have the choice of saying, “no,” and once their virtue was lost, any prospect of a future marriage was also lost (Nolland, 71-72). Although it is commonly believed that these situations are the only reason that women during this time would enter prostitution, there were a large number of cases where the “fallen woman” was not forced into her situation. Deborah Anna Logan, author of Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing, explains, “Some women, it is true, entered prostitution by choice, attracted by its comparatively lucrative remuneration for very little work; simply put, prostitution made good business sense at a time when women had few employment options” (37). Overall, a lack of advantages and choices was the primary reason women of the working class fell down the ladder into prostitution.
During the Victorian Age, prostitution did not subscribe to any one tradition; some women lived in brothels, some with soldiers or sailors, and some worked on the streets. Judith Walkowitz, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, highlights the different avenues available to prostitutes in her book Prostitution and Victorian Society. The most common form of prostitution during this time was streetwalking. Women who performed this act were most commonly those who supplemented their daily income with money they could earn by prostituting on occasion, but there were also some who used streetwalking as their primary source of income. However, there were many dangers in this avenue of employment. Women who worked the streets were often subjected to poverty, insecurity, physical danger, alcoholism, disease and police harassment. This does not mean that prostitutes who worked in alternate avenues, such as the encampments of soldiers or brothels, did not experience many of the same difficulties, but these dangers were normally less severe. Prostitutes that followed the encampments of soldiers or worked the ports of sailors were normally provided for on a night-by-night basis depending on the man they would next sleep with. These women enjoyed a certain amount of security in the knowledge that women were few and far between in such areas and therefore, they were somewhat valued for their attributes. Those prostitutes that worked in brothels were also ordinarily provided a certain level of security under the brothel-owner. During the Victorian Age, the number of prostitutes who actually lived in brothels was considerably low. Despite this, customers that behaved inappropriately towards the prostitutes that did inhabit such places were normally unappreciated and unwelcome (Walkowitz, 23-25).
Underlying the differences among prostitutes, Walkowitz also talks about a commonality between these women. Most were engaged in a “strong female subculture” that provided them with identifiable attributes. The most distinguishing difference between prostitutes and other working-class women during the Victorian Age was their choice of dress. Contrary to traditional female dress, prostitutes often wore gowns made from showy material that accentuated their figures. In addition to this, they also frequently forwent the custom of bonnets and shawls in public. However, their physical presentation of themselves was not the only thing they shared. Surprisingly, many prostitutes were close and formed strong ties with one another. It was not uncommon for these women to lend a helping hand to another during times of need — if one of them needed go to the doctor or be bailed out of jail, another would pull the money together in order to help the other out. Nevertheless, despite this level of camaraderie, prostitutes still fought over territories, costumes and belongings. Fights and arguments between prostitutes were not uncommon especially between older and younger prostitutes when the latter were considered rising competition (Walkowitz, 26-28). As can be seen, despite the variation in practices and activities among prostitutes, the uniformity in their social interactions helped to group them together under an umbrella of commonality that prevailed upon them in situations of distress.
During the Victorian Age, reforms geared toward prostitution gained momentum. The largest concern, and the issue that took precedence over many others, concerned the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes. Although the suffering of prostitutes was not a particular concern of the government, the contagiousness of these diseases was creating enough worry to elicit a response from them as the British military was found to be the largest victim of this problem. It was believed by the government that the declining health and effectiveness of the military was a direct result of prostitutes with venereal diseases mingling with the armed forces, and so in response to these concerns, Parliament passed The Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869. As a result of these acts, the British government was given the right to stop and detain any woman identified as a prostitute and force her submission to an examination with the intent of identifying whether the woman in question suffered from a venereal disease. If during the examination, a venereal disease was identified by the examiner, the prostitute would then be detained in a hospital for a specified amount time so that the disease could be handled and cured if possible (McHugh, 16-18).
Although the goal of these acts was supported by many, there were others who believed that the forced examination of women violated basic human rights. While there were some who believed that the act was an example of “progressive sanitary enlightenment,” others believed them to be “immoral abuses of the constitution” (McHugh, 16). Those who fought hardest against these acts tended to be moralists and feminists. Their strongest objection to the acts stemmed from the unquestionable right of an official to stop any woman suspected of infection. As a result of this right, there were many women who, not suffering from venereal disease, were forced to submit to a humiliating and degrading experience for no reason. Many of these problems arose because in the eyes of the law officials detaining women, many working-class women were not distinguishable from prostitutes and were therefore equally abused by the process. It was cases such as these that truly motivated the subsequent repeal movements. Incited by the wrongs committed against such females, Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Wolstenholme built the strongest opposition against these acts through their formation of the Ladies’ Association against the Contagious Diseases Act in 1869. The group condemned the acts and fought hard for a repeal against them alongside social activists, who inspired by these women, rallied together to speak out against the acts. Their fight lasted for 17 years, and in 1886, their long-awaited repeal was finally granted (The Contagious Diseases Act).
Prostitution during the Victorian age gained an unprecedented amount of attention from both British society and their government. Although issues of prostitution were, and are often still, seen in black and white, there were many cases where prostitution was either a supplementary activity or the only available avenue of employment. It was an unsavory profession, and, unfortunately, it was often considered a necessary evil. However, it is important to note that although it was an activity highly frowned upon by upper class women in society, these same women were the first to rally to the cause of those “fallen women” that were being exploited by the government. The popularity of issues concerning prostitution eventually lessened over time, but the resulting influences sparked by feminist movements involved in prostitute’s rights created a ripple effect that can be seen even today.
Victorian Poems on Prostitution
Since it was so pervasive in society, it is not surprising that we find literary works dealing with the issue of prostitution. Below are two poems depicting aspects of prostitution in Victorian life.
“The Contagious Diseases Act” The Victorian Web. 24 March 2009. <http://www.victorianweb.org/gender/contagious.html>
Logan, Deborah Anna. Fallenness in Victorian Women’s Writing: Marry, Stitch, Die, or Do Worse. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1998
McHugh, Paul. Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980Nolland, Lisa Severine. A Victorian Feminist Christian: Josephine Butler, the Prostitutes and God. Waynesboro, GA: Paternoster
Rogers, Lisa. “How widespread were concerns about Prostitution?” The Victorian Web. 24 March 2009. <http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/rogers/3.html>
Rosetti, Dante Gabriel. “Found” http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/dgr/paintings/11.html
Walkowitz, Judith. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1980