What were the causes of the Victorian public’s fascination with prostitution?
Despite strict moral codes, the Victorian public was fascinated with the infamous “ladies of the night” — prostitutes. Throughout period literature, art, and science, the idea of the “fallen woman” was prevalent. At the same time of the popularization of portrayals of women who fell from grace, Victorian society also imposed restraints on what women could do (which is to say they could not be anything but housewives), as well as strict codes of morality. How could two polar opposite interests exist at once? And, if Victorians were so fixated on their moral codes and propriety, why were they so fascinated with images of prostitutes and the “fallen woman” that were so pervasive throughout their society?
To first understand Victorian ideas of prostitution, one must look further into what the term “fallen woman” meant. The “fallen woman” was someone who fell from virtuous grace because of the forces of her circumstance. Those forces could be poverty, sexual temptation, lack of morality, or a combination thereof. The archetype appeared before the Victorian Era in books such as Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility in the characters of Eliza and her daughter of the same name. The elder Eliza fell from her status when she became pregnant out of wedlock, and her daughter does the same. Both of them fall because of their sexual deviance.
During the Victorian Era, the fallen woman also evolved. She became not only a sexual figure, but a criminal one as well. An example of this fallen woman is Oliver Twist’s Nancy, who Dickens describes as a prostitute. However, unlike the Elizas in Sense and Sensibility, Nancy’s fall occurred earlier in her life when Fagin made her become a prostitute and a thief  instead of her own moral and sexual missteps.
The notion of the fallen woman was prominent in both the political and artistic spheres of Victorian England. It took center stage in the political arena in the discussions surrounding the Contagious Disease Acts of the 1860s and W.T Stead’s exposee on child prostitution in his collection of articles entitled “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”. In humanities related areas, the fallen woman appeared in paintings such as Augustus Egg’s series Past and Present and Richard Redgrave’s The Outcast. Thomas Hood’s 1844 poem “The Bridge of Sighs” and the G.F Watts painting it inspired Found Drowned showed that the only way a fallen woman could redeem herself was through death, reflecting the revulsion and hatred the Victorians felt towards prostitutes. Overall, the fallen woman was used as a common archetype in discussions of Victorian prostitution and Victorian standards of morality.
One answer to the question of this fascination lies in the popularity of social Darwinism and the theory of inheritance. Darwin originally published his ideas of natural selection in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species. One key point of his theory is that parents pass down genetic traits to their offspring. Contemporaries took this idea further and applied Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s ideas of inheritance of moral traits from one’s parents instead of solely physical ones. Darwin, experiencing a newfound popularity because of that adaptation, embraced Lamarck’s ideas and took those further, reasoning that if morally and physically advancing traits could be inherited, so too could degenerating traits. This theory came to a post-enlightenment world that delighted in explaining life and daily phenomena using science. The idea that someone could be inherently less moral than someone else due to an inherent, genetic reason was an easy way for the upper class to demean the lower class, ignore the economic exploitation of the lower class that they were inflicting, and to put themselves on a moral high ground.
Dalton Brock, in his thesis detailing the use of Social Darwinism in the Victorian Era, explores Darwin and Lamarck's’ ideas of inheritance, specifically in what he calls “hereditary degeneracy.” He argues that women exhibiting undesirable traits were proclaimed hereditarily degenerate and misdiagnosed with mental illness to protect Victorian notions of the ideal woman. He writes, paraphrasing Italian criminologist and physician Cesare Lombroso, “Moral insanity… affected many female prostitutes, leading them to taking up residence in asylums. Prostitutes were believed to have shown additional symptoms, including obscenity and ‘unnatural vices’”. Prostitutes, with their additional ailments, provided more subject matter that the scientific community could scrutinize using Darwinistic ideas. Therefore, they rose to the forefront of conversations surrounding degeneracy, which eventually led to healthcare reforms by doctors worried for public safety.  With doctors’ abilities to use records of institutionalized prostitutes (made possible by the Lunacy Act of 1845 that changed record keeping in asylums) to advocate for their cause, prostitution received substantial political attention and became part of the larger issue of new healthcare measures.
Other historians argue that the public’s fascination with prostitution was a reflection of male lust. In Jessica Webb’s thesis “Why Women Fell: Representing the Sexual Lapse in Mid-Victorian Art (1850–65),” she discusses the ways in which artists portrayed the fall of the fallen women during the Pre-Raphaelite era. That era started when a group of artists and writers established the secret society known as the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in London in 1848. They defied the Royal Academy’s standards of Raphael-esque paintings, and disliked genre painting, which they thought of as “trivial”. Instead, they chose to depict serious subjects with “maximum realism.” Like their contemporaries, the Pre-Raphaelites focused on the fallen woman. However, they sought to restore her innocence through shifting the blame of her fall. Instead of putting the fault of the fall onto the woman, they chose to place the blame on men.
J.E Millais, a founder of the movement, in his seminal 1851 work The Woodman’s Daughter, embodies the Pre-Raphaelite goal to shift the blame of the fall of the fallen woman. Webb writes that the painting, inspired by a Coventry Patmore poem of the same name places the blame on the young boy, a “rich Squire’s son.” She argues that the simple scene and return to the simplicity of childhood enable Millais to “firmly [establish] the girl’s naïvety while placing the blame on her male seducer”and “[restore] the tainted woman back to her original innocence to erase any hint of adult female lust.” Webb looked at two symbols of the painting in order to come to her conclusion: the fruit and the color red. The fruit is reminiscent of the apple from the Garden of Eden — temptation itself. However, “Millais manipulates this stereotype to position the young boy in the role of tempter. His offering of fruit lures the girl away from her father.” The squire’s son assumes the role of Eve, the tempter. The color red also serves to symbolize “the passion that will engulf the adult boy” and the fruit the boy proffers to the young girl is also red, which might symbolize the influence the young boy is exacting on the girl. Perhaps the placement of blame on the boy instead of the girl served to offend yet interest men. Furthermore, the painting answers the question of fascination by arguing that this interest in the “fallen woman” stems from male sexual desire — after all, it is the boy who offers temptation in the form of the fruit and it is the boy who approaches the daughter at first even when he knows that they could never be together due to the differences in their social statuses.
Another reason prostitution was so enticing was its controversial nature. This reason for interest was especially apparent in the public fascination with Jack the Ripper and his victims. Even today, the public is fascinated by scandal — it is the reason why gossip columns and tabloids exist. It was no different in the Victorian Era, especially when the entire topic of prostitution was too controversial to broach in most conversations because of the constant, intense emphasis on propriety. Julia Laite, in an article for The Guardian that discusses the ongoing investigation into the murders, argues that both Victorian and modern audiences were and are not fascinated with the mystery of the identity of the murderer, but with who the victims were and the ways in which he killed them. She reasons that “Part of the obsession must stem from the gruesome and sexualised nature of the killings: the Whitechapel murderer eviscerated his victims… The fact that several of his victims sold sex adds to the fascination. They were the fallen women, unfortunates who wandered London’s gaslit streets, who feature, caricatured and stereotyped, in so many historical and fictional accounts.” Murder and the archetype of the fallen woman were not new. However, the victims’ highly controversial backgrounds and the brutality of the murders were the reasons why they attracted the attention that turned into obsession. And while the Victorian public did not condone murder, the idea that the tropes of fallen women in literature paralleled real life experiences only served to intensify that interest.
Victorians were also obsessed with prostitution because it was part of a larger movement of working women which stood to destabilize the social order. The Victorian Era was a time of rapid industrialization. While upper class women remained at home as mothers and wives, women in the lower classes had to work to support their families. Sixty to eighty percent of workers in the textile industry were women and factory owners hired them for the knowledge of weaving and their acceptance of poor work conditions. The rise of a working class of women who had gained a semblance of financial independence threatened the idea of the child-bearing, idle, dependent Victorian woman.
Prostitution was another avenue women, forced to work because of their status as second class citizens and poor economic conditions, went down. Like textile and mill work, Victorians also viewed prostitution as a position for the “disgraced.” Unlike factory workers, however, prostitutes had the additional stigma of sex that challenged Victorian ideals. As a result, the upper classes did all they could to demean them, leading to an obsession. Kara Barrett states in Victorian Women and Their Working Roles, “the higher class women continued to punish, prosecute and keep down the other classes of women to make sure their established places of wealth and power were not risked or infiltrated in any way.” This zeal to keep the social order intact created the obsession. Prostitution was the biggest threat to the upper classes’ high social standings and thus required the most attention.
While the Victorian Era has passed, the reasons why prostitution captivated the public are still present in modern media, especially in media targeted towards young women. However, much of this media serves to dismantle the damaging stereotypes and attitudes towards female sexuality instead of perpetuate them. An example of this phenomenon is the 2010 book The DUFF by Kody Keplinger. Keplinger provides the reader with a prostitute-esque character, Vikki. She is known for being sexually active, something that her fellow students, like the Victorian public, are revolted by yet interested in. While others constantly demean and shame her throughout the book, gossip about her sexual exploits appears with the same frequency as the criticism. Vikki too has her downfall after she experiences a pregnancy scare. However, instead of the death or imprisonment that befell the majority of Victorian fallen women, Vikki gets redemption in the form of a conversation with Bianca, the protagonist. In that conversation, Bianca sees past the idea of the tragic fallen woman. Even though Bianca disagrees with Vikki’s actions, she still gives Vikki sexual authority over her own body, saying that the consequences she faces are a result of “her choices.” Furthermore, through their conversation, Keplinger undoes the stigma that surrounds the fallen woman by giving her more depth.
Keplinger fully dismantles Victorian-esque attempts to repress women by shaming them for their sexual choices by having Bianca start with the Victorian, victim-blaming frame of mind. She asks herself if Vikki “had been setting herself up for that kind of thing for a while…forgetting about the consequences” before realizing that she herself has done the same thing and that calling “Vikki a slut or a whore… was insulting and hurtful, and [they were] titles that just fed off of an inner fear every girl must have from time to time…the people who call you names are just trying to make themselves feel better.” Bianca realizes the falsity of those labels and how people use them to degrade women. She resolves to not do what the Victorian public did, which was to demean other women to inflate one’s own self esteem or maintain societal expectations.
The fascination with emerging scientific theories, male eroticism, controversial subject matter, and the preoccupation with the stability of the social order created the Victorian fascination with prostitution. Darwin and Lamarck's’ ideas of inheritance and degeneracy captivated a scientifically inclined audience and brought prostitution to the forefront of healthcare reform movements. Others believed that the obsession stemmed from male sexual attraction and their struggle against adversity brought new conversations surrounding prostitution and the archetype of the fallen women to the public. The excitement of the controversy, the scandalousness of prostitution, and its links to crime enticed some audiences while others became obsessed because of their mission to sustain their power that came from the social order of the time. The stereotypes of the Victorian Era, the idea of the “fallen woman”, still persist because the same obsessions with science, sex, scandal, and society have not fallen away. However, overtime they have transformed and become more self-aware. Looking at the reasons why prostitution and the stereotype of the fallen women were so pervasive in Victorian society not only constructs a better picture of the Victorian public, but also enables us to analyze social issues within our own society and see what factors influence their popularity.
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