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Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the 'Great Social Evil'

Prostitution and the Nineteenth Century: In Search of the ‘Great Social Evil’

By Fraser Joyce

Reinvention: A Journal of Undergraduate Research, Vol.1:1 (2008)

Abstract: During the nineteenth century prostitution became labeled as “The Great Social Evil” by contemporaries. This article attempts to unravel some of the complexities in the circumstances surrounding this labeling by Victorians through the investigation of some of the problems and controversies which prostitution raised in society. In studying the trade in terms of its social, medical and moral implications on Victorian life though contemporary writings, it can be demonstrated that the prostitute’s failure to meet middle-class social and gender ideals, the threat she posed to the nation’s health, and the moral implications of sin and vice meant that the prostitute had the potential to make an impact on every level of society, and thus attracted much public and state interest towards herself and her trade.

Introduction: ‘Under the name of the Great Social Evil our newspapers for years have alluded to an awful vice, too evidently of wide prevalence,’ wrote Francis Newman in 1869. The concept of the Great Social Evil envisaged a sin of daunting proportions spreading throughout the social order leaving chaos in its wake; in the nineteenth century no greater social problem was perceived by society than that of prostitution. This article will explore why Victorian Britain was preoccupied with the prostitute and her trade, and why this above all other vices was branded ‘the Great Social Evil’ of the nineteenth century. This study of the social, medical and moral structures of Victorian life will demonstrate that the prostitute’s place in the community in terms of social class and gender, her role in the spread and reduction of venereal disease, and the threat she posed to the nation’s moral wellbeing, meant she was the centre of attention for a broad spectrum of Victorian society.

There is a wealth of both primary and historiographical material available to the historian on this topic: contemporary pamphlet literature in general is particularly abundant, as are the works of religious figures, social anthropologists, and medical men; secondary literature abounds with texts on crime, popular politics, empire, gender and sexuality. However, primary material on this subject can be misleading and on occasion unreliable. Nineteenth-century writers were characteristically melodramatic and encapsulated the concept of a perpetual battle between good and evil, order and anarchy. Thus it is common to find in practical writings that the author’s personal morals are clearly visible, though their impact on the overall text is often harder to judge. This serves to reinforce the argument that for Victorians, the moral aspects of life were inherently bound with the physical.

Click here to read this article from the University of Warwick

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