Eighteenth century prostitution
Thus whilst sources certainly indicate that historians are correct to argue that there were changes in attitudes towards various forms of vice in England during this century, these undoubtedly occurred gradually. Women were encouraged to believe that they were sexually numb and in fact condemnation of men for an inability to control their sexual desires became rife. However, whilst little is known about the Plebian women, court records reveal that women continued to be concerned about their reputation and that claiming somebody was a ‘whore’ and thus associating them with street walking, was an insult.
For example Meldrum illustrates this through a case study of Mary Payne’s prosecution, after attacking Sarah Griffith’s reputation as a ‘common strumpet and street walker’. Mandeville’s A Modest Defence of Public Stews, in 1724, highlights this gradual transformation in attitudes, since whilst maintaining some of the old descriptions about prostitution added that illicit sex was inevitable. This was due to economic vulnerabilities, and Clark rightly suggests that economic insecurity forced them to resort to the ‘economy of makeshifts’ and sexual commerce.
Therefore the attitudes changed towards the idea that people should not be condemned for such activity, but viewed with pity. This was quite popular around 1800. By 1800, society undoubtedly saw prostitution as a result of a woman’s weakness and fragility. These new attitudes held roots in evangelicalism and as Place and Loftland suggest this code became increasingly dominant as the middle class developed in numbers and political power. The assemblage of pamphlets spread the ideals throughout society.
Thus support was given to the idea that women were victims of brutal female and male pimps. Similarly her weaker character in comparison to a man’s allowed her to be easily seduced and then abandoned by her lover. Thus the idea that they were left with no alternative increased middle class pity for the prostitute. This enabled the historian to locate support for the argument that brutal punishment such as whipping was accepted at the beginning of the period, but unthinkable by the end of the century.
For example Hufton’s analysis of an annual blacklist collaborated by a Society for the Reformation of Manners, in the City of London and its Suburbs, illustrates that in 1705, 830 women had been named, prosecuted and convicted to carting, public whipping or imprisonment. However the idea that prostitutes were ‘misfortunate’, did not simply replace the old idea of ‘vicious street walkers’ and different interpretations co-existed. In fact both the middle and upper class continued to condemn prostitutes.
Perhaps the stigma attached to prostitutes, as women unable to contain their lust, never decreased. This may be shown by the rather obscure view of the Magdalen Hospital’s belief that through confinement, meditation and prayer, prostitutes could be cured of their sexual desires. This action was obviously accepted by society, due to the fact that the hospital raised a substantial amount of money from charity. However it is somewhat difficult to fit into Hitchcock’s argument that the chief cause of prostitution was due to the weakness of women, which made them defencelessness to a man’s corruption.
Similarly perhaps the negative stereotypes that had formulated society’s ideals at the beginning of the eighteenth century remained entrenched in society throughout the period. This is because the building and routine, which insisted on silence, as well as a plain uniform, and registration as a number instead of their name, portraying a loss of identity, resembled a prison and its regime. The overall aim was to teach the principle of industry to women and failing reconciliation with friends and family, to place them primarily in domestic service or secondarily trade.
Hitchcock, perhaps wrongly, minimises the threads of continuity in regards to concerns over prostitution, between the middle and upper classes. Whilst the values of restraint, sobriety, and thrift were stricter in the middle class, in an attempt to separate themselves from the aristocrat’s gendered notions of respectability, both the middle and upper strata were intrinsically opposed to outrageous forms of behaviour. This is enhanced by the work of social investigators, for example Fielding, who depicts that by raiding the same brothels in different years, the same girls were not present.
At first this was used to indicate a high death rate among prostitutes, but it was later recognised that this was because the majority of prostitutes moved on, perhaps in search of marriage. Therefore prostitutes were able to become fit members of society and were only feared when they did not conform to the ideal of normal womanhood, contaminating other women and undermining morality. By the nineteenth century toleration decreased and prostitution was viewed as ‘the social evil’ and fears of venereal disease resurfaced.
This concern may have possibly been a reaction to the French Revolution in 1789, which illustrated the working class as a powerful force able to undermine social organisation, and moral stability. This idea gains validity because of the fact that they practiced in large numbers, which created increased alarm, despite the fact that the figures are infrequent and unreliable. For example Colquhoun gave a figure of 50,000 in the 1790s, although this included an estimated 25,000 unmarried women cohabiting with men.
This idea combined with the changes in fashion that were prevalent meant that it was increasingly difficult to distinguish between groups of women frequenting towns. Thus these fears scared conservatives, and thus resulted in a retreat to ‘basic values’, which accentuated the importance of family life. This idea validates Shoemaker’s arguments that fluctuations were apparent correctly suggesting that attitudes towards prostitution were cyclical and waves of intolerance were combined with social acceptance.
Perhaps historians are wrong to argue that attitudes towards prostitutes changed, for example the London Female Penitentiary, an institution, which was inspired by the Magdalen, was met by severe criticism. For example Hale argued that it promoted vice, allowing evil people to go unpunished. Therefore negative attitudes were undoubtedly evident by the fact that Hale publicly announced his opinion. Thus maybe attitudes only appeared to gradually transform in an attempt to try a different method to repress prostitution.
The change in attitudes was perhaps an illusion in order not to benefit the prostitute, but for society. Whilst an interesting idea, Hitchcock portrays that the second half of the nineteenth century is viewed as having a tide of humanitarian opinion and for whatever reason many people’s attitudes did appear to gradually change in the middle of the eighteenth century. However this did not become universal and by the nineteenth century attitudes seem to reverse to some extent.
Therefore perhaps most importantly because prostitution deviated from the ‘cultural norm’, creating fears and concerns in regards to its consequence, responses and attitudes varied over different periods of time. For example in Torey’s trial, where the prostitute was accused of stealing Mrs. Hughes purse, the prosecutor revealed, to the Judges surprise, that she and her husband had agreed to join the prostitute for a drink. However what is of greatest importance is that whilst at the beginning of the century it was not a surprising trade for a woman to be involved in, by the end of the century it was unthinkable.