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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Prostitution: Then and Now

When thinking about trades that have been around for centuries prostitution is not one that normally comes to mind yet it is claimed to be one of the oldest of professions. People have very different views on the subject of prostitution. Since Mesopotamian times, attitudes surrounding prostitution have evolved and changed many times from a celebrated necessity to a cultural evil. The United States Victorian era (1840-1900) experienced the same evolution of thoughts as their prostitutes experienced empathy in the beginning of the century then utter rejection towards the end. The twentieth century on through to the twenty-first has kept the ideals of the latter Victorians. American society’s outlook towards prostitution has not changed in over a century and a half because the societal views and the debate over a solution remain the same.

The Bigger Picture

It is important to note what came out of the movement to abolish prostitution in the 1800s.The Victorian area was known for their strict moral people who looked down on anything or anyone that deviated from the social norm; most of society was against prostitution. A new outlook surfaced among women towards their own position in life, which lead to new organizations and strong women leaders that are still looked up to today. Nineteenth century feminists including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Martineau and Margaret Sanger were inspired by the movement by early feminists to start looking at prostitution not viewed in the male terms but see women as victims of male society. Victorian feminists saw women in prostitution not as the horrible man-sucking vampires some Christians portrayed them to be but as victims of men’s desire to keep women oppressed. These new views lead to a growing change in the status and aggressiveness of women in the nineteenth century.

Why Victorian Women Became Prostitutes

Research on prostitution was developing during the nineteenth century, and Dr. William Sanger was one of the foremost researchers on prostitution during this period; his work is still highly esteemed due to its accuracy and depth. Sanger examined the identity of the average prostitute and sought to understand why she had turned to that lifestyle. He found that the majority of prostitutes were in their late teens or early twenties; they were usually illiterate, poor and from broken families (Bullough 243). Economic poverty, societal disgrace, and lack of education were also causes of girls turning towards prostitution; they had a limited number of options available to them. Sanger asked several prostitutes why they had turned to this way of life and they gave a number of different reasons. For instance, some women had either been expelled from their homes or deserted by their parents and found prostitution the only way to support themselves. Other girls were forced into prostitution in order for their families to survive. Similarly, girls who had worked in domestics or servants were forced into prostitution because they had been seduced by their masters and then abandoned. On the other hand, a number of women would turn to prostitution simply as an escape from typical professions. Many of the girls expected to remain prostitutes only until something better became available. Immigrant women who had arrived to the country without money or were brought into the country forcibly had only prostitution open to them (Bullough 243). The conditions for women in the Victorian period caused many young teenagers and women to turn towards prostitution as a means of survival.

How Industrialization Affected Prostitution in the Nineteenth Century

Prostitution evolved into a highly visible, industrialized business “with economic development, industrialization, and urbanization in [the] mid-nineteenth century United States.” (Barry 96) The industrialization increased the market demand for prostitution because of an increased standard of living that came with the new prosperity of the business classes. Women were commercialized as “sexed bodies for hire” and “business stood to profit from the rental of their properties for prostitution, and ‘illicit sex’ increasingly became an attractive form of capital investment.” (Barry 97) With women facing these dire times, they were hard-pressed to the bottom of the work force. The labor market saw a decrease of women from domestic labor or work as servants, seamstresses, or chambermaids and into prostitution because of the developing sex industry. This did not hurt the aristocracy because of the increase of male immigrants for labor (Barry 97).


Societal Views of the Victorians

Societal views of the Victorians evolved from compassion to unbearable hatred towards prostitutes. At the turn of the nineteenth century there was a movement that took pity on prostitutes and wanted to save them through religion. There were several organizations including the New York Female Reform Society (Pivar 26) that offered help to them but only offered shelter to prostitutes if they wanted to repent and turn to religion (Bullough 245). However, prostitution was complicated issue because society did not find it acceptable to talk about but they knew it was a problem (Berkin 140). It was not just a case of sinful or sick women but society’s double standard and the male view of the functions and duties of the female. Gradually reformers began to get aggravated by the growing number of prostitutes and wanted the industry stopped. Many girls were not just on the street but could be found in houses that were run by former prostitutes. As prostitution grew into a rapidly increasing industry, society could not ignore these women but could not stop the men from paying for their services. “The public accepted bawdy houses and guides to the best whore houses that were available.” (Pivar 31) A book known as the “gentlemen’s guide” became available after the Civil War. Used by the merchant aristocracy and the upper 10th, who did not care about traditional morality, this guide included the “better houses, giving addresses, benefits to be gained from particular establishments and the names of favorite prostitutes.” (Pivar 31)

Victorian Solutions to Prostitution

Several factors were involved in finding a solution to the rising popularity of prostitution but all solutions tended to raise just as many problems. There were two groups that dominated the solution to prostitution: the abolitionists and the regulationists. The abolitionists who consisted of reformers and Christians wanted to completely wipe out prostitution and educate children to steer clear of it. The abolitionists looked to moral traditions and social concern, believing that prostitution was the ultimate social evil (Pivar 33). When these Christians did offer to help, it was through repentance. If the prostitutes wanted to repent and turn towards God then they were offered hospitality, if not they were cursed at and left alone. Draw backs to the answer of banning prostitution concern the cost of living; the prostitutes were in the business because they needed money to survive. The solution favored by abolitionists offered the prostitutes no other alternative means of living (Bullough 245). The other alternative resolution was to legalize prostitution. The police and physicians who supported regulation or legalization of prostitution were not moved by religious enthusiasm towards moral purity but more concerned with realistic matters of controlling venereal diseases, sanitation, and crime (Pivar 33). Although the military and medical community wanted to regulate prostitution supposedly because of the diseases, they did not deal with them very effectively. Police abuse was already an issue and to regulate prostitution would only give them more power (Bullough 245).

Why Women of the Twenty-first Century Become Prostitutes

In the twenty-first century (1980-2001), women are prostitutes for many different reasons and these roots of prostitution are similar to the reasons women became prostitutes in the Victorian age. Some women move into prostitution due to economic needs like poverty, emotional neediness and susceptibility to pressure from friends; few women listed only one main reason for entering into the profession (Scambler 7). Some prostitutes’ explanation for becoming involved in prostitution include “having a history of sexual abuse, having grown up without love from the significant adults in their lives, being enticed by a male of female friend or by peer pressure from a group of friends, and needing money. Those who used drugs prior to their involvement in prostitution activities mention their addiction as a major reason for trading sex for money or drugs.” (Sterk 35) <>

How Present Day Society Perceives Prostitution

American societal views on prostitution have not changed in the twenty-first century since the 1800s. Prostitution is still seen by contemporary society as a crime against morality (Scambler 7). Many people today still have an extremely negative connotation when the words ‘hooker’, ‘prostitute’, and ‘whore’ are applied to women who sell sex for money. Stereotypically, these women are seen as trash; these are individuals who have sexually transmitted diseases and people with no morals or respect for their bodies. Currently women working as prostitutes are perceived as bad girls, disregarding norms of acceptable behavior, suffering the ‘whore’ label, and “increasingly criminalized by the state, policing practices, and the lack of effective action taken by the state to address male violence against women.” (Scambler 3) Although these perceptions are held by many educated, scientific and government minds, the public has conflicting views about prostitutes because of the importance the media plays into everyday life. The prostitute has been portrayed to society in many alternative forms: “as a symbol of cultural and moral decline, an innocent victim of male lust, a public health nuisance and even a cinematic heroine.” (Stolba 2000) There are numerous opinions and attitudes about prostitutes and the industry remains in business because society has allowed the institution.


The Debate Continues Today

To legalize or not to legalize continues to be the question at hand in the modern era. Abolitionists and regulationists are still debating which solution is better for the government, society and the women of the business. Abolitionists leading the reforms today are still social and religious conservatives. Their main points for prostitution to remain illegal include that prostitution undermines the social institution of marriage and exploits women as well as poisoning the country’s moral climate (Stobla 2000). They argue that “prostitutes are desperate women whose judgment is clouded by the unjust economic deprivation in which they find themselves… The choice of prostitution is not an authentic one.” (Stolba 2000) Prostitution is firmly implanted in American culture and instead of trying to eradicate it, all reformers can do now is try and keep prostitution illegal. The most vocal advocates of prostitution legalization are sex workers themselves. < 1998). Business” Sex (“The before as women abused and pimps bad many just be still might there industry, overall the in increase large a led legislation If this. prevent enforcement should prostitution, of kind illegal for pay want people inevitability sells Illegality violence. extreme or children involve that acts like always prostitution aspects some example, legalizing with consider factors other several are There industries. legal workers than exploitation exposed more prostitutes regulation, Without 1998) employers.” their by protected readily could important most self-policing, what business making therefore not, did who those on tales tell incentive an have would standards high maintained entrepreneurs undermined, law escapes activity accrue profits huge “the : regulation advantages 2000) (Stolba regulation. come education health because AIDS such diseases spread help claiming legalization support continue Physicians crime.” victimless is insist “They legal. became if corrected work sex about misconceptions negative improve conditions working believe They>

Final Thoughts

“For generations if not centuries, the causes and consequences of prostitution have rested on women. However, as there would be no prostitution without market demand, there would be no industrialization of sex without commodity consumption.” (Barry 162) In the Victorian period, women were blamed for prostitution because it was not the men’s fault they were being seduced by the evil temptresses but the women were to blame. Victorians’ ideals of social purity and morality contrasted with "dire economic poverty for working class and underclass women involved in a prolific sex-for-sale market." (Scambler 3) In the twenty-first century, prostitution and other sex work is one of the most thriving industries internationally. Although still viewed morally wrong, women who sell sex are still allowed to continue their trade. The fact is sex work is an exceptionally lucrative market and prostitution will only continue to grow internationally. Why has prostitution been allowed to continue? The answer is simple: men.


Barry, Kathleen. The Prostitution of Sexuality. New York: New York University Press, 1995.

Berkin, Carol Ruth and Mary Beth Norton. Women of America A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979.

Bullough, Vern and Bonnie Bullough. Women and Prostitution, A Social History. New York: Prometheus Books, 1987.

Pivar, David J. Purity Crusade Sexual Morality and Social Control, 1868-1900. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Inc., 1973.

Scambler, Graham and Annette Scambler. Rethinking Prostitution, Purchasing Sex in the 1990s. London: Routledge, 1997.

Sterk, Claire E. Tricking And Tripping, Prostitution In The Era Of AIDS. New York: Social Change Press, 2000.

Stolba, Christine. “The Newest Dilemma About the Oldest Profession.” Women’s Quarterly. Autumn 2000, Vol 26.

“The Sex Business”. Economist. February 14, 1998. Vol 346, Issue 8055.