Term Paper: Nineteenth Century Prostitution Within the Grand Catalogue

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Nineteenth Century Prostitution

Within the grand catalogue of criminal offences, the asking for a reward by a young woman in return for a sexual service must surely rate as a trivial misdemeanor. Yet across the centuries and within many cultures, the female prostitute has been a focus of anxiety for those who wish to regulate society

The social ramifications and cultural factors surrounding prostitution in the nineteenth century were as varied as they were at times fanciful. Prostitution was tied to certain mental as well as physical abnormalities, yet the blame for their situation usually fell on the women themselves. As if they had some propensity that was either inherent or acquired that led them to the life of a streetwalker. In fact the Victorian society that surrounded them seemed to blame all their fears and repressive frustration on the prostitute of the nineteenth century. There was often little in the way of fact to support many of that society's conclusions regarding prostitution, often it was easier to imagine the truth than find it. In this study we will explore the realities of prostitution and compare it to the Victorian ideas of the lifestyle and how they went about "curing" it, to no real effect.

The demographic of the prostitute in nineteenth century England as that she was usually ay young, single women, somewhere between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two. Some had to support illegitimate children, which often separated them from their home communities and often left prostitution their only viable economic option to support themselves. Most prostitutes were usually the product of poor families and many were often orphans, having at least one deceased parent.

Some of the lure then as it is now is that it would offer a disconnected woman the possibility of economic independence that she would otherwise have access to. Even middle-class women were not independent of their husband's and/or family's wealth and were always supported.

Generally women in the nineteenth century who were of the poorer class were lucky if they were able to find a fourteen hour a day, seven day a week workhouse job for extremely low wages. This left them old before their time and after three or four years, if they survived, they became crippled or ill from the horrible conditions of the job itself. They usually lived in a communal environment with often fifteen other workers and diseases spread like wildfire. The life of a prostitute, while certainly fraught with other perils, was at least repaid by often living in some in economic comfort, having shorter workdays, the ability to have one's own room or apartment as well as not having to worry about a trip to the pub now and then.

The presence of unaccompanied young women on the streets was acutely unsettling for middle-class Victorian society, with its carefully guarded and chaperoned daughters. When seemingly unruly females collected in numbers, mistrust was amplified.... The increasing numbers of independent working women became a cause of concern and was especially resented when they showed signs of financial freedom and personal autonomy. Independent young women were simultaneously criticised for 'immodesty', 'unwomanly' behaviour, 'vanity' and 'love of finery' as their behaviour suggested that they were not acquiring the necessary skills for their true vocation as wives and mothers.

This was the Victorain mode of ethics in the century of repression and guilt. But it was not always so.

The eighteenth century had a slightly different attitude towards the subject of sexing general and prostitution in particular. That generation in the eighteenth century was a bit more open minded to say the least. There was more a sense of frivolity over prostitution and it was more tolerated by a society geared towards enjoyment of life. This was the eighteenth century and the act of prostitution was really the art of prostitution. "By the middle of the eighteenth century, the unruly privately owned brothel became a feature of urban life that was troublesome to the authorities. Concern mounted over the twin issues of illegitimacy and prostitution." The Nineteenth Century is however a different matter. This is a key change in attitude that became even more magnified as the century wore on. In fact the Victorian were probably even more sexually promiscuous than their society would let on.

There than began to evolve and predisposition to the changing attitude of working women and independence in Victorian England, and prostitution fell very out of fashion. It began as the presence of a myriad of unaccompanied women on the streets was becoming very disconcerting for the upper crust of Victorian society. Women were to be carefully guarded and chaperoned at all times. When females began to gather and conduct themselves with less comportment that society required, mistrust and concern was increased. There was also an increasing number of independent working women in filed other than ladies of the night and they were also becoming a concern when they prospered and showed some signs of financial freedom and personal autonomy. "Independent young women were simultaneously criticized for 'immodesty', 'unwomanly' behaviour, 'vanity' and 'love of finery' as their behaviour suggested that they were not acquiring the necessary skills for their true vocation as wives and mothers." (Self 24-25)

There was also a class difference in the nineteenth century. The prostitute could certainly be tolerated in her own community. The only social exclusion came from the middle-upper class levels of society, at least in public. "They were sometimes naive and hypocritical in suggesting that wife-beating, intemperance, prostitution, infant mortality and deviant sexual patterns were restricted to the lower orders." The poorer or lower classes were always much more tolerant of liberal sexual and social behaviors than the middle and upper classes outwardly were. The differences between Victorian working class and upper class were many and this was certainly true regarding their attitude towards sexual behavior.

The temperance movement was beginning to rear its ugly head and a plethora of what was considered defiance was coming under scrutiny. Prostitution was linked to all the disorder and chaos that was permeating the London streets and was the target for many a movement. In the following interchange a rationalization even occurs in the exchange between a streetwalker and a bobby::

The struggle against alcoholism was spearheaded by the London City Mission, 25 and later the Salvation Army, both of which believed that intemperance and prostitution were indissolubly linked. One report contains this exchange between a young streetwalker and an officer: Drink? I should think so! Do you imagine we could live this life without drink?... The drink drowns all feelings of sorrow and shame, deadens the conscience, and hundreds could not lead the life they do if it were not for the excitement of alcohol.

It is interesting to note at this time that female prostitutes, and not the men who used their services, were the objects of disdain by society. The established wing of the Church of England in particular considered prostitution to be a female problem which undermined the principles of female sexual propriety. Women were held to be either virgins or wives and mothers, not free and independent sexual beings. Illicit sex, one can assume, was considered to be a natural biological urge for men but not for women. Prostitutes were often perceived as sexual contaminators who threatened the institution of marriage, the sanctity of the family and ultimately the sexual and moral order of the time. They were considered to be ruinous to civilization.

However, moods were changing and views as well:

It [prostitution] has been seen as a 'symbol of the dislocation engendered by the new industrial age'. This reading tends to minimize the individual responsibility of the prostitutes and emphasize instead the role of those privileged by the new economic order: men, the seducers and exploiters of this sexual system.

However, although he Victorian area was renowned for their strict moral codes and the upper classes who looked down on any instance that deviated from the social norm; most of society was against prostitution. This eventually led to a raising of consciousness and the forthcoming creation of new organizations and strong women leaders to run them. There are many that are still looked up to today. Nineteenth century feminists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Martineau and Margaret Sanger were inspired by this change in status and the early feminists started looking at prostitution not viewed solely from the predominantly male societal perspective but viewed women as the trodden victims of an all-male society. These New Victorian feminists viewed prostitution not as the horrible succubus / vampires that many religions and moralists portrayed them to be but instead as victims of those men's repressed desires to keep women oppressed.

Many of these new Feminist were questioning the very nature of marriage in the Victorian era. Elizabeth Wolstenholme-Elmy, who with Richard and Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women's Franchise League, argued that marriage was in reality a form of legalized prostitution. But many of the other he "Ladies'… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Nineteenth Century Prostitution Within the Grand Catalogue.  (2008, April 20).  Retrieved December 6, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/nineteenth-century-prostitution-within/3027571

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