In urban England, several understandings of prostitution persisted in the popular culture. These views connected to an underlying political agenda of social reform. On the extreme end of the spectrum, London reporter W.T. Stead published a sensational and provocative series of articles entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.” It was a shocking exposé on the vast industry of sex trafficking that webbed London’s underworld, a place where corrupt men violently exploited and enslaved women and children. Bolstering the Social Purity Movement, Stead’s article unfurled a social campaign that pushed for political reform and condemned prostitution as a product of aristocratic male vice. On these issues, Stead was a frequent ally of activist Josephine Butler. Both attacked “corrupt male power” (Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delights, 118) as the driving force of prostitution, which they saw as a social structure of oppression. Butler constructed a highly specific archetype of the prostitute as a “fallen Magdalene,” a tragic woman who had become a victim of violent male lust. Butler’s typical Magdalene was young, inherently moral, meek, and above all, easily reformed. Stead and Butler’s representations of prostitution were narrow and highly politically charged, specifically crafted to support an agenda of feminist social reform.
SCANDALOUS HEADLINES. “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon.”
Sex Trafficking in London!
In 1885, W.T. Stead shocked London society with his “Maiden Tribute” article published in the Pall Mall Gazette. Stead was a part of the New Journalism movement, a style that relied on sensational story-telling and investigative techniques. Written as a piece of undercover journalism, “Maiden Tribute” attempted to expose a vast network of organized prostitution in London, describing an industry that regularly employed kidnapping, rape, violence, human trafficking, and the sexual exploitation of children. Provoking scandal, it was meant to shock the world (Ledger, The Fin de Siécle, 34). Stead described prostitution as sex slavery in which women were victims of aristocratic and violent male vice. In an anonymous interview, a brothel keeper explained that there was always a high demand for “fresh girls” (Ledger, 38). The pimp also outlined the various avenues through which victimized girls entered prostitution. First, there was the sale and purchase of children: “Drunken parents often sell their children to brothel keepers” (Ledger, 37). There were also certain instances of “breeding” prostitutes. Since infancy, some girls were born into the trade, “bred and trained for the life” by their prostitute mothers (Ledger, 36). In other cases, male brothel keepers resorted to trickery, disguising themselves and journeying to the country to deceive and procure young virgins. Pretending to court these unsuspecting young women, the pimp would lure them into the city, intoxicate them, and then irreversibly compromise their dignity by bringing them back to his bed at the brothel house. In the morning, the girl had “lost her character and dare[d] not go home,” resigning herself to work in the brothel house (Ledger, 37). In other instances, girls were outright kidnapped, drugged, raped, or beaten into submission (Walkowitz, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” Spectacular Realities, 81). In another anonymous interview, a brothel keeper nonchalantly confessed selling women to gentlemen. “Anxious to test the truth of his statement,” Stead took the role of the undercover investigator and experimentally asked if the brothel keeper could find him several young girls whose virginity could be verified by a doctor. Within two days, the brothel keeper had easily found girls whose parents or pimps were willing to sell (Ledger, 38).
This sensationalist vision of prostitution was largely politically driven. Historian Judith Walkowitz argued that:
Stead used the journalistic innovations of the New Journalism to tell an old story of the seduction of poor girls by vicious aristocrats. Traditionally, this story had been cast in political terms. [Stead] proudly positioned himself in relation to this political tradition as the champion of working people and women. (Walkowitz, 86)
In an opening section of “Maiden Tribute,” Stead unabashedly advocated the Criminal Law Amendment, claiming that the horrors of prostitution demanded political reform. The Criminal Law Amendment would raise the age of consent and enact harsher penalties for sexual offenders (Ledger, 33). Sensational and dramatic, Stead’s article was a thinly veiled propaganda piece that strategically sent shockwaves throughout society. It portrayed prostitutes as innocent and helpless victims of state-tolerated male violence. The plight of the prostitute represented class exploitation. Male aristocrats’ sexual exploitation of the daughters of working class men was seen as “a threat to family hierarchy and an infringement of male-working class prerogatives” (Walkowitz, 86). Stead’s shocking depiction of prostitution was a political cry against class exploitation and social inequality.