|Prostitute characters in BBC show Ripper Street, set in 1889|
Before you look at factual historical research, it is interesting to observe the kinds of views Victorian people had of prostitutes through literary fiction like Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell. Mary's aunt Esther who took "the downward path to vice" (149) hovers throughout the plot like a ghost, forsaken and insubstantial as she is judged harshly by other characters and the narrator for her dubious lifestyle. Here is the negative view of prostitution likely engaged by many 'respectable' Victorians at the time, of prostitution being a choice reflecting a woman's bad nature "the leper sin" (149). However she is also coloured with pity as "the poor crushed Butterfly" (365) and shows importance in driving the plot along and attempting to help the other characters regardless of how she is treated. Gaskell also implies the idea that 'fallen women' were victims of male exploitation and the grueling conditions of poverty more than of their own volition- challenging the dismissive contempt of prostitutes held by many government legislators involved in the Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860's (see introduction to Prostitution and Victorian Society).
|Cover: Report from the Select Committee on the Contagious Diseases Acts, 1881 in Open Library|
Was this more forgiving feeling towards Victorian prostitutes widespread at the time? In order to find out we must go to the source. Below is an illustration from the popular and widely circulating magazine Punch.
|The Great Social Evil cartoon by John Leech, 1857|
Another example of a Victorian source unwittingly showing some stark historical truths about this taboo topic is the highly controversial My Secret Life by Walter. In her review of the book, Maya Mirsky comments on how the anonymous author "discusses quite casually the way women fall into prostitution" and that "without thinking much of it, along the way he paints a picture of the harsh realities for poor girls." (Mirsky). Therefore it is clear more than ever that prostitution was not all bright dresses and wanton lasciviousness of women, the type of picture suggested by such male writers of the time as Henry Mayhew and Inspector Anniss of Devonport (see Walkowitz: 81).
|Print of a Victorian prostitute from Mary Evans Picture Library by an unknown author|
Indeed, the saying of 'fall' can be suggestive of an involuntary act, the ways in which poor women in desperate and "harsh" conditions were forced into prostitution instead of choosing to do so. There was much poverty, disease and hardship in Victorian times, especially in London and most especially for women due to the patriarchal system that did not allow the freedom and means to a wide gamut of jobs. Prostitutes were ostracized, dismissed from comprehensive consideration and unfairly fictionalised due to the lack of sexual liberty afforded to women. The accepted roles, as we all know, were wife, housekeeper, mother and other entirely domestic ones; women who could not fulfill these for whatever reason, were driven to prostitution for the only economic independence available to them, many prostitutes were poor women. They were not all seduced by rich men into 'falling'.
The fiction of the fall persisted for a surprisingly long time after the Victorian era, and has only began to be debunked by modern feminist criticism. In her book "The Prostitute's Body", Nina Attwood calls this the "singular or crystallized myth of the Victorian prostitute" and affirms that it is deconstructed by "[the struggle of] contemporaries...to define the multifaceted issue of the prostitution in their midst" (145). The careless picture of prostitutes as all identical in their lives was false, reveals Attwood as they "were a varied group and the working-class streetwalker merely a scapegoat" (146).
The unfair treatment was not just in perception- prostitutes were constantly abused by clients and even 'respectable'doctors and police. As part of the CD Acts women suspected of being prostitutes were forced to go to lock hospitals for gynecological exams for sexual diseases and according to Judith Walkowitz "they allowed police absolute power over women" (93). Thanks to police corruption prostitutes were often abused by the upholders of law.
However prostitutes did have allies that acknowledged their vulnerability and actively tried to promote their welfare beyond simple sympathetic but still narrow-minded depictions like Gaskell's (see above). Feminists like Josephine Butler, Elizabeth Wolstenholme and Mary Priestman campaigned for a more just treatment of prostitutes and instead of considering them forever beyond help, tried to get them out of some awful conditions and back into society. Many of these feminists were part of the Ladies' National Association for the Repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts, which argued for a withdrawal of the invasive medical procedures mentioned earlier, and legal rights for the prostitutes, with "courage and tenacity" (Walkowitz: 93). Despite the horrors that caused, prolonged and worsened prostitution, compassionate souls realized the true circumstances and tried to alleviate them; though complete success was impossible, realization of the scope of the issue swelled the rise of feminism all the way up to today.
|Josephine Butler, feminist political leader, photographed 1869|
BBC. Ripper Street photograph. BBC Media Centre. 2012. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/ripperstreet/myanna-buring.html>
House of Commons. "Report from the Select Committee on the Contagious Diseases Acts" Cover. Open Library. 2010. Web. 28 Nov 2013. <https://openlibrary.org/works/OL15355652W/Report_from_the_Select_Committee_on_the_Contagious_Diseases_Acts>
Mary Evans Picture Library. Unknown Victorian prostitute print. BBC History. 2012. Web. 28 Nov 2013.
University of Liverpool. "Photograph of Josephine Butler c.1869 [ref. JB 2/1/7]". University of Liverpool Library. 1869. Web. 28 Nov 2013. <http://liv.ac.uk/library/sca/colldescs/butler.html>