seems that since the dawn of mankind, women have had work as prostitutes,
thus the common phrase allowing it to be termed as ‘the oldest profession
in the world.’ Therefore it is only right to define the term as from
its root form: the etymology of the word is derived from the Latin verbs
pro meaning “public” and satuere meaning “to set or place; offer for sale”
which leads to the combination of the two to form prostituere (Berheimer
1; Seymour-Smith x). It also seems that from the dawn of mankind,
from the earliest recorded Greek hetairai, to the time period dealt with
in this paper, mid-nineteenth century Victorian, these prostitutes were
thought to be a great social evil. The hetairai, meaning “companion,"
were in essence upper-class courtesans. Despite their being “the
aristocrats of the profession,” they were still looked down on by their
society. Contemporary philosophers like Socrates idealized the “homosexual
relationship between men” with some support, if “not quite consistent on
the matter,” from Plato (Seymour-Smith 17-18). Herein lies the great
hypocrisy of prostitution, as taken from W.E.H. Lecky in 1869: “Herself
the supreme type of vice, she is ultimately the most efficient guardian
of virtue” (283). The hypocrisy is that the society which despised
this line of work was actually set up to support it! Thus the discourse
of this paper: one, the historical motives of why women turned to the streets,
and two, a socio-economic analysis as to not only why this allowed, but
regulated, so that is whole process may continue.
Women turned to this occupation for many reasons, but it can basically be reduced to one key factor: money it seems is the ultimate culprit. Women became prostitutes due to the general poverty of the working class, unemployment, and the low wages of women. In mid-nineteenth century, against the background of the Industrial Revolution and with the boom of the textile industry, an influx of women from rural and suburban settings, moved to the cities in search for better paying work. Granted the wages they earned were far superior than those they had previously earned, but the wage distribution amongst men and women was greatly unequal. A typical male English factory worker in the 1870’s could conceivably bring in a weekly income of 20 shillings. Comparatively, female textile factory workers were reported to have a weekly income on the higher end of the pay scale, of 8 shillings (Toynbee, Part 6, par. 7). With a 12-shilling difference, indeed a women’s wage was quite low!
Because of the ups and downs of that economy, there was a constant threat of unemployment, based on the laws of supply and demand. Josephine Butler, an early feminist who crusaded against the Contagious Diseases Acts, “angrily pointed out the connection between unemployment and prostitution . . . [to her] she saw [prostitution] as a social, not sexual, problem”; “for this is not a question of natural vice nearly so much as one of political and social economy” (McHugh 19, Butler qtd. in McHugh 21). Also commonly accepted was the fault placed on the family origins of the prostitute. It was a simple theory. Any woman from a home life that did not meet the middle-class status quo could conceivably turn to the streets: “to have an ‘ignoble origin’ to be a witness to ‘disorder in the home’ leads to vice . . . following a ‘disorderly life’ [is] a period of ‘debauchery’ [leading] a girl [to] sink into ‘public prostitution’” (Parent-Duchâtelet qtd. in Corbin 6).
As a result of the Industrial Revolution, a new class of the bourgeoisie (white collar workers of the upper-middle and lower-upper economic level) was created, in turn, inspiring the lower classes to emulate them and providing a sense of escape: Women of the working class wanted to 'rise above' their class and be bourgeois. Those working women who were in constant proximity to and contact with this bourgeois class naturally wanted “to imitate their mistresses; as a result, they acquired new needs and harbored new ambitions” (Corbin 206). It was simple for a salesgirl or ladies' maid to want to be waited on and catered to, just as she did for her misteress. To achieve this, however, the only option for such a woman was to marry well. Until then (and such an event rarely happened), what was left to a working-class woman was grueling work. Corbin explains this escapist theory in greater detail, “For many a salesgirl . . . marriage was a dramatic step. It amounted to a return of her real social class; it meant abandoning forever any hope of becoming a lady. Yet becoming a kept woman [in context of the book this meant a move civilized form of prostitution, rather than the street corner or brothel approach] might well seem a way of satisfying a salesgirl’s ambitions; otherwise it would be impossible for these dames à peu près (near-ladies), to dress as they wished, or in other words to appear in public” (207). There is a paradox. The subordinate class wanted to emulate the elite class; however, it was this elite class whose pays system barely sustained the lifestyle the bourgeois had created for them to live in -- a state pverty.
The socio-economic framework for the prostitute is now set up to explain the hypocrisy of the whore. This hypocrisy can be examined in two points of analysis that go hand in hand: the sexual appetite of men, and the Victorian rules imposed on woman. In essence it is a circular argument used to justify a system in and of itself: Victorian society deemed that women should be pure, their bodies sacred. Unfortunately, in Victorian society, sexual intercourse was only to occur within marriage and “strictures that [it] should be moderate, indeed infrequent (nonexistent if possible)” (Corbin 196). However, the “unequal frequency of sexual desire in men and women, [which was] regarded as scientific fact” required a “safety valve.” Prostitutes provided that release but were to be despised because Victorian society deemed that woman should be pure . . . The framework was set up so that poor women should be the ones to facilitate the valve. Cases in which an upper-class woman, or a woman of wealth, willingly chose to enter into prostitution are rare if they exist at all. No, as much as it hated it, Victorian society required prostitution to exist. According to Corbin, “Although a scourge of great antiquity, prostitution is also a necessary evil” (4). According to Parent-Duchâtelet, “Prostitutes are as inevitable, where men live together in large concentrations, as drains and refuse dumps” “they contribute to the maintenance of social order and harmony”; “[without prostitutes] the man who desires [sex] will pervert your daughters and servant girls . . . he will sow discord in the home” (qtd. in Corbin 4). Perhaps the best summation of the Victorian attitude comes from Bernheimer, “prostitution is an inevitable evil, [but] it nevertheless serves a useful function in safeguarding the chastity of bourgeois wives and daughters” (19).
It was by ascribing to this thought of having the chaste and virtuous wife, mother, and daughter that helped keep prostitution a necessity: “the importance attached by this class to the virginity of its young women, delivered intact, complete with dowry, on their wedding day . . . provided prostitutes, despite the work of the vice squad, with a large clientele” (Corbin 199). According to Theodore Zeldin, an early sociologist who did landmark work in a study of the emotional relations of the bourgeoisie, “the cult of the purity of young women of that class made them inaccessible [thus] the romantic idealization of the wife made prostitution even more necessary” (qtd. in Corbin 194). Zeldin also introduces the idea that because of this ‘purity cult’ “pleasure in sexual intercourse could not in such circumstances be sought with [wives], who were dedicated to motherhood” (qtd. in Corbin 194). Such an analysis was supported by Noami Schor, a French writer, who observed that “through the behavior of Hélène Grandjean and her daughter, rightly concludes that the idea of a mother enjoying sexual pleasure was the supreme scandal, or rather unthinkable” (qtd. in Corbin 194). Sex, after all, was something dirty and crude. Therefore it could only be enjoyed by men who, in their superiority as men, could rise above this base act whereas women, ever frail and pure, could not.
Sexually speaking, the gratification a husband sought was not possible within marriage, therefore validating again the need for the prostitute. As Zeldin notes, “the conditions of monogamous marriage did not allow the husband to have regular sexual intercourse with his wife. It was, of course, quite common for women to not fulfill their marital duties. Finally, it goes without saying that for all husbands anxious that their wives avoid an unwanted pregnancy, the prostitute was a partner with whom it was not necessary to practice coitus interruptus” (qtd. in Corbin 196).
From an the economic viewpoint, prostitution once again provided an answer since “many did not have enough money to start a home or even to live with a woman; in any case, they did not have enough money to keep a family in a respectable manner. Celibacy and late marriage were for many of them the only possibilities” (Corbin 198). And in reference to the army, McHugh asserts that “living conditions were appalling [the result of which] marriage was restricted by regulation to about six percent of enlisted men. [Thus] this ‘bachelor army’ was accustomed to turn to prostitutes” (18).
The hypocrisy of the institution of the whore fundamentally came down to the fact that despite the conventions placed upon men and women in Victorian society, the ‘oldest profession’ still had a necessary place. Sociologically “the prostitute [was] necessary if the premarital virtue of upper class females was to be preserved” (McHugh 17). Economically, prostitutes “for the most part, came from the lowest economic levels of Victorian society. And we know from current sociological research, that, as a group, women of the lower classes tend to be less inhibited and sexually more responsive” (the Kronhausens’ qtd. in Seymour-Smith 146). The irony of the nineteenth century Victorian attitude is that it was their own repressive attitude towards sex that fostered the very profession they crusaded against. Perhaps one of the morals of prostitution is that as long as there are poor, and as long as there are men who want sex, prostitution will always be present.