7/25/12 - prostitutes, penitence, and reform

In today's excerpt - in the 1700s, Western attitudes towards prostitution went from punishment to reform, and from fear to charity. For a time, the wealthiest among the British vied to show their status by establishing asylums where prostitutes could be taken and reformed through piety and penitence:

"In the eighteenth century attitudes to prostitution were transformed for ever. The conventional Protestant view had been that common whores were the worst sexual reprobates of all. They were given the harshest punishments: summarily whipped, imprisoned, and set to hard labour. During the 1650s, when the Adultery Act made them liable to execution, hundreds were simply rounded up, ripped from their friends and families, and transported thousands of miles across the ocean to the West Indies, without so much as a trial. The entire culture of sexual discipline depended on such severity. For the terrible threat that lustful, avaricious whores posed to social order was abundantly illustrated in the Bible, and deeply imprinted upon the minds of ordinary men and women. Prostitutes had no special licence, no accessary function: on the contrary. Any unchaste woman was a whore; repeated promiscuity merely deepened her sin and her monstrousness.

"Long after 1800, prostitutes continued to be treated as dangerous spreaders of disease and disorder. But from the middle of the eight­eenth century this perspective was increasingly matched, and often overshadowed, by the emergence of alternative attitudes to commer­cial sex. Whores were henceforth as likely to be regarded with sympathy as with condemnation. ...

"From the 1750s onwards, the rescue and rehabilitation of prostitutes became a major social concern. Huge efforts were poured into the foundation and operation of asylums, workhouses, and other charities for fallen women, girls at risk of seduction, and other actual or potential victims of male lust. ...

"This new fascination with penitents coincided with mounting dissatisfaction over the efficacy of punishment. The traditional view had been that chastisement was the best way of encouraging sexual sinners to reform. To let the 'punishment beat you home to God', they were told, was the true 'work of charity to your soule'. ... 'Few are committed to the house of correction,' it was conventionally believed, 'but they come out better.'

"By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, this had become a questionable supposition. ... Stripping a woman naked and whipping her in public 'may, for aught I know, contribute to her modesty, and put her in a state of innocence', mused Bernard Mandeville disingenuously: but really 'flogging has a quite contrary effect'. The hero of The London-Spy was equally certain: if anything, 'it makes many whores ... but it can in no measure reclaim 'em.'

"From the 1730s onwards ... there emerged a new, less politicized way of organizing public philanthropy, adapted from the world of commercial speculation: a private, joint-stock company, funded by subscription and targeted at a specific problem, rather than at the poor as a whole. The spectacular success on this model of the London Foundling Hospital (chartered in 1739, opened in 1741) suddenly made practical intervention in social problems seem much easier than it had been earlier in the century. Together with the outbreak of war at the end of the 1730s (and again in the mid-1750s), it also helped to make joint-stock philanthropy fashionable, especially amongst the capital's growing business community. As political arith­metic became established as a central foundation of public policy, saving lives became an ever more urgent national priority.

"The Magdalen House for penitent prostitutes, and the Lambeth Asylum to protect poor girls from seduction, both of which opened in London in 1758, followed the same model. So did the Dublin Magdalen Asylum, founded in 1767, and every later institution of this kind. By mid-century, attitudes towards innovative social projects had been turned on their head. From being the preserve of a minority and the outgrowth of exceptional religious zeal, public charity had become a leading expression of social and mercantile status."


Faramerz Dabhoiwala


The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution


Oxford University Press


Copyright 2012 by Faramerz Dabhoiwala


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