The Great Social Evil (or, “Render up your body or die”)

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Flower in street

I’d like extend our class discussion about “fallen women” to certain social contexts that relate to, and frame, that concept. In particular, I’d like to look at a three Victorian documents dealing with prostitution.

February 24th, 1858, the London Times published an anonymous letter entitled, “The Great Social Evil.” The author claims she became a prostitute to escape the squalor of urban poverty. She describes occasions growing up when “some young lady who had quitted the paternal restraints…would reappear among us with a profusion of ribands, fine clothes, and lots of cash…then she would disappear and leave us in our dirt, penury and obscurity.” The author writes, “You cannot conceive, Sir, how our young ambition was stirred by these visitations.” She then explains how the conditions of poverty lead to an early education about sex. By age 13, “such things had been matters of common sight and common talk.” According to her, there was no shame connected to sex among the poorer classes—in fact, it is one of their few “rightful enjoyments.” Her “strong curiosity and a natural desire” led to sexual relations, and she put her “newly-acquired knowledge to profitable use,” following one of the visiting girls off to the “great world”. She was 15. She notes that her case is representative of prostitutes in general, saying  that, “nearly all of the prostitutes in London spring from my class, and all are made by and under pretty much such conditions of life as I have narrated.”

The second half of the letter shifts gears, calling out the upper class and rejecting their moral judgments:

“Why stand on your eminence shouting that we should be ashamed of ourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who do not know what shame is—the shame you mean? Will you make us responsible for what we never knew? Teach us what is right and tutor us in good before you punish us for doing wrong.”

The author makes it clear that the poor are abandoned by society until society needs someone to blame (there are compelling parallels here with how we treat illegal immigrants today). The pious and respectable of society create and maintain desperate economic situations that lead to prostitution. Then, they denounce prostitutes as ruinous to the moral foundations of society. Not the men visiting prostitutes, but the females and their “dirty” bodies. This leads to attempts by those in power to punish prostitutes, which, as our author writes, “is only to add the cruelty of active persecution to the cruelty of the passive indifference which has made us as we are.”

Next, I’d like to look at the Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866 and 1869. At the time, British soldiers weren’t allowed to marry. The patronage of prostitutes increased in response, which led to widespread venereal disease. By a kind of infernal logic, the courts decided this could be fixed by subjecting women to mandatory physical inspections. Any woman “suspected” of having a venereal disease could be detained and inspected. Basically, the female body was treated as the source of disease. This led to terrible practices. 1867, the Ladies National Association led by Josephine Butler began to work against the Contagions Diseases Acts. She had been subjected to these examinations, and wrote:

“It is awful work; the attitude they push us into first is so disgusting and so painful, and then these monstrous instruments – often they use several. They seem to tear the passage open first with their hands, and examine us, and then they thrust in instruments, and they pull them out and push them in, and they turn and twist them about; and if you cry out they stifle you.”

On the other hand, soldiers, sailors, and other men were not subject to inspections because that was deemed “demoralizing.” And of course this led to more women being infected—by men. Butler’s work led to the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Act, but unfortunately not until 1886.

Another piece of legislation, The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 provides interesting insights into the Victorian mind. The Act raised the age of consent from 13 to 16, and made criminal things like drugging women for sex, or abducting them for enforced prostitution in foreign lands. The verb “to defile” is used in almost every article. For example, Article 5 addresses “defilement of girl between 13 and 16 years of age.” Without exception, the times (and there are many times) the verb is used to designate the female as “defiled.” Something happens to her, to her being. To me, this represents an unquestioned assumption in the Victorian mind: rape (or any unmarried sex) makes women’s bodies dirty—somehow she becomes ruined, soiled, debased, &c. The Victorian moral imagination seemed unable to consider the way that a man defiles himself through these acts, how he debases himself. Instead of focusing on emotional and psychological damage of sexual violence, the language of the Victorians suggests that there is an essential change to the woman. The man, after serving his “two years imprisonment, with, or without, hard labor” carries on, his essence apparently unchanged.

“The Lady of Shalott,” “Goblin Market,” “Jenny” and “The Defense of Guinevere” were written in this atmosphere. All relate in some way to the question (the fact) of female sexuality. There are many parallels between Guinevere and the anonymous author of “The Great Social Evil.” Both are remarkable in their sincerity, both return judgment to those judging them, and both are powerful rhetors. At one point Anonymous writes, “Setting aside ‘the sin,’ we are not so bad as we are thought to be.” What might change if people set aside the sin? Gauwaine, I imagine, wouldn’t put Guinevere on the pyre. But a society-wide obsession with women’s purity and fallen-ness can only subject them “to the pressure of force,” as Anonymous writes, “of force wielded, for the most part, by ignorant, and often by brutal men.”

Works Cited:
Christ, Carol T., Catherine Robson, Stephen Greenblatt, and M. H. Abrams. “The Great Social Evil.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 2006. 1592-596. Print.
“The Contagious Diseases Act.” The Contagious Diseases Act. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
“The Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1885: With Introduction, Notes, and Index … : Great Britain , Frederick Mead , Archibald Henry Bodkin : Free Download & Streaming : Internet Archive.” Internet Archive. Oxford University, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
Landow, George P., PhD. “Early and Mid-Victorian Attitudes towards Prostitution.” Early and Mid-Victorian Attitudes towards Prostitution. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.
“Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866 and 1869).” HerStoria Prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864 1866 and 1869 Comments. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2014.