Introduction to Prostitution in Victorian London The art of prostitution has been an ancient practice, as old as the world itself. With the rise of the industrial revolution however, the practice dramatically increased, as did the associated moral panic. From the 1700s to the early 1800s, prostitution was rife in Victorian London, with an estimate of over 80,000 women practising it in some form or another. This article examines the facts associated with prostitution in this era, in Victorian London.
Demographics of Prostitutes The vast majority of prostitutes working in Victorian London were women, though there were also cases of male and transgender prostitutes. Most of these women fell within the ages of 18-25 and hailed from the working-class. Many of them had previously been domestic workers, factory hands, or governesses, and had failed to find stable sources of income through these occupations. An estimated 11 percent of these prostitutes were minors.
Venues for Prostitution The main areas prostitutes worked were in brothels and ‘stews’. Brothels were establishments run by madams, who employed prostitutes and catered to a wealthier clientele. Stews were essentially saunas, where multiple prostitutes worked and where poorer customers could purchase their services cheaply. Prostitution could also be found in theatres and bars, as well as the city’s streets.
Reasons for Prostitution Poverty was one of the main reasons n many resorted to prostitution to make ends meet. With the industrial revolution’s inability to meet the demands of the working classes, prostitution provided a highly sought-after means of earning money for survival.
The downside of this was often seen in the form of disease, as many prostitutes failed to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. The moral panic surrounding the spread of venereal diseases caused by prostitutes eventually led to the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1886 and 1888. These Acts made it legal to search and monitor prostitutes suspected of having sexually transmitted diseases.
The Double Standard Despite the moral panic surrounding the practice of prostitution, it was not frowned upon in British society to the same degree as it had been in earlier centuries. This was due in part to the belief that it was not immoral to engage in vice as long as there was money to be made. As a result, many men patronised prostitutes to gratify their desires, while still believing that prostitution was morally wrong.
The resulting double standard meant that women engaging in prostitution were deemed immoral and suffered social judgement and ostracisation, while men patronising them were exonerated.
Regulation of Prostitution The need to regulate the practice of prostitution in Victorian London was met with mixed results. On the one hand, the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1886, and 1888, enabled the medical monitoring and examination of prostitutes, as well as the inspection of their sexual partners. This was done in an attempt to curtail the spread of sexual diseases.
On the other hand, due to the fear of publicising the addresses of brothels and stews, prostitution was initially not regulated and prostitution was essentially decriminalised if kept out of sight.
Notorious Criminals Associated With Prostitution During the Victorian era, prostitution was associated with some notorious criminals. The most noteworthy of these was William Boulton, better known as the notorious criminal Jack the Ripper.
Boulton is credited with a series of murders targeting prostitutes between 1888 and 1891, earning him the nickname Jack the Ripper. He was never apprehended and the full extent of his crimes remains unknown.
Conclusion Prostitution in Victorian London was a complicated business, rife with moral judgement and criminal activity. While poverty was the primary cause of prostitution and it was not seen as so morally wrong as in earlier centuries, this did not mean it was free from criminal activity. From the spread of venereal diseases to the activity of notorious criminals such as Jack the Ripper, prostitution had a major impact on 19th-century London.