Prostitution: The Gap Between Popular Depiction and Reality
In 19th century Europe, highly politicized stereotypes of prostitutes pervaded the public sphere, but what were the realities of prostitution? What drove women into this institution? What were conditions like? What was their place in society? The realities of prostitution most likely fell between the extreme depictions of Stead and of Duchatelet. Prostitution was not so much an issue of male aggression or of female vice; it was an issue of poverty.
Most prostitutes came from lower class backgrounds. One late-Victorian study of prostitutes in a London prison found that 90% of the women had working-class fathers (Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, 15). More than half of these women had previously been employed as servants or other painfully low-waged positions, demonstrating “humble origins” and high levels of poverty (Finnegan, Poverty and Prostitution, 73). Along with harsh economic situations, many prostitutes also lacked solid social support. Records from English rescue homes and venereal disease hospitals consistently reported that more than two thirds of their girls had lost one or both parents (Walkowitz, 16). Most prostitutes entered the profession around the age of sixteen, which was young but not as scandalously young as activists like Stead suggested (Walkowitz, 17). In fact, in the city of York, rescue workers could find no evidence of child prostitution such as Stead had claimed pervaded London (Finnegan, 81).
Records indicated different reasons behind English women’s entrances to prostitution. In a broad study, 2,936 of the 16,000 prostitutes who were interviewed named “seduction” as the main reason that they began walking the streets or working at a brothel. Of these, 659 said that it was a gentleman who seduced them; although it must be taken into account that many of these women held a sweeping definition of the term, often referring to middle-class men, craftsmen, shop-owners, and merchants as “gentlemen” (Walkowitz, 18). Seduction was certainly a serious issue, but most common records suggested that only a minority of women fell down this stereotyped road of seduction, pregnancy, and then abandonment to the streets. A significant number of studies showed a one to two year interval between a girl’s first non-commercial sexual encounter and her entrance to prostitution (Walkowitz, 18).
Poverty was the main reason that many girls turned to prostitution, but most were not forced to this point by the immediate threat of starvation. Historian Judith Walkowitz argued that the typical English prostitute’s entrance to the profession was “voluntary and gradual” (Walkowitz, 15). Most of these women were orphans trying to cope with situations of poverty. In 19th century cities, there was an extreme lack of adequate employment for women, leaving few options to those with no parents or husband (Finnegan, 24).
Prostitution was often the story of a woman taking her survival into her own hands. Throughout the 19th century, the numbers of brothels in major European cities likely decreased by half, with most women working as “independent operators” free from the control of a pimp (Walkowitz, 24). Victorian prostitution was an industry organized primarily by women rather than men (Walkowitz, 25). Duchatelet had feared that the physical and social mobility of prostitutes would disrupt society’s order; but in reality, this fluidity often allowed prostitutes to gain more agency in their lives. Women often relocated to areas where demand was highest, gravitating towards barracks, harbors, and college campuses (Walkowitz, 24). Brothel-keepers were usually women, many of whom began as prostitutes themselves (Finnegan, 108).
Women turned to prostitution in order to survive. The social facts of poverty forced them to take control over their own lives. Although the majority was not victimized or trapped by male aggression, their reality was a harsh one. Life in the street made these women extremely vulnerable to disease, which could send them spiraling into extreme destitution (Mahood, 136). To cope with these facts, many prostitutes turned to alcohol, limiting their options for upward mobility. One woman explained, “I could not lead a virtuous life […] I must have a drink. Such as live like me could not bear life if they did not drink” (Mahood, 142-43). The British temperance reformer William Logan claimed that drink drove women to the streets; but the harsh realities suggested it was rather the street that drove women to drink (Mahood, 143). Elizabeth and Sarah Eden were English sisters who were “in many ways typical of other women of their class” (Mahood, 99). Due to circumstances of poverty, they entered the profession at a young age, contracted diseases, resorted to drink and theft, and spent time in and out of workhouses and prisons for the rest of their short lives. Their situation was not the result of male lust or of feminine vice. They became prostitutes to survive the social facts of poverty.