Thursday, April 16, 2009

Prostitution in the Victorian Era

The Victorian period is commonly viewed by people as an era of strict moral severity. However, this is not exactly true. Victorians had a very powerful, if officially repressed, sexual appetite. Add to this the pradox that prostitution was legal, and quickly you begin to see how this problem worked itself out.

Prostitution formed an important part of much of the social and literary fabric of the Victorian world.

The figures for prostitution in the city of London vary, but reasonable estimates place the number between 7,000 (from the Police Dept) to 80,000 (by the Society for the Suppression of Vice)
One of the reasons that women would go into prostitution was simply because it was very profitable. In an age where feminism and the women's equal rights movement were just beginning to make serious headway, the options available to women were limited. There was factory work. This killed many people. There was the career of governess, but one had to be respectable and educated to break into that career. Domestic duties (ie maids) were possible, but were very low paying. Prostitution, on the other hand, offered a relatively high wage, with easier working conditions and less hours than most other jobs. A night with a virgin could fetch up to 25 pounds. The average wage per year for a skilled worker was 62 pounds. Of course, the virgin thing was a one shot deal, but it would provide the woman with start-up money to get a room, clothing and food. As well, a prostitute was a more socially liberated than other classes of women. Prostitutes could congregate in pubs where 'virtuous' women could not. Some women were taken and trained to cater to high-society tastes. The following is an excerpt from an edition of "Harris's Guide to Covent Garden Ladies," a publication that advertised high-class prostitutes:

"Miss B. Number 18 Old Compton Street, Soho.
This accomplished nymph has just attained her eighteenth year, and fraught with every perfection, enters a volunteer in the field of Venus. She plays on the pianoforte, sings, dances, and is the mistress of every manoeuver in the amorous contest that can enhance the coming pleasure; is of middle stature, fine auburn hair, dark eyes and very inviting countenance, which ever seems to beam delight and love. In bed she is all the heart can wish, or eyes admires every limb is symmetry, every action under cover truly amorous; her price two pounds".

However, it is obvious that life wasn't all rosy for the sex workers. A darker underside to Victorian prostitution existed. There were never enough voluntary prostitutes to fill the extremely high demand. Pimps, almost exclusively men, known as 'bullies', filled this demand by kidnapping young girls, or misleading recently-arrived women from rural areas into entering the sex trade. Many girls who were under the age of consent were forced into prostitution, some by their families, some by the aforementioned bullies. Keep in mind that the age of consent was established in 1861 at 12, and only went up to 16 in 1885. It was highly profitable for a bully to have young children in his brothel. F. Rush, in his 1980 book "The best kept secret: Sexual abuse of children" states the price for a night with a girl under 12 from the upper class was 400 pounds.

The other extremely disturbing aspect to Victorian prostitution was torture. In 1893, C. Edholm wrote for the The Women's Temperance Publishing Association, "Pain became an essential ingredient for pleasurable sex.. .and since the defloration of very young virgins can be excruciating, Victorians were obsessed with a 'defloration mania.' The screams of children became indispensable, shrill torture was the 'essence of delight' and many gentleman would not silence a single note."

In the summer of 1885, the Pall Mall Gazette's editor and investigative reporter, W.T. Stead, published a series of articles called the "Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon," which allegedly exposed these child prostitution rings. It was recieved with such popularity that it printed until the supply of paper ran out, and by the end of the day, copies of it were selling for 12 times their original value. He wrote that

"flogging or birching goes on in brothels to a much greater degree than is generally believed. One of Mrs. Jeffries' [the pimp of the most exclusive brothel in London] rooms was fitted up like a torture chamber... There were rings in the ceiling for hanging women and children up by the wrists, ladders for strapping them down at any angle, as well as the ordinary stretcher to which the victim is fastened so as to be unable to move. The instruments of flaggelation included the ordinary birch, whips, holly branches and wire-thonged cat-o-nine tails."

The last problem with prostitution was the high possibility of venereal disease. The large majority of prostitutes had syphilis before the age of 18. One of the reasons that virgins were so expensive was because they were guaranteed to be VD-free. By 1864, VD was a major problem among soldiers and sailors in the British Army and Navy. In response, the British Congress passes a set of laws called the Contagious Diseases Act which made it possible for police to arrest a prostitute if she was found to have VD. Prostitutes were routinely examined at military bases, if they serviced those bases. Women's group rose up in fury over the Act, which was extremely discriminatory against prostitutes,denying them even basic rights. This, combined with the uproar that the "Maiden Tribute" caused amongst the populace of London led to the establishment of new legislation in 1886, which replaced the Contagious Diseases Act of 1864. The new legislation, entitled the Criminal Law Amendment Act, gave far more protection to children than anything previously, made homosexuality criminal, and provided the basis for prostitution to eventually be made illegal.

(Info taken from

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Excellent & interesting post demonstrating good research skills. Fascinating what Victorians really were like as opposed to what we think they were like.

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