Victorian Prostitutes: Not All Of Them Were Seduced-And-Abandoned
I promised a forthcoming post about Victorian prostitutes who didn’t fit the contemporary stereotype of the “fallen woman,” and here it is. I stumbled on some fascinating articles while trying to find the full text of a letter from a prostitute to the Times in 1858, and found it here at The Naked Anthropologist. They’ve helpfully bolded and highlighted the vital parts of the text, which is itself a response to a previous letter in which the author detailed her proper upbringing and her fall from grace when she was forced into the sex trade. By contrast, this letter-writer tells of her working-class childhood, her start as a prostitute at the age of 15, and her happiness overall at being able to make an independent living and support herself through her own work. She calls out the hypocrisy of reformers in what remains, 150 years later, an epic smackdown for the ages:
You railers of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, you the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug and keep between yourselves and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over, or fill it up, and by some humane and generous process absorb us into your leavened mass, until we become interpenetrated with goodness like yourselves? What have we to be ashamed of, we who do not know what shame is—the shame you mean?
I conduct myself prudently, and defy you and your policemen too. Why stand you there mouthing with sleek face about morality? What is morality? Will you make us responsible for what we never knew? Teach us what is right and tutor us in what is good before you punish us for doing wrong. We who are the real prostitutes of the true natural growth of society, and no impostors, will not be judged by ‘One more unfortunate’, nor measured by any standard of her setting up.
I really can’t recommend reading the full letter enough, because it so far predates the modern movement for sex workers’ rights, but it hits so many of the movement’s high points. The twisted, holier-than-thou morality of reformers still plagues so many philanthropic pushes today that this should be required reading for anybody who wants to go into charity work in which they will be helping someone less privileged than him/herself. File this one away under “secret weapon any time someone calls the Victorian era backwards.”
It turns out that the letter caused a stir all the way up the social ladder; Charles Dickens (who was known for his reform efforts with prostitutes) was called upon by Angela Burdett-Coutts, a middle class woman who ran a home for reforming fallen women, to find out the letter writer’s identity and help her. Apparently Dickens didn’t read too far into her letter, or he would have known that she really didn’t care to be rescued. He wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, and when he finished reading the letter, hastily dashed off a second one, retracting his inquiry after the author’s identity:
It seems that when Miss Coutts spoke to me about the letter, it had just attracted her notice and she had not read it through. It further appears that she is immensely staggered and disconcerted by the latter part of it, and is even troubled by its being seen by the people in her household. Therefore I think the writer had best remain unknown to her.
via The Telegraph
The Naked Anthropologist (obviously my new favorite blog) discusses this incident, as well as the use of the “fallen woman” imagery in reform campaigns of the time here. The women were often shown physically on the ground, twisting and gazing upward, desperate for help. And obviously, one prostitute’s story does not diminish or negate another’s; women were forced into prostitution, or maliciously seduced by men and then coerced into brothels once they realized their “honor” had been damaged. But on the whole, when a narrative feels too ubiquitous, it probably is. Look for the dissenters and the exceptions to the rule; they are always more difficult to hear above the din of the majority, but they are telling their stories to the world through one channel or another. Especially for those looking to do philanthropic work of any kind, look for people who don’t want your help and ask why. Benevolence that does not accept a refusal of help is no benevolence at all.
Above, Odalisque by Hippolyte Arnoux, 1880
(Arnoux was a French photographer who took pictures of European women posed in Orientalist settings and costumes)