Prostitution & Victorian Society: Judith Walkowitz
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            Judith Walkowitz does an excellent job of reporting historical facts from England’s Victorian era.  Prostitution and Victorian Society Women, Class and the State is a highly informative novel which includes information from studies done by various feminists of the mid to late 1800’s and looks at the state regulation of prostitution.  Walkowitz mainly focuses on issues of the Contagious Diseases Acts which were implemented to deter the spread of various forms of venereal disease.  The author uses vivid examples of stories taken from street prostitutes, brothel workers, and those who were involved in the controversies surrounding the C.D. acts.  I feel that Walkowitz makes use of Victorian feminist issues in a way that readers today are able to relate to. 

            Other issues related to society are also important to Walkowitz in her writing.  She takes a look at medical related issues and how state control over the body was an important part of the era.  One important issue was the construction of lock hospitals which were funded and ran by the state as an “educational” institution and the way in which they attempted to control venereal disease in prostitutes.  The reader is also made aware of various advocates of the Contagious Diseases Acts and why they thought targeting prostitutes was the best way to contain VD.  We are also informed of the Ladies’ National Association and the role they played in the feminist movement and the various leaders and speakers who ran this political group.  Class and gender issues were also very controversial during this time and Walkowitz considers the importance they played in the repeal and the widening of the CD acts. 

Walkowitz’s book investigates the police, medical authorities, and public officials who formed, created, and implemented the system; the alliance of feminists, radical workingmen and middle-class moral reformers who successfully lobbied the acts until they were repealed; and the prostitutes and their community whose lives were in the hands of the police and faced public scrutiny.

            Basically, there are a few main genres we encounter in Prostitution and Victorian Society.  These include issues of morality, economy, social relations, religion, and politics.  The first is the role of state institutions, such as hospitals and the military.  The second is health related issues, mainly venereal disease.  The third deals with age, religion, and gender.  Which to my dismay, I must leave race out of this category since this is not even considered in the book.  A few other feminist politics such as the containment of bodies and hygiene are also touched upon.


Main Thesis/ Goal


I feel that Walkowitz’s main goal is to present the reader with a thorough historical and unbiased view of state control of prostitution in Victorian England.  She does a wonderful job of covering almost every aspect surrounding the issues brought about by the state regulation of prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts.  Although the information is unbiased and well thought out, I am able to detect a strong hold of a feminist point of view.




Author’s Background


Judith Walkowitz is a feminist studies historian and is a founding history editor of Feminist Studies.  She has served on various committees for the Berkshire Conference as well as being the President for the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians.  She taught at Rutger’s University for 18 years and was director of women’s studies at John’s Hopkins University.  Her main focus is on the history of Great Britain.  She has written many other history books as well.


Organization and Research


I.                    Introduction: The revolt of the women

The introduction gives us a basic understanding of what we as the reader are going to encounter in this book.  It announces that it will look at the origins of the CD Acts, the successful feminist campaign to repeal them, and their impact on registered prostitutes and their community.  It follows with a general timeline of important political actions and makes note of various questions that will be answered later in the book.


II.                 Prostitution, social science, and venereal disease


This chapter takes an involved look into the common prostitute in Victorian Britain.  It attempts to find a common ground between prostitutes such as age, class, and social background.   Historical examples are used to follow the “harlot’s progress” such as migration patterns, religious preference, and other cultural values.  It is found that many of these women were forced to leave home in order to support themselves and contribute to family income.  The conditions of life at home are also thoroughly investigated.  

Also important are the geographic location of prostitutes, the hierarchy they follow which mirrors class structure, and how the women interacted amongst themselves and customers.  A compare and contrast of prostitutes to other working class women is also included.

Social science and the great social evil basically inform us about the way in which society viewed prostitution.  In this case, it is considered “an intolerable evil” but is mandatory for society.  Prostitutes were considered a pollution and temptation to the middle class.  Research done by Parent-Duchatelet was included in the section about the social basis of prostitution.  His research was unique for the time since he actually interacted with and interviewed the prostitutes. 

One really important interest in this chapter was the historical research included on lock hospitals.  These hospitals are important in feminist studies since they are the main way in which the state was able to control prostitution.  If women were caught by police and tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease, they were required by law to reside in the hospital for certain periods of time in order to cure their disease and prevent the spread of infection.



III.               The Contagious Diseases Acts, regulationists, and repealers


The chapter on the CD Acts and their advocate’s main goal is to “offer a corrective to this oversimplified approach by investigating the interaction between ideology and its implementation under the acts.”  This includes the reasons and rationale behind the acts, a look at sexual anxiety of society, and what acts came before the repeal campaign.  One very controversial point brought attention to in this chapter is the role of the military.  Genital examinations for men were thought to have been disrespecting of the self and were therefore not feasible for the military to go through routine examinations as did the prostitutes.  The first Contagious Diseases Acts was passed in July 1864.  These acts eventually became a way to “enforce a social discipline of the unrespectable poor.”  Soon there became an effort to extend the acts to the north.  The repealers began to face severe struggles, and by 1869 the CD Acts had been well extended beyond their original limitations.

The repeal campaign was led mostly by the Ladies National Association which consisted of prominent feminists and other female members.  This association was concerned with feminism, medical reform, moral reform, and political reform.  Most of the repealers came from the same social groups and were well established in political reform.  Efforts for repeal included educating the public, organizing large public meetings, petitions, and other various social events.  They made use of propaganda and highly descriptive language of what things prostitutes were subjected to.

Gender conflict within the LNA was inevitable since many men were not used to being out spoken by many aggressive women.  Women in leadership roles often disagreed with conventional measures and fought for their reform.


IV. Two case studies: Plymouth and Southampton under the Contagious Diseases Acts


            This chapter provides us with a comparison and contrast between the two southern port towns of Greater Plymouth and Southampton where the repeal movement was most successful.  This overview is meant to provide us with the impact of local social and political sentiments based on the results of the CD acts, the institutions that were created under the acts, the experiences among prostitutes who worked under the acts, and studies the relationships among those involved with the acts.  It was found that most of the regulationists were those who would directly gain from the extension of the acts such as doctors, military, and hospital staff.  The impact of the CD acts was greatly felt among the community of women and one major concern they had was the enforcement of internal examinations.  This was known to many women as instrumental rape due to the type of instrument used and the way in which it was performed.  Once again, we are able to see the politics of control over the body and the way the state institutions had forced control.  Another change brought about by the CD acts was the professionalizing of prostitution.  Due to effect policing and social stigmatization, the women became isolated from the rest of society and were a kind of class amongst themselves.  The local repeal campaign eventually ended in the suspension of the Contagious Diseases Acts in 1883.


Quality, Comments, Concerns, and Beliefs


            I was immediately impressed by the depth of research and time committed to writing this book.  Since most of the information was historically based, the author didn’t really allow herself a chance to voice her opinion or stance on the subject.  I think this is a positive aspect of this work since history is objective anyway.  One thing I would have liked to know more about is the role that race played in the Victorian society, if any role at all.  Walkowitz does not even mention race throughout the entire book, most likely because the research was already so extensive.  It would have also been helpful if she had included the views and thoughts of the middle class as well.  It seems like the people these acts affected were those who were only directly involved in politics, healthcare, military, or prostitution.  It would be interesting to see what others who were not so directly affected by the movement were feeling.

            I was intrigued by the extraordinarily descriptive accounts of examinations, medical procedures, and other interactions among those involved.  It amazes me how far we have come in technology since the late 1800’s; from not knowing the difference between syphilis and gonorrhea to using mercury to cure the diseases.  I realize how lucky I am to live in such a complex and developed society where I have the choice of what hospital I attend, when I need an exam, and who is going to perform such medical procedures on me.  The state only has so much control over my body and I am glad to be protected by a well thought out system of checks and balances. 


Results and Conclusions


            In the end, it was a generally accepted belief that the Contagious Diseases Acts were too ambiguous.  The rules that were followed and implemented varied greatly depending on location and execution of the laws.  It was difficult for police to detain all prostitutes.  The lock hospitals also had funding problems and were finally announced as a health hazard and not successful in containing disease.  The intensification of medical knowledge also contributed to the fall of traditional healing methods, though many doctors refused to change their old ways.


Relation to Themes


            With regard to Stigma we can observe many parallels with prostitution and stigmatized beliefs.  This is especially noted in the professionalization of prostitutes due to their increase in social stigmatization.  We also encounter a stigma of political women and the way in which they participate amongst men in reform struggles.  Many men were offended by their overbearing attitudes.  There is also a stigma among the type of girl who was typical of becoming a prostitute, usually from a working class family with their first sexual encounter occurring at a young age.

            I also like to think that the sense of the panoptic, as related to Foucault’s view, also shows its presence in Victorian Society.  We have a strong movement of police control in the streets and it is possible that anyone is watching your every move.  I especially enjoyed the scene where a group of prostitutes who had just left the lock hospital receive repeal propaganda and throw some of the literature over the hospital walls on the sly, as if they were being surveyed and had a chance of getting caught.

            As I noted earlier there is also an affiliation between Walkowitz’s work and some major themes behind feminist body politics such as sexuality, state ran institutions, hygiene, and class/ religion.  Each of these ideas plays a compulsory part of prostitution and the Contagious Diseases Acts.

Lindsey Friedmann