The Thing Is… Victorian prostitution

Two men are approached by a prostitute. Lithograph by Grandville. Wellcome Images

Two men are approached by a prostitute. Lithograph by Grandville. Wellcome Images

Our new series of events, The Thing Is…, hosted by Quentin Cooper (from Radio 4’s Material World) explores the world of medical history through objects. Each object tells an intriguing story, but isn’t unveiled until the event itself.

Next week, Quentin and his guest, Wellcome Library’s Dr Lesley Hall, explore the world of Victorian prostitution. The Victorian era is often portrayed as puritanical, but while many felt prostitution to be a wicked abomination, there were others who considered it a necessary evil which needed to be managed for the good of society.

The women involved were often seen as dirty and as carriers of disease, and these views are reflected in the passing of three Contagious Diseases Acts to control prostitution in port and garrison towns. These laws took a pragmatic, if one-sided, approach that aimed to control the spread of venereal disease through controlling prostitutes, while leaving their clients without restriction.

The event will investigate the situation which gave rise to this legislation, the treatment of prostitutes (and suspected prostitutes) that resulted from it, its wider impact and the campaigns opposed to both its substance and philosophy.

Can you guess what the object is? Your speculations are welcome in the comments below, but the object won’t be revealed until next Wednesday.

The Things Is… Caught in the Act is at 7pm next Wednesday 20 July. The event is free, but please book in advance. ‘Dirty people’ are also the subject of our Unclean Beings symposium this weekend.

One thought on “The Thing Is… Victorian prostitution

  1. I have long been convinced that much if not most Victorian prostitution was a form of birth control. Defining sex as dirty and base meant that many men “spared” their wives sex (and maybe wives were the happier with those circumstances given the mortality rates of both mothers and newborns). The release for males (who always have more freedom to wander) was to rely on professional sex providers.

    M. Scullin, professor emeritus anthropology

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