Prostitution became a major concern and a focal point for social reformers in the 19th century. Concerns were seen everywhere including the literature of people like Charles Dickens. He created characters (some of which may have had real life versions) like Nancy in Oliver Twist, and Martha Endell in David Copperfield.
No one knows for certain, but there were somewhere between 8,000 and 80,000 prostitutes in London during the Victorian Age. It is generally accepted that most of these women found themselves in prostitution due to economic necessity.
There were three attitudes towards prostitution – condemnation, regulation, and reformation. Dickens adopted the last and was intimately involved in a house of reform called Urania Cottage. My interest was piqued when I researched Urania Cottage and read some of the stories of the women there. There are tons of articles about why prostitution became such a problem for society, but my interest lay in how a woman became a prostitute. I mean I know “how.” What I was interested in were the steps that led women to that decision.
They Whys and Wherefores of Victorian Prostitution
Population (New World Encyclopedia)
The population of England doubled in the last 50 years of the 19thc. It jumped from 16.8 million in 1851 to 30.5 in 1901.
1851 Census showed 4% more women than men
18 million people – 75,000 women too many – referred to as “superfluous” or “redundant” women
Economy – times were tough
Industrial Revolutioncreated opportunity but population increases meant a surplus of labor – more people fewer jobs – labor prices (wages) went down.
Social constructs said that a young man should not marry until he could afford to support a family. In the 19th C., people who had families couldn’t afford to feed them – No one in his right mind would decide to start one. The result was a larger number of unmarried men and women in urban employment situations. The larger numbers of unattached men and women led to an increase in extramarital sexual contact. Unfortunately, once ruined a young woman was thrown out of her home and out of whatever society she knew.
This increase in population and the growth of London combined with the struggles of the poor placed wealthy idle men in close proximity to the poor – creating an ideal situation for the flourishing of prostitution.
Sexual ideas of the time – Church views on sex for procreation only – helped to create the idea of the angel of the house
The “Angel of the House” was not expected to perform acts that were sexually gratifying for herself or her partner. She was expected to be a sexless ministering angel and to know nothing except what it good. Sex, according to Victorian clergymen, was only for procreation; and therefore, they condemned any type of extramarital or non-procreative sex. A Victorian female’s sexual appetite should have been negligible and unnatural. Women did not have sex for pleasure, but to procreate. Sexual excitement was viewed as dangerous to the heart and nervous system; however, sex within marriage was less dangerous due to its infrequency and familiarity. This “angel of the house” mentality did not really extend to the lower classes; therefore, upper class gentlemen of means often sought out prostitutes for sexual gratification they could not expect from their “angels” at home.
Lower class women needed a way to supplement their incomes; upper class gentlemen had expendable income – simple economics tells us that a barter system is bound to appear. Who Was the Average Victorian Age Prostitute?
She was an average age of 18-22, but many started much earlier at the age of 12 or earlier.
Virgins were much prized for several reasons – not the least of which was hygiene – Venereal disease was rampant and a virgin was thought to be untainted