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Religious Attitudes Towards Prostitution in Mid-1800s London

How do religious attitudes towards prostitution hurt and alieniate sex workers? How does it help protect them from the harms of prostitution?

Published onDec 01, 2022
Religious Attitudes Towards Prostitution in Mid-1800s London

It’s difficult to quantify the exact number of prostitutes in London towards the middle of the nineteenth century. Low estimates put the number at just under nine thousand,1 while higher estimates put the number at eighty thousand.2 Regardless of the exact amount of prostitutes living in London at the time, it is undeniable that the very existence of them sparked controversy and outrage admist the highly religious public. Rather than using terminology like “sex work,” prostitution was often referred to using biblical terms – phrases like “social evil” and “moral sin” were not uncommon. While the former phrase implies autonomy, the latter phrases express blame and malice on behalf of the prostitutes. Although the rationale and rhetoric of religious groups may differ from a modern attitude towards sex work, their criticisms of prostitution were not unfounded. Many, and as we will later see, most, of these women were forced into a life of sex work due to low wages and high poverty in the city. Many were young, abused women who wanted out of their current situation.

A speech delivered on behalf of the London Society for the Protection of Young Females by reverend John Edgar, a professor of divinity for the Presbyterian Church of Ireland in 1841, is able to convey the attitudes of religious organizations towards sex work. In the speech, Edgar attempts to quantify the exact number of prostitutes in the city before he identifies his aim as, “not to expose the vice or misery of this great city, but to awaken Christian sympathy on behalf of thousands of fallen sisters, and to tell benevolence how she may alleviate their sufferings, and redress their wrongs.”3 The language here seems almost contradictory – Edgar, and his religious counterparts, speak in a way that is both compassionate and disparaging towards these young prostitutes. In the same sentence, he uses words that convey pity, such as “sympathy” and “fallen sisters” and words that convey blame such as the phrase, “redress their wrongs.” This is a common theme that is observed throughout Edgar’s speech. This is a sentiment that he acknowledges himself; after villifying the prostitutes for the sins they commit, he asks, “Yet degraded as they are, and detestable as are their crimes, are they not objects of sincerest pity?” 4 Clearly, the goal of religious groups in mid-1800s London were to save women and their souls from a life of prostiution. While there is a primary focus on the fact that a life of promiscuity lead to sin, there is also the underlying understanding that these women were living in a life of danger. Even though Edgar refers to the women as “degraded” and their work as “detestable” and “crimes”, he and the group he represents operate with the understanding that these women can and should be protected.

A modern lens may predispose us to believe that the anti-sex work rhetoric used by religious groups reflects a hateful, anti-progressive mentality. But is that really the case? These young women and men, who were often forced by poverty into selling their sex, were susceptible to a number of dangers and diseases that could leave them impaired or even dead. An 1857 breakdown of the quantity and demographics of prostitutes in London identifies the “lowness of women’s wages” as a key factor of the causes of prostituion.5 Other sources specifically cite the intensely low wages for seamstresses as a specific contributor.6 The cost of living and home ownership grew more expensive, leading to high levels of homelessness for some of London’s most vulnerable.7 These factors pushed many women, some of them extraordinarily young, into brothels and into a life surrounded by crime, most of them without any mobility to change their conditions.

The fact that their lifestyle was not a choice is not lost on Egdar. He rhetorically asks, “Were these helpless victims worse than others by nature, and driven by appetite? Did they rush to the embrace of the destroyer?”8 If the absolutist terms used in the expression and the words “helpless victims” were not answer enough, he goes on respond to himself, confirming the audiences suspicions that the prostitutes may have been forced into a life of sex work. He goes on to urge the audience to think of them as “not of what they are, but of what they were – they were sisters and daughters, loving and loved.”9 This is a view that seems very forward thinking, as it is actually asking the audience to humanize sex workers, a group that had become politicized, criminalized, and dehumanized in London in the nineteenth century. It is worth noting that the previous sentences refers to these women as “disguisting creatures, who hang shivering and hopeless by the corners of your streets.” Though Edgar’s sentiment is pitying and kind, the words he uses are abrasive and inexcusable. The contrast between pitying and villifying these women is pronounced once more.

Edgar ends his speech by looking for “a remedy for this great increasing evil.”10 His first words regarding such a remedy are that intervention and provention of young, vulnerable people is better than a cure. Moreover, and more importantly, he calls on the London Penitentary system to house, clothe, and feed these women. Rather than barring them from a life to live freely, religious attitudes towards sex work may have actually enabled these women to escape unfavorable conditions.

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