Thursday, 28 November 2013

'The Great Social Evil'- Prostitution and the Other Side of Victorian Sexuality

How were Victorian prostitutes perceived and what were their real circumstances? These are the questions I hoped to answer when I chose the subject of prostitution for my blog. When most people think of Victorian sexuality, it is of dowdy buttoned-up men and women who wouldn't even talk about sex, let alone the concept of prostitution. But as Lauren Dye has already showed in her blog, this was not the whole state of affairs. Prostitution was rife in the 19th century and the idea is still alive today in popular culture such as in the BBC 1 program Ripper Street involving the brothel of a character called 'Long Susan'.

Prostitute characters in BBC show Ripper Street, set in 1889
To find out the reality of Victorian prostitution, I had to do some research. While there is not exactly a museum exhibition dedicated to the conditions of Victorian prostitutes or an abundance of helpful archives (this is not a wholesome topic after all), a surprising number of scholars have written on the subject. Through books and extracts comes a glimpse of what people thought at the time.

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
What to make of this? While clearly satirising the topic of prostitution it is unclear whether it is for or against the right to sympathy for the prostitutes. The use of the word 'gay', unlike today's meaning of homosexuality, was a common slang term for prostitutes in the 1800's: the 'gay women'(see Maya Mirsky below). The Bella woman seems to think that because Fanny is well dressed and standing in the doorway of an opera house that she must be a prostitute; the fact that John Leech satirised this for the magazine suggests that this opinion of women in doorways necessarily being prostitutes was prevalent enough that it was worth mocking. The exclamation marks could be inferred either as the respectable people's feelings of pity or contempt, or a mingling of the two, for those perceived as 'fallen'. Whether or not Fanny is supposed to be an actual prostitute, this cartoon is very revealing of society's moods and opinions regarding these women.

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] 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

Works Cited:
Attwood, N. The Prostitute's Body: Rewriting Prostitution in Victorian Britain. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2011. Web. DawsonEra. 24 Nov 2013.

BBC. Ripper Street photograph. BBC Media Centre. 2012. Web. 27 Nov 2013. <>

Gaskell, E. Mary Barton. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 2012.

House of Commons. "Report from the Select Committee on the Contagious Diseases Acts" Cover. Open Library. 2010. Web. 28 Nov 2013. <>

Leech, John. "The Great Social Evil" from Punch. The Victorian Web. 1857. Web. 27 Nov 2013.<>

Mary Evans Picture Library. Unknown Victorian prostitute print. BBC History. 2012. Web. 28 Nov 2013.

Mirsky, M. My Secret Life: Classic Nonfiction by Walter [Review of the book My Secret Life]. Critique. Retrieved from:

University of Liverpool. "Photograph of Josephine Butler c.1869 [ref. JB 2/1/7]". University of Liverpool Library. 1869. Web. 28 Nov 2013. <>

Walkowitz, J. Prostitution and Victorian Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.


  1. Really good; only to be expected of you Miss Esme :P, but it was an interested read. I never knew prostitution was something that women in the nineteenth century were kind of forced into, but from this I learnt. Also, I think your link to the concerns of feminism today was vital because we get to see where certain ideas today stem from. Well done.

  2. Esme I like how you handled your topic, very informed and quite shocking (in a good sense) to read. I feel sorry about about all these women who are mistreated and forced into prostitution, I'd say much hasn't changed - it is still frowned upon greatly, and trafficking still occurs. I do think back then prostitutes had more freedom to be allowed to be one. (Maybe that is just me overthinking that).