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Attitudes to sexuality and prostitution

Sexuality characterised by private reticence and public sensationalism?

Complex issues – considerable problems with sources and their interpretation


Sexuality – per Jeffreys (in Purvis) in late 20c, continuing controversy about how to interpret the history of sexuality in the later19c and early 20c:

• either a period when the reconstruction of male and female sexuality took place

or one of greater sexual freedom

• a very complex picture emerging

result of studies of 19c. prostitution, pornography, illegitimacy, drunkenness, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism

• older, unitary model of a single repressive standard has been, and continues to be, questioned

• lots of problems and contradictions with this topic

• decline in the authority of the church over the disciplining of sexuality,

e.g. cases of marriage breakdown no longer heard in church courts

legal divorce now available in secular courts

• by the late 19c, development of a science of sex – sexology – Henry Havelock Ellis

an alternative ideology for the disciplining of sexuality

based on scientific ‘truth’

based on male dominance and female submission (Jeffreys in Purvis)

• yet moral standards for many still largely based on Judeo-Christian ones

residual religious values in increasingly secular society

continuing orthodoxy of heterosexual sex within marriage for women

sexual double standard for men

gay or lesbian relationships were increasingly marginalised and stigmatised

unmarried women seen negatively, particularly after WWI


Marital Fertility

• Childbirth – ambivalent experience for women; own health endangered, health of baby v. important, extra mouths to feed

• Marital fertility

England 1750 - estimated population 5.75 m

1800 - estimated population 9-10 m

1851 (census) population 16.7 m

labouring poor

early modern period/18c pre-industrial society

betrothal was precursor to marriage - permitted physical contact -pre-marital sex countenanced

rural customs transported to industrialising areas

severing of ink with subsistence agriculture encouraged early marriages and age at first pregnancy

massive, sustained population increase for a century from mid-18c. onwards

19 century

S. Jeffreys (in Purvis): different context for family limitation – issues of responsibility and power

widespread hostility to artificial methods of birth control, seen as immoral or irreligious

but evidence of intentional family limitation from 1830s onwards, starting with the elite, who seem to have used both natural and artificial methods of contraception (male), and self-induced miscarriage (female)

McLaren: birth control practice not based on social emulation - evidence of considerable working-class culture of fertility limitation

• Family limitation

early decades of 20c, census returns suggest class-based responses to family limitation

birth rates for upper and middle-class men 119 births per 1000

skilled working men 153 births per 1000

unskilled working men 213 births per 1000

working-class methods of birth control

absistence, women’s ‘evasionary tactics’, self-induced miscarriages, back-street abortions, infanticide

abortion – (Jeffreys, in Purvis) working class method – a woman’s decision

challenged 19c belief in private nature of fertility decisions because it involved others outside the family

middle-class methods of birth control

barrier preventive methods – believed to have been a man’s decision but possible negotiations between partners?



• Who was a prostitute?

Perceived as a female occupation [but there were also male prostitutes]

Definitions in early Victorian period along class lines

• Middle-class charity workers and religious organisations used category of the ‘fallen woman’

• Fallen woman lived in sin

included all those who did not conform to middle-class ideas of regulated sex, i.e. within marriage

could include victims of rape, deserted unmarried mothers, women in consensual unions, prostitutes

• working class women did not see themselves as prostitutes

many, especially those in consensual unions saw themselves as respectable - not exchanging sex for money whereas

prostitution was exchanging sex for money

• care with stereotypes

prostitution for many women = seasonal occupation for working-class women

depended on their economic circumstances

others: temporary economic activity for young working-class women

a way of earning sufficient money to marry or set up a small business

• different from full-time prostitutes

full-time prostitutes – lives brief, miserable

subject to police harassment, violence from their customers, disease

different prostitutes participated in different arenas

some in brothels

others used lodging houses when dealing with clients

• pimps rare in GB until late 19c

some husbands pimped for their wives – husbands had legal right to wives’ earnings before 1870s and 1880s

• alternative view of full-time prostitutes

fallen woman – cf Hogarth’s Harlot’s Progress

innocent girl (often from countryside), seduced, then abandoned, by an aristocratic protector

passed on to other wealthy men

final descent into poverty, disease, street prostitution, death

• majority of customers of prostitutes were working men, rather than aristocrats looking for adventure in working-class urban areas

• Numbers of prostitutes – quantification v. difficult

clandestine unions (i.e. non-legal) makes it difficult – bachelors setting up a young woman in a house; also consensual unions – working-class unmarried couples

• Nos. fluctuated according to economic conditions

• Seasonal variations

• Statistics based largely on London

1797 estimated 50,000 in London of whom 20,000 were ‘common prostitutes’

1830s estimated about 80,000

1858 est. about 83,000

1860s est. about 220,000

• police estimates were more conservative

1839-1868 London, 5-6,000

suggest prostitution stable in 19c. England, even falling

for E&W, about 27,000 in 1858 to 24,000 a decade later

• Attitudes to Prostitution

social issue that had

medical, military, moral aspects

moral debates on prostitution – combination of religious attitudes and fears for public health

prostitute as temptress – sin + temptation

prostitute as victim of poverty and male lust + sin

social science – prostitution = a necessity but had to regulated for public health reasons

• 19c public perceptions of prostitution

• issues of class and gender and tensions these generated

working-class women objectified

female sexuality constructed as ‘dangerous’ if exercised outside heterosexual marriage


victims of male lust

victims of poverty and ignorance

always represented as vulnerable

silent in face of sexual exploitation

in need of salvation and reform by middle-class philanthropic and social investigators

• 1830s and 1840s – renewed public sympathy for prostitutes

seen as victims of economic conditions – sweatshops, etc

• 1840s and 1850s social investigations of prostitution influenced by

new statistical techniques and religious imperatives

these investigations stressed

economic problems but also girls’ low moral character

male need for prostitutes

demonstrated of sexual double standard and selective thinking

• sexual double standard

19c Britain chastity = part of a Christian life

extra-marital sex = a sin

but widely believed that it was ‘unhealthy’ for a mature man to be celibate (Hall)

however, prostitution should be regulated for medical and moral reasons

• Regulation of prostitution

• Mid/late 19c moral panic about sexually-transmitted diseases

poor health of nation’s military revealed by Crimean War and subsequent investigations


Contagious Diseases Acts 1864, 1866

• Intended to reduce sexually-transmitted diseases in army and navy by

Compulsory medical examination of any woman

thought to be a ‘common prostitute’

in a naval port or garrison town

• Sexual double standard embodied in legislation

assumed soldiers and sailors needed prostitutes to service their natural sexual impulses

Government had responsibility to provide healthy women do so

• women in these towns denied basic civil rights

prostitution was not a crime but

Acts allowed

arrest of women on suspicion of being a prostitute

enforced examination by male doctors

women incarcerated in ‘lock’ hospitals until recovered if found to be suffering from an STD

• little evidence that CD Acts controlled sexually-transmitted diseases

incidence declining before Acts were passed and continued to do so after they were repealed, suggesting other factors were more effective

• Acts suspended in 1883, repealed 1886, except in colonies

• Responses to CD Acts

• Prostitution as public order issue

CD Acts may be seen as part of the legislation to control working people, including Poor Law Amendment Act, Police Act

• Public Health issues

CD Acts – polarised response to them

seen as both positive and negative by medical profession

both responses depended on seeing women as objects and stigmatising them

CD Acts oppressive on all working-class women in garrison towns and ports, not just prostitutes: threat that examination would jeopardise their reputations


Campaign to repeal CD Acts

• 1869 Ladies National Association (LNA)

• leader Josephine Butler

led double-pronged attack on the Acts

demanded their repeal

demanded ending of sexual double standard

• Butler stressed

importance of female solidarity in the campaign

identification with those who were being oppressed

women should take the principal role in ending their oppression

• LNA had national executive, female national leaders, a journal The Shield, and local branches

local branches = a way of politicising supportive female sub-cultures (Walkowitz)

• commitment of Quakers and Unitarians, experience of previous campaigns

• some feminists supported it tacitly but not overtly, e.g. Mrs Fawcett

fear that open support of repeal could damage suffrage cause

• public speeches by women on sexual matters – v. new to middle-class women – much hostility to them

• campaign eventually successful - suspended in 1883, repealed 1886

• LNA had considerable support from working-class men, non-conformists and evangelical churches, and liberal politicians.

• LNA had limited support from working-class women but did attend meetings and appear to have influenced their husbands’ views.

• gender conflicts within the campaign (Walkowitz)

women had a double battle

public fight to obtain rights of women over their own bodies

private fight to control their own movement

female solidarity against CD Acts challenged by men who were

men doubted suitability of women public speakers and

women’s participation in campaign’s policy decisions

• after repeal

• overseas

LNA continued to campaign against regulated prostitution on Continent and against prostitution elsewhere in Br Empire, especially India.

Butler emphasised

powerlessness of Indian women and

‘mission’ of those who campaigned to help them

• in UK

prostitutes largely unaffected, except in garrison and port towns

however, moral reformers campaigned for different ways of regulating sexual offences of young women

• moral regulation of working-class female sexuality

moral reformers encouraged voluntary entrance by young prostitutes into female penitentiaries (magdelene homes) run by voluntary organisations

these offered moral education and industrial training

• 1870s social purity leagues being formed

regulation of male, as well as female, sexuality

• child prostitution

v. few child prostitutes (Walkowitz)

1885 campaign – sensationalist journalism rather than social fact; most prostitutes over 16; most 16-19 age group; older prostitutes = deserted wives or widows

• WT Stead (Pall Mall Gazette, 1885) – expose of traffic in child prostitution from England to continent (1885)

• 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act

age of consent for girls raised from 13 to 16



Efforts to regulated prostitution had largely failed

Local authorities however able to

isolate prostitutes from working-class communities

stigmatise them as moral outcasts, rather than casual workers

encourage them to seek protection of pimps as protection against the police

issues of male violence towards women largely unresolved