In December 1857 the London Chambers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice met to discuss “the increasing evil” of prostitution in the city. The meeting was attended by clergymen, churchwardens and vestries from many of London’s parishes.
The Society agreed that prostitution in London was carried out with a “shamelessness” and “publicity” unparalleled by any other capital city in Europe, (pictured, a depiction of a prostitute, circa 1880). At the heart of their meeting were several key ideas; firstly, that prostitution was a danger to public morality, secondly, that it negatively affected the character and reputation of a particular street or area, and, finally, that prostitution was a “great evil” in need of control and regulation.
It is no surprise that the church objected so strongly towards prostitution. Victorian clergymen fiercely condemned any type of extramarital or non-procreative sex. The dominant religious groups of the era, the Nonconformists and Evangelicals, were heavily involved in the debates surrounding prostitution. Their aim was reform society through the eradication of immoral vices. These did not just include prostitution but also lesser vices like gambling and drinking. Organisations like the Society for the Suppression of Vice (as mentioned above) and the Social Purity Alliance were at the forefront of the “holy war” against prostitution in the cities.
However, social purity and immoral vices were only half the problem; thanks to urbanisation, the visible presence of prostitutes on England’s streets had increased. In the 1830s there were approximately 900 brothels and 850 houses of ‘ill fame’ in London. Move forward to 1857 and the figure had dramatically increased to 6,000.
“The most arduous and wearisome of labour”
During this period, prostitution became associated with the poverty of the working classes. The social investigator, Henry Mayhew, believed that the greatest cause of prostitution was the “low rate of wages that the female classes receive, in return for the most arduous and wearisome of labour.” It certainly offered better wages and shorter hours than the alternative factory or domestic work. As Harriet Martineau wrote in 1870, “there is the strongest temptation to prefer luxury with infamy to hardship with unrecognised honour.”
Attitudes to prostitution in London and other big cities were not so one-sided. There were many who condemned and sought to eradicate the practice but there were also people who viewed prostitution as society’s ‘necessary evil.’ The reality was that the same Victorian notions of morality and sexuality which allowed commentators to condemn the practice had also created conditions which allowed prostitution to flourish. As an observer from 1859 commented “there are few men who, in some period of their lives, have not dealt in mercenary sex.” Why was this?
Victorian women were expected to behave in a very constricted and particular way. Women were defined by their domestic role and responsibilities. The Victorians placed a special emphasis on chastity. For a single woman, her virginity was her most prized and important asset and vital to maintaining her respectability and social standing. For a woman already married, dabbling in extramarital sex came with the risks of disease, pregnancy and social ostracism. In contrast, men’s sexual desires and promiscuities were more acceptable. Prostitution, therefore, allowed men to satisfy their desires while maintaining the purity of women.
Other supporters of this ‘necessary evil’ were soldiers. The army made no proper provision for families and with prolonged periods of absence, marriages were not easy to maintain. Statistics show that only 6% of enlisted men were actually married. As a consequence, prostitutes flocked to barracks and garrison towns to ply their trade with great success.
Victorian attitudes to prostitution were complex and ambiguous. While it is true that prostitutes directly contravened Victorian notions and ideals of feminine behaviour resulting in condemnation, they also provided a useful service for many Victorian men. It was their own strict definitions of female sexuality and the low economic prospects of the working classes which contributed to the growth of visible prostitution in Victorian London. The Society for the Suppression of Vice may have believed that regulation and intervention were the keys to eradicating prostitution, but, in reality, the answers lay in the very foundations of Victorian society.