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Introduction to The Prostitute's Body.pdf

Introduction to The Prostitute's Body.pdf

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Published by AnnabelleMalo

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Published by: AnnabelleMalo on Dec 26, 2012
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07/06/2013

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INTRODUCTION: ‘THE GREAT SOCIAL EVIL’ –REPRESENTING THE VICTORIAN PROSTITUTE
 We have lost sight o the old-ashioned language in connexion [
 sic 
] with this matter… Te term ‘Social Evil’, by a queer translation o the abstract into a concrete, hasbecome a personality … Te act is that we have amiliarized ourselves too much withthe subject … We seem to have arrived at this point – that the most interesting class o  womanhood is woman at her lowest degradation.
1
 Te career o these women is a brie one; their downward path a marked and inevi-table one; and they know this well. Tey are almost never rescued; escape themselvesthey cannot.
2
 
I the prostitute had become, as the
Saturday Review
termed it, ‘the most inter-esting class o womanhood’ in Britain in the Victorian period, what did she look like? How, and by what means, did her contemporaries depict her? Such basicquestions raise urther issues: What was (and perhaps still is) the signifcance o representations o prostitution and what role did they play in the productiono myths and cultural narratives, the regulation o behaviour and the shaping o social attitudes? Historians (and others) interested in Victorian social andcultural history, and in perceptions o prostitution particularly, cannot avoidsuch questions and they continue to invite urther analysis even aer decades o innovative scholarship.Studying contemporary representations provides a way o reading prostitu-tion: the analysis and study o images and texts as discursive orms sheds light onthe process o constructing social meaning. Lynda Nead has argued that study-ing representations involves recognizing the improbability o discovering a truereection or an objective picture o what is ‘shown’ on the surace o a text, butsuch study raises the issue o how particular kinds o images are circulated, con-sumed and produced at any given moment.
3
How historians defne prostitutionand how contemporaries defned it raises one such important issue. ElizabethClement has remarked that ‘prostitution may seem easy to defne but, in reality,it is suspended in a complex web o economic, cultural, and moral systems’.
4
Tisrecognition o cultural construction is especially true o the Victorian period.
 
2
Te Prostitute’s Body
Scholars have argued that mid- to late-Victorian defnitions and characteriza-tions o the prostitute remain indebted to a corpus o works published in theearly 1840s. Te myth o the prostitute’s downward progress – a narrative involv-ing disease, destitution and early death – was, so it is claimed, crystallized in the Victorian consciousness rom this period on. It was then reproduced withoutexamination in the work o historians. Modern academic interest in the art andliterature o the ‘allen woman’ has reinorced this interpretation. In reading representational homogeneity in the nineteenth-century texts on prostitution,modern scholars have consequently limited their interpretations o contempo-rary attitudes to prostitution and underestimated the variety and complexity o these attitudes. Tis book reads a selection o post-1850 sources to assesshistorical claims or the resilience and codifcation o the myth, and to subject Victorian ideology to much-needed scrutiny. Victorians were more complex intheir representation o prostitution than historians have given them credit or,and this study illustrates this complexity both by revisiting canonical texts andutilizing lesser known sources. Tis analysis reveals how actively some Victorians worked to challenge the myths that historians continue to attribute to them.Te works o the 1840s are considered by historians as central to establishing a conventional prostitute narrative that continued to inuence subsequent rep-resentations o prostitution into the 1850s and beyond.
5
Te plethora o 1840s works provided the discursive context or the ‘great social evil’ o the 1850s.
6
 Tese early investigations came largely rom evangelical authors – including ministers, reorm advocates, and physicians – and constituted a considerablebody o literature that would inuence, in diverse ways, later productions onthe subject. Authors such as William ait were responding to a wider contem- porary anxiety over the rising visibility o prostitution, and approached theirstudies in structurally similar ways. ait was a surgeon at the Edinburgh Lock Hospital, and his work was the largest and most inuential o the early texts on prostitution. ait remarked that the subject o prostitution had seldom beenurged upon the attention o the public’ and that it was time (his work was pub-lished in 1840) to awake society rom its ‘melancholy insensibility’ and look toridding the world o this ‘evil’.
7
ait, together with subsequent authors – Ralph Wardlaw, William Bevan, William Logan and James albot – outlined estimateso prostitute numbers, the nature and extent o prostitution, the organizationo brothels, the causes behind women’s ‘all’ or recourse to prostitution, andoered prospective modes o prevention. While an author’s priorities might di-er – Michael Ryan (surgeon), or example, had a medical interest in venerealdisease and Bevan (church minister) had an evangelical desire to eradicate sin –most o these authors shared an intertextual interest in, and commitment to, oneanother. Te result o this relationship was the production o certain images and
 
 
 Introduction
3
narratives o the prostitute, and the reproduction o a stereotype which wouldallegedly prove resilient in later decades.Tese early authors varied in their ability (or desire) to defne their subjectmatter. albot avoided delineating a working defnition o prostitution. Bevanmerely described prostitution (rather than prostitutes) as ‘a system o unmiti-gated pollution and woe’.
8
However, ait and Wardlaw made a point o defning the ‘prostitute’ and, interestingly, distinguished between the act o prostitutionand the ‘character’ or ‘individual’ that perormed it. Regardless o the possiblecauses or a woman’s recourse to acts o prostitution, ait argued that ‘the pros-titute is generally a person who openly delivers hersel up to a lie o impurity and licentiousness, who is indiscriminate in the selection o her lovers, and whodepends or her livelihood upon the proceeds arising rom a lie o prostitu-tion’.
9
Wardlaw claimed that while he considered ornication, ‘whoredom’ and prostitution as entailing a woman’s surrendering o her virtue, it was ‘the volun-tary 
repetition of the act 
’ that made a woman a prostitute.
10
Moreover, Wardlaw added, the term ‘prostitute’ was a ‘designation o 
character 
.
11
Despite the appar-ent clarity and distinction in terms o the act o prostitution and the identity o the prostitute in these statements, most o these texts reerred to a variety o  women o dierent ages and occupations, who became prostitutes rom a variety o causes, and who challenged this apparent ease o defnition.Most o the authors o these early texts on prostitution attempted to clas-siy prostitutes, most oen by their type o residence, but their admission o theextent o clandestine prostitution oen undermined such classifcations. Ryanclaimed that there were three divisions o prostitutes: women who worked rom private residences or ‘bad houses’; streetwalkers who used ‘places o accommoda-tion’; and soldiers and sailors’ women.
12
But Ryan also included needleworkers, women who supplemented their regular wages, ‘kept mistresses’, servants, mar-ried women and widows in his second ‘streetwalking’ category. ait reerred tothese latter examples as ‘sly prostitutes’, and dierent rom ‘kept mistresses’ andthe ‘inmates o brothels’.
13
albot’s classifcation o prostitutes also depended ontypes o residence – regular brothels, dress houses and accommodation houses– but noted that public houses, saloons and ships could also be used or prostitu-tion.
14
Like Ryan and ait beore him, albot also remarked on the many other women who could be added to the class o prostitute: servants, milliners andeven some middle and upper-class ladies.
15
Attempts at estimating the numbersin this prostitute class varied but most authors reerred to the same statistical esti-mates and the number o 80,000 (or London) as the highest approximation.
16
 Another common eature in the works o ait, albot and their ellow observers was their discussion o the various causes attributed to prostitution.Some authors picked out certain causes or special attention, but the list o  possible actors was long. Wardlaw, or example, noted that the causes authors

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