By Annabelle Katumba
“It is men only men, from the first to the last, that we have to do with! To please a man I did wrong at first, then I was flung about from man to man…By men we are examined, handled, doctored and messed with. In hospital it is a man again who makes prayers and reads the Bible for us. We are up before magistrates who are men, and we never get out of the hands of men.”1
A prostitute’s complaint to Josephine Butler
The Birmingham Ladies Association for the Care of Friendless Girls was founded in 1883 under the Church of England by Ellice Hopkins. The goal was “to prevent the degradation of women and children”2 and “…prevent prostitution …[but to] promote, chastity and purity.”3 This essay will argue that the preventive homes were merely ways to control women’s sexuality and ensure they upheld values constructed by the middle-class.
In the Victorian Era, prostitution was highly disapproved of as it was feared it could ruin the ideal family unit and increase the spread of venereal diseases by “infecting the respectable world, destroy[ing] marriages,…and the nation”.4 There was a perception that single mothers were as much of a threat as prostitutes; they were also shamed as “outcasts.”5 The stigma attached to prostitution meant that it became a priority—socially and politically—to eliminate anything that could pollute the nuclear family constructed by a white Christian society.
Victorian society6 was desperate to decrease the number of girls having sex out of wedlock. There was an increase in the creation of homes known as ‘Magdalen homes’ and ‘female penitentiaries’. It was assumed that knowledge of anything sexual ruined a girl, regardless of whether she initiated the contact or not.7 Notably, many child advocates behind these homes believed that girls who had been molested, raped or lived in brothels had “fallen” and were in need of saving.8 The reform homes were mainly for young women who were likely to succumb to prostitution because of various factors like their social, economic, or familial circumstances.9 Each individual branch under the Association served a different kind of girl/woman but these branches aided the fight against prostitution in accordance with Birmingham Ladies Association’s mandate.
Following the opening of Association, the home relocated within Birmingham and was renamed as Mrs. Rogers’ Memorial Home for Friendless Girls. The aims remained the same and the young women were still subjected to similar rules, like restrictions on visitors. Religious and moral training was a key element in reform as prostitution was considered a ‘social evil’ that required women to “repent their past life” and “ask [for forgiveness] for their sins…”10 The women were also given job training in domestic skills—a skill society considered made the “ideal” woman.
Many “fallen” girls were placed in “the care of female volunteers [like, Mrs Rogers] rather than cautioned, fined or sent to prison”11. The home only accepted young first-time offenders believing that repeat offenders would disrupt younger girls. Considered too far gone to save, it was thought that “if women or more depraved character were admitted and thrown into daily contact with younger and impressionable women then reform work would be endangered.”12
In a wider context the use of the name “Magdalen” and its biblical influence highlights the belief that these homes were here to bring hope to recently fallen girls. Much like the biblical figure Mary Magdalen, through religious growth, girls who led a sinful life could change and be forgiven for their past transgressions. Middle-class women set the standard of what was perceived as the correct life; working-class women benefitted from being around them as “it would encourage them to model their moral conduct.”13 It is no surprise that we see attempts to “…raise the whole standard of life of working-class girls especially [their] purity of thought…”14 However, Victorian middle-class morality was grounded in religious history which further subjugated women. Feminist historians have even “rediscovered Christianity as an important site in the historical construction of gender.”15 “Religion was (and remains)…an important component of gender oppression…”16
Aside from the growing number of preventive homes being created there seemed to be a general fear around the consequences of increasing prostitution. The creation of organisations like the Birmingham Poor Law Guardians inspired by Anna Lloyd illustrates how influential women, whom typically had middle-class status, vocalised their concerns surrounding prostitution. The Guardians believed that it was their duty to ‘save’ vulnerable women from submitting to the sin of prostitution.17 The suggestion was that there ought to be unity between middle-class women who can educate and lead working-class women into an acceptable lifestyle.
A significant concern surrounding prostitution was that unmarried mothers posed a dangerous threat to the ‘social equilibrium’.18 This conceptualization held that a “marriage, home and family” resulted in a society that has “civilisation, order, and morality.”19 In other words, prostitutes were considered as an “embodiment of immorality and an all too visible reminder of female sexual activity.”20 Therefore, prostitutes faced backlash as they presented a challenge to the constructed idea of middle-class femininity. Consideration of a woman’s self-expression or sexuality was limited; they were merely viewed as providing a deviant, unaccepted and sinful alternative to defining a woman. Much of this lead to child savers’ attitude being one of “pity and condemnation.”21 Despite being considered victims of poor working-class upbringings, they were still viewed as having the potential to spread immorality and sexual diseases. Interestingly, there was no such refuge for boys who had poor economic backgrounds or had been sexually abused. Blame for the possible corruption of the middle-class construction of femininity was linked to working-class parenting. Agatha Stacey argued that single mothers were ‘feeble minded’ and as a result produced offspring who were similarly mentally handicapped and criminally inclined.22 The suggestion was that working-class women were inadequate; parental rights were completely undermined and family ties were limited. The idea proposed by some was that female solidarity between working-class and middle-class women allowed space for society to overcome the rise in prostitution whilst upholding the sanctity of the family unit.
The Vagrancy Act 1824 reflects how public opinion openly denounced prostitution. This statute highlighted who the vagrant was: “every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or public highways…”23. As punishment, prostitutes were sent to a “house of correction…for…one calendar month.24” Additionally, Section 35 of The Town Polices Clause Act 1847 made it illegal for a person with licensed premises to allow prostitutes to assemble there as this counted as “disorderly persons.”25
Law makers increasingly attempted to regulate prostitution and its possible spread of venereal diseases. The Contagious Diseases Act 1864 (repealed in 1886) gave police the power to arrest and examine women suspected of prostituting or carrying a venereal disease.26 If they concluded the woman was “…suffering from a venereal disease, [then] the woman was to be held for treatment for…three months.”27 Although the Contagious Diseases Act 1864 was not applicable in Birmingham, female activists like Josephine Butler challenged the legislation arguing “that it was the men who frequented prostitutes who needed to be punished.”28
Despite these laws demonizing women and reaffirming prostitution as a “female profession” and evidently a “female problem”,29 they still maintained the notion that females needed to be rescued. Socio-political actors rarely mentioned male prostitution or the men who paid for sex with prostitutes. While many influential speakers were divided on the extent of methods to limit the spread of prostitution, it was clear that the general consensus condemned prostitution as detrimental to Victorian society and its constructed standards of femininity.
Current Legal Position
The Policing and Crime Act 2009 deals with the legality of prostitution. Whilst it isn’t necessarily illegal to prostitute per se by selling sex, it is illegal to solicit sex making prostitution illegal in its effect. This legislation makes it an offence to pay for sex workers in public. Recently, there have been several rallies regarding the legislation. For example, the English Collective of Prostitutes organised one in 2012, pushing for the safety of sex workers.30 This suggests the public is increasingly accepting prostitution especially since illegality of sex work is not aimed at sex workers themselves, but the customers who solicit sex. Effectively, this shifts criminal liability from those engaged in sex work to those looking to exploit vulnerable women. In the suburbs of Leeds, the city tried implementing ‘safe zones’ where prostitution was permitted during specific times. These types of social experiments would have been viewed disapprovingly in the Victorian era.
Historically, movements attempting to help men to resist their sexual urges and refrain from involvement with prostitution were few. The message seemed to show that disapproval of women engaged in prostitution or single mothers was stronger than condemnation of male deviant behaviour. There was a double standard where women were held accountable for any ‘immoral’ sexual conduct. This meant “[c]hasity and purity depended on young women rather than their male partners.”31 Men weren’t stopped and examined for STIs despite their sexual contact with potentially infected female prostitutes. This gives credence to radical feminists’ belief that law gives room for male “dominance” and “patriarchy’’.
The creation of homes like the Friendless Girls Home relied heavily on the establishment of unity between middle-class ideals and working-class women. There are clear elements of paternalism as working-class women were viewed as inadequate in comparison to the middle-class. Agatha Stacey wanted women who had produced more than one illegitimate offspring to be compulsorily detained to prevent them from producing anymore.32 They believed prostitutes were incapable of understanding the “right” way to live and these acts weren’t acts of freedom/expression. Being that these associations were supposedly saving fallen girls, it should be highlighted that the job training consisted of domestic skills which coincided with the middle-class idea of femininity. These job skills did little to boost these women economically. Hence, it’s clear that the aim of saving working-class girls trapped in poverty was undermined by the clear need to ensure these women preserved themselves by refraining from sexual promiscuity.
There is significant debate as to whether prostitution is exploitation or expression. While women have the right to consent to sex in a relationship or marriage, when it comes to prostitution the paternalistic nature of the law rejects the possibility that women may choose to participate in sex work. Sex within a marriage is seen as sacred and pleasing to God but women who use their autonomy to financially gain from their own body are judged as devaluing themselves. Elizabeth Elmy—suffragist campaigner, essayist and poet33—questioned the nature of marriage arguing “marriage was legalised prostitution.”34 The ideal woman should stay at home and provide free childcare whilst men work and benefit from a capitalist society.
For the above reasons, it seems that despite their “wholesome” aims, preventive homes effectively used sexually suppressive methods against women. These homes were female-centred to fix sexual immorality according to middle-class Christian values. To do this it was necessary for those with power to stigmatise the expression of women’s sexuality. Most Victorian statutes looked “not to the customer but to the vendor as the prime contaminator in the sexual exchange and focused on providing a safe source of uninfected women for men who remained free from coercive treatment or inspection.”35 In other words, associations of that time did not “free” women but merely changed the nature of “sexual oppression.”
Frost G.S, Victorian Childhoods (1st ed., Praeger 2008)
Mason M, The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes (New ed., Oxford Paperpacks 1995)
Walkowitz J R., Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State (Cambridge University Press 1983)
Dominic J, ‘William Etty’s Magdalen’s Sexual Desire and Spirituality in Early Victorian England’ 2011 15(3) Religion and the Arts 277
Lee C, ‘Prostitution and Victorian Society Revisited: The Contagious Diseases Acts in Kent’ 2012 21 Women’s History Review 301
Morgan S, ‘A Passion for Purity: Ellice Hopkins and the Politics of Gender in the Late-Victorian Church. Bristol, U.K.: Centre for Comparative Studies in Religion and Gender’ (PhD Theology and Religious Studies thesis, University of Bristol 1999)
Sanders L, ‘Equal Laws Based upon an Equal Standard’: the Garrett Sisters, the Contagious Diseases Acts, and the sexual politics of Victorian and Edwardian feminism revisited 2015 24(3) Women’s History Review 389
The Contagious Diseases Act 1864
The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885
The Industrial Schools Amendment Act 1880
The Policing and Crime Act 2009
The Poor Law Amendment Act 1834
The Sexual Offences Act 1956
The Sexual Offences Act 2003
The Town Policies Clauses Act 1847
The Vagrancy Act 1824