Victorian London - Crime - Prostitution - 'seduction'


    Of the various causes to which I have attributed the presence among us of prostitution, three especially seem worthy of notice in this chapter: seduction, evil training, and poverty. It is difficult to obtain statistics sufficiently accurate or reliable to enable us to assign with any degree of certainty the proportions in which the causes to which I have adverted operate in the production of prostitutes. It is scarcely necessary for my purpose to attempt to do so. It seems sufficient to point out that these three causes exist, and to say that so far as prostitution can be traced to causes with which human laws can directly deal, it is traceable to them. We have then to consider how far the results of seduction may be made to fall short of a recourse to prostitution, by what means the early vicious training, with its attendant horrors, may be put an end to, and how far it is possible to diminish or relieve poverty and its consequences.
    It is customary to argue, that the punishment of seduction cannot be apportioned in any but the present manner, namely, wholly to the female, unless where illegitimate offspring result from it, in which case the State imposes a fine of two shillings and sixpence per week upon the father. The grounds on which the legislature have decreed this state of the law are, that the woman, if not always the most active, is a consenting party. The result is practically that the consequences to the male being known and finite, thousands of men annually suffer themselves to be seduced - as the law has it - by designing women, who sacrifice not only their own future peace of mind and temporal prospects, but court the scorn of the world and bodily suffering to gratify inordinate passion. The unfortunate male is the victim, and by curious perversion the manufacture of prostitutes by female labour is rampant.
    This is another painful fiction, which, had I the power, I would attempt to dissipate. If I could not do so much, I would at least endeavour to devise a means of strengthening the male resolution. The next time the bastardy laws come up for consideration, I should propose inquiry how, while in other respects the mental inferiority of woman continues to be insisted on in all other particulars, she should be held paramount in that of seductive powers. That this is false is proved by the fact that the woman allows the sacrifices and sufferings she incurs to equipoise with those of her seducer. She is acquainted too well beforehand with both, to allow the hypothesis of her total ignorance. In the majority of cases he has plentiful knowledge of precedents; yet she falls. She must, therefore, either be temporarily insane, or permanently weaker minded. Her very liability to siege almost presupposes personal attraction, and personal attractions as naturally ensure vanity. . . . Because, from the day when a man in real earnest first set his wit against her, she was no more able to fly from his fascinating power than the quarry from the falcon, or the rabbit from the snake, but rather met her fate half-way, this strong-minded creature is by law considered the real seducer, and a number of the most estimable people in the world are ever ready to endorse without question this cruel article of the law's belief.
    And here, again, must physiology be invoked to help the lawgivers and society to a more just conclusion. It will some day be taken into account I hope, that as (I believe) Coleridge said, the desire is on the side of man, love of approbation on the side of the woman; and law will be amended after deeply comparing the physiology of sinning men, not with that of virtuous, but of fallen women.
    .. It cannot be denied by anyone acquainted with rural life, that seduction of girls is a sport and a habit with vast numbers of men, married and single, placed above the ranks of labour. The keeping company' of the labouring classes, accompanied by illicit intercourse, as often as not leads to marriage; but not so that of the farmer's son, farmer, first, second, or third-class, squire, or squireen. Many such rustics of the middle class, and men of parallel grades in country towns, employ a portion of their spare time in the coarse, deliberate villainy of making prostitutes. Of these, the handsomer are drafted off into the larger communities, where their attractions enable them to settle; the others are tied to the spot of their birth and fall. Men who themselves employ female labour, or direct it for others, have always ample opportunities of choice, compulsion, secrecy, and subsequent intimidation, should exposure be probable and disagreeable. They can, for a time, show favour to their victim by preferring her before her fellows; they can at any convenient moment discharge her. The lower sort of them can often procure access to the Union for both her and her offspring; and the upper can scheme marriages of the nature alluded to at page 74. With these, and with the gentlemen whose délassement is the contamination of town servants and ouvrieres, the first grand engine is, of course, vanity - the little more money that will get the poor girl a little more dress, admiration, and envy than her equals enjoy. Then, when the torch is set to the fire, woman's love of approbation helps her to her own destruction. Then cheap promises - promises of marriage - made to be broken - which, however, the strong-minded one of the Parliament's imagining is always ready to believe - and promises often taken down on the rolls of Heaven, whose breach must be a sin against the God of Mercy himself, of care for the woman and her offspring. But the latter are as easily snapped as the former, and the woman whom her neighbours call a scheming hussy for thinking of a marriage above her station, is called a silly fool for her pains if she fall, without inducements of ambition, before the assault of passion only. She may be with child, or she may not, but she has at law a remedy for her wrong. Yes, and what is it? Will the strong-minded one apply herself to it? - and how often?
    She loved too much, and she still loves overmuch, in nine cases out often, to dream of worldly wisdom, or, as she calls it, persecuting her child's father. The worldly wisdom that overcame, as the sham has it, the hardihood and modesty of the male, and turned his head, cannot get its poor owner into a court of justice, even when her parents are so minded, and funds are forthcoming for a breach of promise action. Her remedy is a farce so far; or rather it is a farce to say that it has any prophylactic or in terrorem value. But she has one more remedy - or her friends have; for her father, whom the law supposes to be charged with the maintenance of his children when derelict by the world, and therefore to have in return some presumed employer's right over them, may proceed at common law for loss of her services. But this he can only do if he has means, inclination to face the extreme of publicity and abuse, courage to meet a heavy preponderance of law and public feeling against him, and can adduce an amount of corroborative evidence which should suffice to carry a much more heavy conviction. This machinery, which stands upon a fiction, is cumbrous, and its results are rare and generally ridiculous. It amounts, in fact, to no remedy for wrong; and the crime which it is supposed to check flourishes under its pleasant shade. There is, however, one tolerably certain method of enforcing law against a man who, having seduced, has deserted a woman and her child. When we have recited that, we may close the list of remedies. She may apply to a bench of magistrates for a summons. The summons is granted; and the man found, or not found, the usual result is an order in 'bastardy', in pursuance of which the maximum sum of half a crown is due and payable by the father each and every week for the support and maintenance of the said infant, but for that of his strong-minded seducer - nothing!
    Sighing - or, it may be, smiling compassionately at the crestfallen appearance of the strong one who has found hardihood to come before them - the bench of justices regret their inability to do more for her. They would make an example if they could, they say in some instances; in others, they make an order for only 1s. 6d. or 2s. a week. The magistrate, who is a family man, and has perchance himself grown a crop of wild oats, gives a sad thought or two to the case as he jogs home; and has even been known to advocate in public some more extended protection of women. But the plague is for all that - as it may be when I, too, am passed away - yet unstayed. The days of chivalry are gone indeed, and the honour of all women but those of his own house is so much a by-word with the Englishman - their bodies so often his sport - that the reform of the bastardy law, and the thence resulting check to prostitution, may chance to be deferred until a sense of common danger shall have made us all fellow- agitators.
    If I could not get imprisonment of the seducer substituted for the paltry fine of half a crown a week, I would at least give to the commonwealth, now liable to pecuniary damage by bastardy, some interest in his detection and punishment. The Union house is now often enough the home of the deserted mother and the infant bastard: and the guardians of the poor ought, I think, to have the right, in the interest of the community, to act as bastardy police, and to be recouped their charges. I would not allow the maintenance of an illegitimate child to be at the expense of any but the father. I would make it the incubus on him, not on its mother; and I would not leave his detection, exposure, and money loss in the option of the latter. A young man who now has a second or third illegitimate child, by different women, has not lived without adding some low cunning to his nature. It often happens that a fellow of this sort will, for a time, by specious promises or presents to a girl he fully intends ultimately to desert, defer making any payments for or on account of her child. If he can for twelve months, and without entering into any shadow of an agreement (and we may all guess how far the craft of an injured woman will help her to one that would hold water), stave off any application on her part to the authorities, her claim at law is barred; and she herself, defied at leisure, becomes, in due course, chargeable to her parish or union. But not thus should a virtuous State connive at the obligations of paternity being shuffled on to its public shoulders, when, by a very trifling modification of the existing machinery they might be adjusted on the proper back - permanently or temporarily, as might be considered publicly expedient.
    I would enact, I say, by the help of society, that, in the first place, the seduction of a female, properly proved, should involve the male in a heavy pecuniary fine, according to his position - not at all by way of punishment, but to strengthen, by the very firm abutment of the breeches-pocket, both him and his good resolutions against the temptations and force of designing woman. I would not offer the latter, as I foresee will be instantaneously objected, this bounty upon sinfulness - this incentive to be a seducer; but, on the contrary, the money should be due to the community, and recoverable in the county court or superior court at the suit of the Government Board; and should be invested by the treasurer of such court, or by the county, or by some public trustee in bastardy, for the benefit of mother and child. The child's portion of this fund should be retained by such public officer until the risk of its becoming chargeable to the community quasi bastard should be removed by the mother's marriage, or otherwise; and the mother's share should be for her benefit as an emigration fund or marriage portion. Persons acquainted with the country will bear me out, that many a woman not married by her seducer for economy's sake (which would satisfy justice), would, with a dower, even thus accruing, soon re-enter the pale of society through the gate of matrimony. I think that very useful knowledge of such a law as this would be rapidly diffused, and be found materially to harden men's hearts against female seductions.
    Morality based on fear has, I grant, a most rotten foundation. But the reader must remember that the ear and heart of man, once barred by salutary caution against the charmings of all save exceptional and ungovernable lust, would be much more accessible to the moralizing influence - the legitimate attachment - which I have proposed that society should simultaneously hold out at a cheaper rate. To the practical, systematic seducer - no uncommon character - upon whom moral argument is, and always will be, thrown away, this pursuit would, under such a régime, become a very first-class and most expensive luxury, demanding more money, craft, and time than many of us have to dispose of.
    ... The results, then, of seduction and desertion are to force the mother to take to prostitution, and to tempt her to make away with her child either by her own hand or by means of baby farmers, thus giving rise to an amount of crime fearful to contemplate, while if the children survive the neglect and ill-treatment of their early years, can it be hoped that they will do otherwise than swell the ranks of the pauper and criminal classes?

William Acton, Prostitution, considered in its Moral, Social, and Sanitary Aspects 2nd edition 1870