Prostitution in the Victorian Era (1830 - 1901)

The Victorian period is commonly viewed by people as an era of strict moral severity, accompanied by quenched sexuality. However, this is not exactly true. Victorians had a very powerful, if officially repressed, sexual appetite. Add to this the paradox 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. Charles Dickens dealt with prostitutes in the figure of Nancy and others, in Oliver Twist, and himself wrote a leaflet to prostitutes who were taken into custody, in the attempt to have them go to a rehabilition centre called Urania Cottage, that he and a friend of his, Angela Burdett Coutts, had developed. This relationship to prostitution is further complicated by evidence that shows that Dickens may have himself visited prostitutes, with an entirely different purpose, unlike British Prime Minister William Gladstone, than to drink tea and chat.

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). Judith Walkowitz, a history professor at John Hopkins University, (and from my readings, the authority on prostitution in Victorian times) claims that there were about 55,000 prostitutes working London’s streets, and bars, and backrooms of theatres, and just about everywhere else. London having a population of around 2 million in 1841, this translates into 1 prostitute for every 36 men, women and children. Another comparison shows that 1 prostitute existed for every 12 adult males.

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 (around 2715$ Can). The average wage per year for a skilled worker was 62 pounds (6730$ Can). 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, as the musical “Oliver” depicted, 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. That is an astronomical 43,400 dollars in current Canadian money.
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 prostitute 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 flagellation 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.

Edholm, C (1893), Traffic in Girls and Florence Crittenton Missions. Chicago: The Women's Temperance Publishing Association.
Ennew, J. (1986). The sexual exploitation of children. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Rush, F. (1980). The best kept secret: Sexual abuse of children. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.
Walkowitz, J. (1980) Prostitution and Victorian Society. Cambridge University Press.
Walkowitz, J. (1983). "Male Vice and Female Virtue: Feminism and the Politics of Prostitution in Nineteenth Century Britain", in Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, ed. Ann Snitow et al. New York: The Monthly Review Press.

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