…Poor shameful Jenny, full of grace, thus with your head upon my knee;–
Whose person or whose purse may be the lodestar of your reverie?…
What, Jenny, are your lilies dead?
Aye, and the snow-white leaves are spread like winter on the garden-bed…
Jenny, you know the city now. A child can tell the tale there, how
Some things which are not yet enroll’d in market-lists are bought and sold…
Our learned London children know, poor Jenny, all your mirth and woe;
Have seen your lifted silken skirt advertize dainties through the dirt…
What has man done here? How atone, great God, for this which man has done?…
Like a rose shut in a book, in which pure women may not look…
I think I see you when you wake, and rub your eyes for me, and shake
My gold, in rising, from your hair, a Danaë for a moment there….

Jenny” – Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

One of the oft-cited themes of the Victorian era is the trend of professionalization. Intellectual history had previously favored polymaths. Leonardo da Vinci, the paradigmatic Renaissance man, was a painter, sculptor, musician, writer, inventor, architect, engineer, and geologist – among other things. Not much had changed by the Enlightenment, which was dominated by men like Benjamin Franklin, a politician, author, printer, postmaster, inventor, and physicist. In the nineteenth century, though, specialization gradually became the norm. Charles Darwin is a sort of transitional figure in this trend: he began medical training in Edinburgh, then attended Cambridge to prepare to enter the clergy; while at Cambridge, though, he spent much of his free time on amateur entomology, and after his voyage on the Beagle, he basically stuck with naturalism for the rest of his life (although he did pursue a much wider range of subjects within the natural sciences than would be standard for scientists today, encompassing biology, geology, and psychology).

Today, I’d like to look at the professionalization of a different sort of career: prostitution. Before the nineteenth century, prostitution wasn’t a full-time job for most of its practitioners; it was something women did on the side when necessary to make ends meet. By the end of the century, though, prostitutes in many English cities – along with many women we wouldn’t think of as prostitutes today – would be enroll’d in market-lists, in one of the oddest consumer protection efforts in history.

In order to tell this story, I’m going to begin by introducing you to one of the main characters:

Way better than a slinky. Get yours here - the toy, not the bacterium. Image via

We already covered sewage, so you knew it had to come up eventually.

Venereal diseases, particularly syphilis, were problematic throughout the century (and long before), but the issue came to a head during the Crimean war. Soldiers suffered from a higher rate of sexually transmitted infections than the general British population, probably because marriage was discouraged in the armed forces. It was seen as a potential distraction from military duties, so no soldier could marry without special permission from his commanding officer. Many soldiers felt that this system left certain needs unmet, creating a booming after-hours economy in ports and garrison towns across the country. This led to a colorful variety of embarrassing (and often life-threatening) problems for the military. When the issue reached epidemic proportions (literally), something needed to be done.

The Contagious Diseases Acts of the 1860’s were supposed to help sweep the dirt under the rug, but instead they stirred up fresh outrage. Revealingly, this controversial legislation was initially enforced only in garrison and port towns. Under the CD Acts, any woman suspected of providing horizontal refreshment to Her Majesty’s Armed Forces could be examined by a court-appointed doctor – with or without her consent – to determine whether or not she had syphilis. If she did, she would be quarantined in a “lock hospital” until she was deemed cured. At this point, she would be registered with the local government as a “clean” prostitute. There was never any question of jail: the issue with prostitution was not its legality, but its safety. Parts of this scheme sound pretty progressive and enlightened, but that was definitely not the perception at the time.

One major source of contention was the involuntary examinations, which were seen to dehumanize women, depriving them of their privacy and control over their own bodies. The speculum, which entered the British medical scene around this time, was perceived as an instrument of torture and a symbol of sexism. One angry feminist even referred to the speculum as a “steel penis,” and described gynecological examinations as “surgical rape.” As a modern feminist and an advocate for comprehensive sexual education, I was more surprised by this than by almost anything else I’ve learned all summer. Today, the speculum represents empowerment through enlightenment, helping women stay safe and understand their own bodies – it’s even used proudly as a logo by sex educators. But upon reflection, I can understand why women were so opposed to it a century and a half ago. It was a physical manifestation of the invasion of their lives by a potentially hostile male government. The examinations weren’t meant to protect them, but their clients. The goal of the CD Acts, as mentioned above, was not to eliminate prostitution, but to sanitize it for the sake of the men who supposedly required it.

This brings me to another aspect of the law which angered women: the double standard of appropriate sexual behavior. According to the Victorian image of sexuality, the soldiers – young, unmarried men – needed prostitutes, just like they needed food and clothing and ammunition. Men were naturally endowed with nearly insatiable sexual appetites; this was simply a fact of life, and had to be accommodated. Women, on the other hand, had no sexual urges. Intercourse was merely a moderately uncomfortable hurdle en route to reproduction, every woman’s ultimate goal. Thus, women were expected to remain chaste until marriage, while men were expected not to. However, anybody who’s ever heard of arithmetic can probably tell right away that this doesn’t quite add up. In order for men’s inevitable needs to be met, there had to be another kind of woman – one who still might not have innate sexuality, but who would be willing to fake it for the right price. Prostitutes were absolutely necessary to the Victorian conception of gendered sexuality. However, this necessity didn’t give them any power. Whenever there was trouble in paradise, the women were at fault for endangering the men. It didn’t matter that the infected women had to be infected by somebody; they were perceived as the sources of contamination, not its victims.

It wasn’t just the contagious and diseased who were affected by the Contagious Diseases Acts, though; a clean bill of health didn’t get you off the hook. Any woman whose initial examination revealed her to be disease-free but unchaste would also be placed on the government register/shopping catalogue, right along with the cured prostitutes. It didn’t matter whether a woman had ever actually had sex for money; if she was neither married nor virginal, she was a prostitute in the eyes of the law. There was also no distinction made between women who plied their trade full-time (which was rare) and those who only dabbled on occasion. Once you were registered as a prostitute (even a clean one), all honorable trades were essentially inaccessible. No self-respecting employer would hire a dollymop to do anything other than, er, mop dollies. Under the CD Acts, then, many working-class women were in danger of losing their actual jobs overnight and being left with no marketable skills and nothing to sell but themselves.

Like a rose shut in a book, in which pure women may not look. Image via

And that, boys and girls, is how prostitution became a full-time job in Victorian England. Just to make things even better, widespread panic over forced child prostitution (which wasn’t actually a big problem, but seemed like one after a melodramatic newspaper exposé) led to the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885. This law allowed magistrates to shut down scores of brothels, forcing many prostitutes out into the streets – just in time for Jack the Ripper‘s charming jaunt through Whitechapel.

What has man done here? How atone, great God, for this which man has done? Image via

Epilogue: One of the strongest responses to the gender inequality behind laws like the CD Acts was the social purity movement, which sought to restore Christian values to society throughout the Anglophone world (and particularly in the United States). Although the movement was largely female-led, there was a significant male contingent which called for, among other things, chastity for men. The movement spawned a variety of organizations in support of this cause, including – seriously – the Boy Scouts of America. Strangely enough, this isn’t mentioned in their official history.

[Originally posted 8/7/10]

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