According to Jad Adams,

The number of prostitutes in Victorian London confounded and astonished foreigners. Flora Tristan, a French woman writing in 1840, recounted a summer visit to Waterloo Road where. "in every window and doorway women were laughing and joking with their protectors. Half dressed, some of them naked to the waist, they were a revolting sight. . . . In Prostitution and the Victorians, Trevor Fisher examines the extraordinarily high level of tolerance which early and middle Victorian society had for prostitutes, from the Pretty Horse-breakers riding in Hyde Park for the benefit of the gentry, to the street whores working in alleyways. . . For most of the nineteenth century, the prevailing establishment view was of prostitution as a necessary evil; many argued that no government restrictions should be placed on the way in which a person wished to sell their [sic] labour. . . . A vociferous puritan minority led an ultimately victorious assault on these laissez faire attitudes, basing a large part of their campaign on the claim that prostitutes were not willingly selling their services, but were enslaved.

The proposed Brothels Suppression Bill of 1840 attempted to tackle what Adams terms "this perhaps illusory menace," but it failed to pass as did the 1848 Bill for the Protection of Females. Some opposed state regulation of prostitution on grounds of economic theory; others on the belief that the state had no business regulating moral education within families. Worried about the effect of supposedly widespread venereal diseases upon British society, particularly the military, Parliament finally passed the infamous Contagious Diseases Acts of 1864, 1866, and 1869, which officially allowed prostitution in almost a dozen military towns but "arranged for the forcible examination of prostitutes for disease, which inevitably meant that all women walking the streets were suspected, whether or not they were engaged in prostitution" (Adams). These laws, as the author of the Victorian Web essay on this legislation points out, "provide a fine political example of the law of unintended circumstances: legislation intended to protect members of the British armed forces from sexually transmitted diseases ended up galvanizing a major Victorian feminist movement in which working- and middle-class women worked together for a common cause." Not until 1885 did Parliament pass the Criminal Law Amendment Act, forbidding brothels, pimping, and . . . homosexuality.

What does this history of failed attempts to pass laws against prostitution tell us about supposedly widespread prudish Victorian attitudes towards sexuality? about Victorian reluctance to regulate via law private behavior?

Early in the century Evangelical opposition to the existence of sex workers concentrated on the harm prostitution did to women; later attempts to regulate it instead emphasized the harm done to society, particularly to men and the military. Why did the law forbidding brothels and procuring also forbid homosexuality? Does the sudden appearance of homosexuality in law represent

What evidence would one need to prove or disprove any of these positions?


Adams, Jad. "Take her up tenderly." Times Literary Supplement. (8 August 1997).

Fisher, Trevor. Prostitution and the Victorians. Far Thrupp: Sutton, 1997 [?].

"The voices of prostitutes are largely missing from Prostitution and the Victorians, apart from those of "One More Unfortunate" and "Another Unfortunate" who wrote lengthy letters to The Times. It is part of Fisher's general lack of analysis that he does not comment that these letters, particularly the one from the bricklayer's daughter which such shows such a high level of vocabulary, were probably confidence tricks by supporters of one or another faction in the debate."

Last modified 5 June 2006